Even mid-pandemic, there are still a dozen restaurants in Chinatown ambitious enough to have Peking duck on the menu, and just as many selling a reasonable facsimile of the world’s most famous roast duck over rice or alone. The dish is likely six or seven centuries old, and is among the foremost culinary accomplishments of the Chinese capital.
The recipe itself is demanding, and can take as long as three days. It involves an overnight drying, usually with a giant commercial fan mounted on a pole, and a glazing and vertical roasting, resulting in a brown, crisp skin and thin layer of fat, both barely adhering to the dark flesh of the aquatic bird. Some say the meat is beside the point; the skin is the recipe’s foremost accomplishment. The duck usually comes sliced, accompanied by a julienne of scallions and cucumbers, hoisin or other bean-based sauce, and a steamer of pancakes, or sometimes folded bao instead.
Since it opened 42 years ago on Mott Street, Peking Duck House has been the city’s foremost exponent of Peking duck, with another branch in Midtown. Shanghai-born founder Wun Yin Wu is still the owner and chef, helped along by his extended family. The original BYOB lure is still firmly in place. Really, what drinks well with Peking duck is up to you, though beer, sake, Champagne, or an aged riesling are all good choices.
When outdoor cafes first appeared along lower Mott at the beginning of August, Peking Duck House was at the forefront, even though it wasn’t included among the restaurants with curbside cafes designed by the Rockwell Group. The rather plain outdoor eating area hugs the curb, sheltered from the rain and fringed with potted sansevieria, its green tongues shooting skyward. It seats two dozen or so. I paid a visit with two friends to see how this old favorite had survived the coronavirus.
One pal came bearing a bottle of pink Spanish cava, which turned out to be a perfect celebratory beverage, bubbles tickling our noses as we ate a meal comprising three courses. But how would the ritual of the dish be translated into sidewalk service, we wondered as we sat down, popped the cork, and began enjoying ourselves in earnest.
Though eventide was upon us, it was still sweltering as we began with sesame noodles ($7.25). With a sauce composed of both peanut butter and a toasted sesame sauce akin to tahini, this summery dish was supposedly invented in New York’s Chinatown by legendary Taiwanese chef Shorty Tang. It took a lot of elbow grease to mix the simple but sticky components, but the noodles were cool, refreshing, and only nominally sweet, the perfect summer starter.
Next came scallion pancakes ($5.95), intended to help us carbo-load further before the duck arrived, like athletes preparing for a sprint. The two small, thick pancakes, well browned, were not the thin and flaky flatbreads we’d expected, but good nonetheless. At the same time, our vegetable component arrived, a magnificent platter of baby bok choy and black mushrooms ($15.50), with a woodsy savor and a broth worth slurping afterwards.
But this was all prelude to the main attraction. As the waiter, wearing his black mask, swept away the dirty dishes, the front door of the restaurant swung open and a chef, wearing a towering white toque and a double-breasted white tunic with black piping, appeared. He strode over to our table bearing a burnished duck on a metal salver, and held it under our noses for our approval.
Approved we did. He carried it back to a table under an orange umbrella on the sidewalk and began carving it ostentatiously, the way it had been done tableside in the pre-pandemic days — except that pedestrians scurrying to other restaurants on the block kept passing between us and our private spectacle, which had become more of a public one. Not a bad thing, really, though I wondered if some interloper would turn, grab a slice, and scamper away.
Soon a platter of perfectly fanned meat and skin was delivered, along with a metal bowl of cucumbers and scallions and a reservoir of hoisin. Finally, a filigreed metal steamer of flaky wheat pancakes arrived and the waiter doffed the lid, sending up a plume of steam that fogged our glasses. The pancakes were outsized — a detail the restaurant is famous for — and so perfectly formed and stacked that we hesitated to remove the first one.
But then, knowing the pancakes would soon cool and become brittle, we began to assemble the packages that form the focus of the meal. In each pancake we placed a few shards of skin and slivers of meat laid end to end, log-piled scallions and cukes on top, then spooned a luxuriant quantity of the sauce down the center, making a lovely picture in green, brown, and red, like a culinary flag.
The first bite was a clash of textures, smooth, rough, and crunchy, with a richness suffusing all. Then the pile of pancakes shrank as if in a time-lapse series of photos, until all the duck disappeared, with just a couple of pancakes left over. Really, isn’t participatory dining the most wonderful thing?
As we licked our lips, reaffixed our masks, picked up our bottles of hand sanitizer, and made our way down the street, we marveled that the excellence of Peking Duck House remained intact under desperate circumstances, and that dining in the open air had even ramped up our enjoyment of a classic dish.
Check out other reviews in the Is It Still Good? series.