Peking duck is usually served in two or three courses. It used to be relegated to purely chinese restaurants. But more recently, we've seen it as an option at the highest end of fine-dining. However, the more typical service environment involves loud, boisterous dining rooms, where the duck is the center of attention.
You know they take their duck service seriously at Sun Wah Barbeque in Uptown, just by walking past the front window. In any given week, the restaurant sells more than a thousand roasted ducks. Each one is cleaned first, then filled with dry spices and bean paste and sewed up to seal in those flavors. Hung onto hooks, air is pumped between the skin and meat to help dry out the skin.
"If the skin is not dry, if the skin is not free of moisture when we go to roast it, it doesn't crisp properly and you end up with this very flabby, mushy skin that is tough to chew," said Kelly Cheng, one of the owners of Sun Wah BBQ. "Because our ducks are leaner it is a little bit more difficult than other people to get the duck skin crispier. So we use a vinegar and molasses solution to glaze it and it's all-natural."
After they're poached and dipped, they have to dry out for at least 12 hours. The final stage is roasting in tall, vertical ovens, before being presented tableside. The first course is always sliced duck, with the crispy skin, served along with puffy gua bao, sweet hoisin sauce and some pickled daikon and carrot. A second course uses up the thigh and leg meat to make fried rice, while the third course uses the bones to make a hearty soup. Cheng says unlike other places that use flimsy pancakes, the Taiwanese gua bao buns are key for that first course.
"If we didn't use the gua bao instead your lap would be having dinner and not your mouth," Cheng said.
At L2O - inside the Belden-Stratford Hotel in Lincoln Park, chef Laurent Gras is known for his seafood preparations, but he always has one alternative protein on the menu.
"Today it's Peking duck, previously chickens. We may switch to a squab in a few weeks, in a few months; but I think it's important for guest to find what they are looking at when they come into a dining; especially fine dining for an experience," said Gras.
The process takes nearly a week. The ducks are cleaned when they arrive, then an air pump is inserted, separating the skin from the meat. The birds are poached briefly, then brushed with a solution containing maltrose and red wine vinegar, then are hung in a cold smoker for up to five days, which dries them out. Finally, the ducks are deep-fried to crisp the skin, and just like Sun Wah, they are served tableside, where they're carved and meticulously plated along with a pasilla chile, coffee and lemon sauce, plus a plump little duck potsticker. Gras' second course is even more impressive: the finely-chopped duck is combined with foie gras and served in a savoy cabbage dome topped by a sliver of crispy duck skin.
"Yeah I think it's important to fulfill appetite. So I think when you have a duck, when you finish the dish you want to be completely fulfilled. So the first course is a roasted meat and then the second course would be more like a consomme, like a pot au feu, which is light, but has a lot of richness in flavor," said Gras.
Reservations are probably a good idea at both Sun Wah and L2O, as there are only a certain number of ducks to go around.
Sun Wah BBQ
2300 N. Lincoln Park West