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Charleston-area diner might have to take flight if heart's set on having first Peking duck

Peking Duck at M Grille

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Q: Where can I find authentic Peking duck in Charleston area? I asked Red Orchid if they could do special order and was told, “No, too time consuming to be profitable.”

Now that I'm retired and have time to order 24 hours ahead, I can't find anywhere that offers it. I have never had it before, and it is on my list of things to try even if means a reasonable amount of travel.

A: Congrats on your retirement, with an extra exclamation point for settling on what sounds like an excellent retirement project. I’d love to hear what else is on your list of foods to try in your newly free time.

In most cases, when a Charleston eater craves a dish which isn’t locally available, that’s the prompt for a home cooking adventure. Area groceries specializing in Asian, African, Caribbean and Eastern European ingredients can outfit you to tackle just about any recipe, and anything missing from their shelves can usually be mail ordered. But as the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it flatly, “Because of the complicated preparation, Peking duck is primarily restaurant fare.”

If you wanted to make the traditional dish at home, you’d first have to procure a fat white-feathered duck from Long Island. Then you’d have to cage and force-feed the bird for weeks before slaughtering it, making sure not to chop off its head in the process; dressing it; plumping it with air and glazing it with syrup. A few days of dry roasting later, you’d be ready to pluck the duck from its hook and call your friends to the table. (At least, that was the method favored in fifteenth century China, minus the part about Long Island.)

So your inclination to outsource your Peking duck need is on target. But the last Chinese restaurant here to offer Peking duck on a by-request basis has dropped it from its repertoire. Dragon Palace on Daniel Island now serves plain roast duck instead.

A Dragon Palace employee says if you’re interested in the $40 item, it’s best to call about one week in advance.

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“We chop it, instead of carve it and wrap it in pancakes,” he says, delineating one of the major differences between the Imperial style and every other duck preparation: Peking duck is typically served with flour pancakes, scallions and hoisin sauce.

That’s what a team from the now-defunct Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen discovered when it went on a pre-opening scouting expedition to New York City.

“We wanted exposure to proper Peking duck service, and I knew it wasn’t something that was easy to find regionally,” owner Karalee Fallert in 2014 told The Local Palate, which documented the trip. The magazine told readers to expect homemade pancakes at the Westside restaurant, in contrast to the frozen versions they encountered up north.

According to surviving menus from Lee Lee’s, Peking duck didn’t make the final cut (or carve, in this case.) As your Red Orchid source said, its production is time-consuming and its profit margin is small.

Still, one local restaurant has made Peking duck a centerpiece of special occasions. If you’d written me just a few weeks earlier, I could have sent you to Kwei Fei for New Year’s Eve. The restaurant greeted 2020 with roasted duck, collards, stir-fried hoppin’ John and a shot of baiju. As for its return prospects, owner Tina Schuttenberg says, “We will be doing some fun things with duck in April, but I don't think Peking will be on the menu again until the next holiday season.”

Until then, you might want to consider exactly how you define “a reasonable amount of travel.” Should a flight land within the bounds of reason, you’re in luck. At press time, it cost $127 to fly roundtrip to John F. Kennedy International Airport on Mar. 11, arriving at 11:12 a.m. via JetBlue and returning at 5:02 p.m.

That would leave you plenty of time for the 15-minute trip to Peking House in Flushing and a memorable $35.75 duck lunch. What better way to enjoy retirement?

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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