Da Dong & Quanjude
Duck versus duck. Even though Peking duck is a Beijing specialty, one meal in town would seem like plenty. I thought so, and did a lot of research narrowing down our choices to four: Quanjude, Li Qun, Made in China and Da Dong. I ultimately decided on the latter. Quanjude is the biggie with lots of name recognition but too touristy. Li Qun? I don’t recall why I nixed it. Made in China felt like where you’d take a foreigner to impress them with stylish (and expensive) versions of local dishes. Da Dong seemed just right.
This was one of the few occasions where having our hotel call for reservations paid off, though we had no control over the dining time. We asked for 8pm on Friday and were told we’d be eating at 6:30 pm, which we quickly learned was more typical (this was our first restaurant meal in China). We also learned that cash is de rigueur, even when buying things like plane tickets. We showed up 15 minutes late, having no concept of heavy Beijing traffic and how taxis avoid white people like the plague (I don’t even want to contemplate how black tourists must fare). Hungry crowds filled the windowed front waiting area while we were immediately seated. I’m surprised they didn’t give away our reservation.
Despite being a bargain at a shocking $12 (I was initially surprised at how inexpensive Beijing was. This was a seriously good value vacation–I almost spent more in Miami over Labor Day weekend than we did in nearly two weeks in China), we couldn’t justify ordering a whole duck just for the two of us. But as it turned out, a half order, while pristinely sliced and presented, was meager for our gluttonous tastes.
Da Dong’s claim to fame is a leaner bird, less fatty and healthy. I don’t know about the healthy part, but it was a classy duck. There truly was very little fat; the skin was shatteringly crisp with little sections placed atop the dainty meat pile to be dipped in granulated sugar. I loved the array of condiments: said sugar, garlic, cucumber, spring onions, radish and what I think was bean paste. Options and multiple sauces always sway me. I knew right then, that Dadong was the right choice.
Lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice appeared on a lot of menus. I never tried another rendition for comparison, but this sticky dish was very sweet and candied, almost more of a dessert than what we were brought for that course.
Ack, our first meal introduced us to the Chinese melon plate for dessert. I’ll admit this was an impressive version with dry ice and a few crab apples (which must be a local favorite—you see them sold candied on sticks, kabob-style, all over). But they didn’t stop with the fruit. Oh no, sesame pudding, a.k.a. black sludge also appeared after our food was cleared. I don’t have a problem with these types of desserts but after a heavy meal the thick, bittersweet sludge didn’t seem very refreshing. I think the only acceptable American treats that are this less-than-appetizing color are Oreos.
After Da Dong, we were left wanting more. If taxis weren’t so troublesome, we seriously would’ve headed to another roast duck restaurant. Another excursion was going to have to be factored into our schedule. We attempted lunch at Made in China two days later but it turned out to be an item that had to be ordered in advance. Damn. So, we ended up going regionally inaccurate and tried the Quanjude branch in Shanghai.
It was sort of asking for trouble, eating at a so-so chain in a city not renowned for Peking duck, but we were desperate. Compared to Da Dong, the clientele was tourist-heavy and the service more lackadaisical. Even the Chinese didn’t appear to be locals. (I was fascinated by a nearby table with a middle-aged French couple and two totally artsy hipster Asian girls who spoke both Mandarin and French. I’m not sure that they were Chinese, not that a Chinese girl couldn’t speak French.)
Half a duck wasn’t even an option here, so we got more than our fair share. In fact, we ended up making little wraps with the extras and hid them in our bags like old ladies getting the better of a buffet. Communicating was tough, so asking for our leftovers to go wasn’t even worth the bother. Tonal languages will kill you. We asked one waiter for the check, trying to say “mǎi dān” as correctly as we could, and got a confused shrug. Another waiter later came by and said, “mǎi dān?” which I swear sounded just like what we’d tried to articulate.
Quanjude was closer to the Peking duck you’ll find in NYC, and I think it made James happier. The slices were kind of sloppy, the pancakes had adhered to each other and accompaniments only included plum sauce and scallion. Bare bones, yet wonderfully oily and irresistible. The meat was almost minerally. I did notice that the ducks at both restaurants had a meatier, richer flavor than the ones you get here.
I had to order chile tripe even though I knew we wouldn’t get through much of it. I’m starting to think that I have a tripe fetish—I’ve eaten four times in less than a month.
I’m still not clear why this “fish fragrant” eggplant dish caused a ruckus. Our waiter seemed very concerned that I chose it and had to get an English speaking staff member to come over and make sure we understood that it contained pork. Er, do I look Muslim? Or like a pork-hater? Clearly, we weren’t vegetarian since duck and tripe were also on order. I was aware that fish fragrant/yu xiang is a garlicky Sichuan sauce that doesn’t actually have any fish in it because I’m a dork about the cuisine. Anyway, it turned out to be very good, kind of like what gloppy eggplant in garlic sauce from corner delivery joints wants to be.
Da Dong * Tuanjie Hu Beikou 3, Beijing, China
Quanjude * 4/F, 786 Huaihai Zhong Lu, Shanghai, China