As a decades-long foodie, I can tell you that the best Peking Duck is found in Melbourne, and which restaurants in New York were a front for the Colombian drug trade.
A warning: This is an article for foodies. Serious foodies, of which I was one for many decades. I even had a long-running newspaper column called The Hungry Hinch. I reviewed restaurants in New York, London, LA, Paris and heaps in my hometown Sydney. One exotic, expensive, meal a week was: “Thank you, Sir Warwick Fairfax”.
My most brazen was just before I returned to Sydney, after a decade as a Fairfax foreign correspondent based in New York. I had tested and tasted Jackie Kennedy’s favourite exclusive Brazilian restaurant which only had 10 small tables in uptown Manhattan (she wasn’t there), been to Elaine’s, tried not to look startled when famed and feared New York Post columnist Liz Smith took a callow Hinch to Club 21. A hamburger cost $21. And that was 1974.
The most audacious was dinner at what was billed as the newest and most expensive noshhouse in the Big Apple. I can’t believe I’ve forgotten its name but maybe that’s wise because, as it turned out later, it was a money-laundering scheme for Colombian drug runners.
Each table had six waiters. They boasted that your crispy.warm, bread roll would be replaced every fifteen minutes.
They had a Russian silver samovar which cost $12,000 – about the price (then) of a Cadillac.
Still, the nosebag experience, which racked up $400 for two (in 1975) was extraordinary. I went with a date who would later become Mrs Hinch. Her name is Eve Grzybowski. So, in Hungry Hinch columns she was referred to as “the Adamant Eve” (get it?) and later as “the Adamant”.
Eve is vegetarian and once, for some dumb reason before we were married, I took her to the famous game restaurant Rules in London. She was a hostie for TWA, so I flew New York-Sydney via London rather than LA so she could serve me dinner on the flight. Well, we thought it was romantic.
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At Rules, a five-star joint since 1798, the Adamant Eve ordered a salad. I ordered rabbit pie and, karma, I bit into a piece of buckshot and chipped a tooth.
Eve’s droll comment: “Ever hear of anybody shooting a lettuce.” Touche. You can see why I married her.
But, back to why I wanted to write this piece. I want to talk about duck. Peking Duck. (I’ll admit, I am now troubled by the duck killing processes in Australia, having seen some gruesome videos).
It is a fact, that the best Peking Duck I have eaten was not in Peking (Beijing) even though I have been in the kitchen of that famous Beijing institution.
The best Peking Duck I have ever experienced, and it was always perfect, was at Gilbert Lau’s famed Flower Drum restaurant in Melbourne. I always made sure I painted the popin (the pancake) with hoisin sauce myself and always had it with spring onion folded in and threw away the cucumber.
(I was told in China that the reason their Peking Duck was disappointing to Westerners was that the ducks came from the New Territories, just north of Kowloon, and were scrawny.)
The Flower Drum has wonderful, poignant, plus some sweet and sour (groan), memories for me. The night before Jacki Weaver and I got married, our parents met for the first time at the Flower Drum and Gilbert cooked Beggar’s Chicken (look it up; the reason for the name is fascinating) and gave it, and champagne, to us as a wedding present.
The day the sheriff arrested me for my first stint in jail in 1987 (how many people can write that line?), he came to the Flower Drum. The police suggested I could turn myself in at Russell St HQ. I told my lawyer: “They’re locking me up. They can come and get me. I’m going to lunch.”
Unfairly to Mr Lau, I dined out on the line that “the hearty man ate a condemned meal”.
I know a lot about Peking Duck. I have actually cooked it over a number of hours. Even made the popin from scratch. Jeez, where did we ever find the time?
In New York, I would have 6-8 guests for dinner every Saturday night at my apartment – usually visiting Aussies. Despite feeling scratchy, after a big Friday night at singles bars on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I’d go down to Chinatown on Saturday morning and buy all the ingredients. I’d then marinate a rack of pork spare ribs in hoisin sauce, honey, soy and stock for five hours. Then I‘d hang them on wire hooks in the oven and let them baste themselves as the fat dripped down into a water tray below.
I told my lawyer: “They’re locking me up. They can come and get me. I’m going to lunch.”
Super-spicy Schezuan food was just entering the NY sphere. I’d make a cold dish called Hacked Chicken. It was cunningly served chilled but was dodgy because I laced it with Schezuan oil which could dislodge a toupee.
When I was heating the oil with the explosive peppercorns, I would have to open the apartment windows and flee to the balcony to escape the fumes.
My Peking Duck cooking once scared the bejeezus out of a delivery man. In NY and New Jersey, in the civilised 1970s, they home-delivered your booze.
I answered the door, in a pinny and holding a lethal Chinese meat cleaver. Behind me, a duck was hanging by its neck over the sink for crucial drying. Plus, the Australian talked funny to a cigar-chomping guy from New Joisey.
I’m sure he thought he’d stumbled on some voodoo ceremony and scarpered without waiting for a tip.
Flash forward more than 40 years (shucks!) and I am having lunch at one of Sydney’s newest, and grandest, trendoid restaurants in Woolloomooloo. I am at Alibi with Australia’s most dedicated and most adorable vegan, Lynda Stoner.
Dubiously, I’ll confess, I ordered vegan Peking Duck – which obviously contains no duck. It was terrific. I also had my first hot dog in 20 years and it was meatless. How things (and we) change.
PS: Flashback. I was once in serious talks with Kerry Packer to take over my newly-launched, and struggling, magazine FOCUS (the forerunner of WHO in supermarkets) in the late 1970s. His first comment: “If you were working for me son, I wouldn’t let any editor of mine write a fucking food column.”
At least he read it.