(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.
(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.
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
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