“What happened to the duck?” my mother would say when the platter with meat and skin—mostly skin—and the accompanying pancakes was brought out. “It must have flown by.”
Moments before the entire carcass had been wheeled through the dining room on a trolley with great ceremony. This included striking a gong. Sometimes I like to think that the gong was my father’s idea, but I know it was the restaurant’s way of saying that the dish, even with its apparent bait and switch, was something special to be served with fanfare.
At the suburban Chinese restaurant in Levittown we frequented during my boyhood the delicacy had to be ordered several days in advance. As an adult I’ve had few stellar experiences with Peking duck. Much as I love the $1 “Peking duck” bun window in Flushing, the fowl secret is that, tasty as it is, it’s not really Peking duck. I am happy to report though that the Peking duck dinner I had recently at Decoy, the newish offshoot of Eddie Schoenfeld and Joe Ng’s wildly popular Redfarm, was spectacular.
Just like all those years ago in Levittown a bird at the underground Peking duck lair in the West Village must be ordered in advance via reservation. And while there’s no gong, there is some showmanship and whimsy. The $65 a head menu notes that all dinners begin with “Decoy chips,” without further elaboration. These turn out to wonderful fried fish skins, a harbinger of crispiness to come.
Dinner for two began with a trick just as neat as having a gong struck, a teapot billowing clouds of vapor. I’ve seen the dry ice shtick before. What made it really magical was the bowl of impossibly tender octopus salad, salmon roe, and pickles sitting on top. Joe Ng’s shrimp and pea leaf dumplings were gossamer-skinned wonders screaming with freshness.
Soon it was time for the main event. Decoy’s bird is served with two piping hot shots of duck consommé. These my dinner companion and I knocked back while admiring the burnished duck skin. After the requisite foodie paparazzi frenzy, we dug in.
A thin pancake, a swipe of hoisin, some duck, some skin, scallions, and cucumber, and then bliss. The meat was incredibly rich and moist, I wish the skin was just a tiny bit crispier. This minor disappointment was remedied by gnawing on the drumstick, which was plenty crunchy. In addition to hoisin there is a sesame-based sauce and a decidedly nontraditional cranberry sauce.
This sauce is not the invention of the Brooklyn-bred Schoenfeld, but rather his Chinese partner, Ng. It turns Peking duck into a tastier, far more Chinese version of Thanksgiving. “We do what we think would be good to eat along with it,” Schoenfeld says explaining that he doesn’t feel hidebound by authenticity.
One area where there’s little or no deviation though is the preparation of the duck, which takes two days and involves pumping up the birds with air, boiling them, and hanging them. Decoy also marinates the birds and roasts them in a customized barrel-shaped oven so that the heat comes along the sides of the duck.
Decoy’s ducks are cooked to order, which Schoenfeld says is virtually unheard of in Chinese restaurants in New York City. There the birds are roasted, chilled, and then deep fried to order to crisp up the skin. It makes for crisp skin, but dries the meat out Schoenfeld says.
The West Village is a far cry from Levittown, but I have a feeling my Brooklyn-born folks would have liked Schoenfeld. Next time I visit Decoy, I shall raise a shot of duck consommé to their memory. Who knows, I might even bring my own gong.
Decoy, 529 ½ Hudson St., 212-691-9700