More summers ago than I care to share, I was a foreign-exchange student in Beijing. Few international treats were available around the capital then, so for my birthday in June, my classmates and I headed over to Wangfujing Road, near Tiananmen Square, where ducks awaiting roasting lined the storefront of a supposedly legendary restaurant, first opened in 1864. Despite all the hype, the neon-lit dining room, greasy bird and tasteless, rubbery pancakes did not exactly make the 20th-birthday treat of my dreams.
June 2014 saw me once again in Beijing, a stylish metropolis I barely recognise. This time, I took an all-glass elevator down from my Kengo Kuma-designed suite at The Opposite House hotel to join an old friend for a new take on this city’s signature dish at the hotel’s Jing Yaa Tang restaurant – restaurateur Alan Yau’s first mainland China venture.
One meaning of tang is “theatre” – clearly the dramatic lead Yau took as inspiration for the 155-seat dining room lacquered with burnt orange and plum details. He has even placed the main dining area on an elevated platform, which adds to the spectacle of this low-lit, sultry space. As I inhale the scent of date wood – apparently the only type used by serious Beijing duck roasters – my friend gets our order going: deliciously tart peeled cherry tomatoes marinated in plum sauce, before a succulent wild-mushroom salad. As I devour the Sichuan poached chicken with crushed peanuts and sesame, I can’t help thinking that nothing pleasantly numbs my tongue like the peppers from this province.
My greedy instincts prompt an order of the Xinjiang cumin spice-laced grilled lamb skewer and the fiery gongbaochicken, yet I still manage to welcome our Beijing duck with the enthusiasm of someone who has not eaten all week. As one waiter slices the shiny, glazed fowl, another explains that the restaurant sources these hearty creatures from an exclusive, cage-free farm south of Beijing. Handling them is the sole domain of Jing Yaa Tang’s master roaster, who anoints each bird with “duck water” (vinegar, molasses and spices) and a sauce of osmanthus, honey and crushed dates. We’re a long way from Wangfujing.
I’d been told that the hand-turned roasting of these ducks over the date-wood open flame creates a delicate and fruity overlay to the smokiness, but I am unprepared for the perfect yin-yang of duck fat and sweet smoke. I place a second, paper-thin yet delectably chewy pancake on my plate and begin piling on the luscious meat, crispy golden skin, julienned cucumber and some leeks, hardly noticing my dinner companion still nibbling his first duck-stuffed crepe. Oh well, my inner glutton rationalises, it’s my party and I’ll gorge if I want to.