The Peking duck pilgrimage to Berkeley begins again with the re-opening of Great China, the beloved, 28-year-old northern Chinese restaurant that closed after a fire in 2012. Finally the restaurant has started serving again in new quarters, a sleek, architect-designed space on the corner of Bancroft and Oxford, a block from the old place. Everything about it has improved: ambience, service and food. Now I and apparently everyone else finds it so irresistible, we are willing to line up outside the restaurant at 4:45 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon in order to get into the first seating at 5 p.m.. The new restaurant accommodates 150, so you can imagine how popular it has become.
I am embarrassed to report that on that initial visit, a mere four of us polished off the famous Peking duck ($34.95) plus a half tea smoked duck ($15.95) and three other dishes. Though I groused all the way over the bridge to Berkeley about having to eat dinner practically at lunchtime, I changed my tune with the arrival of the first duck.
The Peking duck comes on a blue and white platter arranged with glistening tiles of crunchy skin blanketing a hillock of sliced, boned duck meat. Tissue thin pancakes, plum sauce and scallion threads come on the side. First you make duck crackling sandwiches by smearing the plum sauce on a crepe, adding scallions and a piece or two of skin. Divine. But since there’s only a limited amount of skin, everyone starts piling the crepes with both duck meat and skin, and eating them as fast as they can. I know this sounds piggish, but once you have supposedly shared a Peking duck, you’ll understand. Great China has mastered the preparation and service of this world class dish.
Great China’s smoked tea duck is no slouch either and it offers a way to continue eating duck after the Peking duck disappears. The smoked tea duck, cut into thick hunks through the bone, has succulent flesh with fragrant smokiness. Impractically, it comes with two white buns, which no one uses because it’s much easier to pick up the pieces with your fingers to nibble the meat off the bone.
The most popular starter at Great China is a dish provocatively called double skin ($14.95 for a small), a platter of cold, wide, translucent mung bean noodles rimmed with tiny piles of raw vegetables and cooked squid. The waiter empties a bowl of warm pork and tree ears on top and then tosses everything in a dressing of hot dried mustard and soy sauce. Every bite is a little different, full of flavor and textural contrast. I always order double skin along with exquisite fish and vegetable dumplings ($7.95 for 15). Their mousse-like filling remind me of French quenelles, albeit in thin, tender noodle wrappers.
When it comes to preparation of green vegetables, Chinese cooks know best. I vote for Great China’s ong choy, hollow-stemmed water spinach, stir-fried with fermented bean paste, which adds a mild, nutty, haunting richness to this juicy vegetable. Now, in pea season, Great China offers wok-tossed young pea leaves with subtle garlic and just the right amount of salt. Get the version with house-made century egg ($14.95), which makes them taste buttery.
Slender, soft, Chinese eggplants in hot garlic sauce ($9.95) have big flavor and the heft of meat. On the opposite end of the spectrum, luxurious picked crab meat ($24.95) is gently sauteed with ginger and scallions, and served with easily-filled soft white buns that soak up the juices to make the restaurant’s second best sandwich. The natural sweetness of surf clams ($7.95 a pound), cut into strips, just warmed through with scallions and piled back in their big shells, makes for another spectacular seafood option.
Wine goes with this food, especially pinot noir with the duck. Great China has a small, sophisticated wine list curated by James Yu, co-owner of Great China along with his brother and father. He learned how as sommelier at Berkeley’s Rivoli restaurant for two years.
Service can be wine-knowledgeable or not, but all the waiters know the menu and how to order for the number at your table. They all need some convincing that you really want two Peking ducks instead of one, or both tea smoked duck and Peking duck. You do.
2190 Bancroft, Berkeley 510 843-7996 www.greatchinaberkeley.com
Open 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Monday. Closed Tuesday