Noodle Loft, Beijing

Noodle Loft is one of those talked-about restaurants in Beijing. It's posh, it has good food, and best of all, it has theatrics. I had seen a clip of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations segment on Noodle Loft, in which an army of chefs worked their magic turning lumps of dough into beautiful Shanxi-style noodles. I had been meaning to try the restaurant for a while, but the original Noodle Loft in CBD always seemed far away when I had noodle cravings. Fortunately I discovered that the newer branch is at Hepingxiqiao, 1 subway stop from my apartment.

Given that we got to the restaurant after prime dinner time, there was much less fury of noodle-making activity than Anthony saw. Still, chefs in the open kitchen were still working their magic by stretching, shaping, swinging, and shaving noodles into vats of boiling water.

To start, we got a cold dish of spinach and thick vermicelli in vinegar and some stir-fried greens. For the noodles, I ordered the knife-cut version that is prepared pretty much like in this hutong noodle video, except in a snazzy open kitchen by a tall guy in starchy chef's whites. The texture of the noodles was equally thick, chewy, and delectable. Other noodle options included "cat's ears" gnocchi-type noodles, hand-pulled noodles, and "noodles made with one single chopstick."

After getting our hot noodles brought by the chefs themselves, we went to the dressing bar and loaded up on different condiments. I tried the aged vinegar and the stir-fried pork sauce; both were very good, though I prefered the smokey crispiness of the latter. Jacob tried the tomato and fried egg (rather bland) and the garlic broth (okay, except that a chef put out a fresh hot bowl right after J spooned the older broth over his noodles.)

I also had a drink that I now want to try making at home: hot pear cider with fresh pears cubes and tremella. Tremella, otherwise known as snow fungus, is often used in Chinese soups. And unlike mushrooms, another type of fungus, tremella's subtle sweet flavor makes it good for drinks. So even though I won't be able to swing or shave my own noodles at home, a skill that takes years to learn well, I am now inspired to experiment with various ingredients that can go into pear cider.

Noodle Loft

20 Xi Dawang Lu CBD, Chaoyang District, Beijing
朝阳区西大望路南20号

3 Heping Xijie  (THIS LOCATION NOW CLOSED, ACCORDING TO A COMMENTER)
Chaoyang District, Beijing
朝阳区和平西街3号 

Oatmeal Butter Prawns

Oatmeal, a breakfast and baked goods staple, doesn't really appear in many savory entrees. However, it is a featured ingredient in oatmeal butter prawns, a Singaporean dish that is equally sweet, savory, and spicy. The preparation is relatively simple: wok-frying with egg, butter, curry leaves, oats, sugar, and bird's eye chilli. The result is a deliciously fragrant dish that is at the same time comforting and exotic. It seems to have been bred from both a sun-kissed Southeast Asian sidestreet and a Norman Rockwell-esque kitchen. The fast wok preparation ensures the oatmeal stays crispy. Wow, you think, oatmeal can taste this good outside of a cookie.

We had this dish tonight at Singaporean Secrets in Beijing's The Place. The restaurant had other decent selections, including mee goreng and roti prata, but it was the oatmeal butter prawns that stood out. At the start of a blistery Beijing winter, munching on the prawns made me wonder about the cost of airfare to Singapore.

Singaporean Secrets
B142, The Place, 9 Guanghua Lu
CBD (Central Business District), Chaoyang District, Beijing
朝阳区光华路9号世贸天阶B142

Crispy Duck Spring Rolls

Roast duck is one of my favorite meats, and it's one of the easiest dishes to find in Guangdong province. Delicious, sweet Cantonese roast duck is sold by every other neighborhood restaurant, for cheap. Up north, the story is a little different.

In Beijing, unless you have the appetite for a full Peking duck meal, good roast duck is a little harder to find. One option is to go to a restaurant that offers Peking duck and order some crispy roast duck spring rolls. (Along with other dishes, of course.) The meat is the same high quality as the whole ducks, and the amount is just enough to satisfy the taste buds. Of course, these can also be ordered as part of a Peking duck dinner.

The formula for a good crispy duck spring roll is one part crispy skin and one part flavorful filling. Fillings vary by restaurant, but usually consist of fatty duck meat, cooked egg, carrots, and lettuce. The duck meat should be sufficiently seasoned (salted) to lend flavor to the rest of the ingredients, so no need for a dipping sauce.

Bianyifang Roast Duck Restaurant
2A Chongwenmenwai Dajie
Chongwen District, Beijing

Din Tai Fung, Beijing

I finally made it out to Din Tai Fung, a restaurant which many have claimed to be the crème de la crème for xiǎolóngbāo, or soup dumplings. This xiǎolóngbāo mecca originated in Taiwan, but has since spread to mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, Korea, and the US. I waited until my cousin and his wife had a free night, and insisted on taking them to dinner there.

Unlike Shanghai, Beijing doesn't have a high concentration of restaurants that serve xiǎolóngbāo. And places that do offer them tend to have, um, bastardized versions. Too much soup, not enough soup, skin too thick, skin that breaks upon chopstick contact and thus spilling the contents all over the table. The difficulty of getting a good xiǎolóngbāo in this town makes the high prices at Din Tai Fung worth it.

I had expected a long wait, seeing that we arrived at 7 pm on a Saturday night. The restaurant was crowded enough, but the management had no qualms about seating us before the other 2 people in our party had arrived. (The seasoned New York diner in me couldn't help being awed.) The restaurant was filled with artsy couples, impeccably dressed families, Taiwanese tourists, all enjoying baskets upon baskets of dumplings.

To start, we got bowls of their traditional chicken soup, which had pieces of braised chicken in the broth. I'm not an opponent of MSG (in small doses), but it was refreshing to taste a soup without any additives to mask the chicken's subtle, natural flavor.

We ordered four kinds of dumplings: the signature pork xiǎolóngbāo, the crab and pork soup xiāolóngbāo, steamed vegetable and pork jiáozi, and mini pork xiǎolóngbāo. The pork xiāolóngbāo were good, but seemed to have cooled off a bit by the time they got to the table. The crab and pork, fortunately, were hot and freshly steamed. The strong flavor of fresh crab, the juicy pork, and the hot soup bursting all at once out of the thin skin and into your mouth is pure bliss.

The mini xiǎolóngbāo came 20 to a basket, with a side of broth. The idea is to put one in a spoonful of broth and eat it in one bite. The mini's were gone so fast we wondered if we should have ordered a second basket.

To accompany the dumplings we also got sautéed water spinach and zongzi (sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf.) I grew up eating a lot of Cantonese-style zongsi, many of which were too dry for my liking. The zongzi at Din Tai, on the other hand, were fragrant and full of moisture. (I can imagine what my parents would say if I told them the zongzi made by a Taiwanese chain is better than any I've had in southern China, but that's for another time.)

The final bill, 350 rmb for 4, was more than what we usually spend on dinner in Beijing, but a bargain for a restaurant of this caliber. For a fun dinner on a Saturday night, service sans attitude, and some of the best dumplings and zongsi I've had in China, Din Tai Fung was worth the trip. Now, I hear the branches in Shanghai and Taiwan are even better, so DTF is on the must-try list the next time I visit either place.

Din Tai Fung
6/F, Shin Kong Place, China Central Place
87 Jianguo Lu, Chaoyang District
Beijing
朝阳区, 建国路87号, 新光天地6楼

Also another branch at
24 Xinyuanxili Zhongjie, Chaoyang District
Beijing
朝阳区, 新源西里中街24号

Tasty Sichuan Near Jianguomen Subway Stop

The caveat of eating a lot of great spicy food is that you keep wanting more spicy food. When dinner time came around, J and I played with some options that included Korean hot pot, Beijing-style dumplings, or Yunnan. But I had a craving for spicy Sichuan, probably fueled by the larger-than-usual amounts of Sichuan I've been eating for the past few days

About half a block north of the Jianguomen stop is Dongzhongbu Hutong. Bǎichuānwèi 百川味 doesn't draw the crowds that nearby Chuan Ban does, but had a dining room filled with enough happy diners to draw us in.

The menu had typical Sichuanese fare, hot pot options, and a few Beijing homestyle dishes thrown in. A small kitchen attached to the dining room also had a chef preparing and roasting Peking duck. Another chef in the dining room was adeptly slicing very fragrant ducks with a cleaver the whole time we were eating, while waitresses briskly brought the plates into the adjoining dining room.

Peking duck would have left us with leftovers for a week, so we went with less extravagant options. Mápó dòufu 麻婆豆腐 was tasty and spicy enough to satisfy my cravings. The "Mouth-watering chicken" 口水鸡 (also translated as "saliva chicken"), chopped up and served with chilli sauce and peanuts, lived up to its name. The meat was tender, and I couldn't help sopping up the chilli sauce with our side of broccoli.

The ambiance was nothing special, with bright lights and the requisite lanterns that lose their effect because of the brightness. But at 70 yuan ($9.40) for for 3 entrees, chrysanthemum tea, and beer, I'm not complaining. (Though I will definitely brave the crowds at Chuan Ban another day.)

百川味
Dongzhongbu Hutong, off Jianguomenbei Dajie
Dongcheng District, Beijing