A trip to China would be incomplete without a trip to Beijing and a trip to Beijing incomplete without a Peking duck (or two). I'd eaten similar in Hong Kong but the best had to come from the hometown - right?
When researching where to eat a couple of names popped up the most - Quanjude and Dadong - and when Heston went in search of perfection he vistited both. Li Qun comes up a bit too recently, supposedly offering a more real experience than the big touristy two, but my research led me to think popularity has gone to its head and it has gone downhill. Being a bit of a Heston groupy anyway I decided to add another one of his to the done list to go with the Fat Duck and Little Chef visits of prior years. Which one though? Decision time.
Whilst deciding a few friends said they fancied duck and we let the hostel staff talk us into a cheapo duck joint around the corner (60 RMB vs 170RMB for a duck) saying the big names were overpriced and touristy. I was stll going to make my Heston pilgrimage before leaving but was happy to sample another duck whilst there.
I somehow got it into my head that the Peking duck experience was a huge multicourse affair, incorporating all the duck, but at its base level it's just duck and pancakes. You can buy different parts of the duck when you're there, prepared a number of ways, but there seems to be no set meal. According to the menu this cheaper restaurant offered two additions to your pancakes, duck soup and duck bones (?). As each needed one carcass and we'd ordered two ducks it worked perfectly.
The duck soup was a delicate affair, the bones boiled to make a broth which was bulked up with tofu, Chinese cabbage and rice vermicelli. All agreed it was a success, a light foil to the rich duck.
The duck bones turned out to be another soup, this one a lot heartier and with a lot more meat. The stock this time dark and flavoured with star anise and cinnamon. Success number two.
The duck and pancakes are the main event though and this local restaurant, cheap or not, still roasted the duck in an open wood fire, a big plus point. When watching Heston's duck episode one of the restaurants had demonstrated the crispness of their duck skin by throwing it at the table and watching it crack into many pieces. Whilst that test would have probably failed here the skin was unlike any duck skin I'd had before. It was crisp and the underlying fat firm, giving a lovely 3D effect that held its shape, totally unlike the soft outside of the ducks in London's Chinatown (the closest thing to a Peking duck in the UK). It was gorgeous.
For our second and upmarket duck we decided to visit Quanjude. I'd failed to work out which of the contenders had done the skin throwing test and the deciding factor in the end was fat. I adore the stuff in many forms and when it comes to roast duck it's arguably the best bit - rich and soft and providing much needed lubrication to the meat - yet Dadong were brazenly advertising how they'd reduced the fat in their ducks from something like 40% to 15%. Nothing short of sacrilege and an instant disqualification.
Quanjude offer many additions to the duck and pancakes and we (the gf and me) decided this time to have a duck blood soup and duck livers with salty sauce. Gone were the big vats of duck bones and cabbage replaced with dainty bowls of a hot and sour duck soup laced with hair-like starnds of firmed duck blood and tofu. It was gorgeous, with a silky texture and perfect balance between hot and sour.
The livers were very plain in appearance albeit in the shape of a butterfly (maybe). They'd been fried till just cooked, some showing a hint of pick, which left them nice and moist. Almost pate like in texture and with a salty bite from the unseen sauce.
One thing I'd missed at the first restuarant was an-at-the-table carve and here we weren't disappointed. A trolley was wheeled to where we sat and someone made short work of the duck.
An appetizer was made from the first cut of skin served with a sprinkling of salt. Different, yes. Tasty, not so sure.
The waiter then made our first rolls for us, opting for a closed bottom, burrito style, rather than the open ended fajita style I normally favour.
The meat here was a step up from prior experiences, literally dripping with juices and rendered fat, but the skin was a big let down after the crunch of 60 RMB duck. It was tasty but too soft, reminiscent almost of slices in a noodle soup.
Being a touristy establishment we had the pleasure of some Chinese acrobats on stage every so often too. My favourite being an acrobat who started off spinning a vase on her feet, moved on to a table and ended with her assistants hanging from a large pole. You don't see that every meal.
There's now a few Quanjude about as they're pushing the brand. I can only assume this particulalrly random mascot duck who entered the restaurant for photos at the end is part of this drive. Very strange.
All in all it was a tasty meal along with some fun entertainment but not sure it's worth the hike from 28 RMB a head for duck number one to 150 RMB a head for this though.