Macarons in Beijing? Mais Oui!

Paris may be thousands of miles from Beijing, but that doesn't mean delectable French pastries are out of reach. I immediately fell for these macarons when I saw them at Comptoirs de France, a bakery opened by Philippe Ancelet, formerly of the Kempinski Hotel.

Macarons, especially from Pierre Hermé or Ladurée, have a cult following, and the cult only grows as more fans blog about them. These tiny rounds of meringue sandwiching a thin layer of cream look almost too good to eat, especially since patissiers often line up 10 or 12 different kinds, from pinks to greens to yellows. As adults, we may be too old to salivate over cotton candy and lollie pops, but macarons still give us a chance to indulge in something bright and colorful.

Comptoirs de France also has canneles, tarts, and petit fours, but those are the subjects of another story. Not buying every flavor of macarons was an exercise in restraint. But I did try the Vanilla Bourbon, Caramel Fleur de Sel, Green Tea, and Chocolate Sichuan Pepper.

The Caramel was the best of the bunch; the Fleur de Sel somehow made the Caramel taste a bit like Dulce de Leche. Green Tea tasted much sweeter than other desserts made with matcha powder, but was good nonetheless. And the Chocolate Sichuan Pepper indeed had a kick, and a mouthnumbing aftertaste. Now I'm also inspired to experiment with Sichuan Pepper in chocolate desserts. Stay tuned!

Comptoirs de France East Lake Villas, 35 Dongzhimen Waidajie 东直门外大街35号东湖别墅大堂 6461-1525

Rm. 102, 1/F, Bldg 15, China Central Place, 89 Jianguo Lu 建国路89号华贸中心15号楼1层102室 6530-5480

Yunnan Cuisine in Beijing's Xicheng

The Yunnan folk music playing in the restaurant was so soothing that the cricket noises blended right in. Then Jacob snapped me out of my daze and pointed to the middle of the room. A middle-aged couple was lovingly playing with their pet cricket, which was sitting on the table in a tiny glass jar.

The cricket continued to chirp sporadically throughout our meal. While it's more common to hear car honks in the middle of Beijing than crickets, it was easy to pretend for a while that we were in rural Yunnan. The restaurant was decorated in bright yellows and reds, with Dai minority folk art on the walls. And we were about to eat hearty Yunnan fare.

We started off with a Dai mint salad, a salad composed entirely of mint leaves, with a little minced garlic, chilli, and vinegar thrown in.

"Wow," said Jacob, after his first bite. "It's good, but you'd have to really like mint."

Fortunately, I do like mint enough to fill up my whole mouth with them. But soon I found out that dipping the mint in the Cross-the-Bridge noodles made it even better.

Cross-the-Bridge noodles, or 过桥米线 (Guoqiao Miqian), is a Yunnan staple. The name comes from a story about a scholar who was studying for his exams by isolating himself on an island. His wife had a cross a long bridge every day to bring him meals, and was disappointed that all the food was cold by the time she reached him. Finally she discovered that she could keep her soup boiling hot by just covering it with a thin layer of vegetable oil. The scholar passed his exams (maybe these noodles are brain food?) and Cross-the-Bridge noodles became popular throughout the province.

Our waiter (who might also be the owner) brought out the boiling hot noodle soup on a tray along with little dishes of raw egg, chicken, fish skin, sprouts, and greens. After asking if we wanted everything in the soup (we did), he and his colleague emptied 7 or 8 dishes into the soup in lightning speed. The soup was still so hot that everything cooked right in the bowl. The noodles were tasty and the serving size so large neither of us could finish ours.

We also ordered some fried mantou. These mantou were more doughnut-like than other fried mantou served around Beijing, crispier and slightly sweeter. Instead of sweetened condensed milk for dipping, these fried mantou came with stir-fried beef with peppers and a lot of extra savory, meaty sauce.

By the end of the meal, the cricket in the center of the room was still chirping. Its owners, however, were now concentrating on slurping their own giant bowl of Cross-the-Bridge noodles.

Chahua Meizi Guoqiao Mixian 101 Di'anmenwai Dajie Xicheng District, Beijing

茶花妹子过桥米线 北京市西城区地安门外大街101号

Phone: 84017888

Eating in Coloane, Macau

In my previous trips to Macau, I had only explored the Central and Southern parts of Macau island. On Valentine's Day, Jacob and I took another day trip to the former Portuguese colony and headed to a part that wasn't engulfed in casino and resort construction. After crossing the border, we hopped on a free shuttle to Hotel Lisboa, and from there caught a bus to Coloane, Macau's southernmost island.

Coloane is a tiny, laid-back island that is a great antidote to Central Macau's bustling streets. I, for one, was glad to get away from the diesel fumes and noise of motorcycle engines. (Motorcycles were out in full force yesterday, probably Spring Festival vacationers expending last bits of pent-up energy before starting work again.) Coloane Village is a nice place to walk around for an hour and admire the low-lying buildings that fuse Portuguese and Chinese styles. I was reminded of little villages in Lantau and Hong Kong's New Territories, where people leave their doors open and you can peak in and see what locals are eating for lunch, or watching on TV. (Not that I peak, of course.)

Taking a break from walking, we ducked into Lord Stow's Bakery in the main square. In addition to Macanese egg tarts, the bakery also carried chocolate tarts, breads, chocolate puddings, and milk teas. Macanese egg tarts are like Cantonese egg tarts except with more sugar and with a caramelized top. I don't know about the bakery's claim to having invented the Macanese egg tart, but the tarts provided just enough sugar to satiate my sweet tooth.

The highlight of Coloane was Fernando's, a Portuguese restaurant located on Hac Sa (Cantonese for "black sand") Beach. I have read a lot about this restaurant before, as it is recommended by all the guide books as one of the best places to eat in Macau. I usually take such recommendations with a grain of salt, but couldn't pass up dining here since we made it all the way out to Coloane.

"Make sure they know you're waiting," said a middle-aged British man who was sitting at the bar. "They have the worst service..." he paused, then sighed, "...but THE BEST food."

Sure enough, service was gruff, but there were little complaints as we chowed down on the hearty Portuguese/Macanese fare. Macanese fried rice had a delicious blend of shrimp, bacalao, Portuguese sausage, and olives. It was great for eating alone or for sopping up the feijoada, a stew of refried beans and fatty pork. I especially liked the roast suckling pig, with sweet crackly skin and tender meat, served with a salad with thick homemade fries.

The dining room is a bit spartan; it looks like equal parts beach house, lodge, and Italian red-sauce joint. But the food is what keeps people coming, as it was still busy at 3:30 in the afternoon when we left. The meal was a bit pricey; entrees ranged from 50 to 130 Macau dollars, at 8.03 patacas to the USD. But the house red wine (25 Macau dollars for a half carafe) was a relative bargain, and great for sipping to celebrate a low-key Valentine's Day in a low-key part of town.

To get to Coloane Take bus 15, 21A, 25, or 26A from Central Macau.

Lord Stow's Bakery 1 Rua da Tassara Coloane Town Square, Coloane Island, Macau

Fernando's Praia de Hac Sa, 9 Coloane Island, Macau 853/28882264

A Web of Dumplings

I made it to Zhongshan without any problems on the road, despite the furious winter weather that still rages north of Guangdong province. I had barely settled in when my parents announced we were all going to dim sum.

My parents would never let a visit pass without going to dim sum at least once or twice, especially at their apartment complex's restaurant. It's affordable, reliably good, and like Cheers, it's where everybody knows their names. "Hi 关先生 and 关太太...oh, your daughter's back again, huh? Must be an occasion to celebrate." "Would you like the usual table and your usual pot of tea?" After 20 years in the service industry in the US, it's no wonder my parents love being on the receiving end of good service in their retirement years.

Dish after dish came to our table. There were the usual har gow (shrimp dumplings in translucent wrappers) and Chiew Chow dumplings filled with pork and greens. Then came a web of something crisp with dumplings underneath. Turns out, these were pan-fried dumplings, except the pan-frying method was a tad more elaborate than swishing around a hot wok for a few minutes.

After adding oil, the chef would sprinkle a web of flour in the pan before adding a layer of dumplings on top. This method requires the chef to have more control over the temperature of the pan, because here you can't use a spatula to shift contents around the pan if the dumplings start to cook unevenly.

This way of pan-frying requires a bit more work, but I think the finished plate's wow factor is worth it. The filling was a juicy combo of pork and chives. And texture-wise, adding a bit of flour to the bottom seems to make the dumplings crispier and less oily than many other pan-fried versions.


Hong Kong Comfort Food

Native Hong Kongers and savvy travelers know that some of the best food, the kind you crave at 3pm or 3am, is not found at elaborate banquet halls or pricey fusion establishments. The best food is the kind Hong Kongers would make for themselves, if they only had the time. The city's noodle shops and coffee chops, called cha chaan tengs, provide the backbone of comfort food for people who are always on the move, but still like to duck into a place to relax and eat for a while.

Daisanne McLane has a good article in this week's New York Times on cha chaan tengs. These basic hole-in-the-walls, usually outfitted with formica tables and worn booths or plastic chairs, provide a kind of comforting nostalgia for the food and an old way of life. The menu usually consists of both Cantonese staples like beef brisket noodles and holdovers from HK's colonial days, like toast slathered with thickened sweet condensed milk. Wonton soup, another cha chaan teng staple, is something I could eat every other day and not get sick of. (If you can't make it to Hong Kong or have a good Cantonese restaurant in your town, see my recipe on making your own wontons.)

McLane also notes that the "pièce de resistance" is the milk tea (nai cha), black tea mixed with condensed milk. Nai cha is to Hong Kongers what cappuccinos are to Italians, except it can be drunken any time of the day. Earlier in this blog I had also written about a type of nai cha that is strained through ladies stockings, something that I have never seen anywhere outside Hong Kong.

On this last trip I was able to indulge in delicoius wonton soups and nai cha at various cha chaan tengs around town. Though I don't recall the exact place names and locations, it doesn't matter: it's hard to get a bad simple meal in Hong Kong. With so many cha chaan tengs, seemingly at least a few on every block, shop owners know that if quality dips, people just go elsewhere. To pick a good cha chaan teng, just walk around town and find one with a lot of patrons.

One dish that you can find a lot of in HK but rarely a good version is Hainan Chicken Rice. One of the "national dishes" of Singapore, chicken rice rarely gets the same treatment here; the chicken is often a little too dry, the rice a little too bland. But after some research online, I found a place that received praise from locals and Singaporeans. Sergeant Chicken Rice, located at the Food Republic court in Tai Koo Shing's Cityplaza, serves both the traditional boiled chicken and a roasted version. I got a set meal that included the chicken and rice, broth, and a side of gai lan (Chinese flowering broccoli) topped with oyster sauce. The chilli sauce accompaniment was a bit watery for my taste. However, the chicken was very succulent and went well with the flavorful but not too oily rice.

Sergeant Chicken Rice
4/F at Food Republic, Cityplaza One
14 Taikoo Wan Road
Tai Koo Shing, Hong Kong