DaDong, DaDong | Can Beijing duck expert make it in New York?

Update: More newspaper, magazine and customer reviews of DaDong New York have come out since I posted in January. Some examples, with my original post below:

  • Pete Wells of New York Times was far from impressed with the DaDong experience, including the signature dish: “it dawned on me that I had paid $98 for a duck with almost no flavor.” The kung pao shrimp tasted like ketchup, the sweet-and-sour ribs were sweet as Dr Pepper and the crispy mushroom salad did not live up to its self-proclaimed texture or taste, writes Wells. There were highlight, like the Chongqing chicken, desserts and wine list, but overall this duck didn’t fly for him. Zero stars. The review—”Modern Art and Lame Duck”—is here.
  • Richard Morgan of TimeOut gave two stars. The terse and largely negative review praises the crispy skin but not the flesh of the duck, stating the latter “taste[s] more like leftover Thanksgiving dark-meat turkey: tough and stringy.” He liked the crystal vegetable buns but little else, including the sea cucumber, sauces, service and fellow patrons. Review here.
  • Positive coverage comes from Chicago Tribute, via Daily Beast contributor Rachel Suggs. Unlike most, who cite the difficulty of finding DaDong, she describes it as “conveniently located.” Her review is a dish of cliches, winks and nudges, and little nuance. Given she “left as a self-proclaimed Chinese food aficionado,” one might wonder if she has the experience to do the place justice. Anyway, she ends with, “Though it only opened in December, DaDong is staking a claim as perhaps the best Chinese restaurant in New York.” Review here.
  • Also, the number of Yelp reviews has grown to 289, though the score remains a pedestrian 2.5 stars. Reviews range from unabashed praise (“best authentic Chinese food I’ve had in a while”) to harsh takedowns (“an overpriced, disappointing restaurant”), with a substantial number of people citing experiences at DaDong in Beijing. In general, the duck is seen as acceptable even if the portions are meager and prices sky high. As for other dishes, the service and the deor, well, check the reviews yourself here.

By Jim Boyce  | High prices. Small portions. Hard-to-find location. Cramped seating. Spotty service. Intense up-selling.

Beijing duck expert DaDong has made less than a splash since opening to high expectations in New York just over a month ago, according to posters on restaurant review sites. And it’s not just that the “locals” don’t know Chinese food. Many of the negative comments have come from people who claim to hail from Beijing or to have visited and enjoyed Da Dong there.

The reviews are all over the board when it comes to the food. Most consider the duck good, but not USD98 per duck good, especially compared to Da Dong in Beijing. And a significant minority have criticized the duck for being too dry, being served too cold, and coming with too few pancakes: one reader says only five were given for an entire duck, with extra baskets USD5 each.

Then there is this “no stars” review by Adam Platt of New York Magazine: “dishes were sweetened in a… heavy-handed, Willy Wonka way”, “slightly clammy, premade taste of food that’s been sitting in the refrigerator too long”, “service closer to what you’d find on a ­shakedown cruise aboard ­a Caribbean liner”, “when we asked for a bottle of Riesling… we were reflexively directed to the most expensive magnum” and “overwrought elements of Michelin-fueled ambition and style with the clunky, Disney­fied overtones of a random corporate restaurant chain”. Yikes. Full review here.

And see this by Robert Sietsema of Eater New York, who covers his difficulty in finding DaDong and describes the signature dish, not unkindly, as “Peking duck lite”. He also cites dishes that seem “inspired by the science chef craze of a decade ago.”

That last comment should not surprise regulars at DaDong in Beijing. This chain has long tried to balance form and function—think powdered sugar sprinkled over mounds of wagyu beef on a granite slab, all to mimic snow-covered hills—something that seemingly draws on the influence of Brian McKenna, from his Blu Lobster / Shangri-la Hotel days, who has since moved on.

Anyway, Dadong New York has 182 reviews on Yelp and a lowly 2.5-stars rating, due in part to people outraged at reservations being canceled. There is plenty of criticism on other sites, too: see Yelp, TripAdvisor and Open Table. Here are a few examples:

  • “After much anticipation, DaDong ends up being ordinary at best. The Beijing original is one of my favorite dining experiences anywhere. It merited three visits. The New York version is a crashing disappointment. The fabled duck was bone-dry. The other dishes were fine—but why would you go to a duck restaurant with sub-par duck? Unless the kitchen staff figures this out, fast, they’re going to have a lot of one-time visitors.”
  • “The duck was okay—nothing to rave about. For $98 I was expecting something phenomenal but I had better ones out there for half the price.”
  • “It is obvious that DaDong makes an effort to be considered high end based on how many dishes use expensive ingredients like truffle and saffron.”
  • “… the spacing between tables is too small; constantly being bumped into at the bar while we waited as people were being seated, or servers walking through. The tables themselves were small; too small for efficient use….”
  • “… what fancy restaurant still charges for sparkling [water] nowadays? Especially when it’s clearly produced inhouse.”
  • “We ordered two whole ducks. But there is one serving of pancake to go with them. When we requested another order of pancake, it took 20 minutes to come! And we were charged for the additional pancake! For real? We dropped $200 for two ducks!!!”
  • “They say there are 5 stages of grief according to the Kübler-Ross model.  Denial —This can’t be the same place I went to in Beijing. Anger—Wtf, it is! Bargaining—They just need to work out the kinks in their operation, that’s all. Depression—Well, there goes $400+, 3+ hours, and all the hopes and dreams of Peking duck glory in NYC. Acceptance—As much as we tried to love it, let’s be real here, that sucked.”
  • “For what we spent and the buzz, it should have been extraordinary and it wasn’t.”

To be fair, DaDong has also received praise and five-star reviews for its food (the pork buns seem a good bet for traditional fare and the “cherry foie gras” for something edgier), service (many individual staff members are cited) and decor (“The ambiance and décor is unprecedented for a Chinese restaurant in NYC”).

But even some of the best reviews are qualified. Like this one: “Pan-Fried Dumpling—a bit pricy for one dumpling… but you know what? Worth it. It was a pretty good dumpling, seriously.” Pretty good?

Or this response to comments about table size: “Because the table was small, our server suggested that we pack the duck before more dishes arrived. If we had a bigger table with everything on it, I imagine I’d have kept eating the duck even after I was full—not good for your health!”

Individual dumpling lovers and fans of unintentional health benefits, take note.

It is still early days for DaDong New York. Hopefully management is taking note and planning to up its game: this place has a lot to live up to given the first line on its website is, “Taste the best of China in the heart of New York City”.


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