Forget the Fat Duck. This week it's all about duck fat – perfectly rendered beneath bronzed, burnished skin. It's been years since we checked in on Melbourne's champions of this centuries-old Beijing dish, and things have changed. Stayers have fallen. Heroes have moved to Box Hill South. We trekked through the city and the 'burbs for the softest pancakes, best plum, hoisin or sweet bean sauce and crisp-skinned duck slices (showing the duck has been properly inflated to separate fat and skin). In the end, though, the top five were those who championed taste. Here's who made the cut.
Simon's Peiking Duck
Best: song and dance
Simon Lay, better known as Melbourne's duck nazi is the man who put Old Kingdom on the map for his cleaver skills and etiquette fundamentalism – where to sit, how to wrap (side, side, bottom up. It makes a "money purse" so nothing leaks). It's all a Basil Fawlty-like act and he loves it. He retired a few years ago, but got bored and re-opened this Box Hill South shop in 2013. He's still doing the best ducks and duck experience around. Your bird is glazed pre-roast with a combination of maltose, oyster sauce and light soy to give the duck colour. It's a duck degustation. First come skin-rich slices to wrap with fresh cucumber, thick spring onions and a distinctly plummy sauce in fine non-traditional egg-and-milk based crepes as soft as velvet pillows (come at lunch to get these fresh off the press). The rest comes after as a beanshoot stir-fry and a gingery soup made with the carcass. Cash only.
197B Middleborough Road, Box Hill South, 9898 5944
It's the pancakes that make it. These are the real deal, a simple flour, water, salt dough worked into balls then rolled out by hand and steamed. It's the sort of time-consuming preparation that dedicated Peking duck specialists can't manage, and regular Chinese restaurants can't be bothered with – they're too fine and fragile to prep in bulk. But Melbourne's oldest and finest Canto restaurant doesn't compromise on anything. The silky, stretchy sheets arrive steaming over a burner with meat bearing a glassy skin that shatters like an iPhone screen. It's assembled for you table-side with precision, plum sauce, and the most finely sliced cucumbers and spring onions.
17 Market Lane, Melbourne, 9662 3655 flower-drum.com
Best: poultry chasers
They also put on a good show at Secret Kitchen, the jewel in Doncaster Westfield's crown. Here, manager Kelvin Leung brings a little high-end presentation to the dish, dressing the duck at the table. The duck is juicy, with a decent crisp skin, though there's a thicker layer of fat that implies it hasn't been inflated pre-roast. Still, it dissipates with ease. The pancakes could be softer too but the sauce is a dead-on hit of sweetness and fermented funk. The service counts for a lot here, as do well-spaced tables and the view looking back at the city. But perhaps the real draw is the fact that you can up the richness stakes further and chase your pancakes with a serve of roasted goose.
Westfield Shopping Centre, Shop L2-2003, 619 Doncaster Road, Doncaster, 9840 2248, secret-kitchen.com.au
Best: bang for buck
Even without Simon Lay on hand, this Collingwood restaurant does a good-value set, serving a full duck across three courses as pancakes, stir fry and soup for $55. It easily feeds three, and the restaurant is also BYO and located next to Smith Street Cellars. The duck, soup and stir-fry can't equal the crispness of skin and clarity of flavours at Simon's, but they are still very good – juicy duck, soft crepes. The sauce is fairly sweet, but not aggressively so. Just remember it's cash only. Come prepared.
197 Smith Street, Fitzroy, 9417 2438
Best: ethics. Delicious ethics.
Cue every Peking duck fundamentalist on the internet-shaking fists. I hear you: this modern Chinese restaurant with its Eades and Bergman fitout and Michelin-star restaurant-trained chefs doesn't offer the classic Peking experience. Firstly, you receive your duck already wrapped. Secondly, the bird has a fairly thick line of un-rendered fat and the skin is on the softer side. But, duck fans, the large slice of roasted bird you get in delicate papery pancake is the most flavoursome around, thanks to the fact that they're using corn-fed, free-range birds. It's the duck even ethicureans can love. A cucumber fan and umami-sweet sauce brings it all together into one tasty package.
16 Liverpool Street, Melbourne, 9090 7778 ruyi.com.au