1840 Maple Rd., Williamsville NY 14221
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Barbecue Chinese Dim Sum Mongolian Williamsville
"Whether you're a novice or you know what you're doing, your compositions are likely to wind up tasting like something you could make in your own kitchen."
Maple Road in Williamsville was formerly home to two notable Chinese restaurants: the impressive, semi-formal Chang's Garden, and the smaller, less pretentious Golden Duck. What Golden Duck lacked in sophistication and floor space, it made up for in menu variety, offering not just a full standard Chinese menu but also a weekend Mongolian Barbecue and Cantonese Dim Sum service, comprised of small dishes of steamed and fried dumplings in various shapes and flavors.
In years past, Golden Duck did a generally good job, but between population shifts and the loss of Chang's to a fire, Golden Duck has apparently lost any incentive to improve its fare. Thus, in recent months, we've felt that its food and service have fallen deep into shadow, now only barely approximating the sort of dining experience that sophisticated fans of Chinese food crave. While the items on its main menu are acceptable, most can be found anywhere; conversely, its locally unique Mongolian BBQ experience is close to terrible - you could do better in your own kitchen - and its dim sum is hardly better than reheated frozen food. For its speciality items, you can do worse, but not much.
The Story: When you walk into Golden Duck, it's apparent that the management tried to find a way to pack two types of Chinese restaurants into a single space; the first thing you see in the cramped entryway is a metal buffet of barely shielded frozen meat shavings, vegetables, noodles, and sauces, laid out in front of a small cooking room that is just visible from the window. If you continue down the buffet, you'll see small tables with dishes - some heated, some not - containing a variety of traditional Chinese items such as porridge, sliced poultry that has been fried, poached, or broiled. The latter items are designed to be bonuses, small items to keep you occupied while you're waiting for your hand-assembled collection of meat, noodles, and vegetables to be cooked on the Mongolian grill, but they're not going to be compelling to most visitors, and rarely seem well-attended to by the staff.
Beyond the buffet, you'll find tables in two main rooms, as well as a wait staff counter next to doors that lead to a kitchen. It's obvious that Golden Duck has the capacity to both seat and serve a pretty big crowd, though it has been an awfully long time since we've seen this place packed with enough people to flow into the second room. Most sit in the main dining area, observed by whomever's at the wait staff counter.
While there are many different portions of the menu to focus upon, it's the weekend Mongolian and Cantonese fare that both attracts us to this place and repulses us when we receive it. The dim sum menu is basically unchanged from what it looked like 10 years ago, with a list of roughly 25 items that are familiar to anyone who has eaten dim sum before, including mainstays such as steamed or baked barbeque pork buns, Chinese acquired tastes such as chicken feet, and other dishes as detailed below. Order from this menu, and everything's a la carte, but if you order the Mongolian barbecue, you're given access to an almost bizarre buffet that will make some but not complete sense to those who have tried similar meals before.
Highs: Though extremely inconsistent from dish to dish, the restaurant's plain jane Chinese menu generally isn't bad, featuring all of the regular items you'd expect, and a few - salt and pepper-fried items, for instance - that while not hugely distinctive are still rare locally. While we didn't think much of Golden Duck's Hot and Sour Soup, which has neither characteristic in abundance, the old Americanized standards like General Tso's Chicken are done fine. You'll be fine if you stick to the basics.
Lows: Where to begin? It's not hard to offer a good Mongolian buffet: form a line in front of a super-hot disc-shaped cooking surface, put meats, seafood, vegetables, noodles and sauces in front, and let people create their own bowls full of food. Better Mongolian places provide lots of ingredients and plenty of sauce with large ladles to let you flavor them well.
Golden Duck doesn't. The selections and sauces are limited, the sauce spoons are small, and the restaurant makes no attempt through human or written instructions to guide patrons in preparing even vaguely authentic Mongolian barbecue. As a result, whether you're a novice or you know what you're doing, your compositions are likely to wind up tasting like something you could make in your own kitchen. The photo of our barely flavored Mongolian plate, filled with bland noodles and meats that we'd tried as best as possible to season with small spoons, is here; we've never had such a bad bowl in all of the Mongolian restaurants we've visited.
Dim sum is equally disappointing; from the just-out-of-the-freezer taste of even staple steamed items such as the shrimp dumplings and shu mai, which just lacked so much in freshness that we couldn't bring ourselves to order them again, to the "there's just something wrong" internal gooeyness of the deep-fried sesame balls, it would be hard for even a starved dim sum fan to find this acceptable. The spring rolls are okay, served three to a plate with deep fried rice wrappers, but then, they're okay at any Chinese restaurant, any day or night of the week.
Not exactly uplifting on food quality, the Golden Duck experience is topped off by unbelievably spotty service, which has left us walking up to get our own drinks and bills. The people at the wait staff counters seem largely disinterested in offering friendly service, service in general, or even the basics of attention; it's the opposite of most table service Chinese restaurants, and hardly better than going to a second-rate takeout place. We've had better service direct from the counter at Sun Garden than here.
The Verdict: Though it pains us to say it, the suburbs' most convenient place for dim sum and Mongolian barbecue isn't even worthy of a first visit. Consider this if you're willing to try the standard menu, but don't be surprised if the experience leaves you utterly cold - similarly, don't take these renditions of Cantonese or Mongolian weekend meals as representative of what they're supposed to be like.