Mao’s little red duck: a delight to tear intoFor a casual Saturday night out, a trend savvy friend suggested we try Mao, a clean and bright Chinese restaurant with a bit of French flair. Mao, tucked behind the east-west-bound boulevard that connects Cheongdam-dong and Sinsa-dong in southern Seoul, is an unusual cove in a city teeming with Koreanized Chinese cuisine.
At a first glance, Mao is American pop art meets Red China. Next to Andy Warhol-esque portraits of Mao Zedong on red fixtures hang dozens of whole ducks, which five Chinese chefs swiftly take turns slicing on a wooden chopping board. And the steaming huoguo, known as Chinese hot pot, boiled on top of Ming-inspired tables.
My tablemates, American expats who had taken weekend trips to Shanghai and Beijing last year, rejoiced at their back-to-China mode in Seoul and ordered a plate of duck, served with a pile of pancakes, strips of green onion, cucumber and plum sauce.
Over Peking duck, our conversation revolved around the question, “What makes one Peking duck better than others?” To make an analysis, we separately graded the meat, the pancake and the sauce, and found the latter two components to be more important than the meat.
My most memorable Peking duck to date in Korea was at Sansu, the Chinese restaurant in the Grand Hyatt hotel in central Seoul. Here’s why: The shining duck came out like a work of glazed porcelain; the subtly sexual pose of the animal reminded me of the famous works of art ― headless Chinese women in Cheongsam ― by the Shanghai-based ceramic artist Liu Jian-hua. I watched in awe as the chef expertly shaved off the skin as if performing plastic surgery.
The most exquisite Peking duck dish is kept starkly minimal, with the bird’s outermost layer cut in rectangular shapes and nothing else, and I had to let the chef take the meticulously skinned (thus very meaty) bird back to the kitchen. The beauty and the cruelty of the perfectly-prepared dish most likely accounted for its succulent taste.
Mao’s Peking duck, at 23,000 won ($23), is more than crude peels plus meat and drumsticks on the side, a fact that elicited approval from three fastidious diners who knew a thing or two about Chinese poultry. The pancakes were fresh and tasty, and the sauce got thumbs up. Both the crusty skin and tender meat were smokey, with a unique Chinese flavor.
With the young staff members chatting in lilting Mandarin on the floor, it felt as if we were in Shanghai. Mao’s specialty, huoguo, available in seafood, beef, pork or mutton, is a festive treat. A large copper pot simultaneously boils two sections for the broth: one plain, the other spicy. The hearty broth gets its unusually exotic taste from the dried red fruit of the Chinese matrimony vine, Chinese pepper and red chili pepper, among other ingredients.
The joyful task at the table is to cook assorted raw seafood (36,000 won for two or three persons), including sea cucumber, abalone, mussels, octopus, prawns and cuttlefish, served on a bed of fresh tat soi leaves, and dip them in either peanut or soy sauce-based sauces. The meat and vegetables both went well with soy sauce, while the peanut sauce required some getting used to.
The red broth was so fiercely spicy it made us choke at first, but the dish could have been boring without it and it allowed the contrast in flavors and colors throughout the meal to be savored. The broth was topped off by a bottomless pot of jasmine tea.
If we didn’t have the duck, we could have added beef huoguo (18,000 won per person), which I brought me back a week later.
Either way, by the time we were down to madly scraping the bottom clean, it was clear that meals at Mao are not only filling but also adventurously wholesome.
Whether it’s Chinese fruit floating in soup or photographs of Mao Zedong in front of the Forbidden City, the atmosphere is more than enough to keep a conversation going ― especially after a couple of floor staffers, Chinese from Harbin told me, “Mao is one of the greatest leaders, probably the most representative, in Chinese history, who made what China is today. He liberated us from [China’s] past.”
English: Not on the menu, some spoken
Hours: 11 a.m.-4 a.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. on Sundays
Location: Near Hakdong Junction in Apgujeong-dong.
Dress code: Smart casual.
by Ines Cho