Chef Jian Gang Liu of Golden Duck restaurant humbly displays our freshly roasted Peking duck as he prepares to slice it tableside. There is something oddly reminiscent about the plump-in-the-middle shape and the even-pored dark brown skin. Does Peking duck really look like a football with legs, or is it just that time of year?
Liu once worked at Quanjude Restaurant in Beijing, the most famous Peking duck restaurant in the world. Now the duck-roasting master practices his ancient art at this hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant on Bellaire.
Golden Duck is strangely appointed. There are oversize wooden beams along the walls that probably have nothing to do with holding up the acoustical tile ceiling. The shelves and mirror frame behind the cash register are of ornately carved dark wood. And protruding from the upper portion of two walls is a piece of roof clad with red clay tiles.
"Do they have those kind of roofs in Beijing?" I ask John Newcaster, a frequent visitor to China who is eating duck with me tonight.
"Yes," he replies thoughtfully, studying the architecture of the faux roofline. I've never been to China, but I observe that Beijing must look an awful lot like Mexico City. Somebody on the other side of the table thinks that's pretty funny.
"This used to be a Mexican restaurant," she explains slowly, as if I were a small child.
Duh. Now that I think about it, the men's room, which I have just visited, said caballeros on the door. The owners of Golden Duck have disguised the Mexican motif by placing a few Chinese screens here and there. Evidently the only other decorations they think they need are the photos of chef Liu serving Peking duck to George Bush senior and other dignitaries in Beijing.
We have ordered the Peking duck dinner for six, which begins with a large bowl of duck soup. Tofu cubes, bean threads and scallions float in the milky white broth, which has a wonderfully gamy taste. In China it's customary to serve the soup last; the duck is traditionally carved at the table, and then the bones are rushed to the kitchen to make the soup. But since American diners prefer to eat their soup first, the order is reversed here. The only problem with that, observes local Chinese cooking instructor Dorothy Huang, is that you're getting soup made from somebody else's duck. A minor quibble, in my estimation, but a real problem to purists. I wonder if you could request that the soup be made from your duck and served last.
Huang concedes that the Peking duck at Golden Duck is among the best in the city, but she's not fond of the restaurant. It isn't popular among the rest of the Chinese community either, she says. While the duck may be outstanding, the other dishes are only average. She prefers to eat Peking duck at Confucius Chinese Seafood Restaurant farther up Bellaire, which is a more pleasant place overall. I have to agree that the atmosphere at Golden Duck is less than impressive. Along with the architectural residue from the Mexican restaurant, there is the problem of the tacky tables. The big round tabletops are covered with thin white plastic sheets that stick to your arms.
But what a deal on duck. The Peking duck dinner for six includes duck soup, a whole duck carved at the table, a small lobster with ginger and scallions, steamed chicken with an intriguing fresh ginger sauce, sweet-and-sour orange-flavored spare ribs and some bland steamed beef over Chinese broccoli, plus all the rice, pancakes and other accoutrements, for $78.
It's an even better deal at lunchtime. Golden Duck offers a whole duck as a weekday lunch special for 10 percent off. And the ducks are extra-large; two friends and I came by for lunch one day and couldn't finish the whole thing. You could realistically feed five or six people a Peking duck lunch here for three or four bucks a head. And this restaurant requires only one hour's notice for a duck, which is much better than the usual 24.
When we've finished our soup, chef Liu begins the intricate carving sequence. We watch intently as he lays out the slices in a well-defined order, nimbly spinning the bird as if he were holding for a field goal. First the chef slices off some big pieces of skin and sets them aside. Then he cuts the rest of the duck so that each piece of meat includes a bit of crunchy skin. There are supposed to be 120 slices. The platter is served with the slices of skin on top -- because they're the best part.
Ideally, the skin of a Peking duck has the same alluring balance of crunch and grease as a slice of crisp bacon, observes Newcaster. Having tasted the duck at several restaurants in Beijing as well as in other parts of China, Newcaster looks for certain criteria in the dish: crisp skin, moist meat, warm flexible pancakes and a well-made plum sauce.
Golden Duck passes most of these tests with flying colors. Served in a red plastic tortilla warmer, the pancakes are so warm and pliant they stick together. You spread the pancake out on your plate and coat it lightly with some hoisin, which, Newcaster agrees, is quite good here. Then you select some skin and meat and arrange it in the center. The one criticism our duck expert has is that some of the meat is a little dry. But all in all, he rates Golden Duck very highly, and assures me he'll be back soon and often.
After you compose your duck on the hoisin-covered pancake, you top it off with cucumber chunks and scallion shavings and roll the whole thing into a taco. It's a heady mix of strong and delicate flavors and textures, made even more incredible by the realization that these ingredients have been combined this way for centuries.
The earliest known mention of this kind of duck preparation is in a catalog of imperial dishes of the Yuan dynasty written in 1330. It wasn't until the early 15th century, when the Ming dynasty moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, that the duck became associated with Peking. Over the centuries, the techniques for preparing Peking duck have taken on the weight of culinary ritual.
"The cooking process is a long and involved one," reads an article on Chinanow.com, "from raising force-fed ducks on the outskirts of Beijing, braising the dead birds with a sweet, malt sugar blend and finally hanging the ducks to roast in specially constructed ovens."
But what really ignites the imagination is the inflation thing. To make Peking duck, an air hose is inserted into the carcass and the unbroken skin is inflated so that it pulls away from the meat. This allows the skin to achieve a crispier texture. Legend has it that bicycle pumps are often used for this purpose in China. The owner of Golden Duck restaurant tells me they use an air compressor here. Maybe it's the mental picture of an inflated duck that causes me to think of football. Didn't the Longhorns lose their bowl game to some inflated ducks from Oregon a couple of years ago?
The other intriguing aspect of Peking duck cookery is the barbecue oven. In Beijing, the ducks are roasted in front of fruitwood fires. The ovens, fueled with wood from apple, pear and date trees, give the roasting ducks a wonderful barbecued flavor. Unfortunately, at Golden Duck restaurant they use a gas oven. And, sad to say, Beijing may soon follow suit. There are more than 1,000 Peking duck restaurants in that city, and some officials contend that the fruitwood fires are causing pollution problems.
With the 2008 Olympics approaching, the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau has begun compelling Peking duck restaurants to comply with air-quality regulations. Quanjude, the restaurant where chef Liu once worked, is now experimenting with the same sort of computer-controlled electric ovens that are ruining Texas barbecue.
"Against a backdrop of skies choked with pollution from factories and coal-fed boilers, closing down the city's duck ovens seems an overreaction to some," reported the Sydney Morning Herald in July. "The city officials are stupid donkeys," one anonymous roast-duck lover told the paper.
There is a lesson for Houston here. What if the most polluted city in America really did host the Olympics? Would city officials ask us to sacrifice our wood-fired barbecue pits? (One more reason to be thankful that we don't have a chance.)
I wish we had a Chinese restaurant in Houston that was doing the fruitwood barbecue thing. But until we do, Golden Duck is hard to beat. It's not fancy enough for your grandfather's 80th birthday party or your daughter's wedding reception, but it's a good place for a duck dinner. And if you ask me, it's perfectly suited for certain minor celebrations -- like a Texans victory, for instance.
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