My last story on Eating street food in Beijing was interesting at best, and downright gross at worst. Well, dear reader, have no fear because we are going to embark upon a journey to the other end of the food spectrum. That’s right, we’re going classy, because that’s the way I roll – sometimes.
If your palette runs a little less adventurous than others, then you probably haven’t sampled in what many Chinese consider to be delicacies: shark’s fin, abalone, chicken feet, jellyfish, beef tendon . . . you get the idea. However, chances are that you may have eaten, or at least seen, Beijing’s eponymous local dish: kao ya, or roast duck. You might know it as Peking duck, after the capital’s old spelling.
If you’re thinking of your local Chinatown and the roast ducks that are hanging in the storefront window, then think again. That’s Cantonese-style roast duck, which is very different than Beijing-style roast duck, in the way it tastes and the way it is eaten. Even Cantonese speakers call it Beijing duck, to distinguish between the two.
Beijing duck is cooked to order, features much crispier skin, and is usually eaten wrapped in a thin pancake with spring onions and hoisin sauce. Most decent restaurants here in Beijing will serve kao ya, but there are a few which are really quite famous for specializing in the dish.
Beijing’s top three Peking or Beijing duck restaurants
The granddaddy of all kao ya restaurants is Quanjude, which brought this former imperial dish to the masses starting in 1864. Its reputation was cemented through loyal patronage by the Chinese government, having hosted many state dinners with foreign VIPs.
That being said, I was a little let down by Quanjude. It’s not that it was bad – it just wasn’t mindblowingly good – which is what I was expecting and hoping for. Nevertheless, it was a good meal, and really, when you’re eating Beijing duck with friends, you can’t go wrong.
2) Duck de Chine
More recently, I went to Duck de Chine, which has made a name for itself by presenting Beijing duck in a completely new, modernized manner, “a French take on a Chinese classic.”
The restaurant was very modern and chic, and the service was quite attentive. Aside from the Beijing duck dish, the rest of the duck is also used to make other dishes. A soup made from the rest of the duck was excellent, and the waitress prepared for each of us an interesting combination of hoisin sauce, sesame sauce and roasted garlic.
But the name of the game is the duck. And unfortunately, I was still a little disappointed.
I’m not sure if it’s because I have ridiculous expectations, but if you’re paying over twice as much for one duck than you would pay in a local restaurant, shouldn’t the duck be at least noticeably better? Methinks yes.
3) Da Dong
Now, lest you think that Beijing is a culinary black hole, allow me to alleviate your doubts by saying that there are many very good restaurants and even a few excellent ones. So in my opinion, if you want Beijing duck, if you want the best kao ya this city, nay, this country has to offer, then you have to go to Da Dong.
The duck, both times I went, was superb. Very light and crispy skin, with only a hint of the fattiness you’d expect. Eight different condiments to go with the duck, including sugar, which tastes much better than you’d think. You’ve even got a very light and tasty pastry puff to try, which I actually prefer to the pancake. Throw in the excellent non-duck dishes and you’ve got yourself a very classy meal.
What could possibly make such an experience better? Go to the Da Dong branch in Dongsishitiao. The two-storey restaurant there matches Duck de Chine for chicness, but you have the option to choose your own duck as they’re roasting. That means you get to go into the kitchen and check out the massive ovens where they hang the ducks to cook. Awesome.
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Steven Wong is a Toronto native and serious traveller who is always looking for the next adventure and destination. He is currently taking on China bit by bit. For more travelling vicariously through him, go to: stevenwong.ca.