The chef at Country Kitchen prepares Beijing duck. // © 2015 Lawrence Ferber
Feature image (above): Shimmering Golden Peking Duck at Chinese fine dining restaurant, Yen // © 2015 Lawrence Ferber
Whether you call it Peking duck or Beijing duck, the signature dish of China’s capital city is a delectable one, indeed. Crackly-crispy skin, succulent thinly sliced meat and condiments such as shredded scallion and a plum or hoisin-based sauce are perfectly contained in thin pancakes.
The centuries-old, time-consuming preparation method — which includes air-drying the bird, hanging it from a hook and roasting it in a fire-burning oven and tableside carving with surgical precision — is rarely practiced with such art outside Beijing. (What U.S. restaurants typically pass off as “Peking duck” is merely a barbecued or limp-skinned roasted bird, making it a true must-try delicacy when visiting.)
Restaurants specializing in duck are everywhere in Beijing, and they vary wildly in quality, price (with higher-end ducks running at about $35) and friendliness toward foreigners. For that reason, I went on a weeklong duck-eating rampage in search of the best spots for U.S. visitors.
Following are my resulting top five favorites, plus a bonus sixth selection for its fun bling factor. Do note that advance reservation/ordering is required in most cases, due to the lengthy prep time before serving and finite daily stock, so have your concierge or ground operator call ahead.
Also, a compulsory condiments set with pancakes, shredded veggies and a thick, sweet sauce typically costs a little extra, and you can have the remnants prepared in a number of ways (e.g. spiced and fried or diced and served with lettuce wraps), also for an additional cost.
If you’re only going to have one meal in Beijing, or one duck for that matter, this is absolutely the place to book. This upscale restaurant, part of the year-old, luxurious Rosewood Beijing hotel, offers a wide sampling of chef de cuisine Leo Chai’s flawlessly prepared, supremely delicious Northern Chinese specialties. A commitment to using local, organic farm product, not yet a norm in mainland China, also elevates the food’s quality.
We’re talking authentic, yet top-tier versions of both street and banquet fare alike: There’s chili-dredged, chewy Shaanxi noodles, stretched by hand in plain view in one of several glass-enclosed kitchen areas; a stack of chilled greens beneath a quilt of creamy sesame sauce; braised “youtiao” pork; and, of course, the city’s finest Beijing duck.
Sliced tableside with a razor-sharp cleaver and surgical precision, the meat is moist and flavorful, while the toffee-toned skin crackles and melts in your mouth, miraculously devoid of oiliness. The pancake is also a standout — chewy and addictively toothsome in itself.
Be sure to wash it all down with local Jujube (red date) juice, a refreshing beverage that falls between plum and honey in flavor. This duck is truly fit for a king — or rather, an emperor.
While lacking a website, this perpetually bustling, world-famous chain boasts several locations — two in Chaoyang district and one in Dongcheng — filled with tourists and locals drawn in by not only its traditional and wonderfully lean Peking duck, but chef Dong Zhenxiang’s massive menu of inventive fusion dishes and sides. The latter admittedly tend to be hit and miss — the cold mashed potatoes with blackberry and orange peel was downright revolting — but the approximately 800 fowl they serve daily are quintessential Beijing duck perfection.
Be sure to sit in the smoke-free, well-lit main dining area, as some of the upstairs and secondary spaces tend to be stuffy and smoky.
Made In China
One of Beijing’s most consistently reliable spots for impeccable, high-end Northern Chinese fare, Grand Hyatt’s Made In China attracts daily capacity crowds for its duck. (Make reservations a few weeks in advance if possible.)
The skin is a true star, perfectly crisp and almost completely free of grease. Be sure to dip it in sugar granules for a taste of heaven.
Duck de Chine
Not your “nainai”’s (grandmother’s) Peking duck, the stylish and atmospheric Duck de Chine takes a contemporary and creative approach with its presentation, condiments and side dishes, such as wasabi-doused duck feet.
Located in the “1949 – The Hidden City” development, the former industrial-park-turned-dining-and-nightlife destination with contemporary art installations practically requires reservations.
Jing Yaa Tang
Nestled within Beijing’s chic and artsy The Opposite House hotel in the trendy Sanlitun district, the 2-year-old Jing Yaa Tang features a wide array of Chinese cuisine including yummy dim sum. While ordering, you can enjoy the sight of the glass-enclosed duck kitchen as its open-front flame ovens roast the ducks to a perfect caramel brown with date wood, which imparts a slightly sweet, smoky quality.
Bonus: The condiments, including date sauce and cantaloupe slivers, come at no extra charge.
Opened in spring of 2014, W Beijing Chang’an hotel brought a dose of playfulness, visionary design and bling aesthetics to the city, including a shimmering Golden Peking Duck at its Chinese fine dining restaurant, Yen.
Requiring a full 24 hours to prepare, and at a premium cost of more than $100, the duck has a skin of shimmering edible gold. By far Beijing’s most disco-ready bird, it’s a visual treat for the fashionista set.