Where does one go to find an authentic Beijing duck experience in Beijing?
As it turns out, this may involve not just one expedition, but two. This was urged by @limliken and @mitchtan, both Singapore foodie friends, the latter of whom spent some time cutting her teeth in the hotel industry in Beijing.
"Go to Li Qun AND Da Dong. And then tell me what you think," she said.
You gotta love a debate where you engage by ducking the issue.
And so on our first evening in Beijing we trooped from our hostel past Tiananmen Square, onward south to Qianmen. Where after an entire city of government buildings, we came up against what felt like a virtual edge of a cliff -- beyond which one would fall and float into an eerie grey concrete wilderness of a largely abandoned hutong, a warren of traditional Chinese courtyard houses.
The only people out and about on this balmy May evening were the trishaw drivers trying to sell a pricey ride to Li Qun, Anthony Bourdain's pick when he visited Beijing. Everyone else, it seemed, had long relocated or else been evicted out into the neverending skyrise suburbs of new Beijing. At least these ghost-town trishaw drivers were a sign we were on the right track, we figured.
Preservere, pedestrians. Just a few steps beyond the tourist-trap transporters, you can simply read the writing on the wall to Li Qun.
Red lanterns -- the last rebel lights of this hutong -- and murals welcoming foreign visitors signal that you've arrived.
Enroute to your table, sneak a peek (and a long whiff) at the woodfired roasting oven. If you keep your eyes open you might just spot the duck drying closet in the main dining room.
Whatever heyday Li Qun may have once had, I suspect it's since experienced the Curse of the Tourist Tsunami. The setting in this old Chinese house is quaint enough. But duck prices had doubled since indications given in our pre-Olympics travel guide, and you have to order at least 1 whole duck regardless of the size of your dining party. Not a complete disaster for a couple of gluttons like Babs and myself, but pretty punishing for the solo diner already seated at our shared table.
This single Asian male traveller, obviously on a lonely culinary quest, had his 2 plates of duck slices before him. He religiously photographed every other duck roll he folded, and doggedly doggedly doggedly kept chewing in between.
I glanced sideways at Mr Party of One as we started to dig into our own duck, which came with all the traditional accompaniments -- a stack of paper-thin pancake sheets, plum sauce, cucumber spears and sprigs of spicy spring onion. Our duck rolls were heavy, fatty, greasy, more meaty than I'm used to for Beijing duck, and the skin not particularly crispy. Mr Party of One was still chewing, leaning back in his chair, his eyes closed, I suspect not with escatsy. If his duck had gone through death by a thousand cuts, Mr Part of One looked like he was quickly approaching death by a thousand mouthfuls.
By the time we were done with our own duck, our chests were tight with duck fat. Some Chinese tea to unclog, methinks -- a Yellow River's worth.
As we walked out into the quiet dimly lit streets of Qianmen, we cross paths with 2 trishaws of Western tourists. I hope they enjoy the ride they're getting taken on.
We bookended our Beijing stop by lunching at Da Dong just before we were due to leave the capital. It was clear we were in for a very different experience the minute we got spat out of Tuan Jie Hu metro station, into a visibly middle class highrise neighbourhood dotted with shopping malls. Da Dong's formidable and fancy 2-storey fortress was nestled up against a cliff of one of these housing blocks.
Its massive main dining room was filled with chattering well dressed Chinese people from a whole range of age groups; every one of them with a dish of duck on their tables. A good sign. Word on the street was that Da Dong took on board the feedback that old-school Beijing duck was too greasy, and developed a "super lean" duck that had proven a hit with locals. Also, it allows patrons to order half-duck portions with no disproportionate jack-up in price, a sure sign that its target market was no-nonsense Beijingers vs captive and scalpable pilgrims from afar.
My favourite part about Da Dong is that you can watch the deft duck carving action all around the dining room. My not so favourite part is the surcharge for Beijing duck condiments -- really, is anyone going to refuse at this point? Ah well, at least it's a pleasantly surprising array of experimental condiments, such as pickled-pink radish, raw mashed garlic and sugar, and 2 kinds of chye-por (preserved vegetable bits).
All of which combine into quite a delightful new Beijing duck experience. The skin here is crispy without the throat-clenching layer of fat underneath, and the various pickled vegetables together with a sprinkle of sugar and sweet sauce produce a few different layers of sweetness, but kept in check by a dab of raw minced garlic.
Another experimental accompaniment is this sesame seed-studded shell. A lovely crispy bite with a tinge of smoky toastiness, but its round shape is rather awkward for the rectagular slivers of everything else. A cheeky concession to the odd Western visitor looking for a hamburger fix, perhaps.
Riding on the success of its signature duck dish, Chef Dong has also extended his menu into high-end seafood dishes well heeled Chinese diners are so fond of (e.g. lobster and other exotic shellfish and sea slugs plated any number of ways) and all sorts of artistic looking meat and vegetable dishes. We try the spinach balls with mustard, and the broccoli with egg tofu garnished with crushed and caramelised dried shrimp. The former was a delicious and delightful way to clear out your sinuses, and the latter an interesting twist on 2 sometimes staid ingredients.
But what makes Da Dong so authentically Beijing for me is its still-slightly-awkward classiness. With every meal comes complimentary sorbet and a plate of fruit chilled on dry ice. Lovely. Except that the waitstaff serve up said sorbet and fruit at the same time as the rest of your meal. So the sorbet sits on the table and sweats as you eat, and is a puddle by the time you're actually ready for dessert. And if the table runs out of space, the staff -- more akin of the style of homey diners of their native provinces -- simply stack plates on their edges.
So there you have it. One, a fraying-at-the-edges entity that leaves you ambivalent about whether it's shaking a fist at the capital's relentless redevelopment of communities and cuisines alike, or simply milking tourists with a death grip on its outdated reputation. The other, an up and coming maverick still buffing his rough-around-the-edges team. Both for me emcompass all that is Beijing. Their ducks too.
Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant
11 Bei Xiang Feng Hutong
Zheng Yi Road
Chongwen District, Beijing, China
+86 10 6705 5578
Da Dong Roast Duck
Tuan Jie Hu Bei Kou Building 3
East side of East 3rd Ring Road
Southeast corner of Changhong Bridge,
North of Tuan Jie Hu Park
Chaoyang District, Beijing, China
+86 10 6582 2892