BEIJING: BEIJING DUCK
Beijing’s most famous dish (better known in the West as Peking duck) is a delicacy worthy of the city’s name. I seek it out at Quanjude (shown above right), an old-school restaurant with ornate decor, waitstaff decked out in red and gold, and a luxe vibe that time-trips you back to the days before Mao.
That’s all nice, but the draw, of course, is incredible food. Purely in terms of duck, Quanjude is a no-lose proposition. As tradition dictates, the spotlighted dish hangs in a wood-fueled oven and cooks until its marinated skin takes on a reddish hue.
Served as an Asian approximation of a burrito, Beijing duck features slices of duck wrapped in thin, flour-based pancakes, set off by scallions and doused with plum-based hoisin sauce. Opt for the duck dinner, and you get more than the Beijing variety. Expect duck soup, duck liver, duck eggs, and duck wings.
Like much of China’s best cuisine, Beijing duck began as a delicacy favored by Sino emperors and their coteries. The dish is first noted in a 14th-century book by an inspector of royal kitchens; Beijing’s first restaurant to specialize in duck dates back to the 1500s. More recently, during Henry Kissinger’s first visit to China in the 1970s, the dry-roasted bird became his entree of choice.
Feasting on the last of the meal, I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with Kissinger and make a toast to culinary-driven détente.
INSIDER’S TIP: Quanjude has expanded into a chain, with credible outlets across Beijing. But for the best, most authentic experience, be sure to check out the original location on Qianmen West Street.
DETAILS: Quanjude, 14 Qianmen West Street, 011-86-10-63-4-8987, quanjude.com.cn
HONG KONG: CHINESE BANQUET
It’s 8 p.m. at Summer Palace, a chandeliered Chinese restaurant inside the classic and always-elegant Island Shangri-La Hotel in Hong Kong. A large table has been simply adorned with a white cloth, silverware, chopsticks, wine glasses, and, in the center, a plastic lazy Susan. Clearly, it’s time for a Chinese banquet. This form of dining, which may have inspired France’s famous haute-cuisine tasting menus, shows off the generosity and good taste of well-heeled hosts. In the process, nobody goes home hungry.
While most banquets are held in private rooms, this one is situated in a corner of Summer Palace. No problem. We’re willing to enjoy our feast out in the open, partaking in a custom that dates back at least to the Song Dynasty (which ended in 1279), when Chinese royalty engaged in decadently gargantuan feasts. These days, though, you don’t need to be a prince; you just need enough cash to pay the princely sum that a large number of courses will generate.
Our banquet at Summer Palace begins with warm towels, glasses of rice-based wine, and a parade of appetizers. Typically, Chinese meals are served with eight entrees (eight is considered a lucky number) brought to the table all at once and shared family style. Banquet courses are brought out one at a time, with flavors and complexity continually building.
For starters, our waiter brings a pair of tofu offerings: one braised, with mushrooms, lily bulbs, and dates; the other comprises silky tofu skins filled with vegetables. They serve as a slow launch to a big meal that goes on to include marinated sliced beef and deep-fried dumplings filled with diced shrimp. At one point, a giant bowl of steaming soup touches down at the table’s center. Traditionally it’s shark-fin soup, but tonight, as a concession to American palates, our host opts for hot-and-sour soup spiked with seafood.
Rather than coming out merely as accompaniment, rice at a banquet gets served as its own course — in this case, a fried version with dried scallops and egg whites. It’s good, but my favorite dish of the meal is a whole, steamed grouper, which makes a grand entrance and proves to be succulent and light.
By the time we receive dessert (fluffy sago-palm cream with fresh mango and pomelo), I get to feeling a little bit pampered, a little bit special, and, yes, maybe even a little bit royal. I am also extremely stuffed, which makes the turned-down bedcovers and pot of herbal tea awaiting me in my room feel like the ultimate luxuries.
INSIDER’S TIP: Summer Palace provides the classic Chinese banquet — complete with doting service — but an updated version of this type of meal can be had at Hutong, which is decorated to recall old Beijing (albeit in a very modern way). Be sure to snag a seat near one of the floor-to-ceiling windows before 8 p.m. and enjoy the light show that takes place each night on the opposite side of Victoria Harbor.
DETAILS: Summer Palace, shangri-la.com; Hutong, aqua.com.hk
If you can’t make it to Asia, here are restaurants in the U.S. — and one in London — where you can enjoy some of the great flavors of Asia.
TEI–AN: One Arts Plaza, 1722 Routh St., Dallas, (214) 220-2828, tei-an.com
SOBA NOODLE BAR: 11/13 Soho St., London, 011-44-20- 7287- 7300, soba.co.uk
JOE’S SHANGHAI: 9 Pell St., New York, (212) 233-8888, joesshanghairestaurants.com
KINGDOM OF DUMPLING: 1713 Taraval St., San Francisco, (415) 566-6143, kingofchinesedumpling.com
EMPEROR’S CHOICE: 2238 S. Wentworth Ave., Chicago, (312) 225-8800
GREAT CHINA: 2115 Kittredge St., Berkeley, California; (510) 843- 7996, greatchinaberkeley.com
SHANGHAI PAVILION: 1378 Third Ave., New York, (212) 585-3388, shanghaipavillionnyc.com
HOP LI SEAFOOD RESTAURANT: 11901 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 268-2463, hoplirestaurant.com