A Nanjing duck is cold and ghostly white, a seemingly goose-fleshed fowl that has been pressed, cooked and brined until the meat firms, becomes scented with mild spice, and is fatless. When you press your finger into it, the flesh springs back almost as quickly as hard rubber, but the texture of the flesh is fine and delicate, yet with little of the immediate pleasure you might associate with Cantonese roast duck, air-dried Beijing duck or even duck confit. Nanjing duck may be the least-likely candidate for duck-dish greatness in the world.
Nanjing duck is very difficult and time-consuming to prepare. It began as a preservative process — so did sushi, bacon and confit. And yet upon seeing a Nanjing-style duck leg, pale and frigid, whomped into neat slices with a cleaver and served absolutely plain, your first impulse might be to dream about the Shanghainese braised duck you might have had for dinner last week, or at least to look ahead to the noodles to come.
Nanjing Kitchen, the local specialist in Nanjing duck, is a bare, tiny restaurant plunked down in a San Gabriel pocket mall, finished with jazzy tile that suggests a rural diner. When you hear the occasional lonely moan of a train whistle from the tracks that run a few blocks south of here, it seems exactly right, as if you are eating your lunch at some railroad-station restaurant a hundred miles out in the countryside instead of in the middle of multicultural San Gabriel.
Presiding over Nanjing Kitchen is John Zhang, a rumpled, erudite man, his English as inflected with British idiom as by the accent of his native Nanjing, who seems very much like a Graham Greene character devoted to protecting the integrity of his spare, precise Nanjing dishes from the wild spices and lush, tropical Southeast Asian cooking in the storefronts surrounding his own.
“The ducks in California are terrible,” he says. “Good for nothing but roasting. I have to get special ducks all the way from Indiana.”
His restaurant is dominated by a huge refrigerator running the entire length of the dining room, displaying neat arrays of boxed appetizers behind its glass doors. On my first visit to the restaurant, I had cold boiled peanuts, a delicate salad made from slivered pressed tofu, and a seaweed salad. Zhang plucked a container of Nanjing-style simmered meatballs from the cold case, tawny orbs about the size of golf balls, much firmer and much plainer than Shanghainese lion’s-head meatballs, which they superficially resembled. There was a bowl of fragile won ton in a strong chicken broth, each dumpling stuffed with minced pork and a green vegetable Zhang imports from China. We had a couple bowls of the jingsu noodles (No. 8 on the minimalist menu), spaghetti-thick strands tossed with bean sauce, steamed bok choy and either spicy braised pork shank or chewy pork ribs. It was a delicious meal — a meal with no duck at all.
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Nanjing duck does not appear on the menu. There are no obvious ducks in the cold case. When we had finished, surprised to find a Nanjing-style restaurant that didn’t seem to serve the most famous Nanjing-style dish, I asked Zhang whether his restaurant served Nanjing duck.
He snorted. “If you were able to read Chinese,” he said, “you would see our sign advertising Nanjing duck in characters 1 foot high. If you look in the refrigerator, you will see Nanjing duck wings, Nanjing duck legs, Nanjing duck gizzards, Nanjing duck feet and Nanjing duck neck, which is most delicious. We have Nanjing duck whole, half or quartered. Our specialty is in fact Nanjing duck.”
There are millions of people who think Nanjing duck is the single greatest duck dish in the world. I am not one of them. But Zhang’s Nanjing duck, if you are into austere cuisine, is in fact pretty delicious once you get past the salt: complex and flowery, with an almost vanilla-like undercurrent to the taste. It is a dish for connoisseurs, the caviar of the duck world. If you are of a certain mind, Beijing duck, Shanghainese braised and Cantonese roast duck may seem unspeakably vulgar.
Nanjing Kitchen, 706 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel, (626) 281-8968. Open Wed.-Mon., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $9-$15. Recommended dishes: won ton, dry jingsu noodles with pork shank, Nanjing duck.