First published on 24 Oct 2011. Updated on 8 May 2013.
Beijing roast duck is now ubiquitous in the city centre: there’s Da Dong at Jinbao Place, then Made in China at the Grand Hyatt. Both are laudable duck pens, but apparently it’s not enough. Paul Hsu and his team at Elite Concepts have built a grand new siheyuan for the second coming of Duck de Chine.
As you enter the alley, you’re suddenly approached and interrogated. The shadow-like service tailgates you even if you arrive early and want to experience the grandeur of the place along with installations by artists such as Liu Ruowang and Russell Wong. Duck de Chine has three of its own private dining rooms, but the over-the-top reception could also be explained by Club 49, a members-only venue below, wanting to safeguard its exclusivity.
Inside, the unmistakable scent of wood fire teases your appetite and the glow from familiar red light shades illuminates a dining room that’s large but intimate enough for small groups. There’s a little more sophistication here, even a French sommelier. Dividing dining rooms is a Bollinger champagne bar surrounded by tables of empty flutes, longing for magnums on ice. Start with a dish of fried abalone mushrooms (48RMB). They are fine threads, crisp and tossed with XO sauce for a blast of deliciousness. Duck and tofu soup (48RMB per bowl) is warming and creamy, as is the hot and sour duck soup (68RMB per bowl), with its shreds of dates and tofu balanced by vinegar and red chilli oil.
Visible from the dining room is a courtyard holding tables that will bustle in warm weather as well as a glass cage that holds a trio of wood-burning duck ovens. For now, only one is fired. A small brigade of chefs in white garb lines up, waiting for partners, roasting ducks hanging and dripping their fat over crackling fire.
What comes out is wonderful and delicious, an experience enhanced by the shiny new surroundings. Plated simple garnishes appear in colourful dress with magenta watermelon radish slivers and crisp pale cucumbers alongside a streaky spiral of house-made tian mian jiang, sesame paste and peanut sauce. A plate of thin pancakes, and a basket of flaky bings is like a drumroll, all foreplay, and then the duck comes. It’s carved carefully, then reassembled like you’ve seen elsewhere, crisp skin layered over juicy meat. A separate plate brings you the head and neck pieces coveted by connoisseurs. And for 238RMB, that’s your show, plus 8RMB each for the fixins.
If you can’t bear another roast duck in your life, there is baked Sichuan duck (98RMB). It conjures images of those tasty rack hangers off the streets of Chengdu, but a bowl of duck chunks stir-fried with leeks and other vegetables arrives, leaving those hopes dashed. It’s lacking in kick and the fizzle of fire it should have if wearing this Sichuan tag. But the mala fried ya jia (98RMB) is worth a trip. Battered and fried chunks of duck are tossed in a spice mixture that includes dried chillies, cumin and thin celery. The only thing missing are the Sichuan peppercorns.
Poached Chinese cabbage with milky, ducky mushroom tofu soup (98RMB) swims in the same broth found in the basic duck and tofu soup. It’s also the binder in the vermicelli dish of soupy rice sticks for 88RMB. Not every server will warn you about this repetition of flavours, but they are likely to get everything else right.
Sautéed chicken bones are really a bunch of knees, most adored by the Japanese who love every chicken part that can be skewered with a stick. They are battered and fried, then tossed with gingko nuts in Maggi sauce (128RMB). It’s really very good. But note that knees are cartilaginous, with a textural crunch that some will love, while others may not.
Finish with reliable sweets such as chilled mango and sago cream (48RMB) or sticky rice dumplings with sesame in sweet almond milk (38RMB). It’s all good down to the last drop. You may waddle when you leave, but not before you notice that even the floor tiles are duck-themed, just like everything here. The new Duck de Chine is for everyone, far beyond roast duck addicts. Lillian Chou