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Da Dong is a big deal up in the Big Smoke, and it opened in Shanghai last month to great fanfare among foodies. At the outset, I gave this Beijing roast duck restaurant the cold shoulder. Friends were warning me of three-hour waits—no reservations available. There are very few restaurants in the world that are worth a three-hour wait, and there is no way Da Dong is one of them, I figured. So I waited for some of the hype to die down.
By the time I visited, the wait was down to about 45 minutes, which is right at the threshold of my patience. But to Da Dong's credit, they pacify you with complimentary (cheap) wine and soft drinks, and there is even a sit-down bar where you can drink an imported beer. Meanwhile, the heady aroma of fruit wood smoke wafts around you.
But that seductive smoke seems oddly out of place in this joint. The dining room looks like a scene of out a A Clockwork Orange. It's stark white and sterile. Blue accent lighting casts a sickly pallor on your face.
The centerpiece is an island in a shallow pond where the cooks ply there their trade. Well, most of them, at least. There was this guy to the left, who was busy... I don't know... playing Candy Crush or sexting his girlfriend or something while everybody else was slinging ducks. Call me a scold, but whenever I see this kind of thing in a restaurant, I lose confidence. Show some pride, man! Focus!
The menu is dense and exhaustive—an inch-thick stack of Sears catalog paper stock bound together in a hard volume. I know that oversized menus are about as common to Chinese restaurants as chopsticks. But whenever I thumb through one, I wonder to myself if I'm going to order some forlorn and neglected dish that the cooks have all but forgotten how to prepare. Not only that, with a menu this size, you're guaranteed at least one "mei you" from your waiter. On my visit, several of my orders were met with this response. And I was ordering from Da Dong's supplementary seasonal specialties, stuff that should be in abundance this time of year.
What was available was undeniably pretty. Chef / owner Dong Zhengxiang has reached celebrity status in China for his modern interpretations on Chinese cuisine, and his cooks have got their presentation chops down pat. But all too often with Da Dong's food, at least in its Shanghai incarnation, it seems style trumps substance.
This starter of shredded bamboo rolled in ribbons of fresh cucumber, for instance, is an elegant interplay of color and form. I love how it looks on the plate, but it leaves no resounding impressions in terms of flavor.
This meat cocktail-looking thing had me scratching my head, too. It looks like an Old Fashioned, only sub the bourbon with chili oil and the ice cubes with chunks of venison and diced tomato (if memory serves me). It's a glass full of tastes and textures vying for your attention—spicy, oily, chewy. No integration, no balance. And that sprig of rosemary jutting out at the top is simply superfluous as a garnish. A good garnish works like a label on a package. It speaks of the contents inside. If there was any hint of rosemary in this dish, it was drowned face down in a shallow pool of chili oil.
Da Dong's take on Beijing classics left me cold, too. The sheer mechanics of their zhajiang mian are problematic. Mixing the right amount of sauce and noodles is essential, and it's just easier to do in a bowl rather than a flat plate. But even if that seems like a quibble, the sauce that comes with it is really more a bowl of semi-dry, seasoned minced pork. There is almost no fermented bean paste to bind it all together, nothing to stick to the noodles. And once again, it's just bland. That umami and sweetness combo that defines this dish is nearly absent.
And while I'm all for cross-cultural cuisines, I will for the life of me never understand why anyone would smother the subtle spiciness of a matsutake mushroom with cheese.
To be fair, though, I'll readily admit that I'm working with a limited sample size here. And for the brevity's sake, I didn't even bother to mention the deep-fried mutton filet and the duck hearts with scallions (both were exceedingly average if you must know). These were all misses and all the more disappointing after a 45-minute wait.
But in a menu this huge, you're bound to be a hit or two, one of which is, in fact, the roast duck. It goes without saying, but this really should be the only reason you dine at Da Dong.
For nearly 20 years, Dong Zhenxiang has been perfecting his method for roasting ducks. He's able to extract the fat and grease from the birds by extending their time in the oven from 40 minutes to an hour, and somehow they still come out impossibly succulent. His restaurants even use a patented apparatus to dry the skin to its crispy, melt-in-your mouth consistency.
In addition to the typical condiments of hoisin sauce, shredded scallions, cucumbers and sugar you get a few extras like pickled ginger and minced garlic. They all come out on this tray that looks like a Mondrian painting.
It's a nice gesture, but all you really need are the basics. Dip some of that duck skin in the sugar and swoon in delight as it melts on your tongue. Wrap the rest in the pancake with a schmear of hoisin, a few ribbons of scallion and you're golden. Golden enough to warrant a 45-minute wait? I'm still not so sure, but it's certainly worth a try once the new-restaurant smell wears off and the crowds dissipate. Just make sure you avoid all the distractions and go straight for the duck.