When it comes to food, I generally find myself craving a lot of the same thing at any one time. Earlier this year we went through a month-long Vietnamese phase, where I was cooking and eating as much Vietnamese as I possibly could. This week I am hooked on vegetarian food and who knows what next week will bring. So I can only come to the conclusion that for this reason I found myself eating Chinese roast duck twice within the same week.
If you ask a Londoner the best place to eat roast duck, chances are he’ll send you on your way to Four Seasons in Bayswater. The reputation of Four Seasons is so great that apparently in a past life, people would travel internationally just for a chance to taste the duck. Today, whilst the restaurant doesn’t have as much international fame, the restaurant is still equally popular as a duck destination.
It is universally understood that no level of customer service is to be expected at this restaurant. Bookings are scarcely honoured, and your ability to get a table is really in the hands of the bossy lady with the clipboard. If your name isn’t on her list, you won’t have a chance at a table.
The menu is fairly typical of a Cantonese menu but in all honesty everyone here is only really interested in the roast meats. The usual offer of BBQ pork, roast pork belly, and duck is available in either single-person portions or sharing plates. With a fairly big group on the table we opted to order the peking crispy roast duck (£36) and a whole roast duck (£19).
The peking duck arrived first. Unlike crispy aromatic duck (the more popular version in the UK), Peking duck is the method of duck made famous in Beijing. The duck is air-dried and prepared in a special oven creating a crisper, textually pleasing skin. The skin is sliced off the duck and wrapped in thin pancakes alongside spring onions and hoisin sauce. The flesh is usually cooked up into a second dish eaten with the main part of the meal.
At Four Seasons, the duck was completely cut to be eaten with the pancakes. Unfortunately the pancakes were neither moist nor thin so we did need to apply a generous spoon of hoisin sauce on each pancake. The skin on the duck, whilst slightly crispy, appeared to be made crispy through deep-frying over anything else.
The roast duck arrived next, with bone (you can request it to be deboned but to be honest you lose a lot of meat that way). Flesh was moist and juicy, but the best thing about it all was the sweet soy juices that are poured on top.
A week following our Four Seasons visit, we found ourselves again in Bayswater seeking duck yet again. On the same stretch of restaurants in Bayswater only a few doors down lies Gold Mine. The story goes that apparently the old chef packed up his bags and set up shop in Gold Mine, taking a lot of his customers with him.
We decided to again order the Peking duck as well as the roast duck to better do a side by side comparison of the restaurants. From a price perspective both restaurants were similar.
Gold Mine’s Peking crispy skin roast duck arrived first and like the Four Seasons version, arrived completely sliced up. Accompanying the duck were thin, but dry pancakes as well as the usual hoisin and spring onions. The portion was far larger and but tasted pretty similar to Four Seasons. The roast duck on the other hand was a very generous (the ducks in the window look much larger than Four Seasons) plate of aromatic duck, with a slightly crisp skin that had soaked in much of the sweet soy juices that were poured on top. The sauce was far less sweet than Four Seasons, and the flesh fairly fat-free.
Overall I have personal preference for Gold Mine’s duck. For me it comes down to the combination of a larger portion and little fat under the skin. Whilst both restaurants are famed for their duck over anything else, I have tried dishes from both restaurant and again I feel Gold Mine has the upper hand in terms of quality and quantity.
With both restaurants consistently busy, it’s clear that there is a London divide as to who makes the best roast duck. Four Seasons does seem to have the slightly longer line, but if you can’t manage the thought of leaving your fate in the hands of the clipboard holding lady stroll up the road to Gold Mine. It’s where I will be anyway.