Here's the thing about Peking duck: the best places expect you to order it a day in advance. It's not like stir-fried noodles or wonton soup, ready to whip up at a moment's notice. There are rules: heating the oven with fruit-tree wood; pumping air under the skin so it separates from the fat; filling the cavity with boiling water as it slow-roasts. If your idea of heaven is the roast duck in those Hong Kong barbecue joints, you've plainly yet to try Peking (no, not Beijing) duck.
I'm not sure whether they obey all the traditional rules at Empress Garden. As I remember, the chef doesn't carve it at the table as a white-jacketed maestro did at the place I went to in Beijing (no, not Peking). His slices, thick enough to be succulent, thin enough to ensure there were a lot of them, were fanned on the plate like a card sharp's deck, making a sight so beautiful that I forgot the cucumber was probably grown with the assistance of industrial levels of pesticide.
All of which is by way of saying that I reckon the folks at Tao have a bit of a cheek calling their duck Peking. The (admittedly juicy) meat, some with skin, some without, is semi-shredded and dumped on the side of the plate. The julienned cucumber (and I think I caught a glimpse of carrot) is in the nature of a garnish, the sweet bean sauce is unmemorable and it wouldn't kill them to lay on a few more pancakes.
It may seem a bit nit-picking but in a place that describes itself (a shade grandly, I think) as serving "Chinese fusion" food, I was hoping for something that improved on the original idea rather than simply sounded a distant echo of it.
Tao occupies the space previously and honourably occupied by Basque Kitchen and Bar. The new owners have painted the formerly grizzled walls and added a few artworks and eye-catching copper piping. It's got a buzzy vibe suitable for the little pocket-size precinct of eateries most of which, in my experience, promise more than they deliver.
We started with what was described as pickled cucumber, though the pickling was hard to detect: more noticeable was the arcane and complicated slicing, which made the whole thing into a curling snake, hard to handle with chopsticks, though the ginger, coriander and chilli gave the palate a good wake-up call.
I was most keen on the slow-cooked beef cheek, which came as cold carpaccio-style slices (a reminder of the fantastic ox tongue salad at my favourite cheap-eats place in the area, Sunrise Cafe in Khyber Pass). I've no idea what that "old Beijing-style dipping sauce" contained, but it was great.
More than half the menu is made up of dumplings, divided into "classic" and "Tao" selections: the former includes steamed lamb wontons, which I've never met elsewhere. They were quite outstanding, rich and just mildly fatty, and they made me wonder why Chinese cuisine in this country has not more enthusiastically embraced a meat that we produce better than anyone else in the world.
The shumai, made with pork belly and black tiger prawn were also state-of-the-art, the commonest of dim sum given a real lift by the use of excellent ingredients, yet still only $6 for four. Squid, flash-fried with cumin, was almost unbelievably tender. Of the "Tao dumpling" selection, I can enthusiastically recommend the seafood ones, which use sea bass, scallop, calamari and prawn.
I can't say I was much impressed with the single dessert option, which involved red bean congee and green tea icecream, but I have declared in the past my prejudice that if you head east from India you shouldn't have dessert until you get to San Francisco.
The service could use with some sharpening, particularly when it comes to table-clearing. Tao is more of a good, if pricey dumpling bar (we paid $150 for four, not counting drinks) than what I would call Chinese fusion, but there were enough Chinese diners there to confirm my view that they are getting it mostly right.
Verdict: Smarter than your average Chinese.
Small $5-$17; larger $18-$29; dumplings $6-$12