November 3, 2013

The skinny duck

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I'm up in Beijing for a couple of days on a business trip, and have a free slot for dinner tonight.  It's been a little more than 2 months since Felix stopped by Hong Kong before moving to Beijing, and I thought it's high time I caught up with him.  After a couple of rounds of discussions - and disqualifying some venues due to timing issues - we settled on the new branch of DaDong Artistic Conception Food (大董中国意境菜) - a 3-storey building right at the East Entrance of the Beijing Worker's Stadium (工人体育场).

This is quite a palace that Mr. Da Dong has built for himself.  The entrance is quite dramatic - one either walks through a lawn with numerous lights as well as a couple of grazing horse statues, or drive through to the underground entrance, where the first scene encountered is an army of chefs roasting ducks in a central oven.  In the middle of the main dining room on the ground floor, there is a 2-storey high screen which loops through a video about - who else? - Mr. Da Dong and his philosophy.  Felix and I joked that in some scenes, instead of looking like a mild-mannered and cultured scholar, the boss ends up looking like the Shanghainese mafia of old…

I was a little flustered when I got to the table, and my first attempt at flipping through the menu left me bewildered.  The dishes seemed to be crammed into the first few pages of the tome, and it all seemed like information overload.  Fortunately, the same dishes appear on the remaining pages along with beautiful pictures, which made things a lot easier.

I wasn't particularly impressed by the duck when the chef came to Hong Kong last year, so I needed to see if I liked it any better here in the home base.  My last dinner left a pretty good impression in terms of the other dishes, as I found plenty of Western cooking techniques at work.  I was very curious on some of the more creative and fusion-looking dishes, and thankfully Felix was game.

Candied lotus root with osmanthus and foie gras (桂花糖藕配鹅肝) - this was actually pretty interesting.  Shaved slices of foie gras terrine, paired with Shanghainese-style lotus root which wasn't as sweet as I'm used to.  Usually you have the osmanthus marinated in the honey sauce, but here the kitchen uses fresh flowers, which delivered more intense flavors and fragrance.  Very nice.  I actually didn't realize that I'd already tried this at the dinner last year.

Stewed oxtail with longan and honey (桂圆蜂蜜炖牛尾) - this was OK, and I kinda like the honey flavor, but whatever flavors the longans were supposed to bring to the table didn't register with me.  We also wish the kitchen would have stewed it a little longer, as the meat wasn't exactly falling off the bone.  The chestnuts on the side were a nice touch.

Black caviar and vegetable with mushroom salad (春草黑鱼籽蘑菇沙拉) - OK, it was my fault for ordering something that looked pretty in the picture, and the actual presentation - with dry ice and all - fell short of expectations.  It was also incredibly bland, as the only "seasoning" came in the form of a measly few caviar eggs.  Otherwise the mushrooms and the microgreens (red sango radish?) were pretty tasteless.  We were given a pair of small scissors, and had to cut the microgreens from the sheet of cotton (which looked like the cotton pads used to remove makeup) ourselves before being able to eat them.

Bean vermicelli in claypot (粉丝煲) - I originally wanted to order this dish, but was told that it had sold out.  We were then recommended to take the grilled crab with bean vermicelli (蟹肉粉丝煲) instead, but when the dish arrived it actually looked like the original dish… since I couldn't for the life of me find any crab meat...  Oh well.  By the time we opened up the lid and started eating, the vermicelli had cooled down somewhat and gotten a little soggy, but it was still reasonably tasty.  I wish we had been able to eat it as it was served to us.

Da Dong "super lean" roast duck (大董酥不膩烤鴨) - we ordered half a duck since we wanted to try other dishes.  OK, so now I know this ain't for me, and even trying it on home turf didn't do it for me.  I like my duck fatty and the skin crispy.  This ain't it.

I know it's meant to be non-traditional, and the "healthier" alternative, with younger ducks and leaner meat.  Just not tasty enough for me.  Some meat just need to have that fat to be tasty, so please don't skimp on that fat!

The pancakes, though, were absolutely awesome.  Very, very thin, but not fragile.

Everybody always complain about how tasteless the duck soups are at every single duck restaurant, and this place is no different.  The two of us were left asking each other this question:  why are the soups always so bland?!  Do they all decide to dilute it by 50% just before serving?!  You gotta think that the bones and carcass can deliver a helluva lot more flavor than what's in those bowls!  Serious WTF.

Braised winter bamboo shoots (干烧冬笋) - the bamboo shoots were really tender and devoid of layers, which led me to believe that they use only the hearts of very young shoots.  The deep-fried perilla leaves, which I normally love, are soggy by the time we got around to this dish.  Oh well…

Our complimentary fruit came after our mains, and 'tis the season for dongzao jujube (冬枣).  These are very fresh, nice and crunchy.  Not too sweet, which was perfect for my diet…

Finally, each of us get a little skewer of tanghulu (糖葫芦), which really isn't gourd (葫芦) but Chinese hawthorn (山楂).

Fearful that Felix would be short on the selection of decent wines, I dutifully stuffed 2 bottles into my suitcase and checked it in.  There would be some bottle shock, but oh well…

1990 Trimbach Riesling Clos Sainte Hune - nose of polyurethane, petrol and minerals.  Surprisingly fresh and not oxidized at all.  Very nice acidity balance.  Nose wasn't as big and powerful as I expected, but this was very elegant with a long and lovely finish.  The 14% alcohol was hardly noticeable.

2001 Harlan The Maiden - aired in the decanter for a while.  Still a little alcoholic on the nose.  A little smoky, which worked well with the smoky flavors of the Peking duck.  Could use a little more aging, but starting to drink pretty well.  This may not be a classic Pauillac, but in a blind tasting I'd be hard pressed to pin it as a Californian, as there's none of that extracted, super-ripe fruit or heavy oak.  Much more French than your typical Cali Cab.

So… I've finally been to a proper Da Dong restaurant.  The setting was completely OTT, which I suppose kinda matches the ego of the man.  I expected absolutely crap service, but was somewhat pleasantly surprised.  They were actually much better in terms of wine service - offering to bring a decanter, for example, without being asked.  But like so many Chinese restaurants, they chose to bring all the dishes - except the duck - at once.  This is why most of our dishes weren't taken at optimal temperatures.  Why Chinese kitchens do this - especially when it's a two-top - is completely beyond me.  I guess they just don't care.

Food-wise, I was reasonably happy with our choices.  I had wanted to get a better sense of the "fusion" side of things, and overall it wasn't bad at all.  I would most definitely come back to Da Dong, and I'd want to rotate through their selection of "molecular" and more creative dishes.  Hell, next time I'm certainly NOT ordering the skinny-ass duck!

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