If you’re a person who cares about food, a person who treats eating like recreation — every bit as worthy of your energy and intellect as photography or painting or video games — you probably know what it means when I say “I collect dining experiences.”
Even if you’re not into food, you get the idea. It’s like any collectible, but with meals. There’s the haute cuisine meal that employs a blend of art and science to leave you absolutely baffled, the local meal that feels like it perfectly embodies a certain region, and the upscale rustic meal that takes timeworn comfort food and (annoying buzzword alert) “elevates” it. Then there are the specific, iconic dishes that you want be sure you’ve enjoyed at the hands of a master. Neapolitan pizza. Hungarian goulash. Mole enchiladas. Bunny Chow. These lists can (and should) go on for miles.
If food is fun for you, your lists will be forever expanding. I recently went on a search for the perfect poutine in Canada, the perfect meat pie in Australia, and the perfect ceviche tostada in Mexico’s Northern Baja. I’m still searching for the dream poutine and meat pie (I think I’ve gotten close) but I feel pretty sure I’ve already scored the best ceviche tostada I’m likely to ever taste. It comes from Sabina Bandera at La Guerrerense in Ensenada, Mexico.
Sometimes it’s just that easy. Sometimes someone can tell you where to find a dream execution of a dish, like I did just now, and you won’t need to go on a three-month trek through the Moroccan countryside or the Iranian highlands to find what you’re looking for. That’s how it went for me, recently, when a friend whose taste I deeply respect, started a conversation by saying: “If you want to be an expert on food, it’s time you taste some really good Peking duck.”
“I’m down for that,” I replied. “Do you have somewhere in mind?”
“If you’re in New York City, Hakkasan is a good place to start,” he said.
Now I’m not saying I’d never eaten the dish. I had. In China even. But I’d never found it transcendent. I’d never flipped out over it the way I did when I finally tasted that perfect ceviche at La Guerrerense. And I could sense that I was missing something. Because Peking Duck believers are a highly passionate bunch. The technique used in making the dish demands that (unless the place knows they’ll be selling plenty of ducks) you have to call your order in at least two days ahead.
Which is all to say that I took my friend’s advice to heart. I wanted to be in the Peking Duck club.
Two weeks after this conversation, I was in NYC for work and had a reservation set at Hakkasan. Before I tell you about it, let me be straight up and tell you that Pete Wells, food critic for the New York Times, doesn’t particularly like the place. He gave it a one-star review and, considering that we’re talking about a Michelin-Starred restaurant, that’s a pretty serious downgrade.
Oddly, Wells focused much of his review on price. He talks about rioting over the fifty dollar entrees and protesting out front until the restaurant makes their food more affordable. This seems a little over-the-top to me. Hakkasan is located on 43rd — right in the theater district. I imagine that a restaurant of its size owes roughly two dump trucks full of cash for rent each month, so it goes without saying that things are pricey.
As I read Wells’s suggested protest chant — “We like to eat/ fried rice and such/ but Hakkasan charges/ much too much” — I worried that perhaps the underlying reason the prices struck him as extravagant was a wrong-headed expectation that Chinese food cost less than other cuisines. (For comparison’s sake, Jeffrey Zakarian’s Lamb’s Club is less than a block away, their prices are absolutely comparable, and the NYT review never mentioned cost once.)
Regardless, I didn’t go to a gaudy restaurant in midtown Manhattan — where they keep a whole array of brandies under lock and key in a glass case — expecting it to be cheap. I just wanted it to be good.
Hakkasan may be based in New York City, but their Peking recipe is traditional (created by a Chinese Executive Head Chef, Chee Hwee). Their duck is air dried overnight after being coated in a mixture of spices and honey (barley syrup is used is often used in China). The drying is why you sometimes see ducks hanging in the windows of Chinese restaurants, especially around Chinese or American holidays. Hakkasan, being a flashy restaurant where hanging ducks wouldn’t go over well, has a dedicated “drying room.”
Once dry, the duck is roasted and served with sweet bean sauce, spring onions, cucumbers, paper-thin Mandarin pancakes, and (in this case) Imperial Ossetra caviar. One important thing to note here, for the neophyte, is that the duck meat isn’t really the star of this dish. It’s actually all about the crispy duck skin, the layer of almost-liquid fat under that skin, and a sliver of meat just barely managing to hang on to that fat. Each bite is a decadent morsel — absolutely bursting with flavor, deeply rich, and surprisingly balanced (considering how much fat there is to offset). The pancake is a pretty neutral vehicle, the bean sauce is slightly sweet and heightens the umami effect, and the spring onions and cucumber add a very necessary fresh/crisp element.
The caviar isn’t traditional. Bejing (which was Romanized to “Peking”) is inland and the dish predates refrigeration. More than that, caviar is often used as culinary shorthand for “this shit’s expensive, yo!,” so I started out a little wary. I’m happy to report that in this case, it works. The briny, oceanic taste adds a fascinating layer — it’s complex and it doesn’t bog the dish down at all. It’s one rare example of a new, fancy ingredient actually benefitting a classic.
As I wolfed down tiny duck burrito after tiny duck burrito (the caviar eventually ran out, but by that point I was blissfully happy), I realized that my friend had been right — both about me needing to try some really good Peking Duck in general and Hakkasan in specific. The duck I ate was amazing. World class. Expensive, as Wells noted, but absolutely worth the price when you break it down to value-per-dollar. The cocktail menu was nuanced and the dim sum was absolutely top notch (Wells and I agree on this point).
Of course, Hakkasan probably isn’t the best Peking duck on earth. It’s just the best I’ve ever had, so far. This is one of the most historically significant foods on earth, so the competition is stiff. Maybe one day I’ll spend a few months wandering Bejing looking for a rendition of the dish I like better. While there, I might just make it to Quanjude — where they’ve been serving Peking duck continuously since 1864. Or maybe I’ll be invited into someone’s home and they’ll blow my mind. This is really the joy of food-as-play — it’s a lifelong journey, peppered with plenty of surprises.
For now, I feel the need to pass along the simple advice my friend gave me: “It’s time you taste some really good Peking Duck.” Try it in your hometown or on your next trip (especially if there’s a vibrant Chinatown). And of course, “If you’re in New York City, Hakkasan is a good place to start.”