Don’t let anyone tell you finding DaDong is easy. In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, this much anticipated appearance of a upscale Chinese restaurant chain with 10 Beijing locations specializes in Peking duck, with some outposts boasting Michelin stars. The New York location, seating more than 400 on three floors and an outdoor terrace, flung open its doors in early December to show us how the dish should be done. We’ve long had restaurants specializing in Peking duck, and every tea shop in Chinatown offers its own elaborately prepared version, minus the pancakes. By comparison, DaDong makes a flashy show in its presentation of space and food, though it comes at a price.
But first, find the place. With an address at 3 Bryant Park, one would think to look for it across the street from the park or even in the park, which has been carved over the last few years into a numerous restaurants and food concessions. DaDong is nowhere to be found among these locations.
Instead, it’s behind the building called 3 Bryant Park, on the far side of a courtyard that runs between 41st and 42nd Streets. You must enter the courtyard via one of those streets and then pick your way among snow covered benches and berms. Through a tall wooden door, find the reservationist, who seems to hover on a rock.
She checks off your name, and then up a bank of elevators, you’ll find the second-floor dining room, where the reservation is checked a second time. The decor takes its cue from science fiction films, with basalt black walls and more dangling Plexiglas. There’s a rectangular bar with a glowing bar top, as well as several seating areas along banks of windows.
The centerpiece of the menu, pictured above, is a Peking duck served whole or by half ($98/$58). The bird is smallish, sourced from a farm in Indiana and expected to be available in quantities of 450 per week. It’s ferried across the room on a plain cookie sheet, placed on a carving table, and then expertly cut into breast slices and other miscellaneous fragments, artistically piled on a plate.
The bird is accompanied by a steamer of the usual thin pancakes, small pitas dotted with sesame seeds, a lake of standard hoisin, a mound of sugar, a dab of garlic sauce not unlike aioli, and perfect julienne piles of cucumber, scallion, and red radish. The garlic sauce brings a burn to the lips; it has probably never been seen in New York with Peking duck before.
What about the duck? The flesh is lighter in color and texture and less flavorful than the usual Chinatown duck. It is also plumper, despite its small size. The skin is not potato chip crisp, instead almost squishy. This is not a bad thing, but the entire bird is likely to frustrate your expectations if you’re used to the darker ducks glistening with oil found at, say, Peking Duck House or Great NY Noodletown. Call it Peking duck lite.
Indeed, chef Dong Zhenxiang strives for lightness in much of the food a friend and I tasted on a first visit. About a third of the menu’s 45 dishes are conventional Chinese fare such as sautéed pea shoots, sweet and sour pork ribs, sour cucumbers, and kung pao shrimp. But the dishes we tried invariably had amped up presentations. Take the pork ribs ($18). These came interspersed with salted plums in two mounds on a giant piece of slate. As the dish was delivered, the waiter sprinkled powder sugar over everything, mimicking a snow fall.
Other dishes on the menu seem to have been inspired by the science chef craze of a decade ago. A scallop cappuccino ($16) features two slices of scallop in a broth with copious amounts of foam in a coffee mug. Champagne-glazed vine tomatoes ($16) includes four bright red specimens mired in a sweet glaze, visually tied together with a gelatinous ribbon that is fun to eat but doesn’t taste like much. Unaccountably, frozen raspberries are scattered around the plate.
Mashed eggplant came on four crackers and tasted, as my friend put it, “like a canape you might find at a Soho loft party.” Beijing zhajiang noodles is a classic dish found here in northern Chinese and Korean restaurants, featuring wheat noodles in a black fermented bean paste. Here, the dish was excellent, but with too much sauce and too few noodles. Indeed, the menu displays a dearth of carbs.
Dessert was a plate of four miniature pastries called “traditional Beijing snacks,” and a scoop of tangerine peel ice cream, both delicious and priced at $9. A meal for two, with a single glass of Riesling for each and including tax and tip, ran $250. It didn’t quite succeed in filling us up.
Should you go to DaDong? Well, seeing examples of restaurants from other world capitals is always enthralling, and there is plenty of good stuff on DaDong’s menu, price be damned. And since Wiley Dufresne and Paul Liebrandt don’t have their own restaurants anymore, this might be your best chance to taste molecular gastronomy in New York City today.