Spicy and tongue-numbing eel at Meizhou Dongpo.
Black cod in seaweed butter at S.T.A.Y.
Private Room's black truffle dumpling.
Memorable meals from the past year suggest a dining extravaganza for the Year of the Dragon. Ye Jun reports.
It is hard to define good food. Some foods do not look appealing, but taste wonderful. Some look grand but have little taste. A huge piece of abalone can taste like steamed bread. Cabbage with diced pork can be fantastic to the palate.
At this festive occasion I try to forget all preconceptions and recollect the best culinary experiences I had in the past year as remembered only through my taste buds.
During an exclusive interview with China Daily, Spanish chef Ferran Andria, who visited Beijing on Aug 23, said "eating well feeds the soul". Well, more than one chef I talked with linked food with happiness. Somehow, these foods - translated through taste buds and nerve bundles - produce endorphin and make the experience memorable.
The dishes I recommend here might serve to remind you of some important happenings for Beijing's cuisine in the past year. They also offer some ideas for dining during the holiday.
Private Room's black truffle dumpling
Boiled dumpling, or jiaozi, is the traditional food for Spring Festival. Its popularity also makes it the most ordinary. There are hundreds of stuffings. But black truffle? When I first saw that on the menu at Private Room, Park Hyatt Beijing, I thought it was a stunt. But I was wrong. It was the best tasting jiaozi I've ever eaten.
The stuffing is not entirely black truffle, though. It is pork with shallots and pieces of black truffle. But it was a good combination because the black truffle and pork enhance each other's flavors. A plate of 12 jiaozi cost 120 yuan ($19). That's 10 yuan for a jiaozi, probably the most expensive I've tried.
This also reminds me of Din Tai Fung's xiaolongbao, or steamed bun in a small bamboo basket, with pork and black truffle stuffing, which is also a winner. Priced at 176 yuan ($27) for a bamboo steamer of 10, it is their most expensive xiaolongbao.
Private Room: 5/F Park Hyatt Hotel, Beijing. 010-8567-1118
Black cod in seaweed butter at S.T.A.Y.
The opening of S.T.A.Y. - the initials for simple table Alleno Yannick - by French chef Alleno Yannick was much anticipated by gourmets in Beijing. Classified as a five-star Michelin chef due to the ratings of his two restaurants, he lived up to that reputation with a beautiful and tasty lobster tart and black cod in seaweed butter. I've tried some really good cod, but his had a texture as fine as fresh scallops. I wonder how he did that.
I later went to the restaurant again, when the star chef is not there. It was a Thursday evening, but it was full with customers at 8 pm. One could feel there is room for improvement on the part of service, but the food was not bad.
Beijing saw a great number of visiting Michelin star chefs in 2011, especially to restaurants in five-star hotels such as Le pre Lenotre at Wanda Sofitel Beijing. Other Michelin star chefs who opened up restaurants in Beijing were Daniel Boulud and his Maison Boulud, and Claudio Sadler, who started his Italian restaurant Sadler. Both are located inside Ch'ien Men 23.
S.T.A.Y.: 11:30 am-2 pm, 5:30-9:30 pm, Tuesday-Saturday. Open only for lunch on Sunday. Closed on Monday. 1/F Shangri-La Hotel Beijing, 29 Zizhuyuan Lu, Haidian district, Beijing. 010-6841-2211 Ext 6727
Crab banquet at Noble House
The Chinese have been eating river crabs so long that it is considered a tasteful thing to do. Crab eating is linked with poems, warm yellow rice wine and chrysanthemums. While most are devotees of Chinese mitten crabs from Yangcheng Lake, owners of Noble House, which offers a complete crab banquet, sources crabs elsewhere. A recent media tasting confirmed the high quality of their crabs.
All parts of the crab - meat from claws, legs and the body, as well as roe - are made into different dishes. Most impressive is crab roe with meat served inside a lovely green apple cup or a crispy cake. The meal winds up with a weighty, large crab that tastes fresh and sweet. Best of all, because of an advanced preservation technology, the restaurant is able to serve the complete crab banquet all year round.
11:30 am-1:30 pm, 6-9 pm. 32/F, New Century Nikko Hotel Beijing. 6 Shouti Nanlu, Haidian district, Beijing. 010-6849-1357.
Foie gras with sweetened lotus root at Da Dong
This is just an ordinary cold starter at Da Dong. There are so many other specialties at the restaurant that are more important and better tasting. But it is a reflection of the amount of effort and creativity put into cuisine by owner Dong Zhenxiang. Foie gras is frozen and scraped into rolls like ice cream, creating a different, but smoother, taste sensation. Sweetened lotus root with honey is another common Chinese appetizer, but its sweetness goes perfectly with foie gras.
The latest news about Dong Zhenxiang is that he has compiled his culinary creations for four seasons into a color-illustrated book. After reaching the heights of culinary creation with his beautiful and tasty dishes, it seems he is now getting back to the more fundamental elements of food. He has begun to adapt classic dishes made with very basic food ingredients - traditional Beijing cabbage rolls, bean curd boiled with ham, Boston lobster with noodles and fried brown sauce - giving them new life.
Da Dong Nanxincang branch: 11 am-10 pm, 1-2 Nanxincang International Building, A 22 Dongsishitiao, Dongcheng district, Beijing. 010-5169-0329
Sauteed shredded mandarin fish
Chef Hou Xinqing at Summer Palace, China World Hotel, is a representative of a new generation of young Chinese chefs. Deft in Huaiyang cuisine from Jiangsu province, he is good at preparing seafood. Shredded mandarin fish, along with shelled river shrimp, are two classic Huaiyang dishes. Hou slices the fish, shreds it, and dips it in whipped eggs and salt. He then sautes it into tender shreds, flavored with garlic and leek. Named "dragon bear mandarin fish slices", the it tastes like soft noodles.
Hou was one of five chefs representing Beijing who participated in an international cooking contest in Taiwan. They took back the gold medal for groups.
In addition to Huaiyang style, Summer Palace serves Cantonese food with a classic Chinese ambience. Service and food quality have been very stable. If Michelin rated Chinese restaurants in Beijing, Summer Palace would have good chance of getting one or two stars.
Daily 11:30 am-2:15 pm, 5:30-9:45 pm. 1/F China World Hotel, 1 Jianguomenwai Dajie, Chaoyang district, Beijing. 010-6505-5838 Ext 5630
Spicy and tongue-numbing eel at Meizhou Dongpo
With an average bill of 60 yuan per head, Meizhou Dongpo's Changhongqiao branch is a reasonably priced restaurant. Popular orders are often the same - boiled fish in spicy soup, Dongpo braised pork elbow and Kung Pao chicken. But I had an unforgettable, although possibly risky, choice of spicy, tongue-numbing eel. Served in a big bowl of soup with abundant shallots, green and red pepper, as well as fresh prickly ash, the eel was intensely tender and mouth-watering. It was a great match for a bowl of steamed rice.
Bldg B20, Baijiazhuang Dongli, Chaoyang district, Beijing. Just south of Changhongqiao on East Third Ring Road, on eastern side of the street. 010-6582-3742
Wagyu beef in hot pot at Wanliuge
You might have tried wagyu steak at an up-market Western restaurant, but in a hot pot? The owner of Wanliuge, a Cantonese restaurant, believes the best way to eat Australian Blackmore wagyu beef is to slice it and put it in hot pot base soup. The beef actually melts in the mouth, and the great taste will certainly tempt you to try another plate - that will be another 580 yuan for 200 grams of the delicious beef. Once you try that, don't follow it up with any other beef or lamb, because they'll only taste bad by comparison. Another alternative is "snow flake" Augus beef, which costs 108 yuan for a 200-gram plate.
Daily 10 am-10 pm. 8 Longtan Lu, Dongcheng district, Beijing. 010-6719-2882
Sliced braised pork knuckle with flour cake at Xisi Beibatiao
This is a very reasonably priced neighborhood restaurant serving Yunnan and Beijing home-style foods. Sliced braised pork knuckle is a common Chinese appetizer. But the richness of the pork goes really well wrapped inside hot, crispy flour cake right from the oven. Kunming fried potatoes and hawthorn soup are two other popular dishes. It would have been a so much better place to dine if there were not so many people smoking. Average bill is 45 yuan a person.
1 Xisi Beibatiao, Xicheng district, Beijing. 010-6616-6292
Broiled Norwegian salmon at Nadaman
I've always preferred salmon in sashimi rather than cooked, but this changed my mind. Glazed with olive oil and citron soy sauce, the salmon tastes rich and flavorful. Relocated to the fourth floor of China World Summit Wing, Beijing, the Japanese restaurant serves up colorful, lovely looking appetizers in a beautiful bento box. Sago pudding with palm sugar in the dessert was perfect with a ball of vanilla ice cream and dark sugar syrup.
11:30 am-2 pm, 5:30-10 pm. 4/F, near the extension of China World Mall, China World Summit Wing, Beijing. 1 Jianguomenwai Dajie, Chaoyang district. 010-6505-2299 Ext 6407
Taiwan style braised pork with steamed rice at Grand Hyatt Beijing
Chef Chien Hung-wen from the Grand Hyatt Taipei was in Beijing for two weeks to showcase Taiwan specialties. He made me wish Beijing could have the same high-quality Taiwan food.
Chien's braised pork with steamed rice changed my impression of the popular Taiwan specialty. Braised pork doesn't have to look messy and oily to taste so good. The chef's sauteed bamboo sprouts, cabbage with diced pork, and deep-fried flour dough with almond juice are all really impressive.
Chef Chien is from Pearl Liang Chinese restaurant, Grand Hyatt Taipei in Taiwan.