- Location: 7095 Woodbine Ave., Markham, Ont.
- Price: Peking duck, $88 or $108; appetizers, $12-$17; most meat and vegetable dishes $17-$28; fresh seafood by weight.
- Atmosphere: Families, business diners and Markham’s flashy nouveau riche converge. Room has contemporary décor and elevator muzak in the background.
- Drinks: Limited wine list ($38-$138); Chinese baijiu and cognac available by the bottle ($58-$599); large non-alcoholic list of fresh juice, crushed-ice drinks and smoothies ($6-$9 by glass)
With Chinese restaurants, appearance and location often deceive. The most sought-after places to eat are tucked away in inconspicuous locations. When Quanjude, one of China’s most renowned Peking duck restaurant chains, opened an outlet in Canada, it followed the established pattern: Its Toronto outpost sits on a highway in Markham, attached to a three-star Marriott hotel.
This suburban branch, which opened last fall, is Quanjude’s first restaurant in North America. It’s difficult to explain the significance of a place so renowned and yet so mass-market commercial. Not the fanciest, nor the most expensive of China’s many Peking duck purveyors, Quanjude is a medium-sized chain with branches across the country (15 in Beijing alone) and a menu that puts it in the mid- to upper price zone. A chain like this opening in Toronto is roughly equivalent to Hy’s steakhouse setting up shop in Shanghai.
But QJD (as it’s often called) looms large in China’s modern history. Though it first started in 1864 in Beijing, Quanjude is most famous as the site chosen by Communist-era government officials to host dinners with foreign dignitaries. Premier Zhou Enlai brought visiting heads of state to Quanjude on 27 different occasions through the 1970s and 1980s. Fidel Castro, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and George Bush, among many others, all took part in Mr. Zhou’s “duck diplomacy.”
A brilliant choice for a host, Peking duck is easy to understand for those unaccustomed to Chinese cuisine. There are no hidden ingredients, and the DIY nature of assembling your own duck-crepe taco is fun – you take a thin wrapper, add some duck, scallion and cucumber and a spoon of hoisin sauce. Peking duck is unique in how it’s both luxuriously upscale and disarmingly casual at once.
Quanjude’s arrival in Toronto points to the size of the affluent immigrant Chinese population, especially those living in the northern burbs of Markham and Richmond Hill. In the past year, dozens of Chinese restaurant brands have set up shop in Toronto, including Green Tea restaurant, Da Gu Rice Noodle and a litany of hot pot chains. Over all, Toronto’s Chinese food scene isn’t as accomplished as Vancouver’s, but each mainland Chinese transplant helps us close the gap.
Quanjude is thoroughly contemporary in décor, brightly lit, and filled with several private rooms for secluded entertaining. The clientele is 90% Chinese, almost all of them Mandarin-speaking. A broad cross-section of the neighbourhood – and the Chinese diaspora – are represented here. On my first visit with my family, tables next to us included four generations of a family, business colleagues from a Chinese firm, and four guys clad in so much Gucci and Louis Vuitton that their respective outfits easily exceeded five figures.
Quanjude serves duck with ceremony. There are two options: One at $88 and another at $108. (Those lucky 8s.) Both arrive with the clang of a gong and a recitation of a welcome poem. But the more expensive one involves a special, careful carve where the meat is artfully arranged on a platter to resemble a flower. As a sucker for elaborate tableside presentation, I loved it.
But once the dish had been served, it became sadly apparent that Quanjude’s Canadian Peking duck may not measure up to its Chinese counterpart. I haven’t eaten at any of Quanjude’s restaurants in China, but I’ve now had their duck here, twice, and the verdict is mixed. On first visit, it was perfectly roasted, with an even dark brown color and crispy skin, but bland in flavour and crying for more seasoning. My second try was perfectly roasted again and tasted better, but it still fell short of the plump, juicy meat one would find in China.
When asked, our maitre d’ blamed the difference on Canadian humane farming techniques: The ducks here aren’t force-fed, so they’re not as succulent as birds you’ll get in Asia, he said. Given that this is a place that trades on the reputation of its Peking duck, that’s disappointing, particularly since prices here are almost twice as expensive as what nearby rivals charge.
My grandma had a different opinion. She could never afford Peking duck when she lived in China and Hong Kong for the first half-century of her life, and she loved Quanjude. The presentation impressed and the meat was both tasty and soft enough for her teeth.
Duck debate aside, everything else on the menu at Quanjude is top notch and worth the visit – many dishes reminded me of my favorite meals in Beijing. A classic such as kung pao chicken was spicy and brilliantly balanced between dried chilli, Sichuan peppercorns and green onions. The “aromatic spicy lamb” dish (their translation, not mine or my grandma’s) is a blast for the palate, loaded with garlic, dried and fresh chili and the perfect amount of cumin for a smoky undertone.
Upon our server’s recommendation for my parents, we ordered a soup of firm tofu threads, ham and pea shoots. This is the kind of Chinese cooking that few can replicate at home because of the complex broth that takes hours to simmer. Made with chicken and pork bones, the soup is opaque, slightly creamy and a bit like a lighter version of a Tonkatsu broth at a ramen shop. It comes in a large urn, and my family happily slurped it up. So delicious.
Aside from the duck, the other big celebratory dish – for those with deep pockets or an occasion to cheer – is the lobster. Following the lead of our neighboring well-dressed bon vivants, we ordered a large six-pound still-crawling lobster, prepared with ginger and scallions. I actually ordered a different preparation of lobster, but my first bite into it made me forget my original request. The lobster meat was sweet and the seasoning just right. I highly recommend the option of having the roe and tomalley served up in a fried rice.
Service here is uneven. Not only did they get the lobster order wrong, but servers will ignore you for long periods. Both times, our maitre d’ was friendly and smiling, but totally absent for stretches. Unlike most restaurants at this price point, servers brought the soup and left it for us to serve ourselves. My cousins argue this is typical of Chinese restaurants, but I was hoping for a higher standard from this brand.
Despite this, Quanjude is still worth a visit and there’s enough depth and strength in the menu for me to warrant a return. And perhaps I was too picky with the duck. Grandma approved, after all.
Our star system
No stars: Not recommended
One star: Good, but won’t blow a lot of minds.
Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities.
Three stars: Excellent, with few caveats, if any.
Four stars: Extraordinary, with near-perfect execution.