95 Liverpool Street Sydney, Australia 2000
We know how to eat fish and chips, attack a burger, and twirl our tagliolini. If a restaurant gave us instructions on how to eat them, we would laugh. But Peking duck? It's one of the great luxury dishes of the world, rolling up history, skill, fire, smoke, spice and status in every Mandarin pancake. You want to get it right.
China Republic, the very flash, very ambitious newcomer to George Street's World Square shopping complex, takes its Peking duck so seriously it presents its diners with a small booklet on the order and etiquette of eating.
This will give you something to read while you wait for up to an hour for your duck to be cooked (from scratch). Pass the time admiring the glossy, heavy, big-budget film-set decor, stone statues and wooden architectural models shrouded in theatrical darkness, or watch the chefs using traditional, long-hooked poles to move the ducks about the oven so that the skin glazes evenly. But really, you should be back at the table doing your homework.
The pictures tell the story. Step one: dip the crisp skin into white sugar. Step two: dip the duck meat into garlic paste. Step three: assemble your first pancake, by placing duck and skin in the centre, adding cucumber and shallot, topping with bean paste, then wrapping. Step four: make another pancake, this time with duck, pickled cucumber and Chinese mustard. Step five: fill a pocket pancake with purple onion, cucumber and sweet bean paste. (Got that? Questions will be asked later.)
Finally, the trolley rolls up next to the table. For an extra $2 (a bit rich, given you have already paid $88 for the duck), you have a full set of condiments ready to go.
The chef douses the glossy, lacquered skin in shao hsing rice wine, and you light it, blue flames jumping high. He then carves it oh-so-precisely, layering skin and meat on white, duck-shaped meat stands.
The duck itself is clinically, technically, correct, without warranting massive oh-wows or OMGs. The skin is rich and oily, the meat a little pasty, the steamed pocket pancakes are a joy. For the record, I completely trashed their instructions, smearing the pancake with bean sauce before adding the duck, although I did fall under the spell of their Chinese mustard as well. There are no second or third duck courses (invariably disappointing, in any case) and no half ducks available.
But it's not all about the duck. There are other flashy dishes such as hot and spicy fish fillets wrapped in a festive cellophane parcel ($32), some decent, northern-style boiled pork dumplings ($19 for 10) and tender, poached chicken rubbed in Sichuan spices and served with a house-made chilli oil ($15) that packs a good, throaty punch. Cold Beijing-style tofu topped with bright orange fish roe ($12) is poetically presented but feels crumbly and dry to a Western palate, as does a sauteed spicy beef mince with basil ($32) ready to stuff into pocket pancakes. Come to think of it, it may actually be all about the duck.
The wine list is suitably glamorous, extending down from Grange and Yquem to spice-friendly contemporary Kiwi and Oz labels such as a smooth, velvety 2008 Hinton Estate pinot noir from Central Otago ($79), and you can end on charming little sweetmeats arranged in dramatically hexagonal cake stands.
But what an odd place, seemingly all about the grand gesture rather than making it easy to put together a balanced or an affordable meal. Like Peking duck, it's as much about theatre as it is about dining. Unlike the duck, it hasn't yet found its audience.
Best bit: Watching the Peking duck chefs
Worst bit: No half serves of Peking duck
Go-to dish: Peking duck, $88
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.