Sunday, January 17, 2010

Duck, Furs and Vitality

I had previously mentioned this quirky tricked out mall of high and low consumer goods. Once we found it after several inquiries with help from passersby and hotel doormen, we located a way in and finally found the elevator off of the main artery of luxury boutiques. The way in and through was characteristic of almost every walk in every city; most so in Hong Kong. Aerial footbridges, subterranean walkways or tunnels, extended escalators, alternate points of egress and timed street crossings were the norm in these dense, tall city plans. Often once you knew where you were going, you had to look ahead to see how to get there, would an escalator a aerial bridge, two turns in the subwalkway to cross under a busy boulevard mindful of observing which designated exit opened up on your destination was as important as having an address. This mildly confusing moment was just a harbinger to routine.
The elevator opened up at the 5th floor onto a long carpeted mallway which led into a brightly lit white tile foyer with 3-4 women loudly greeting every guest from behind a low black lacquered podium. Liu Ye had said reservations weren’t necessary, though just as in NY there was that clutch moment where their shrewd eyes and pursed lips engaged mine implying, “No reservation. Huhmmm, doubtful let me see what I can do…,”though fairly quickly we were led to a side dining room that looked onto the duck chefs away from the large open main dining room with panoramic city views, and power banquettes.
I was enraptured being adjacent to an open kitchen, it was all good. The duck chef area was an octagonal raised gazebo with a decorative roof that hid the HVAC venting system. At three of the corners there were wood fired tiled ovens with a sortof white stucco exterior and thick iron doors. In the center a table with a variety of knives, sharpening stones, cutting boards and implements. Long hook poles and fire place tools stood in a tall canister off to one side. On the fourth corner stood low racks with leathery skinned dried ducks waiting for the fire. Approximately ten men were huddled around the center table apparently discussing tonight’s game plan. One of them seemed to be the head chef of the area. Once the games began they all donned the blue surgical masks that were commonly scene on the streets and buses. I learned that many restaurant workers across the country used these masks particularly when coming quite close to food or during service periods.
We ordered two vitality soups each geared to our respective genders, a stir-fry braise of fresh bamboo shoots and mushrooms, Peking duck, bottled water and Oolong tea. Before the food arrived, I was asked whether I wanted to choose our duck, which was easy money for me. I went up to the duck area and was introduced to one of the chefs. He opened his oven, revealing 30+ roasting ducks hanging in long rows at different states of doneness. I asked through my waitress what criteria they used for selection. Size and color were the key, light brown almost chestnut seemed to be optimum. We looked at a few before I selected ours from the front row. He used his hooked pole to pull it out, quickly closed the door and set it on his cutting board. I watched as he buffed the skin, I guessed to remove any fine hairs or ash. I returned to my seat to wait for our food.
The soups came in small covered porcelain dishes which can also double as teapots. Each soup was a mixture of various meats, herbs and odd bits. I remember that mine had deer heart, chicken, what looked like Goji berries and gingko. Michele’s also had chicken, but I think either offal or pork as well in addition to flower petals and herbs. The broths were clear but full flavorful, mine a bit oily on the lips though no slick of fat sat on its surface. I enjoyed mine, finishing it quickly. Michele, not so much. The bamboo was served cascading out of a piece of bamboo on an oversize rectangular white plate. It was simple, satisfying and redolent of ginger. In between bites the waitress rolled up a gueridon with a few plates, long fine chopsticks, a small bamboo steamer basket, and a covered round dish. Our chef appeared now masked carrying our duck on an aluminum baking tray. He set it on the gueridon’s cutting board and began to slice the skin off of the breasts. After he skinned the bird, he split it in half lengthwise and began slicing into the meat.
The waitress made all of our first tastes to initiate us. The first tastes were to be of just skin and coarse slightly brown raw sugar. This indicated the technical skill of hanging, marinating, drying, and flash poaching, blowing up the birds with straws to separate skin from flesh before roasting. The roasted skin had layers, not as numerous as millefeuille yet delicate levels of unctuousness and crispy; a serenade to fat’s glories. The sprinkled sugar iced it off. Next we were instructed on the other condiments in the small individual trays in front of us. Plum sauce, fine shreds of scallion and ginger, and a mild mustardy puree. The lid was pulled from the covered dish and the steamer, revealing the crepe-thin white pancakes and small, round, thin skinned sesame rolls hollowed and puffed like Indian Poori.
We were to choose either one and create either a little pancake package or open-faced affair inside the rolls of duck and condiments as the chef carved the breast meat for us. Ideally, we should save at least half of a sesame crisp for the roasted brain which would be served last. The pancakes were assembled and deftly rolled with our black lacquered chopsticks, never allowing our hands to dirty themselves if we were adept. This theory of eating was a key point in many meals. Our hands were free to pick up dry things like bao, or steamed buns; but little morsels of chicken, ribs or fish on the bone were all meant for chopstick manipulation, shifting the meat near the mouth and cradling the bone with our tools, until it could be discarded on our small plates. It was not always easy, but it paced your eating and possibly contained a portion of our gluttonous spirits.
After we had inhaled all of our duck, I more quickly than Michele, the chef placed the small brain halves on a tiny plate and disappeared with the carcass. Negotiating the meat’s richness was an agreement she needed to make with her belly. We observed our neighbors, many Chinese middle to upper middleclass often with signature designer clothes and furs to European travelers and businessfolk. Furs were big here; usually short coats mink and sable seemed to be the norm for both men and women. Much like the Russians it seemed normal for the culture and the cold, defining class but also history of hunting and trapping. Our conversation continued, reflecting on our day and the tomorrow plans as the chef suddenly reappeared with two small covered dishes on a silvered platter. Placed in front of each of us and simultaneously removed a milky broth was inside, steamy and heady of duck. To complete our service the carcass was put in a press to extract all of the juices. This oily broth was the finish. I gratefully drank mine, but by now, Michele’s insides were rebelling from the greasiness. She had a bout of queasy and nothing further back at the hotel, settling now for the platter of sliced melons and dragonfruit instead of the soup. We walked home and fell out, full and exhausted.

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