Saturday, April 07, 2007

Peking Duck (in da) House

Such a lovely day, such a lovely duck.

My sister was in town from Vermont for Easter, and at the last minute we decided to give her a Manhattan dream day, or at least a fun trip to the city with the promise of Peking duck as the climax. We kicked things off in the East Village with a quick visit to an organic vegan restaurant, Angelica Kitchen. Not to eat, silly, but to say hello to one of my sister's VT-transplant friends. And then I took Sis on a subjective culinary tour of the neighborhood.

We strolled by Una Pizza Napoletana and considered ordering an "appetizer." (We wimped out.) We walked past Hearth, Rai Rai Ken, and the old site of Iso, where Margy and I had our true sushi awakening years ago. This sister doesn't do sushi, but her pastry-chef ears perked up when I told her we were right near the famous bakery Veniero's. (I also told her how disappointing I've found its pastries, though it's been awhile.)

To this point our "food walk" had found us taking nary a bite of anything, so we dropped in for a few cookies or a sfogliatella. Wouldn't you know there was a line that snaked clear through the bakery and all the way down the hall of the dining room. Obviously Easter is a good time for Veniero's. We moved on, our minds filled with sustaining thoughts of duck.

Next we tooled around the West Village for an hour or two, and then it was time to meet Margy in Chinatown. We found our third parking spot of the day -- at this point I really felt like I was pushing my luck -- not too far from Mott Street and the Peking Duck House.

I should mention that this whole thing was a bit of a quest for my sister. When we were planning the trip and I asked her where she'd like to eat, she didn't hesitate. She'd heard about the incredible pie at Una Pizza. I'd told her all about the steamed pork buns at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. She wanted the duck.

I'm happy to say she got her fill. I figured one bird would go pretty far among three people, but I wasn't certain. Anyway, we went all out with our appetizer round and ordered both pork dumplings and pork buns, so we weren't about to go hungry. We also balanced things out -- yeah, right -- with some sautéed Chinese cabbage, which was delicious and still held a bit of crunch.

But again, this was all about the duck. Even the absurdly loud and out-of-place techno music pulsating from the speakers couldn't dampen our enthusiasm for the magical meat on the platter in front of us. (I could swear they were playing lite-FM on our last visit, and I'll take robotic techno every time over the dreaded "American Pie.")

Peking Duck House is hardly the snazziest or the most interesting restaurant in New York City, but it bears remembering that the place does indeed get into some pretty important details, even beyond the duck itself. Take the pancakes. They're thin but soft, a little stretchy -- a far cry from the dry, dusty, easily torn wraps that accompany moo shu dishes at inferior joints. And the hoisin sauce is more delicate in flavor and less sweet than most, which makes a huge difference.

It's what the duck demands, par for the course for a bird this good. We sat right near the carving station and watched the "duck guy" deftly run his knife into each dark-roasted specimen until its flesh was set onto a plate in a swirl of perfect slices. Finally, it was our turn, and we asked for the bones, which as presented are really just the leg bones. But that would suffice.

We rolled our own pancakes, with hoisin, scallions, and cucumbers, and at last my sister's quest was coming to fruition. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and she made numerous yummy sounds. Margy ate quietly, smiling and sipping her Tsingtao. Me, I just repeated "Wow" a few dozen times. We hadn't made a trip to the racetrack, yet we'd hit the richest trifecta of all: delicious meat, crispy skin, and luscious fat. My sister had picked a winner.

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