Atmosphere: Leftover Polynesian.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday; noon to 10 p.m., Sunday.
Price range: $3.95 to $16; most dishes in $6 to $8 range.
Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, Diner's Club, American Express.
Reservations: Not necessary.
Special features: Parking in shopping center lot adjacent to restaurant; accessible to wheelchairs if curb can be negotiated; booster seats but no highchairs available.
Running a restaurant can be a precarious business; places can change hands with such dizzying speed that the wonderful little place you loved yesterday can be gone tomorrow. But sometimes new management sparks improvement or innovation, and the change is good in the long run.
We were more than a little curious, therefore, when we heard that the popular South Pacific Restaurant in Parkington was now the House of the Peking Duck. The woman on the phone said the menu was new and improved, with an emphasis, as you might expect, on duck. Since we had enjoyed the place in its previous incarnation, we figured that if she were right it could only be gilding the lily.
Actually, although the name, the menu and the chef are new, little else has changed in the transformation to House of the Peking Duck. And the changes that have taken place are not all good. Except for a new logo representing two ducks over the door, the decor remains South Pacific, with lighted Polynesian designs on walls and ceilings and occasional peacock chairs in the two dining rooms.
The new management has decided to turn up the lights, which not only destroys the cozy loveliness the place had but also reveals how worn some of the furniture and decorations are.
Service is brisk and efficient rather than gracious, and nice touches like flaming braziers to keep the egg rolls warm have disappeared.
There are eight duck specialties, with whole ducks priced at $16. The rest of the menu contains the mix of Cantonese, Szechuan and Hunan dishes that has become popular in recent years. It is possible to order steamed dumplings and shaumei, but aside from these appetizers and spiced duck gizzards, the menu is typical of new Chinese restaurants.
One of the nice things about House of the Peking Duck is that, until the end of February, you can eat there inexpensively. During the House's Chinese New Year Special, available any night of the week, $8.95 will buy any two dinners from a list of eight. In addition, the $16 duck dishes are offered, Sunday through Thursday only, for $9.95.
If the food is not out of the ordinary, it is perfectly adequate. Wonton soup (85 cents) was made with a flavorful, peppery broth, although the wontons were not as delicate as they might have been. We also would have preferred our crispy noodles served in a bowl rather than in the soup. Egg rolls ($1.95 for two) were heavily stuffed with vegetables and undistinguished.
Since it was a weeknight, we could order Peking duck for $9.95, which we did. From the list of New Year specials, we chose beef imperial and a dish we could not pass up: happy family (both for $8.95). An order of Hunan chicken ($6.45) rounded out our dinner.
The duck came with eight pancakes and a good, tart plum sauce. The meat, although greasier than it should have been, was flavorful, and the honeyed skin nice and crisp. The showmanship of the carver, who held the bird aloft while he produced deft slices of skin and meat, enthralled the kids. His performance was almost worth the price by itself.
Beef in the imperial dish was not well trimmed or cut, but was tasty combined with Chinese vegetables. Happy family, a dish we have had before under a variety of names, is a mildly seasoned melange of small shrimp, pork, chicken and vegetables that is pleasant if not distinctive. Chicken Hunan, the only spicy dish we ordered, was chunks of tender meat stir-fried in a sauce that was a bit greasy and only mildly hot.
Along with ice cream and egg custard, cheesecake is offered for dessert, but we settled for fortune cookies.
The House of Peking Duck had a fair crowd the Tuesday night we were there, and our daughters liked it very much. Pleasant as it was, their father and I had hoped for something a little more out of the ordinary. Our bill for five, including tax and tip, totaled $46.75.