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Savoring Peking Duck at Quanjude

15 June 2011 No Comment

Quanjude gateway

It is said that a trip to Beijing, China’s capital city, cannot be considered complete without sampling one signature dish that bears the city’s name,  Peking Roast Duck (Bei Jing Kao Ya) – also often simply called Peking Duck. Like many great dishes around the world, Peking Duck spent much of its eight hundred years old history as a staple dish for Imperial China’s upper class and royalties. These days one can find a delicious serving of Peking Duck pretty much in anywhere around the world, from Bangkok to Barcelona. For a duck lover however, it would almost be a sin not to try Peking Duck while in Beijing.

On my first visit to this city over a decade ago I tasted my very first Peking Duck, which certainly was the best tasting Chinese dish of the entire trip. The combination of crispy duck skin, sweet sauce, fresh spring onion and cucumber slices was wonderful and simply unforgettable; that memory will forever be etched in my mind. Back then the city had only a handful of tourist-grade restaurants, so I thought finding back the same place today should not be overly difficult. On our latest visit however, this proved to be untrue. The city had changed considerably in recent years, and after some effort eventually I was convinced that it was impossible to know for sure where I had that amazing Peking Duck.

A quick search on the internet revealed a few prominent names. It seems that there are two prominent establishments with a long history of being Peking duck specialist. Bianyifang – whose history started in the 15th century, and Quanjude – which opened their first restaurant in Qianmen area in the year 1864. This is not to say that one’s option for Peking Duck is limited to these two names. Beijing is littered with restaurants serving excellent Peking Duck. But I was keen to find back ‘the old place’, and my senses told me that I should make a pilgrimage to either Bianyifang or Quanjude. In the end I chose Quanjude, which is well known to play host to VIPs from around the world such as Cuban leader Fidel Castro, former US president George Bush Sr., and former German chancellor Helmut Kohl.

entrance hall Quanjude

A wall inside the entrance hall

The next day I found myself standing near the entrance of Quanjude restaurant, awed by the impressive looking Chinese gateway that marked the compound’s main entrance. My company informed me that the three characters on the gateway read from right to left “Quan Ju De”, and I know we have arrived at the right place. As it was nearing lunch hour, there was a steady stream of patrons going in and out of the restaurant doors.  Once inside, we were asked to take a number. The reception also kindly informed us that waiting time for a table is half an hour or longer. That is outrageous! But we had little choice. And so we waited.

Fortunately for us, there was a small space next to the waiting area where old pictures and artifacts from the restaurant’s past are being showcased. We spent some time looking at the exhibits, which was quite educative. In fact, since the area is accessible to non-patrons, we would recommend anyone passing by the store to just pop in and take a look. Of some interest is a ‘duck coupon’ from the year 1901. Its purpose is similar to gift coupons from modern day department stores. One buys the coupon and presents it as a gift for a friend or relative, and the recipient can later claim the duck at his/her convenience.

Exhibit

Photos of exhibits (above), and duck coupon (below)

duck coupon

Eventually and to our great relief, our number was called. A waiter briskly escorted us to our seats, and not wanting to delay any longer we promptly ordered the set menu; which included one Peking Duck as the main course, and several other (mostly duck related) dishes which are ingenuously made out of the remaining parts of the duck unused in the preparations of the Peking Duck. Accompanying the meal was a pot of Tieguanyin tea.

First to arrive was a plate of interesting looking appetizer, which turned out to be rolled beancurd skin with seaweed. The taste was simply bland, and to be honest after one mouth we were already looking forward to the next dish. A cold plate of sliced duck liver was served next, unseasoned and served without any accompanying sauce. Our only comment is that this dish was duck liver on its purest and unadulterated form (cooked of course). We were pleasantly surprised with the duck soup, definitely a marked improvement from the first two dishes.

duck liver

duck soup

Not long after, the star of the show arrived on the table. A whole duck, oven roasted to perfection, was presented to us by a chef. Judging from its size, there is probably enough meat to feed a family of four, and there were only two of us at the table. But as any Peking Duck veteran will tell you, the size of the duck is not an accurate measure of quantity in this case.  The reason for this is apparent once the chef started working on the duck; carefully carving out layers after layers of crisp skin and meat. His knife moved ever so carefully to get those perfect slices, but never deep enough to clean the meat off the bones. The rest of the duck was then taken back to the kitchen, the extra meat used for other dishes.

Peking Duck chef

Now comes the part of serving the Peking Duck, which is a very interactive process. Peking duck is usually eaten together with slices of cucumber, spring onion, and sauce – all rolled together in a wrap. We had a lot of fun experimenting different combination of ingredients. Most importantly, the roast duck itself was superb; the skin was crackling crisp, the meat was tender and yet displayed no hint of fats. One conclusion, Quanjude obviously had perfected the art of roasting duck over their century-long history. Needless to say, we finished every last slice of duck meat in no time, and even felt happy to pay the bill. I left the restaurant thinking that while I may never find that ‘old place’ again, I have found myself an equally amazing experience in Quanjude.

Peking duck set

We have two short advices on the restaurant. First, avoid lunch and dinner hours. One would loathe to spend half an hour waiting and watching other guests chow down their delicious looking roast ducks. Second, while Quanjude’s Peking Duck did not disappoint, the same can’t be said about the other dishes in the set menu. If your purpose of coming to Quanjude is to taste the Peking Duck – which notably is their best dish – why pay more for other dishes. Stick with the roast duck, you won’t regret it.

Travel Info

Quanjude
No 14, Qianmen West Street, Beijing
Website: http://www.quanjude.com.cn/e_about.html

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