You won't find the Beijing duck feast on the menu at Sun Wah BBQ (5039 N. Broadway). However, the Hong Kong–style restaurant doesn't make an effort to hide its signature three-course meal. The website includes a full description of the meal directly beside the menu. Without a trace of irony, it boldly refers to the Beijing duck feast as "the off-menu course we're known for.”
My hope to go off-road in the Chicago culinary scene was shattered yet again when I called days ahead for a reservation only to have the hostess ask, "And would you like the Beijing duck feast?" As far as "secret" menu items go, this is one horribly kept secret.
It makes sense, though, how word would get out: the concept of the meal is fascinating.
In one sitting, you and your fellow diners eat virtually an entire roasted duck. For the first course, a server wheeled over a small side table and expertly broke down an entire bird into thin slices of breast meat, wings, and drumsticks. Not a single knife stroke was wasted. The only thing more impressive than the carver’s speed was his silence. When he finished, he silently wheeled the leftover pieces back to the kitchen, where they would be used to prepare our next two dishes.
Those first bites were sublime. The tender richness of the meat was made even better by the crispy skin, which crinkled against my tongue and teeth like brittle parchment paper. The pieces with the most skin disappeared almost immediately as the three of us picked at the platter. After a few bites, we finally started to use the accompanying condiments. Pillow-soft steamed bao provided the perfect vehicle for transporting pieces of duck from plate to mouth, and the addition of julienned carrot, green onion, and pickled daikon managed to complement the irresistible skin’s textural crunch. The bright freshness of the garnishes also better balanced the meat's savory decadence.
Before we could even finish the first course, our server returned with a platter of fried rice mixed with the scraps of meat from the original platter. He also brought us a duck soup brimming with wilted cilantro and roasted bones.
Both courses were undeniably satisfying, though neither captured the same sense of unbridled hedonism as the first. Once again, nobody provided an in-depth explanation of the dishes or the ingredients. It seemed like the—admittedly amazing—tableside carving was the extent of the meal’s pageantry. Of course, for a meal that's so well explained on the website and that must be ordered days in advance, it makes sense that diners would already know what to expect.
Still, there was much I was surprised by. In this era of rigidly designed tasting menus, Sun Wah BBQ's Beijing duck feast felt like a prix fixe meal driven by cultural tradition as opposed to artistic showmanship. The purpose isn't to see a chef’s innovative methods for preparing and presenting duck. Instead, expect a classical, waste-not-want-not approach that respects an ingredient by using it as fully as possible. Even the progression of courses flies in the face of fine-dining conventions (soup after the main meat course? Madness!).
This might not be haute cuisine, but it is undeniably delicious.
Yet the Beijing duck feast is a bit more conceptual than I give it credit for. Do we actually eat an entire duck in one sitting? No, and it’s almost assuredly not the same duck (there are the issues of the innards and of the soup stock). However, that small suspension of disbelief is essential to the narrative of the meal—"eat one whole duck over the course of three dishes"—so I was content to play along with the illusion.
Even if it was just symbolic, the three of us did eat most of a duck in one sitting. We watched as a bird progressed from a fully formed, tableside-carved entree into a slow-roasted soup.
I would order it again in a heartbeat. But I think a party of four would be better suited to tackle all three courses without slipping into a duck-induced food coma afterward. For some reason, I don’t think Sun Wah BBQ would mind if one more person learned about its “secret” menu item.
Photos: © Kevin Moore, Groupon