I ate my first Peking duck in Beijing, China (which was formerly called Peking) in the early 1960s, at a specialty duck restaurant there. It was delicious but fatty, greasy, badly cooked, hugely overpriced for Westerners... and I fell in love with this dish and its unique presentation. Since then, I have probably eaten it a half-hundred times... from Hong Kong (the best) to London, Miami and Las Vegas to New York to here. Until recently, I was convinced that the best version (outside of Hong Kong) was served at Wolfgang Puck's luxurious Chinese restaurant, WP 24, downtown atop the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Now I have a new candidate for one of the best in L.A., at a much more convenient location. Philippe West Hollywood (8284 Melrose Ave, at Sweetzer in West Hollywood (323) 951-1100), once the location of the lovely Le Chardonnay and then Dolce, it was taken over some two-plus years ago by wealthy restaurateur Stratis Morfogen and his controversial chef, newly-renamed Philippe Chow. I have written about the feud between Michael Chow's Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills and this establishment, but the conflict seems to have cooled down since the latter has seemingly deemphasized the Chow part of their name.
Stratis would not reveal to me the source of the 400 or so Peking ducks which each of his six locations serve each week, just saying it was 'an ancient Chinese secret.' (Wolfgang gets all of his ducks at one farm in Pennsylvania.) But he did confirm the authentic preparation of this Chinese specialty, a 36-hour process which entails much hand-labor. The seven-pound ducklings have no hormones, no force feeding, are humanely raised. The first secret is that the skin must be absolutely dry, so they hang the ducks in their walk-in refrigerator and then blast them with high-performing fans blowing directly on the birds. (In some places, air from a bicycle pump is injected under the skin.) The duck is then brushed with a liquid honey baste consisting of some 20 Chinese spices and roasted in a special duck oven which allows the fat to drip away from the bird. They constantly slash the fowl with the hot honey-spice mixture until it is finished, coming up with a golden duck which has an intense fire-roasted crisp skin and a juicy meat.
At Philippe, the duck is carved table-side by the Chinese chef, served with thin pancakes, scallions, cucumber matches and hoisin sauce. (As opposed to WP 24, which serves theirs with a small puffy bao buns and a homemade hoisin sauce.) A platter of crisp skin and slices of juicy meat is brought to the table, and you brush the warm crepe with hoisin, add a few slices of skin and a piece or two of duck meat, top it with scallions, fold and eat with relish. At Wolf's place, they serve a second course of the duck meat sliced from the leg which has been wok-fried with a spicy red chili sauce. At Philippe, you gorge yourself on the stuffed crepes, and then have dessert of homemade ice cream and hot tea. A professional note, which is something most diners don't realize. Ask your waiter to pack the duck carcass to go! Yes, it's something I learned years ago in New York's Chinatown... the remains of the duck should go home with the diner, not into the kitchen to be used in making stock. Your lunch the next day of duck meat and bones will be knawingly transfixing. The seven-pound Peking duck, which will easily serve four, is $64. They offer a four-pound Peking Chicken, which I have not tasted and probably never will.
One vital factor in the success of Philippe West Hollywood is the charming, efficient manager, a woman named Yolanda Halley who initially attracted me with her compelling duck-oriented email. She has helped make this restaurant a rather hip, inside celebrity haunt... Drew Barrymore on Sunday night, Courtney Cox and David Arquette yesterday, and Cedric the Entertainer with several American Top Models at the next table to me with Destiny's Child this week. (Kobe and Lamar hang out here also.) Named '2010 Best in Chinese' by Zagat, the menu is far-ranging and somewhat pricey, just a tad less than Mr. Chow. (Where you almost never see a menu, as the waiter seems to always choose for you.)
Philippe's version of Gambei, fried seaweed ($12), is actually made from collard greens, and is a must appetizer. I would skip the Satays, skewers of chicken or shrimp ($15) served in a cream sauce, and go directly to the Crabmeat Soup Dumplings (6 for $16); just be careful in eating them as they spurt out the broth as you bite in. Mr. Cheng's Noodles ($16) are hand-pulled noodles served with either a pork or veal sauce, go for latter. I have an aversion to most sweet-and-sour dishes, so I did not relish those served here. But there are several delicious prawn dishes, and I most enjoyed the Green Prawns ($29 half, $52 full), the colorful shellfish served with cashew nuts, water chestnuts, peppers and black mushrooms. I am told that the most popular seafood dish is the Drunken Sea Bass ($27 half, $48 full), served in a white wine sauce. There is a tasting menu, $85 per person with a six-person minimum.)
I still think that the Wolfgang Puck/Lee Hefter/Chef Sara Johannes' WP 24 is the best Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles and probably in America. But I will dine regularly at Philippe West Hollywood for their Peking Duck, It is luscious, succulent, superb... and convenient to reach. And my duck lunch of leftovers the next day is a delicious bonus.
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