Dressed in a double-breasted white jacket and a tall, pleated toque, Chef Xiang Ming Li wheels his cart into the dining room, cleaves a slow-smoked duck into meaty slices and fans them across a platter.
The pomp and ceremony seems a tad formal for this humble 40-seat hole-in-the-wall with its pink rayon tablecloths and K-Pop music videos blaring above the bar. Even by Richmond's strip-mall restaurant standards, Man Ri Sung is modest.
Then again, Korean-Peking duck is a delicious fusion dish that you won't likely find anywhere else in Greater Vancouver – or North America for that matter. Mr. Li should be proud.
Born in China of Korean descent, the chef says (through an English-speaking waitress who translates) that he learned the art of making Peking duck at some of the best restaurants in Beijing. After moving to Canada in 2001, he worked as a cook at the original Man Ri Sung in Coquitlam, which he bought in 2007. Last year, he followed the Asian diaspora to Richmond, where his restaurant has been packed ever since.
For a suburban dive, it's incredibly busy. So busy, in fact, that you can't always be guaranteed a duck, even if ordered more than two hours in advance (which the kitchen requests). When we arrive at 7:30 p.m. on a Sunday night, our reserved bird has already been sold. The server apologizes profusely, but there are no more in the roaster. We're out of duck luck – for now.
Sitting down to dinner the next day, our party of four (plus two hungry children) is excited. At most Chinese restaurants, Peking duck typically comes two ways: as crispy slivers of red-glazed skin served with steamed crepes for DIY wraps; then stir-fried in a vegetable mince, also self-wrapped, in iceberg-lettuce leaves.
Here, the two courses are rolled into one. After the chef finishes carving, a steaming meat platter is presented to the table with small flour tortillas that we smear with sticky hoisin sauce and stuff with julienned green onions and shoestring cucumbers.
The attached skin isn't crisp. It's actually yellow and flaccid, with a soft layer of fat underneath. This is because Mr. Li roasts his ducks in an enclosed charcoal smoker rather than hanging them to dry and crackle over an open grill.
Yes, we miss the crunchy texture. But these thick, succulent slices make a much more satisfying meal. "They can't hide any flaws the way most restaurants can when it's all chopped up," notes one of the Cantonese connoisseurs at the table. "Sometimes you have to wonder how much meat from the duck you're actually getting."
Man Ri Sung's duck feast ($58.95 for four people) comes with more than just meat. As at any Korean restaurant, dinner begins with banchan – small, complimentary dishes of kimchi, bean sprouts, spicy radish and honeyed potatoes. The kids love the latter.
While we're still devouring the duck wraps, our waitress drops off a plate of steamed dumplings. (The feast is served with a choice of dumplings, japchae or rice-blood sausage). Generously plumped with minced pork and chives, the dumplings are okay, although probably not made in-house.
To make up for the previous night's missing bird, the kitchen gives us a free order of japchae – transparent sweet-potato noodles fried with mushrooms, carrots, spinach and seaweed – that has a nice stickiness and smoky finish.
For an additional $30, we upgrade to a feast for six. (In retrospect, we needn't have bothered; the kids were only interested in the roast duck and potatoes.) The larger dinner includes sweet galbi short ribs served on a sizzling cast-iron griddle, seemingly marinated with equal parts sugar, salt and fruit juice. Water, please! And a deep-dish seafood pancake, mixed with far more flour than shrimp. Seoul meets Chicago.
Duck is obviously Man Ri Sung's signature dish for good reason. Whichever way you order it (for four or six), the dinner concludes with noodle soup or porridge-like congee. I highly recommend the former.
As Mr. Li later explains, this bubbling cauldron is another example of his singular fusion creations. The buttery broth, larded with cabbage, bean sprouts and minty perilla seeds, is richly reduced from a stock built on leftover duck meat (not the carcasses). It's Korean, he says. But the flat, hand-cut wheat noodles – firmly toothsome and textured with deep ridges – are Chinese.
He can call it whatever he wants. To us, it's simply ducky.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds
** Very good, with some standout qualities
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution