lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Beijing isn’t known for its cuisine, but it is known for its roast duck. The tradition is long, and here in the city the debate is back and forth on who serves the finest duck. Google brings up a lot of names and a lot of opinions, but by popularity Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant sits at the top of that list. Of course I went, and at Beijing’s most celebrated, talked-about, written-about, filmed about roast duck restaurant , the main act was everything I suspected it would be: unimpressive.
Quack! Quack! de-boned (!) duck feet with mustard seeds & wasabi. spicy, but not flavorful. also, rubbery.
Da Dong is an endlessly expansive restaurant with several dining rooms and smaller, more intimate ones for the hordes who want their duck. It’s a two-story duck house as Westernized as they come in Beijing. Spotless, air-conditioned, and keen on white plates of all shapes, Da Dong with it’s walkie-talkie equipped waiters is a nice time. But. I doubt the locals take kindly to the Westernized delivery of some basic Chinese staples.
greens sauteed in garlic
As an example, a modest pile of greens sauteed in garlic rests on one side of a large, white rectangular plate, leaving the other side to four flower pedals just for looks. Lotus root stuffed with rice is made to look like a Chinese delicacy — small in portion size, high in price — but the flavor was not beyond the reach of a restaurant 10 times cheaper.
An order of duck comes with a side of style. Each person is given a plate of condiments (strips of cucumbers, garlic paste, hoisin, tiny sugar cubes and a few more things I can’t remember). A chef made to look like a surgeon wearing gloves and a face mask approaches the table, shows the entire duck and then retreats to the hallway to slice away. As he cuts it, a square plate with duck piled on hits the table. The skin is sitting on top, the meat underneath.
duck in the front, thin “tortillas” in the back for wrapping
duck fat/skin with sugar. OUTRAGEOUS!
What I won’t ever forget is the combination of crispy duck skin dipped in sugar cubes. The experience is outrageous, assuming you’re into things like fat…and flavor, and as my friends at the table said, “Evan, you’re the only person I’ve ever seen laugh out loud after eating roast duck.”
Beyond the fat was a disappointing story. The duck meat here was lean (slightly dry too, but maybe that’s a fluke). LEAN? I’m coating duck fat with sugar. It’s a bit too late to start chomping on carrots and counting calories. The juicy love (still talking about fat) that makes kaoya and meat in general so wonderful was missing. Was it at least good? Yes. But not the best. After the duck, a bowl of duck soup and a complimentary plate of cantaloupe, lychee (LOVE), and green tea ice cream (not sweet) rounded out the meal.
cubes of tender beef, red chili peppers, onions served on a rock
I understand Da Dong’s appeal. The service, the dining rooms, the feel, the million dollar wine list (Chateau Lafite, anybody?) — it’s all attractive and Western in a city that’s smoggy and Eastern. The total bill for three people was 600 Yuan (approx. $95), which isn’t exorbitant by American standards, but when a killer 7 course dinner can cost $6 here in Beijing, the comparison is bleak.
You can accuse me of stirring the pot, going against the current, or trying to be a hipster, but Da Dong isn’t the best. I don’t know where is the best either because I haven’t been around enough. I can, though, tell you that a duck I had near Tianamen Square was far better.