Five Happiness: Duck, Duck, Duck Chowdown Report (and Dessert Creations at Hui Lau Shan)
Tonight 22 chowhounds gathered at Five Happiness in San Francisco for a duck trifecta: tea-smoked duck, Peking duck with pancakes and tianmian jiang (TWO per table!) and eight treasures stuffed duck. This was a farewell and send-off for our comrade de chow, “Dave MP”, who is leaving San Francisco for life abroad.
The meal kicked off with a gorgeous cold appetizer platter featuring jellyfish, spicy calamari, five-spiced beef shank, mock duck tofu skins, and drunken chicken (boneless). Tea-smoked duck served with hoisin sauce was up next. Then the Peking duck with separate slices of skin and meat, thick and chewy pancakes, slivers of the whitish part of the scallion, and tianmian jiang. Slippery, lightly gingered silk squash (aka loofah or Chinese okra) provided a vegetable interlude. Then egg whites stir-fried with chopped shrimp topped with a tiny mince of Virginia ham was served with a carafe of zhejiang black vinegar to add an accent. The Shanxi knife-cut noodles were even better than at my lunch time visit. This was followed by the stuffed duck nestled in a layer of lotus leaves fragrant from the steamer. The last course was the duck soup, made from the carcass of our Peking ducks, augmented with Napa cabbage, squares of firm tofu and lots of fresh ginger. “dordogne” provided tangerines for a sweet finish for our table.
Winewise, our table enjoyed the 2006 von Hövel Scharzhofberger Spätlese with the cold platter. Then the 1982 Chateau l’Arrosee St. Emilion, which I brought thinking it might be Dave’s birth year . . . but I missed it by a month. This took a while to open up and I was wishing for more fruit to go with Peking duck’s sweet condiment though it was beautiful on its own. We also had the 2007 Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel and 2006 Perrin Reserve Cotes du Rhone.
Tab for our table including corkage, tax and a generous tip came to $24 per person, what a steal. We also had a celebrity sighting, which I’ll leave to ChowFun to report. Did I forget anything? Please tell us your favorites of the night, and let's hear from the other table.
Then the diehards took a second spin of parking roulette in the Richmond District and decamped for Hui Lau Shan aka Creations Dessert House. A table for eight was waiting for us. I’ll let someone else describe dessert.
Creations Dessert House
5217 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94118
4142 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94118
I attended because the opportunity to have duck three ways was just too much to pass up. It was nice to see some old Chowhound acquaintences and to have a chance to meet some new ones. Duck, duck, duck, yummmm. Or it could have been yum.
I thought the cold appetizer platter was quite good, with the calamari being especially fine. It was tender, spiced enough to wake up the tastebuds, and was beautifully presented exhibiting great knifework.
The tea-smoked duck was cooked to perfection and just bursting with flavor. It was like eating tender, juicy duck-bacon. The Shanxi noodles were also exceedingly good, with superb texture and an infused with a savory goodness.
Unfortunately, that was about it for the highpoints. The Peking duck was bland, with the skin being especially disappointing. How can you make bland duck skin? Don't know, ask the kitchen. And the eight-treasure duck looked great, but was under spiced, and had mushy textures and was mostly uninteresting. Our table left a lot to be packed into those nice take home boxes.
What Melanie kindly refers to as "lightly gingered silk squash" was also bland to the point of boredom. Why get folks hopes up by saything there is a ginger sauce, when the ginger is completely missing upon delivery?
There was nothing bad about the food, it was just mostly uninspiring and ordinary. The price per person at table #2, including a generous tip was $21. As Xiao Yang notes, this is a great bargain, but I didn't think that most of the food rose above mediocre. If there were such a thing as an everyday Chinese Nighthawk Diner, they'd serve food like you can get at Five Happiness.
Glad to see Five Happiness getting some props; It's been a fall-back place for the frugal members of my extended family (which is to say most of them) for 15 years or so and has seldom disappointed, food-wise or price-wise. They do the Shanghainese stuff pretty well, too -- just don't order the xiao long bao.
Belated "me too" on the tea-smoked duck, the most flavorful, tender version I have had of this dish, and my favorite of the table, followed by the refreshing, simply prepared okra and the palate-cleansing soup based upon a broth of the leftover duck bones. The stuffed duck made a beautiful presentation with glistening, mahogany-colored sheath of skin over sticky rice-like stuffing with nuggets of chestnut and other goodies, but I found the flavors muddy and disappointing, especially in contrast to the essence of quack in the other two duck dishes. $24 p/p was an amazing price for this wonderful dinner of high quality ingredients and careful preparations. I spoke briefly with the maitre d' (perhaps owner), who said that they enjoy creating banquets to suit the tastes of their customers and suggested calling ahead for a party of 10, telling him how much you're prepared to spend per person and the preferred emphasis in the dishes (e.g. fish or duck or shellfish or ....) and they will be happy to oblige and confer on the menu.
Thanks to Melanie for arranging this duckfest and for the wonderful wines. Spatlese was a perfect complement to the cold meats and the bordeaux worked beautifully with the rich duck. Those of you who soldiered on for the dessert course are true chowhounds!
Another voice in the chorus of "yea"s for the tea-smoked duck. The layer of fat was thick, almost daunting at first sight, but melted in the mouth like a sweet and fatty cloud.
re: Peking ducks - years ago, I read an article about using a bicycle pump to inflate the skin of a duck off the meat, in order to make a proper Peking duck. These ducks actually looked like they had inflated skin - taut, and separated from the joint lines. I've never anything like it before. The skin was actually too tough in the first piece I had (I was unable to bite through it and had to chew the entire piece at one time), but my second was perfect. We all commented that the ducks were somewhat blonder than expected - I think we're all used to burnished, mahogany-colored Peking ducks, but I'm guessing that the lighter color is correct, given what sticklers they are for doing everything correctly at this restaurant (david kaplan recounted a meal where they had ordered a duck for 7 pm, and when the party arrived at 7:10 due to difficulty finding parking, the manager exclaimed that he could not be responsible if their ducks were now ruined).
When I spotted her, I checked with the manager to be sure it was indeed Ms. Chiang. Then he took the initiative to lead her over to me, and she said, "Hello dear, how are you?" I replied, "I'm Ruby's niece and it has been many, many years since we last met." Then she said, "I remember you, I know who you are", and then gave me a kiss on the cheek and a little hug. I last saw her about the time Dave MP was starting kindergarten, I think, so she was quite gracious about this encounter. I did remember to ask her what her favorites are at Five Happiness. She recommended the lions head meatball and the Shanghainese style eels.
I also shared my appreciation for her asparagus salad recipe that i've made many times over the years. She commented that it was the time of year to serve it again, so here it is.
Not much left to add, at this point. I also thought the tea-smoked duck was a highlight, though having tried the Peking duck now on three different visits here, I'm impressed with their consistency with Peking duck over time. The knife-shaved noodles (dao xiao mien) remain a big treat for me: although I'd like them with a more forceful, spicy sauce, the chewiness and irregular cut of these noodles are so satisfying texturally. These noodles, too, have been consistently good across my multiple visits here.
It was especially fun to be able to try three very different duck preparations at the same meal.
Bon voyage to Dave MP, and thank you to him and Melanie for inspiring and organizing!
The twenty-two people who met up last night are birds of a feather indeed. Thank goodness for chowhound and for people who think that eating four ducks three different ways is--far from being a form of depravity--actually a Very Good Thing.
It seems unanimous, or nearly so, that the tea-smoked duck was the highlight of the meal. Crisp, smoky, tender, juicy--all in the same bite. I'd go back for this in a wink! The peking duck could have used more salt and a couple of minutes more in the oven to caramelize the skin, but I appreciated that the rosy, velvety flesh and the crisp skin were sliced separately. (And that there was plenty of duck to go around!)
The Eight Treasures duck was more of a mixed bag: the skin and flesh were beautifully prepared and melted into a delicious warm puddle of duck fat in one's mouth. The sweet rice was just okay: too much dried shrimp flavor muted everything else in the rice. Still, this is clearly the place to go for duck!
A big thank you to Melanie and Dave MP for organizing this, and for making sure that we all had enough of some of the very best ducks in San Francisco!
The Peking Duck *did* benefit from a few more minutes in the oven. We had a bit of leftover duck from our table that I took home, and today I heated up the skins and meat on some foil in the toaster oven. The skin got re-crisped and more caramelized, and it was even better than last night.
As I was heating up the leftovers, I chuckled to myself: You know you ordered a lot of Peking duck when 22 chowhounds can't finish it all!
re: Dave MP
Dave, there was barely enough left over for a light snack! One peking duck wouldn't have been enough; good thing you had the foresight to order 2. So 4 ducks for 11 is about right, and 4 for 12 might be not quite enough ;-) This reminds me of how my friends and I order lechon de leche (roast pig) in Manila: 1 suckling pig for every 4-5 people, even when the restaurant says one will easily serve 12.
I had a wonderful experience...the company was delightful, lively conversation, and terrific food....A very good (and beautiful!) cold plate with some of the best jellyfish I have had and a moist Drunken chicken.....delicate gourd vegetable gently flavored with ginger...played off the DUCKS very well.....the tea smoked (a crowd favorite )was very balanced, with moist flesh, crisp skin and just the right abount of tea smoked flavor...The Peking Duck was beautifully displayed with the golden crispy translucent skin perched above incredibly moist meat...the pancakes/crepes were thicker than I would have suspected, but these actually had flavor of their own and a wonderful chewy texture which played off of the crisp skin, moist meat, gentle scallions and sweetish Hoison sauce! Very satisfying, and each table had 2 of them (!), so it was an embarrassment of Duck Schmaltz riches! ....so good.....but the thing that rally stood out for me is that I can finally say I had dinner with the Doyen of Chinese Cooking Cecilia Chiang herself...(okay she was seated at the next table, but, soooo close...the funny thing was that I had just recounted the first time I had Peking Duck which was at the late (Lamented at least by me when Mme. Chiang was there herself) Mandarin Restaurant in Ghirardelli Square. I guess you never forget your first (and 2nd and 3rd etc.) hers is the Peking Duck I judge all others' by! I also spoke of her "Glaceed Bananas" which were bananas bathed in molten liquid sugar, and finally plunged into a tureen filled with ice and water, quickly hardening the sugar into a thin sweet crispy shell which still harbored the custardy banana within. Oh my God...the sensory memory! and there she was... beautiful and very elegant....as expected a number of us had to meet her, and I mentioned what I had recently said at table! She was extremely gracious..and mentioned to me that the recipe for "Glaceed Bananas" was in her book "The Seventh Daughter"!!! This lady knows how to handle a room!...I of course just ordered it (14.99 on Half.com) all in all in all in all! Quite a night! A group of us headed down Geary for desert, I liked Melanies' egg white custard, and my black sesame ice cream, although my heart still belongs to "Marco Polo"
A big thank you to Melanie et al for organizing... farewell to David,... San Francisco's loss is Limster's gain! Have fun, and I'll look forward to your reports!
Not that much to add about the wonderful dinner. Like everyone else, my wife (Joanne) and I (Amit) really enjoyed the tea-smoked duck, and we also liked the soup, which was a little rich (it was made from the duck carcass, after all) without seeming too heavy.
As for dessert (aka The Afterparty), everyone ordered their own desserts, but then passed them around to share. We got the following:
- mixed fruit with coconut and sesame ice creams; the sesame ice cream was especially notable, an unadulterated explosion of pure sesame flavor.
- the sago in mango and coconut juice; I don’t generally like the mangoes that are widely available in the U.S. (too fibrous and not sweet enough), but the fibrousness wasn't a problem here and the milder flavor matched up well with the coconut and sago.
- the taro and black rice with rice balls and coconut pudding. I thought it was a visually engaging dish, and that the rice balls had just the right glutinous texture and hint of sweetness.
- a black sesame dish that doesn't appear to be on the website (it was on the specials menu). This might have been my favorite dish; the flavor was so intense that it even had notes of chocolate and coffee grounds. Completely not what I was expecting.
- the stewed egg white dessert with crystal snow and hot milk. It was well-received at the table, but I have to admit that it was too subtle (i.e., not sweet enough) for me.
- the french toast. There's a story behind this: when we first walked in, all of us thought we smelled really tasty donuts. We asked the waitress about the smell and she informed us that it was the french toast. Well, it smelled so good that we felt we had to get it. Unfortunately, it was the last dish to arrive, so I was too full to try it; if somebody else has a comment about it, please chime in.
- the mango mochi; my bite didn't contain any of the filling, but the mochi part was good and others at the table said that the filling had a very satisfying tart/tangy flavor to it.
Hopefully, these quick descriptions will get the the ball rolling. Thanks so much again to Melanie for organizing, and best wishes to Dave!
I echo the above comments. My favorites were the tofu skin from the cold platter (the proprietor called it mock chicken) and the tea smoked duck.
The tea smoked duck was so intensely smokey that even the fat tasted smokey. I also enjoyed the intermezzo of noodles and tender silk squash. The noodles had an excellent chewy texture.
I liked that the peking duck was served with pancakes rather than the more commonly found steamed buns. The pancake was flavorful and chapathi-like, as Dave noted. The only minor detraction was that the duck was underseasoned to my taste, particularly when wrapped in the somewhat thicker pancakes. But perhaps I'm used to the highly seasoned version which I assume is done to stand up to the buns.
I appreciated that the chef used practically every cooking method to produce the eight treasures duck. As Melanie noted, the stuffing did not have a ducky flavor, but I could not stop eating it!
Enjoyed meeting everyone and was happy to attend, if a bit concerned that I've been introduced to some influences that threaten to send me into a tailspin of duck fat addiction. Dave, Good luck and good eating abroad. Look forward to hearing about your further adventures in food.
First off, pictures to come as soon as I get back to my home computer and download these puppies (my cell phone email function is acting up, today of all days!).
Thank you Melanie for hosting and it was great to catch up whilst making new friends!
I was a big fan of the squid with it's almost Thai flavors, superb knifework, and perfectly resistant bite. While I agree with Al about the rather obvious wineyness of the chicken, I personally enjoyed the little pieces I ferreted out, quite a bit.
The tea-smoked duck was my favorite, with deep, complex flavors infusing every bit of meat and skin. LOVED the tianmian jiang because of the earthy bean flavors that added heft and sophistication to the hoisin sweetness. I tried the Peking duck "nude" i.e. sans pancake, and didn't think it held up solo quite as well as the tea-smoked duck. The bite I had of the duck wrapped in pancake with appropriate garnishes was excellent, though.
I also really enjoyed the shrimp and egg white dish, perfect for a diabetic like me! I'm going to try and hunt down a recipe to add to my quick weeknight meal roster.
Lovely Hovel Spatlese, Melanie! Thank you! Can't wait to enjoy a few more glasses this weekend!
Here are the pictures I took of our dinner. Disclaimer: they were taken on my Blackberry and I'm no photographer to begin with.
In order of appearance, they are: Tea-smoked duck; close-up of yuba skin on appetizer platter (plus gorgeous cucumber garnish); whole Peking duck; 8 Treasure Stuffed Duck.
Lovely to see you again, and thanks for uploading the photos from our table.
My first encounter with the egg white dish was at Jai Yun some years ago, where it was made with abalone. Another excellent version was at Zen Peninsula in Millbrae where the raw egg yolk is nestled in the bed of whites. For both of these, the amount of oil in the dish seems much greater and the whites are in big curds and not so stretched out, so you might want to experiment at home.
von Hövel wine sale
Thanks so much, Melanie for organizing, and Dave, we will miss you! I loved this dinner, and woke up this morning still full. The appetizer platter was fantastic, especially the jellyfish and the tofu skins. I liked the texture of the calamari a lot, but found the sauce a little too sweet for my taste. But oh man oh man, that tea smoked duck was incredible. That duck skin was one of the most perfect things that I've eaten in a while -- so crispy and fatty and flavorful, just delicious, and the duck itself was lovely and smoky. I agree that the presentation of the stuffed duck was fun, but the duck itself wasn't as good as it looked -- the skin was too flabby, and the filling, while tasty, didn't taste particularly "ducky" as Melanie said later.
I also loved the knife cut noodles and the silk squash, which was a new to me vegetable, it was nicely refreshing after all of the richness of the ducks.
The desserts afterwards was fun, and though I don't remember everything we had, my favorite at the table was the black sesame ice cream.
Having been a mere lurker and missing Chowhound meals for some months, I could not have chosen a better re-entry than this duck feast. Adding a few notes: thanks to Melanie for introducing me to the new-to-me loofa(perfectly textured) and egg-white "omlette". And for organizing. And for the exceptional wines--'82 St. Emilion! Are you kidding?
The cold platter was an example of truly artful knifework and I too liked the spicy squid. I missed a more anisey flavor in the beef (and a few blobs of beef gel on top would have helped too) and thought the chicken too obviously shao xingy--but let me admit that I am being picky here. The Peking duck was an example of how you have to be picky to be very critical of this dinner. Skin, defatted and crispy, meat with bits of fat left on, pancakes homemade and perfect when wrapped around duck skin, meat, and with slivered scallion and sauce--which, we were told, was not just hoisin but a blend of sauces. The stuffed duck was more pleasing in the stuffing than in the duck itself. I think that braising, then frying, then steam/roasting is a lot of manipulation for one little bird. But, it was spectacular to see and the stuffing was fabulous.
Great sendoff for Dave. Good luck and good chowing.
I am still very full from this wonderful send-off dinner - it was a huge success. Though i must say, 8 ducks for 22 people is really quite a lot of duck!
The appetizer platters were beautiful, and everything was very good - this may be the best cold appetizer platter I've ever had. My favorites were the calamari - nice and tender, in a sweet/spicy sauce, and the mock chicken. But the drunken chicken, jellyfish and beef were all quite good too.
The tea smoked duck was really good, perhaps my favorite item of the night and definitely my favorite of the 3 (technically 4) ducks. The fatty parts had a melt-in-your-mouth texture, the skin was nice and crispy, and the smokiness was great - it reminded me of BBQ ribs, especially when dipped in the hoisin sauce.
Peking duck was good as well - the handmade tortillas are thick, like chapathi. One order was enough for all 11 at our table to have one wrap, so two orders meant that everyone had plenty.
I thought the Shanxi noodles were good, though others seemed to like these more than me. I tasted the egg/shrimp dish from Melanie's table (our table didn't order this) and I thought it was good - a nice complement to the richer duck courses. I don't think that silk squash is my favorite vegetable, but I thought the preparation was good here too.
By the time the eight treasure stuffed duck came, I was already pretty full. I enjoyed the bites of sticky rice that had pieces of sausage the most, and the duck meat was nice here too. Presentation was beautiful, but many of us agreed that the texture of the fat here wasn't as good as in the tea smoked duck.
I enjoyed the soup, though by this point I was *really* full.
I also very much enjoyed my glass of 1982 Chateau l'Arrosee St. Emilion...even though I was born in 1981, it still counts since it was the first harvest I was alive for - I was born in December. :)
I am too tired to report on Creations now too....so I'll also leave that to someone else.
It was very nice to see everyone and to meet some new hounds as well! I'll miss you guys! Thanks again for all the great food advice.
re: Dave MP
I agree on all counts. Lots and lots of duck, and the tea smoked was my favorite. The duck soup at the end was flavorful but not too rich.
I loved the calamari, especially the unique sauce, which struck me as fusion, with an Italian-style tomato-garlic tang upfront followed by a blast of ginger. The Shanxi noodles looked rather unprepossessing, but tasted delicious.
I can't believe I missed dessert, but on the other hand, I really couldn't have eaten any more. Having so much rich duck, the whole meal sort of felt like dessert!