For five years I indulged annually in a Peking duck feast as a birthday celebration with my mother, who adored everything ducky. But after she died, I wasn’t able to face the dish until a few weeks ago, when my Queens College lunch pals were looking for a spot to celebrate. I’d been to Peking Duck Forest several years before. It was nearby, the food was fine, the prices were right, and most of all, Peking duck was always available, lunch or dinner—always. Depending on the size of the party, you could even order a whole duck or a half. What I hadn’t realized was just how top-notch the food was, and how accommodating the staff.
Located on the dining strip of 70th Road, Peking Duck Forest and its pleasantly functional ambience are left in the shade by the imposing sidewalk patios and bright signs of the competition. When we arrived, several tables of retirees and business people were lunching companionably, and soon some of my group began eyeballing the $5.50 lunch specials that were keeping their fellow diners busy. Taking over in my usual role as bossy majordomo, I reminded them that we’d come for the duck. I ordered appetizers—barbecued spareribs to quell the grousing Southerners ($6.95 for six), two pork steamed buns ($2.75) and an order of fried dumplings ($4.50) for the rest of us. One whole duck, please ($28), and also a steamed sea bass with ginger and scallion ($15.95). We passed on the usual Tsingtao orgy for an uncharacteristic bottle of merlot in honor of a member’s departure, and soon the appetizers began to arrive. The ribs were meatier and more toothsome than is customary in such establishments and soon had Frank and Charley looking for more. Biding my time, I nibbled pensively on a pillow of pork bun stuffed with savory shreds of swine. Dipped in the chili sauce we’d requested, piping hot and lightly browned pot stickers completed the piggy trilogy with a flourish.
Soon the chef appeared from the kitchen with the lacquered fowl, a chopping block, and a plate of pancakes, and proceeded to carve, cleaver flashing through thin slices of crisp skin and thicker pieces of duck meat. The headwaiter then deftly wrapped the meat in pancakes with a smear of homemade hoisin, a piece of scallion, and a sliver of cucumber, and made the presentation. We scarfed and chewed, using fingers when chopsticks became too much of a challenge, savoring the textures of crackling skin, moist flesh, bland pancake, plummy sauce, and the hot-cool duo of allium and cuke. One of the charms of this imperial delicacy, said to have originated when ducks around the new Chinese capital began gorging themselves on the grain that fell overboard from canal barges, is its exceptional plumpness. Yet the more austere fish was almost as satisfying—tender, sweet, subtly soyed, and piled high with shards of white and slivers of green.
On a subsequent visit, I was delighted to be greeted by the proprietor, who signaled his recognition by asking if he should chill down a bottle of red for us again. We soon discovered that imperial stuffed lettuce leaves ($12.95)—filled with a mix of pine nuts, chicken, and pork (with shrimp left out to suit an allergy), and flavored with the plum-based harmonies of the same homemade hoisin—went wonderfully with the duck, which benefited from their cooling counterpoint. Of course, even if we hadn’t hit upon that inspiration, the bird would still have flown off the plate. It was just nice to learn again that the same fate awaited so much of the fare at Peking Duck Forest.