It’s been a couple years since I’ve been to Old Kingdom. It’s changed so much since Simon sold off this business. Who remembers the restaurant when the lighting was so dim that all you could make of the duck was its glistening skin? All of us remember Simon who would personally serve and slice the duck at your table, acrobatically tossing the pancake skins onto your plate, before sternly dictating how we should all fold the pancakes 1 – 2 – 3 – 4. Business did slow a little when new owners took over, but it is well evident that this establishment has enjoyed a rekindled love affair with the locals.
Having not dined here for 3 years, I visited Old Kingdom with friends on two separate occasions recently. Couple of ground rules to ensure a fulfilling visit. Rule #1. Call to make a table reservation. It is usually full during the dinner hours especially on the weekend, and you don’t want to be standing waiting for a table till 8pm-ish. It is likely to be even later given the extended bright summer nights. I had 6.30pm bookings both times, and were requested to make way for the next sitting at 8-8.30pm.
Rule #2. Always pre-order your Peking duck. When you make your table reservation, you will always be asked whether you’d like to pre-order the duck. Now, I honestly couldn’t say how it would pan out if you declined. But who would be silly enough to brave that risk?! There is only one single purpose of coming to Old Kingdom, and that is DUCK! A single bird comfortably feeds 4 diners for $55, and comes with a bowl of stir-fried duck noodles and simple tofu soup.
So, if the duck really that fantastic that the quality of the meal overcomes the typical tiny wooden tables, washed down chopsticks and cheap bowls? To be honest, no. I mean, the duck is good. Mainland chinese visitors claim that it is very close to the ducks you’d get in Beijing. However, I personally think that the standard of Peking duck in china has fallen so far off from what I remember it to be in the late-90s.
At $55 a bird, that’s not cheap enough to make this restaurant an every day destination. But that pricetag is cheaper compared to Quan Ju De ($78). Also, you get a serve of duck noodles and a bowl of soup (Quan Ju De’s set doesn’t include noodles. So where does all that meat go?!). These past 2 visits to Old Kingdom left me slightly underwhelmed by my allowance of duck. I was thankful for the additional 1-2 main dishes ordered. The fried tofu wasn’t bad, texture was slightly tougher than what I’d like. I found the soft-shell crab not very crabby just crunchy. That said, with that little bit more noodle, it all adds up and I can assure you that you’ll leave full.
The popularity of Old Kingdom cannot be refuted. The crowds are the best evidence of its presence on Smith St. Having chinese customers who bring their families here is also a sure-sign that the cooking is of acceptable standards. This is the best restaurant in Melbourne for Peking duck, distinctly (don’t be fooled) different from the Hong Kong styled roast duck (which is closer to what Simon serves at this present restaurant). A huge plus for me personally is BYO. There isn’t much space on a 4 person table, but bottles on the floor, and I brought my own glassware too. In terms of justifying the price differential ($40 for a whole bird at Roast Duck Inn), it comes down to what style of duck you are feeling like. I shall firmly hold on to my childhood memories of true authentic Peking duck, but Old Kingdom is the best in town at the moment.