Sunday, January 11, 2015

Chinese cuisine in China is indeed cool or Beijing NOT on a budget (Jan 5-7, 2015)

We stopped in Beijing for a 3 day stay in China on the way home from Singapore for a variety of reasons, and the one thing I must say is that the rumors of awful food in China we had heard over the years were completely dispelled.
After an exhausting day, we decided to dine right across the street from our hotel, the brand new and awesome Waldorf Astoria. The guy at the reception desk was from Washington (small world) and recommended XIAN LIANG HUI only a 1 minute walk across the street (although with nobody observing traffic laws, crossing the street could be deadly in Beijing!).
The Chinese don't eat late, so when we arrived at 830pm, the place was almost deserted and we were escorted to a beautiful private dining room with sliding doors and a huge round  table (which could have seated 8 or 9 folks) with a giant glass lazy susan in the center (I really felt like I was at some fancy Chinese place in the US!). The folks understood us fairly well and we perused the menu (thank goodness for pictures) and chose several items to share. There was a dank smell of smoke and we noticed several ashtrays filled with cigarette butts. When we asked to have these removed, no action was taken. We have to chalk it up as a misunderstanding or lack of communication. When Will got up to try and dump them (we have a private bathroom as well), he got the evil eye and quickly resumed eating. The service was fine and the food was pretty much all delicious.
CRABK & SQUASH SOUP was delicate, hot and very filling. We took to ordering many soups while in China as it was always below freezing by dinnertime, indeed the temperature hovered between 12-25 each night! Samuel & Will ordered the SWEET & SOUR PORK SOUP which was also good, but the meat had a bit to be desired.
The hit dish here was the SPICY SZECHUAN SHRIMP with scallions, peanuts, zucchini & red chilis. It packed a punch and was full of flavor.
Samuel declared the SLICED POTATO & CHINESE YELLOW MUSHROOMS his favorite and we agreed, especially since these delicious earthy yellow mushrooms were so akin to our decadent chanterelles.
STEWED CHINESE YAMS & PORK RIBS had superb almost white colored yams (less sweet than what we have at home) which were superb, but the pork ribs had tons of gristle and almost no meat. The dish came with something new for all of us in the form of LOTUS SEEDS which are a bean-like crunchy affair that we loved. Sliced ginger made the veggie portion just perfect, but the pork was almost putrid.
RICE NOODLES with DUCK was extremely rich and the duck was in tiny slivers. I would have preferred a less rich sauce, as this was almost like a foie gras sauce and the portion was quite large; sadly a lot was left as even the three of use could not eat that much.
I asked for the wine menu and almost had a heart attack when the starting prices were at over $100 for the cheapest mediocre wine, but then they brought over a small special wine list with discounts and I was relieved we could get something for $60 from Chile, but it seemed to be sold out, as were all the other wines but two. The server explained they were closing for renovations the next day and this was the reason the list was depleted, as indeed was the menu (many of our first choices were not available). We settled on a Penfolds Bin 128 SHIRAZ from Coonawara, Australia which rang in at about $90 and was excellent. This wine retails in the USA for about $25. When we asked for the check the wine did not show at the discount price on that mini-menu they sent me and the staff made a fuss. They wanted to charge me almost 35% more! They also had added some extras for the private room, which we never asked for. Ultimately, the bill was fixed and we went back to our hotel fairly happy with our first night in China, knowing that more was to come.
Lunch was included in our tour the next two days and our guide Tim took us to XIAO WANG's HOME RESTAURANT( for our first lunch. It's in a historic house in the middle of a quaint park not far from the Forbidden City.
We were taken to the top floor where nobody else was seated for a very quiet and excellent lunch. The GREEN TEA here (we later found out how pricey it was) was awesome, and I wish I had more than 3 cups as it was refillable. SOUR & SPICY MULLET SOUP with Egg was a great soup here, but the mullet does have quite a fishy tastem so Sam was nixing that from the start. He did the HOT & SOUR SOUP and a huge platter of both Steamed & Fried PORK DUMPLINGS, one of his favorite Chinese foods! We all shared everything though. The DEEP FRIED GREEN BEANS with minced Pork were excellent, and always pack a punch with chilis at every Chinese place (think Szechuan String Beans back home). The KUNG PAO Chicken was nice with fried Chicken in Peanuts & Red Chilis, but this Kung Pao had little POW in spice for me. Will loved his Pork & Shrimp Dumplings and we all declared dessert was not possible as again, the portions were quite huge.
Dinner that night was at the classy 1949, just a couple of blocks from our hotel, and was easily the best meal we had during our stay. As we approached the small compound just off the main street, several guards came toward us looking as if they were bouncers. I said we had a reservation, and they parted to allow us in. Once inside, the d├ęcor was impressive with elegant place settings and lots of warm wood tones. Every staff member has an earplug and I felt as if the Chinese secret service must have been based here! We ordered a bottle of JUMILLA CRIANZA Juan Gil "Silver Label 2012, for about the same price as the night before, but this was a much better wine with chewy tannins that matched the complexity of the food.
Edith Piaf music played in the background and we felt as if we had been taken back to the years before Chairman Mao and the Communist takeover.....well, maybe.
We chose two starters, and while in China all dishes tend to come out willy-nilly, this was the one place that starters did arrive first.
WILD MUSHROOM in TOFU SKIN ROLLS was a modern take on the egg roll, but much healthier, not fried and with an awesome flavor to boot.
BROAD BEANS and Preserved Vegetables were tasty beans in a vegetable paste that had a bit of chili for flavor. There was a hot sauce on the table and I asked the server if it was "chili paste" to which she responded "egg sauce." I never did figure out what she said, but it was as spicy sauce that made the beans even better.
Samuel started with a BEEF BROTH with EGG WHITE (think beef egg drop soup) which he said was okay, but won no stars and then went on to an awesome DEEP FRIED CHICKEN with LEMON SAUCE. This may sound drab, but the chicken breast was wrapped in almonds and sesame coating and fried in slices and then a tangy almost preserved lemon-sauce was poured over it and the accompanying onion rings.
We ordered the FRIED VERMICELLI SINGAPORE STYLE which was one of the few "dry" noodles we got (most come in broth after being fried) and here with shrimp, pork and veggie slivers. The hot sauce made this dish divine.
The top winner for the night was the Stir Fried MONGOLIAN LAMB which was as tender a lamb dish I had ever had and served with scallions, peppers, fried garlic, fried ginger and clamshell shaped dough buns on the side to make "sandwiches" with.
We all decided on one dessert to split and taste and it was the perfect choice: CHILLED MANGO-SAGO CREAM with POMELO. It cleansed our palate and we decided that desserts of quality do indeed exist in China.
Lunch on our next day was in the hills near the Great Wall and while yummy, not worth writing about, since I doubt you will ever get there.
Dinner was our guide Tim's choice as we told him we wanted to take him out to thank him, but that the restaurant should have the best Peking Duck. He chose DaDONG ( famous for it's multi-starred chef and elegant setting. We loved the almost all white dining room and each table had a trolley next to it for the tableside prep of the famous dish. We chose the SAUTEED DUCK & CHESTNUTS in CRISPY NEST to start and these little mouthbite tidbits gave us a taste of the awesome duck that was to come.
Samuel ordered and adored the PUMPKIN & CHESTNUT SOUP as he is now a pumpkin & squash soup kinda guy.
Chef DaDong's SUPERLEAN ROAST PEKING DUCK was rolled over and a chef with a huge toque and awesome knives got every last piece of meat off the entire duck within 10 minutes. we received a plate of garnishes and sauces (plum sauce, radish, scallion, cucumber and pickled cucumber and radishes as well as garlic and yes, SUGAR!!) The crepe like paper thin pancakes arrived along with sesame buns as well. It was all tons of fun to make our own, and within 30 minutes the duck was GONE! Tender, crispy and flavorful; it was a treat. The BAKED CAULFILOWER with PORK BELLY was just as magnificent with chilis, onion and diced squash.
Only the exhorbitantly priced Chef Dong's Black PEPPER BEEF was a sad arrangement of about 1/3 pound of chewy beef with a pound of peppers and rang in at well over $100 the plate! UGH!
Our trip was over and we had indeed enjoyed most of the food. Happy to be back home now and looking forward to a homemade meal tonight of pasta and sausages!