Sunday, 3 April 2011

Peking Duck @ Zen China

Does it matter where you eat a particular dish? If Beijingers are to be believed, it does. To them, the only city on earth to eat Peking duck (北京烤鸭 Beijing kaoya) is the Chinese capital. For want of a less pretentious word, it's all about the terroir. After all, the top Beijing restaurants use only locally bred birds that are roasted in a special oven fired by fruitwood from local orchards. Before roasting, the duck is pumped with air, coated with maltose syrup, and left to hang to dry. This process takes a day and some restaurants even go so far as to prepare their ducks in climate-controlled 'hanging' rooms. Needless to say, this obsessive attention to detail is seldom found outside of Beijing.

Over the years, I've had the good fortune to eat some mighty fine Peking duck at restaurants such as Ya Wang (鸭王) and Dadong (大董) in Beijing. The memories from these meals remain seared in the memory, unlike the rare occasions that I've sampled this dish in otherwise exemplary foodie cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore.

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that until a couple of weeks ago, I'd never risked eating this dish in London. But I'm glad I did because the Peking duck (£42/whole duck) at Zen China is as good as can be expected outside of China. Juicy and succulent on the inside with flavoursome lacquered skin on the outside. My only criticism is that the skin could've been crispier, but I admit that I'm being slightly churlish on this point.

The duck was served in two courses, with an abundant helping of skin and meat for the first course alongside plenty of hand-made pancakes and the usual accoutrements of hoi-sin sauce, spring onion and cucumber. For the second course, the remaining duck (allegedly!) was stir-fried with diced vegetables and pickles, and served in a lettuce wrap. This was OK but I would've preferred just to have the rest of the duck carved up.

As there were only four of us, we were quite stuffed after the duck, so we just went for some dumplings to finish off. All of these were tasty, in particular the unusual combination of pumpkin & sea bass (top right in the photo).

Service was good, although the atmosphere was a bit muted, as the restaurant wasn't very busy. Together with a bottle of wine, tea and 12.5% service, the bill came to a very reasonable £98 between four.

Given its location inside the old County Hall, there are great views of Big Ben and other tourist sights. And that probably explains why most of the diners seemed to be from out of town. But for all that, Zen China is no tourist trap, and I'd be happy to return to check out more of their authentic Beijing/Northern Chinese food.

Zen China on Urbanspoon

Zen China, County Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1 7PB
(Tel: 020-7261-1196) Nearest stations: Waterloo, Westminster


  1. I'd never even heard of Zen China! Great to know that the duck is good though.

  2. I have never had Peking duck, sounds and looks delicious! Something to do for our next blogger's lunch :)

  3. Nice recommendation. Been meaning to check out Min Jiang to see if their special oven makes a difference but Zen is right by my office so would seem rude not to try it first.

  4. I think after my recent Duck fest adventures in Beijing - I'll have to say, Peking Duck outside Beijing is only losing out on the carving technique (the 3 ways nouveau style one). Roasting wise, marination and duck selection, etc, we can still get some pretty decent ones outside of Beijing : )

  5. Su-Lin - funny thing is because it's in such a touristy area, Zen China is easily missed.

    Ute - it is good and you must let me know when you're next in town.

    Thea - I haven't got round to going to Min Jiang either. BTW - it might be prudent to pre-order a duck if you do plan to visit Zen China.

    HK Epicurus - fair point, Peking duck is probably better in HK (and other Chinese cities) than in London (I've only ever eaten it once in HK, and I may have been unlucky that it was mediocre). That said, I've always found something special about the duck in Beijing.

  6. I think that just eating the right thing in the right place adds a certain something to proceedings. Fish and chips on the harbour is always going to taste twice as good. Do you think the same holds true for the duck?

    Glad you've found a good 'un in London, and in the old County Hall too. I would always have stayed away due to tourist trap fears. Glad you can disabuse me of that.

  7. Aww....wish I was there but this is now on my list.

  8. I went there just after it opened, and tried the home-style tofu — I seem to remember I was a bit unhappy with the rice; a bit too falling-apart to eat easily with chopsticks.

    I didn't write it up because it was so new, and the waiter told me they were still tweaking the menu. Sounds like it might be worth returning, though! Did you notice anything else interesting on the menu that you haven't seen elsewhere?

  9. Gworm - I'm an old romantic too, and I absolutely believe that certain food tastes better depending on where you eat it.

    On your second point, I found it quite ironic that Zen China, where I enjoyed my meal, pulls in tourists, whilst Viet Grill, where I didn't, is a favoured haunt of London foodies. Tourists 1 Locals 0.

    Kay - I'd be interested in what you think.

    Kake - I can't remember off the top of my head but they do serve zhajiangmian (Beijing-style noodles). Their bilingual menu is on their website if you want to check it out.

  10. I never tried this place. I did however go to a couple of Quanjude restaurants and Dadong and preferred Quanjude. Dadong was super pricey and definitely a "place to be seen" I thought.

  11. MM - welcome! I'll be honest, I didn't see the price tag when I went to Dadong, but I did enjoy it as an experience in terms of the duck and the rest. I've not been to Quanjude but my Beijing colleagues were very reticent to take me there, and other than one visit to Dadong, they preferred Ya Wang. Have you been there?

  12. Argh, Blogspot ate my comment! And it was huge! Grumble. Anyway, I checked out the menu, and yes, there are a few things on there I'd like to try. Let me know if you plan to go back :)