This Lunar New Year, get a taste of Vancouver's best Peking duck
The luxury dish is a popular celebratory food that makes for a perfect centrepiece to build a festive meal around
The Chinese year of the dog begins on Friday, with the two-week festivities kicking off Thursday night. It was supposed to be my year, seeing as I was born under the same sign. Sadly, 2018 will be an inauspicious one for us canine types, a fate I share with Donald Trump.
In need of as much good fortune as I could stomach, I began feasting early, gobbling up Peking duck. Although not one of the traditional Lunar New Year foods consumed for luck (noodles, whole fish, dumplings, etc.), it is a luxury dish that involves an elaborate three-day preparation of glazing, drying, pumping air under the skin to help render the fat, blanching in boiling water, then glazing and drying again before roasting. In other words, it's not something most people would ever try at home. This is what makes it a popular celebratory food and a perfect centrepiece to build a festive meal around.
Ducks also symbolize happiness, something all us dogs – or anyone living under Mr. Trump – could probably use right now.
And since Peking duck is becoming increasingly common in Vancouver, especially those prepared and served in the authentic Beijing style (which entails less seasoning, a meatless skin course and no lettuce cups), it seemed an opportune time to explore the differences with a proper Peking duck-off.
Red Star Seafood Restaurant
8298 Granville St., Vancouver
2200-8181 Cambie Rd., Richmond
Price: $66.98 for two courses. Order at least one day in advance.
Big, brightly lit and boisterous, Red Star is the only mid-range, banquet-style Cantonese restaurant in Vancouver and Richmond that makes its own in-house BBQ – from whole suckling pig to a standout Cantonese-style Peking duck.
The main difference with the Cantonese preparation is in the maltose-soy glaze. It is much sweeter and aggressively seasoned with galangal, ginger and warmly aromatic five-spice powder.
Beijing or Cantonese, the crispy skin is always served first. At Red Star, it is carved in small squares with a basket of thin Mandarin crepes for wrapping and a side dish of hoisin sauce, flowered scallions and cucumber bâtonnets. What was most remarkable about the Red Star duck was its beautiful, cherry-wood burnish. It had been evenly roasted without any burnt spots.
For a Cantonese duck, the skin is cut with a good chunk of juicy, glistening red meat still attached. Here, a thin layer of fat creates a plush cushion and a glorious mouthful of textural contrasts.
The remainder of the duck meat is chopped and wok-fried with water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, finely diced celery and little bits of green onion, with lettuce cups for wrapping. The components are clean and crunchy without any residual liquid on the plate, indicating that the wok was sufficiently hot. The iceberg lettuce is cold, crisp and beautifully trimmed to order, because there aren't any wilted pieces or browning around the edges.
Although not necessarily the best in town, you wouldn't go wrong ordering this flavourful duck, which offers good value for money.
This modern, upscale Hong Kong import is renowned for its Peking ducks, which are grown in the Fraser Valley on a special diet and roasted over apple wood. I ate a wonderful duck here last year when reviewing the restaurant, but parts of this one were almost inedible.
The whole duck was wheeled up to the table in a fancy cart, reclining on its back and looking like an overweight snowbird that had suffered third-degree burns after falling asleep on a Florida beach.
The mahogany skin was mottled in dark patches and puffed up like a blister ready to burst.
For a Beijing-style duck, the skin is carved clean without any meat. This overdone duck, with its gaping cavity of air between meat and skin, made for easy slicing into thin strips, which were served with cane sugar for dipping.
Normally, the sugar pops against a thin layer of fat under the skin and helps heighten the naturally gamey flavour. But there was nothing that could help these darkly brittle, charcoal-scented wafers. "If you wanted to be harsh, you could say it tasted like burnt hair," my friend offered. It was more like burnt toenails.
Mandarin crepes come with the second course. And Mott 32's wrappers really are sensational – light as air, tissue thin and individually separated with parchment paper.
Here, thick slices of duck meat are carved with a wedge of crispy skin attached. Though the meat was still plump, the acrid skin was flaky in some parts and soggy in others, perhaps having absorbed too much juice from the chewy fat that hadn't fully rendered.
At this price, I wouldn't take a chance on going back for Peking Duck again.
1661 Granville St. (ground floor), Vancouver
Price: $88 for three courses. Order one day in advance.
In 2015, I chose this new upscale Chinese restaurant as one of the top 10 openings of the year. The Peking duck is still extraordinary. The taste buds begin trembling the minute you walk through the front door and come face to face with a custom 1,800-kilogram stone oven built into the wall. Inside the glass door, Rubenesque ducks hang on hooks, crackling under the heat and gushing rivulets of fat into a pan below.
A server in a tall white toque trundles the duck to the table. The skin is the shade of golden oak lacquered to glassy crispness. Carved clean off the meat, the exterior side of the skin crackles and crunches, while the underside is still moist and sheen. When you dip the soft side into granular sugar, the umami richness bursts into a higher octave.
For the second course, the dark meat is thickly sliced with a layer of skin. Unlike at Mott 32, it works to great effect, adding crunch and fatty flavour.
Although the crepes are thin, they are slightly spoiled by the taste of raw flour, which is used for dusting to keep them separate. In addition to hoisin, cucumbers and scallions, we are given a second condiment dish with Asian pear and strawberry jam. Spread the jam sparingly and you will remember why cranberry sauce makes such a good complement to turkey.
For no extra charge, there is duck soup that is likely made from the bones of many carcasses. The thick yellow broth, dense with noodles and mung beans, glimmers from a slow-cooked reduction. It makes for a very comforting finale to the best Peking duck in Vancouver.