Finding Reasonably-Priced Food During the Olympics...

...is next to impossible, I have discovered. It seems that when eating out during the next two weeks, you need to carry not only a ton of cash, but also a stiff jaw that doesn't drop upon receiving the final bill.

I understand prices always rise during such high-profile events, and I'm sure in Athens, Torino, and Sydney more than a few locals simply stayed home more than usual. But I was ((and still am) determined not to become a hermit during the biggest party in China's 5,000+ years of history.

So I have sucked it up and tried to forget the almost doubling of prices at my local (albeit quite famous) Peking duck place. And the $12 Carlsberg and $11 Evian on "Sanlitun Super Bar Street" I just attributed to the area being a tourist magnet. But two nights ago we headed to Duck de Chine, an elegant new Peking duck restaurant whose bird a trusted foodie friend said was on par with my current favorite Da Dong's, and about the same price of around 200 RMB ($29) per duck including pancakes and condiments.

After we got seated, however, we learned that they were only offering 3- to 4-course set menus for the duration of the Olympics, at the equivalent of $124 a person (!!!) In China. For New York prices.

If you wanted a whole duck, you would need to order it on top of the required set menu, which had almost nothing appealing enough to warrant the high prices. I said a flat-out no and simply walked out. I can stomach doubled prices for China's coming-out party, but not 5 times what I expected the evening to cost. I could find a cheaper set meal at Beijing's Daniel Boulud.

We did finally eat, at the nearby Noodle Bar. The decor was muted, reminiscent of a small sushi bar, with 1 or 2 chefs in the center hand-pulling noodles to order. The set meal was 42 RMB for a large bowl of brisket and tripe noodles, edamame and seaweed sides, and oolong tea. Even the vegetable prices were at pre-Olympic levels. It wasn't insanely cheap, but certainly doable, considering the Noodle Bar was also at the glamorous new 1949:The Hidden City development. The noodles hit the spot, and as I imagined it, better than the set dinner that would have cost as much as a round-trip train ticket to Hong Kong.

I may return for the duck after the Games. For the time being, noodles and chua'r will be my main sustenance outside of home.

The Noodle Bar Inside 1949:The Hidden City, Gongti BeiLu (across from the south entrance of Pacific Century Place) Sanlitun, Chaoyang District Beijing

 

The Hedonist's Sunday Brunch

When your significant other decides to extend your birthday by suggesting Sunday brunch at the Westin, it's hard to refuse.

Granted, I had a long-time hatred and distrust of buffets. In fact, I revulsed at the thought of them. Buffets reminded me of soul-sucking Vegas vacations and childhood meals out in suburban Massachusetts. My well-meaning but frugal parents even held my college graduation party at a Chinese-style buffet; insisting that the all-you-can-eat platters of strange-flavor beef and California rolls were a "good deal". I would have sooner organized a reception at a Chinatown dai pai dong.

But I digress.

Beijing's Westin Sunday brunch shattered my belief that buffets were all about quantity over quality. I even went easy at first on the limitless Champagne, so my judgement wouldn't be clouded. It was an exercise in restraint.

The strongest indicator of substance over fluff was the seafood. I piled my plate with lobster, crab legs, jumbo prawns, clams, and the freshest mussels I had tasted in ages. And I doubt I could have found a better seafood bouillabaisse this side of the Caucasus. (For the record, Jacob and I had a very light dinner the night before, and didn't eat any more food for the rest of the day.)

I couldn't even make it to the Peking duck, roast pork, tuna tartare, seafood salads, noodle soups, chowders, dim sum offerings, bread puddings, baked goods, and all but three of the signature cocktails.

Of course, some foods just don't translate well when you make them in large-scale quantities. I was reminded of a previous job at a high-end Manhattan caterer, when I would spend whole days on tasks such as making tuile garnishes for 1,200 chocolate tarts. One of the many reasons people still go to high-end restaurants is for the intimate experience; for example, having a mousse parfait brought to you cold instead of self-serving one that has sat out for 3 hours.

Overall, though, I couldn't complain much. Not with this cake.

_________________________________________

Senses at The Westin Beijing, Financial Street 9B Jinrongjie, Financial Street Xidan, Beijing 9B金融街 西单, 北京 (86)(10) 6606 8866

Breaking the Restaurant Curse

(Thank you, Chuan Ban) Maybe it's not just me. Maybe other people also go through a cursed period of dining out, when every restaurant meal makes you want to crawl back to the safety of your own kitchen.

It started with a string of three Vietnamese restaurants. I had been avoiding Vietnamese here for lack-of-authenticity's sake, but recently got an immense craving for pho. Two weeks ago Jacob and I were in Houhai and, for lack of better choices, ate at Nuage, a trendy joint that seemed to care ten times more about décor than food. I won't go into a whole review. But I will say the spring rolls skins were lockjaw-inducing in their toughness. And the cocktails were possibly the worst I have had in China, which is saying a lot.

The next day I met up with Sandra from Savour Asia for lunch at Le Little Saigon, a new Vietnamese/French restaurant just north of the Drum and Bell Towers. The Vietnamese coffee was what I had been craving for months. But thick well-done flank steak has no place in my ideal bowl of pho. However, I'm such a sucker for good coffee and copies of Le Monde for perusing (in China!) that I just might return.

Two nights later, I ate over-cooked, almost oozy, lemongrass shrimp at Pho Restaurant. A few nights after that, Yunnan at Food in Novel that gave me food poisoning.

(Bad Vietnamese: Mushy shrimp)

After that I gave up on dining out. I tried to forget the money wasted. I threw myself into a week-long frenzy of cooking, cooking, cooking. At least if the food tasted bad, there was no one to blame but myself.

What finally broke the restaurant boycott was my birthday; there was no way I was suffocating in my kitchen with temperatures exceeding 40 degrees C. Jacob and I went out to eat at the much-touted "contemporary" restaurant SALT. Crisp seabass and crisp Viognier made me happy. The impatient service staff did not. And it made me wonder if we had to spend 450 RMB per couple to get good food in this town.

I e-mailed Sandra again. "I need something to restore my faith in eating out!" I wrote in desperation. Jacob and I met her and her husband at Chuan Ban, the Sichuan provincial government restaurant. (All of China's provinces have representative offices here, whose restaurants tend to set the standard for their respective cuisines in the capital.)

(Good Sichuan: Twice-cooked pork)

What followed was a succession of dishes that made remember how nice it was having other people cook for you. The shuizhu niurou (beef in chillis and oil) was a bit too tough and dried fried green beans rather flaccid, but other dishes made up for these defects. Huiguo rou (twice-cooked pork) and dou hua (soft tofu) in mala chilli sauce, though sloppily plated, were especially good in a home-cooked-by-Sichuan-grandmother sort of way.

I'm still aware that dining out in this town has its pitfalls. Restaurant reviews, from both local and international publications, tend to be overly generous. The best advice I can offer for jaded palettes (other than read this blog, of course) is to go out with other foodie friends who can weed out the overrated stuff. And to stock up on sturdy cooking utensils.

Recommended:

Chuan Ban 川办 (北京四川办餐) 5 Gongyuan Toutiao, near Jiangguomennei dajie Dongcheng District 东城区建国门内大街贡院头条5号

Sort-of Recommended:

Le Little Saigon No. 141, Jiu Gulou Dajie 旧鼓楼大街141号

SALT First Floor, 9 Jiangtai Xilu, Chaoyang-Lido Opposite the Japanese school, west of Rosedale Hotel 将台西路 珀丽酒店西侧

Attempt at your own risk: All the other ones mentioned

Pu'er Tea (Pu-erh), and Vegetarian Dining at Pure Lotus

Pu'er (sometimes spelled Pu-erh) is a complex tea with a huge following. It is the caipirinha of teas...drunken for centuries in its native land, and just now become ultra-popular to the outside world. The NYTimes recently had a good story on how farmers in Yunnan province are benefitting from the the rest of China and other countries discovering their native tea.

Pu'er originated in Yunnan but is also grown in neighboring Burma, Vietnam, and Laos. You may know it as the tea that's compressed into disks, bricks, or little dumpling-shaped cakes. Sheng Pu'er, also called green or raw Pu'er, is the kind most sought after by tea connosieurs. Like a good Bordeaux, it is aged for years, sometimes decades, and has a rich earthy taste that is particular to the land it grew on. Shou Pu'er is darker, oxidized after harvest to resemble the aging process Sheng Pu'er naturally undergoes. It can be drunken immediately, is much less expensive, but has a less complex flavor.

Yesterday Mark from The Hutong, a local cooking school/community space, invited me over for some tea. (He regularly holds tea appreciation classes at the school, and goes to tea regions in Yunnan and Anhui to source leaves for his own label.) Although I'm not the best at picking out the sublest flavors in tea, or even wine for that matter, I love the Sheng Pu'er he had me try. It was somewhat mellow but with a clean herbal taste that lingers in your mouth after swallowing. I could sip it all day.

Earlier this week Jacob and I went to Pure Lotus with two new friends, a vegetarian and a vegan, visiting from London. Pure Lotus, is consistently voted as one of the best vegetarian spots in Beijing, so we were excited to try it. The restaurant is spectacular in its design, with fountains, Buddhist art, and private rooms like fancy grottos. The four of us somehow got a private room with a long banquet table for ten.

The food, while good, was less impressive than the surroundings. Pure Lotus, like most vegetarian restaurants in China, prides itself on mock meat. Some dishes were delicious, like the juicy claypot "chicken" that tasted close to the real thing. Others we could have passed over, like stinky tofu with stir-fried greens and the bland pan-fried dumplings. The braised "ribs" (mock beef on wooden skewers) were pretty good. And I couldn't stop eating the litchis stuffed with tang yuan (glutinous rice balls), although the jumbo serving bowl filled with ice was a bit much for the 10 little litchies that came in it.

The most impressive part of the meal came at the end, when we got melon served in an enormous rustic dish filled with misting dry ice. I guess the whole dish was supposed to be very Zen-like, but we just had fun blowing on the mist, scooping and releasing the mist with our teacups, and snapping photos of our enlightened fruit.

Throughout dinner we drank a 90 rmb pot of Pu'er. It was nice, earthier than your average black tea, but probably not worth the hefty price. I much prefered the Shou Pu'er I had at The Hutong later. But one thing I did really liked about tea at Pure Lotus were the tiny tea cups. The double layers of glass did a decent job of insulating the tea, and they just look so good against the Zen-like tableware. And since I'm a sucker for aesthetics and fruit served on dry ice, I wouldn't hestitate to revisit Pure Lotus.

Pure Lotus

12 Nongzhan Nanlu, near west gate of Chaoyang Park Chaoyang District, Beijing 6592-3627

 

Peking Duck at Da Dong

Two nights ago one of J's friends visited from Shanghai, and he was craving the nice succulent duck that virtually everyone craves after a long hiatus from Beijing. He had eaten Peking duck "hundreds of times" before, in Beijing and elsewhere, but laments that Shanghai has nothing close to what the capital offers. We laid out the options: one of the Quanjude restaurants around his hotel in Wangfujing, or go all out at the swanky Da Dong a short cab ride away. Hoping to get away from the tourist crowd, we jumped in the cab.

Turns out, Da Dong also had loads of tourists that night, including at least 4 or 5 tour groups led by a flag-waving guide. Fortunately, the restaurant's massive size, taking up 2 floors of a block-size tower, means that tour groups get their own rooms, and everyone else eats without being offended by bullhorns or matching baseball caps.

The one thing that Da Dong immediate has going for it is atmosphere. After eating at other duck restaurants around the city that go all out with faux (insert random Chinese dynasty) gaudiness, it was a relief to be in a kaoyadian with good lighting, comfortable modern furniture, and absolutely no mammoth cartoon duck statues by the door.

The wait was 20 minutes or so (on a Monday night), so we amused ourselves by watching the duck kitchen at work. The kitchen is right by the entrance, on full display like a museum exhibit. There are 4 or 5 brick ovens, each fitting 5 ducks at a time. Every 2 minutes or so one of the 20 chefs lined up would pull a duck from the oven, hang it on a rack, drain and wipe it, and prep it for table-side carving. The skin always glistened so beautifully, so temptingly. On the other side of the plexiglass, hungry visitors like us would sit, waiting and drooling.

At least there was free box wine and soda. Or as I like to call them, "shut up and quit nagging the hostess" drinks.

When we finally got seated, we were presented with a 160-page menu, a hard-bound coffee table volume of food porn that puts The French Laundry Cookbook to shame. Each page was devoted to a single menu item, with larger-than-life drool-worthy photos. It's a good thing to flip through when you're not starving and want to order as quickly as possible. The drink menu was separate, in another hard-bound book.

Alas, we persevered. The guys did the ordering, calling out anything that sounded good. For once, I wasn't the one ordering too much. We had spicy cucumbers, spinach with wasabi and mustard, venison with pineapple and garlic sauce, pan-seared prawns, and curried scallops. All were artistically plated, all were delicious.

We watched the chef slice the duck into thin, almost translucent slices. We got our own dishes of scallions, plum sauce, cucumbers. The waitress, either following restaurant protocol or thinking we were newbies, folded the standard wraps for each of us. Then she took tiny sesame buns and put more duck, scallions, and sauce in those. The duck was juicy and smoky with crisp skin, and definitely leaner and less greasy than others I've had.

How the three of us managed to finished all of the above, plus duck bone soup and Singapore Slings, is beyond me. I do know we were the second-to-last table to leave. Now that J and I live in Beijing, Peking duck is one of those things we eat only when out-of-town guests visit. ("The novelty wears out after a while. Now we go out for Mexican food," J told his friend.) It had been almost 4 months since I last had Peking duck, but based on this experience, maybe visitors should come more often.

____________________________________

Related posts on Peking duck:

Thanksgiving in Beijing with Peking Duck Crispy Duck Spring Rolls

____________________________________

Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant 北京大董烤鸭店 1-2/F Nanxincang International Plaza, 22A Dongsi Shitiao, (southwest of Dongsi Shitiao Bridge) Dongcheng District, Beijing 东城区东四十条甲22号南新仓国际大厦1~2楼(立交桥西南角) 5169-0328