Monday, July 13, 2009

Restaurant Review: Peking

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 27/06/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

Stop what you're doing, everybody. Put your pencils down. Turn off your mobile phones. I have a very important announcement to make.

I have discovered a good Chinese restaurant. Here. In Prague. Isn't today a wonderful day?

I actually can't take credit for finding it myself. There has been some debate among local foodies lately about where to get good, reasonably authentic Chinese food – something other than the slop served at the endless slew of sleazy bufety around town. Then a reader of my blog recommended Peking.

Thanks to a carefully-composed email laden with tempting quotes pulled from Peking's website ("you will find comfortable surroundings and enjoy unbelievable gourmet feasts"), I managed to recruit eight people to join me on a culinary expedition to Pankrác. Peking, as it happens, is in the middle of a Prague 4 sidliště, right next to a clump of paneláky and a discount grocery store. By way of sheer contrast, the setting made our destination seem all the more impressive.

Flanking Peking's entrance way are two stone lions and a massive Chinese gate that leads to a flight of steps with a marble railing. Up top is a large dining room, ornately decorated with red tassels, a big Buddha statue, and a pool of goldfish. Behind the live lobster tank is a children's play room.

But it's in the back of the restaurant that the real magic happens. There are ten numbered private salonky of varying sizes, all equipped with flat-screen TVs, WI-FI internet, individually controlled air-conditioning, buzzers for service and, naturally, karaoke machines. The largest room, simply labeled "VIP," seats twenty. A glimpse into a few of the salons revealed large groups of Chinese people. Apparently, Peking is where all the Chinese expats go when they want to have a nice meal that reminds them of home (several of my well-traveled friends confirmed, too, that the interior is very similar to that of a fancy restaurant in China).

So much so, in fact, that the restaurant even relegates non-Chinese customers to their own section. When I called to make a reservation, I was asked whether our group was Czech. On a second visit, my two friends and I were ushered past the main dining room, which was full of local Chinese, to an isolated, windowless room in the back. At first, we were alone, but the room slowly filled up with Czech, French, German people…

In Peking, segregation rules. But I was willing to accept it for the food. The menu, as at many Chinese restaurants, is extensive, and has helpful, true-to-life photographs. What is more unusual is that it includes dim sum, the variation of steamed and fried filled dumplings that is a staple of Cantonese cuisine.

In Guangdong, China's Cantonese province, dim sum (literally, "close to the heart") is typically served with tea for breakfast or lunch in special eateries. Up to several dozen different types are wheeled around the restaurants on trolleys for the patrons to pick and choose; most of the treats are savory, but there are sweet dessert versions, too. Peking serves both, although with an understandably more limited selection.

Among the dim sum varieties we tasted was cha siu baau (roast pork buns; 80 CZK for three pieces), a steamed bun, similar in appearance and texture to an ovocný knedlík (Czech fruit dumpling), filled with barbecued pork in a red sauce. Although their filling was moist and sweet, the buns themselves were disappointingly dry. But the guotie (potstickers; 70 CZK for five pieces) – a pan-fried dumpling stuffed with minced pork meat and chopped vegetables – had a perfect chewy exterior and a kick of ginger on the inside.

The har kau (shrimp dumpling; 90 CZK for four pieces) were a hit too, with their translucent rice wrapper and simple stuffing of a whole prawn and bamboo shoots. And I was happy to discover that the spring rolls (55 CZK for two pieces) were more like what is known in North America as egg rolls – larger, and with a fluffy, crunchy crust.

Peking's main courses are more typical of what you would find in a regular Chinese restaurant: stir-fried meats and vegetables in thick, sometimes gloopy sauces. But here, the quality of those meats and vegetables is higher, and the sauces aren't doused in toxic MSG. The prawns with mango (420 CZK) came with butterflied shrimp, fresh pieces of ripe mango, and lightly-cooked pieces of red bell pepper and cucumber. Beautiful to look at, and an unusual, sophisticated combination. I would have preferred the sweet and sour chicken (139 CZK) a little more crispy, but the fresh snow peas sauteed with garlic (159 CZK) were irresistibly green and crunchy.

Appropriately enough, Peking serves Peking duck, and does it very well. A single portion is a fairly pricey 599 CZK, but it comes with lots of fragrant duck meat lined with crisp, browned skin. Included in the price are paper-thin pancakes, hoi sin sauce, and raw spring onions and cucumbers, just as it is meant to be served. If you come in a big group, you can pre-order a whole duck, which they will carry out ceremoniously on a platter.

And come in a big group you should. That way, you get to try more dishes and spin them around on the Lazy Susans that sit on each of the large tables. You also get the added bonus of having your drinks brought to you on a special trolley (a fairly ingenious invention) and, if you have your own room, access to the many delights conferred by the karaoke machine.

Peking's original restaurant was closer to the city center, on Legerova in Prague 2, but they have made a grander home for themselves in Pankrác. Go and see it for yourself. I can't guarantee the best seat in the house, but you'll definitely have great food – and a lot of fun.

Čínská Restaurace Peking
Pujmanové 10
Praha 4 – Pankrác
Tel: 241 730 688

Open Mon-Sun 11:30-15:30, 17:30-23:00

photographs: Pavel Wellner for Lidové Noviny; all others


Vladimir Cupal said...

The neon-lit entrance is a bit crazy, but in the end it is probably appropriate (better than those big paneláky in the background :).
Do you have by any chance some photos of Peking duck you have ordered?

glee said...

I am so glad you enjoyed your visit to Peking! :) I hope to return one day when I've gathered enough of my friends in Prague who are craving for authentic Chinese one day.

btw, you should try the Shaoxing wine next time, preferably warm with some sugar.

Anonymous said...

As I know some great places in Beijing, where you can have a wonderful Peking duck, I can say that the ambience of this one is definitely simmilar. I am just wondering how many people you think is one duck for (as in Beijing we usually have one for 3 and no more and maybe even a couple could manage to eat it, if hungry ;o).

Anonymous said...

Ms Baranik, I've usually found myself in deep agreement with your gastronomic judgement, but this time, I'm afraid, you were way off base. The food was truly better than your average "Czinese" restaurant, but very far from the standard one expects from a good Chinese venue in big European and North American cities, approximately on the level you'd perhaps tolerate from an average tired and bored housewife with a little help of Uncle Ben's, :)) and I can do much better than that at home, thank you very much... :)) The service was also far below standard, friendly but very slow and inept, and the only slightly brighter spots were rather tasty spring rolls and one of the otherwise totally uninspiring dim sum starters. True, all the ingredients seemed to be quite fresh and of relatively good quality and several starters, three main courses and a few drinks added up to slightly more than 1000 CZK or 40 euros, which is pretty decent for the recently blown up Prague prices, but, if you ask me, as somebody who's been a passionate restaurant goer for more than twenty years and lived in 4 different European capitals (including London, the European Chinese cuisine Mecca), from the subjective, "pleasure coefficient" point of view it wasn't worth half that money.

Anonymous said...

Is there a menu anywhere? I wonder if there was any price discrepancy between the Asian clientele and the Euro/American.

Bryce Canyon Inn said...

My friend suggested me to visit place. I would like to say that it is very amazing even just astound you entrance and mainly if you have experienced their services. Great Place!