Yes, you can eat Peking Duck in Shanghai. Even Beijing Duck, which is the same thing.
No, you don’t really lose that much by shifting your location 1,000 kilometers south of the capital. The ducks aren’t raised in hutongs, anyway, and the elaborate process of preparing the birds, from an initial shock in the freezer to make their skin puff to the multi-step air-drying process, is all well-documented and, for the most part, reproducible in Shanghai.
Over the last couple weeks, I binged on duck at the five places below, which I chose either for their reputation, their quality, their vulnerability as a target of criticism, or their unique concept. There are more places out there that do decent duck, including Lao Beijing
, which is near the Bund and has highway-facing signage, and Ya Wang
just behind the strip of malls on West Nanjing Road.
I didn’t go to every single Peking duck restaurant in the city. But I went to five. Here’s what I thought.
Da Dong is a silly restaurant. It started as a duck place in Beijing, grew into a duck chain in Beijing, and then it went off the rails. These days it is a wannabe fine-dining “art” restaurant with modernist pretenses – see the wall of pictures of Da Dong, the tall chef, with Ferran Adria and Joel Robuchon, or the dishes that look like they were pulled off western Michelin-starred restaurant menus – at exorbitant prices.
The nicest word for everything except the duck and the sea cucumber – the only two things that this restaurant does well, in addition to pouring sodas in a dramatic fashion and at a height, a la
“pulled” tea – the most
charitable thing I can say for Da Dong – is that it’s silly.
The way to avoid this? Open the inch-thick book of a menu to the first page, where the ducks are, and stay there. Do not venture farther. That page presents two choices: Da Dong’s classic “su bu ni
” (crisp but not greasy) large duck, and Da Dong’s su bu ni
small “suckling” duck. Both are 298 rmb
. (A word to the menu writers: ducks aren’t mammals; they don’t suckle.)
How is the duck? It’s fine, okay, serviceable, but the little duck, perhaps expectedly, doesn’t have much flavor to the meat. (This is the same charge that The New York Times
levelled against Da Dong NYC when they gave it a walluping zero-star review earlier this year
.) Da Dong does have a little glitz going for it, the location next to Reel
in Jing’an is convenient, and 298rmb is right in line with average Peking Duck places in Shanghai.
There – I said something nice about it.
If Xindalu was a standlone restaurant, and not tucked away in the Hyatt on the Bund
, it would get a lot more favorable press, instead of just being a “hotel restaurant”. That’s too bad, because in addition to an excellent menu of Jiangsu and Zhejiang cuisine, they also do an exceptional Peking Duck, roasted over fruit wood trucked in from Beijing.
The duck (318rmb
) here is good because the skin is crispy, with no excess, unrendered fat underneath the surface, and the meat is quite flavorful. For an extra 100rmb, they give you the option of having the leftover duck bones turned into soup or flash-fried with salt-and-pepper, a nice twist. Service is five-star.
If I had to rank these five places against each other, this would be the top of the list. The only catch is price. My party of two needed a couple extra dishes in order to fill up and balance out the duck, and without ordering anything too expensive and without drinking booze, we racked up an 1,100 rmb bill with alarming ease.
I went in to Quan Ju De expecting to hate it and came out happy and full of duck. My fear was a survival mechanism I’ve developed after eating at hundreds of restaurants in Shanghai over the years and gleaning the following truth from all that experience: state-owned restaurants suck. They are dinosaurs whose food and service are basically arguments for capitalism, and they are best avoided. I should confess I don’t actually know if Quan Ju De is state-owned, but given its illustrious history dating back to 1800-something, and its huge national network, I have decided to assume it is.
I was happy to be proven wrong at the branch on Middle Huaihai Road, which pulses in time with the neon signs mounted on its streetfront edifice. The Duck was the cheapest of the bunch (238rmb
), but it hit the same notes that Xindalu’s duck did, with both expertly rendered skin and flavorful meat, and its pancake wrappers were thinner than anywhere else, which I like. The next time I crave a Peking Duck but don’t want to splash out, this is where I’ll be.
Imperial Treasure on the Bund is one of my favorite restaurants in this city. It serves consistently excellent Cantonese food in a great environment and you should go there if you haven’t been. (It also happens to have two Michelin stars, if you’re a star-whore.)
Last year, they branched out, opening a casual dim sum place and this Peking Duck-focused restaurant in Hongqiao Tiandi, one of the malls in the new retail hub that the government willed into existence, next to the Hongqiao Railway Station
. It is not convenient if you live in downtown. In fact, it cost me 80rmb in a taxi, one-way, but I was happy to pay it to see what a Cantonese-accented Peking Duck would be like.
The answer is good but not great.
Did I detect a brush of soy sauce on the skin, or was that just my mind playing tricks on my tastebuds? I’m not sure. But I do know for sure that the chefs here carve the duck in a, let’s say “unique”, style, removing the breast meat with the skin on, and then slicing it cross-wise. The result is something like a Cantonese roast goose, with a layer of cream-colored fat under the crisp skin.
Other restaurants do not cut their Duck this way. I wouldn’t suggest they start. There was nothing wrong with it but, coming as it did, as the fourth restaurant in this Peking Duck quest, it felt a little out of place – just a little too Cantonese, to really hit the satisfaction buttons that Xindalu and Quan Ju De did. It’s also not cheap. The Duck is 328rmb
and by the time we added a couple small dishes, as you will probably do too, we had broken the 1,000rmb mark, and we were far from home, poor downtown brats, out of our comfort zone in the wilds of Hongqiao.
Master Jing is perhaps better in theory than in your hand, but it’s on this list because it’s taken Peking Duck out of the restaurant setting, and reimagined it as a food fast wrap, a la
the burrito, to be served to busy commuters in an underground thoroughfare attached to the People’s Square
, you get a wrap with both duck meat and crispy skin and – cover your eyes, purists – a nest of pressed tofu strips (bai ye
), lettuce and a fried egg, all covered in thick, black motor oil sauce. Two and you’re full. Again, perhaps better as a testament to creativity and cross-over concepts in Chinese food than as an actual thing to eat, but if you have a craving for Peking Duck and don’t want to do the whole restaurant process, or you don’t have any friends, or your friends are all vegan, or you just want to sneak in a Peking Duck treat in your afternoon without telling anyone, Master Jing might be what you’re looking for.