It's OK if you shout for joy -- Wei Hong's roasted duck is that good

Apr 13, 2005 at 4:00 am
The roasted duck at Wei Hong Seafood Restaurant was trying to tell me something. No meat flaunts itself like this duck did, flattering the tongue and cozying up to each individual taste bud like a boozy Parisian chanteuse looking to charm secrets out of the Gestapo, without a motive.

I knew after one bite, this roasted duck meant business. This wasn't some run-of-the-grill chicken breast, a sterile slab of soulless poultry manufactured by captains of industry, literally born to please. This wasn't even the darker flesh of a Thanksgiving turkey leg, which at least has a personality, albeit very fresh-scrubbed and PG-rated in comparison. Those fowl exist purely to be devoured, to be put upon flavorwise precisely as the humans say and to be done with. But this roasted duck, its taste so full-grown, so well-rounded and so clever -- let's just say this roasted duck could have taught me a thing or two about the ways of the world.

Of course, I had to work for it. Unlike chicken, duck on the bone is no easy get. The meat clings stubbornly, and extracting it means rolling up your sleeves and getting a little dirty, like you do with a lobster. And as with that kingly crustacean, the reward's not paid out by the pound. You don't get a ton of food for all that elbow grease; you get pleasure. Ineffable pleasure.

But I was just getting warmed up. Atop the arrangement of quartered-and-quartered-again duck sections was a tangled spray of cilantro. At first I was so rapt with duck-lust that I dismissed it as a garnish and just worked around it. Finally I took up a sprig along with a piece of duck. And that mysterious, multidimensional aroma of coriander nestled in with the bird to bring on a whole new gastronomic fever dream.

This all transpired on my fourth visit to Wei Hong in the span of two weeks. Despite the restaurant's infinite options -- I lost count of individual menu items (including 49 seafood dishes categorized under "Chef Special") somewhere around 160 -- I'd kept the first three meals demure. On two occasions we ordered off the very typical lunch menu: beef with broccoli, kung pao chicken, fish in black bean garlic sauce, all accompanied by egg rolls, scoops of rice and small bowls of hot-and-sour soup. Aside from the fish, which was made up entirely of white ingredients (not a drop of black bean sauce to be found), all of it was good, done right but hardly exceptional. The egg rolls were light and lively the first time, borrowing the best traits of their close cousin the spring roll, but a bit greasier on the next visit. The soup was hearty, well-stocked, true to its name. The vegetables in both entrées were noticeably fresh, though the kitchen did use green peppers in the kung pao rather than the pricier red, which are sweeter and just plain better bells.

Then late on a Sunday morning, dim sum -- served in traditional Chinese restaurant fashion, from little saucers and bamboo steam baskets trundled through the dining room on rolling trays -- was a grand old time, and the perfect meal for Wei Hong's opulent setting. The restaurant is the latest endeavor of the Chen family, who also run a Wei Hong restaurant and bakery on South Grand. Over the winter they moved their University City operation four blocks down Olive Boulevard to the old Fine Arts cinema at North and South. Fittingly, Wei Hong's interior feels like something out of a movie -- an Oriental-flaired set piece from a flashy '40s musical I haven't seen but know I'd love. The room compensates for its theater-style slope with four carpeted tiers of tables. The stage, and its red-velvet curtain, remain at the bottom end of the space, awaiting private parties and banquets, or perhaps a swashbuckling hero to swing down, swoop up the damsel in distress and swoosh her to safety.

Dim sum is Cantonese for "heart's delight," and Wei Hong's delicacies lived up to their title: an endless, giddy run of pork dumplings studded with shrimp, shrimp har gow, fried taro cake, sticky rice, pork rice noodles, barbecue pork buns, vivid stalks of Chinese broccoli, soybean soup (like warm coconut milk). The sweet stuff -- individual pastries that never see the light of day in ordinary takeout joints and that can also be purchased for pennies from Wei Hong's adjacent bakery -- started showing up about halfway through the meal. What could be cuter than an egg tart, a little custard cupped in a flaky pie crust cradled in a teensy pie tin? And if Proust had grown up 7,000 miles east of France, he would have rhapsodized about sesame red-bean balls (or lotus root balls, or taro root balls) instead of that damn madeleine.

About ten minutes into my roasted-duck dinner, I realized what the succulent creature was trying to tell me: Screw it, order the Peking duck too.

Peking duck makes roasted duck -- even the roasted duck at Wei Hong, which the chef prepares by filling its body cavity with boiling water, then hanging the duck on a rack and pushing it into a vertical gas oven -- look prosaic. Peking duck is all about the skin. Before being roasted, the bird is coated with a honey or maltose mixture. Then air is pumped between the fatty skin and the flesh in order to separate the two during cooking. Thus the top layer turns out golden and intensely crisp, with a thin, heavenly ribbon of fat on its underside.

Consuming Peking duck is a two-course ritual of a meal. First you receive a platter of the duck's skin laid out patchwork-style, with legs and head in the appropriate places, like an edible anatomy poster. You make a little finger sandwich by placing a piece of the skin on a cloudlike steamed rice bun (many restaurants substitute thin pancakes, but buns are traditional), smearing it with a bit of hoisin sauce and topping it with slivers of scallion and slices of cucumber. Or you just grab pieces of skin with your fingers and pop them into your mouth like candy. Then you're presented with the duck meat, minced and tossed in a bowl with crisped rice noodles and served with big iceberg lettuce leaves for making lettuce wraps -- real ones, with no cloying sweet sauce or descriptive adjective like "crazy" to accompany them.

I've got to warn you, though: Eating Wei Hong's Peking duck might make you a little crazy. It's rapturous. There is simply nothing like it.