Sunday, June 22, 2008

Italian Night with the Chaine

We had our second dinner with the Chaine des Rotisseurs last night, the gourmet club that I rejoined last month after about a year's absence. This time, the featured cuisine was Italian, with a theme of "Baci and Abbracci" (or Hugs and Kisses), held at Cepe, the Italian restaurant at the new Ritz Carlton hotel in western Beijing's Financial Street. I had wanted to try Cepe since it opened, but the distance from our place and the high price kept us away until this opportunity presented itself.

The menu sounded very promising when I first saw it, with a bunch of things on it that were among my favorite dishes. Here is what they promised:

Poached Canadian Lobster On Tomato Confit
Apple Celery Jelly And Peach Vinaigrette.
Michele Chiarlo, Gavi, Piedmont, D.O.C.G.

Warm Parmesan “Budino” With Aged Balsamic Vinegar
Salad Of Rocket, Pears And Almonds
Tormaresca, Chardonnay, Puglia, I.G.T.

Radicchio “Lasagnetta”
with Capon Consomme And Summer Truffle
Prunotto Friulot, Barbera D’Asti, Piedmont, D.O.C.

Campari Orange Sherbet

Roasted Lamb Saddle
Potato And Black Olive Cake And Braised Artichokes
Tormaresca, Bocca Di Lupo Castel Del Monte,Puglia, D.O.C

Caramel Parfait With Red Pepper and Raspberry Couli
Donnafugata Ben Rye, Passito Di Pantelleria, Sicilia, D.O.C

The lobster was very good, and went very well both with the tomato confit and the wine that accompanied the course. The budino, however, was very disappointing. It was meant to be like a flan, but its texture was very firm and the way they served it seemed like a creme caramel, and the parmesan flavor was overpowering. The lasagnetta was one of the best dishes of the evening, if not the best, with wonderful flavor of truffles. The lamb would have been great, but it was very fatty and the serving was rather small.

While we waited between courses, we could see them preparing the dessert, which though they described it as a parfait it was more of a bombe, with a spherical chocolate presentation as the base, topped with a thin strip of red-tinted chocolate done up sort of like the headdress of an Egyptian pharaoh, kept in place by a single raspberry hiding the tip of a toothpick. The sphere, when split into its two hemispheres, revealed two different fillings in each half, one with a mocha mouuse and the other with a sort of creamy hazelnut-chocolate filling layered with a crunchy bit of pastry. It was excellent, though J2 could not eat it because of the coffee flavor. No, I did not eat his. And the wine that accompanied it was excellent.

This was the first of our Chaine dinners that we attended solo, without any colleagues from work. As it turns out, that was a good thing, since we were seated at a fun table, with two other couples (one was the French manager of the Grand Mercure with his Tahitian wife, and the other was the Swiss manager of the Swissote with his very fun American wife), and the British manager of the Novotel. We had a great time chatting over our meal, and I hope we'll have a chance to see them again before the next dinner, scheduled for August 30 at the Kempinski Commune on the Great Wall--that's a dinner we won't want to miss.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Happy Birthday, Genghis!


Today is Genghis's 17th birthday! He was born on June 21, 1991, in Moscow, USSR, and was sold to me for the princely sum of 100 roubles (then worth $3) on the road outside the Ptichy Rynok pet market by a woman who had two puppies for sale, one brown and one black. When she saw me approaching, she held them up to me, asking if I was a foreigner. When I said I was, she asked if I planned to buy a dog, and if so, would I take it with me when I left the Soviet Union. When I answered yes to both questions, she begged me to buy one of the dogs, if not both, and since I went in hopes of buying a brown dog, the choice was made. As far as we can tell, he's half West Siberian Laika and half Sheltie, though we really cannot be sure just exactly what his parents were. Who would have thought then that little Genghis would not just leave the USSR, but also live for a time in New York City and the Washington, DC, suburbs, and then move on to Beijing?

Genghis has had a lot of nicknames in his 17 years. Here's a sampling:

- Short Man
- The Puppy Who Pees
- Smelly
- Schmengis
- Stinky
- Chingiz (Russian for "Genghis")
- Schmendrick
- Meng Meng
- Dou Dou (his official Chinese name)

Here's to my little buddy!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Yet Another Dinner Party

Perhaps in an effort not to feel like we wasted our time (and money) shipping over our dining table and 12 chairs, we have had quite the spate of dinner parties since its arrival a scant two months ago. Just last night we had yet another dinner party--this time with a Japanese theme--for six friends. The inspiration for the menu was J2's desire to have me remake a dish I made years ago for a New Year's party. The dish, pictured here, is called "Ahi Tuna Parfaits" and came from Ming Tsai's book "East Meets West". The dish is dead easy to make, but it takes a little time, since you have to stack the sushi tuna, flying fish roe, and caviar in the little tubes (I used PVC piping cut to size), but it's a huge hit whenever I make it, as you can see here, as one of our guests contemplates her serving.

Aside from the Ahi Tuna Parfaits, we also served the following, most done in a sort of bento-box fashion, with each diner getting a tray of a single portion of each of the dishes:

Citrus-Glazed Porgy
Bite-Sized Pepper Steaks
Pork Rolls with Nori/Miso and Shiso/Plum fillings
Spicy Asparagus
Soy-Braised Hijiki and Shiitake Mushrooms
Octopus Salad with Lemon-Mustard Sauce
Home-Cured Salmon with Edamame Salad

For dessert we had to stray a bit from the Japanese theme since, frankly, Japanese desserts are a bit uninteresting to a Western palate. So while I did make a dish of Citrus Poached Early Summer Fruits (using fantastic apricots that I found at the market) I also also made Thai Sticky Rice with Mango, which was a big hit, too.

When dinner was over, our parfait-admiring friend and we went to get a foot massage at a new (to us) place, during which I promptly fell fast asleep. Luckily, when we got home, J2 let me go to bed and leave him to clean up the dishes, so I have woken to a clean apartment!

The remaining photos of the event are here:

Monday, June 09, 2008

Some of our Favorite Restaurants

We get lots of requests for lists of places that we enjoy eating at, so as a service to our public, here is a summary list, which I will endeavor to update periodically. Links are to Dianping.com, a very good Zagat-style review site for China's restaurants.

Three Guizhou Men 三个贵州人. Probably our single favorite place, specializing in the cuisine of the SW province of Guizhou. Founded by three artists from the province as a place to go when nostalgic for home cooking, they have now got four locations, including one in the Workers' Stadium area. The dish we order every time we go is the "搀嘴骨", a trio of pork ribs slathered with spices and roasted till the meat falls off the bones. Menu has English and photos for all dishes.

Jin Bai He Roast Duck 金百合烤鸭. We only discovered this place recently, but it has by far the best Beijing duck we've ever had. Not only that, but it's quite inexpensive, with the super-duper duck (which comes sliced three ways--skin only, meat only, and skin-and-meat together, along with loads of dips and sides) costing only RMB 88 a piece. The restaurant is located on Gongti Nanlu across from the Chaoyang Hospital, tel 65943870. Menu has pictures for many dishes and some English (much of which is amusing).

Qintangfu 秦唐府. Another new find of ours, but one that we hope to visit very frequently in the coming weeks/months. They serve the cuisine of Shaanxi province, home to Xi'an (of terracotta soldiers fame), which has a lot of noodles and wheat-based dishes, including the closest thing you'll find in China to a hamburger (or a sandwich), the "rou jia mo" (肉夹摸), which is made with succulent meat served in a roasted bun. There is a menu with photos and English, but it is not complete (there is a supplementary menu with nothing but Chinese characters).

Noodle Loft 面酷. We've been going to this place for years now, and it's high on our list of places to take guests. It's a noodle restaurant that features a central and open kitchen where chefs hand-make the wide range of noodles that they serve, including "single chopstick" noodles, "cat's ear" noodles, "knife cut" noodles and others. They also serve something called "kao lao lao" that is a buckwheat noodle thing that comes in a steamer basket for dipping in a vinegar dip. The stir-fried dishes are also great. There are two locations, one near the China World and one up near the Lama Temple. Menu with photos and English (often amusing, especially the "shredded ass meat").

Xiao Shan Cheng Ma La Tang 小山城麻辣汤. There is no English name on this restaurant, but it's easily recognizable by the lanterns out front and the line of people waiting to get in. It's on the stretch of Dongzhimennei Dajie that is called "Gui Jie" ("Ghost Street") and that is lined with restaurants serving pretty much the same thing--Chongqing-style hot pot. You get to pick your choice of broth (we always get the hot-and-numbing, sometimes with a non-hot section for our more timid guests) and then you tick off what things you want to dip in the broth from a long list (all in Chinese). Prices are very reasonable, and the flavor is outstanding--don't forget to order a lot of beer to cool off your palate.

Yuxin Sichuan渝信川菜. Among our favorite Chinese cuisines (in fact, any cuisines) is Sichuan, and this place is one of the more reliable purveyors. Like several other restaurants on this list, Yuxin has several locations, but we’ve only been to the one near our apartment, on Xinfucun Lu. The food is generally excellent, though it has been known to happen that they serve a dud (but when they do, we send it back). The menu has English and photos.

Chao Fu Cheng Dimsum 潮福城 . This used to be our go-to dimsum place at my old job in Beijing, and it has remained an excellent choice. Unlike dimsum places in Hong Kong, this place does not have the carts with the ladies pushing them around the restaurant, but neither does any other place in Beijing. But the food is great, and the prices are reasonable. The place closed for renovation a few months ago, but we hope it will reopen soon. There is an English menu.

The Deluxe Restaurant 凯悦酒家. Don't let the fact that this place is in a Comfort Inn fool you--this is a very good dimsum place. Located on Gongti Beilu, it's convenient, too. There are no carts, so you order off of a menu, but the selection is very broad and they also have good stir fried dishes. No English.

Xi He Ya Ju 羲和雅居. If you don't know what type of Chinese cuisine you're in the mood for--Sichuan, Cantonese, Hunan, Duck, whatever--this is the place to go, since they have a very extensive menu and it's generally made very well. Very tourist-friendly, it's located in Ritan Park near a lot of embassies, so there are loads of foreigners (and groups). English and photo menu.

Pure Lotus 净心莲. If you are a vegetarian, or a Buddhist, or interested in Buddhist vegetarian cuisine (in which they use tofu, wheat gluten, etc to mimic the taste and texture of meat) then this is a good place for you. The menu is very big (I mean it's on huge pages) and not easy to decipher (the names of dishes are very poetic but not very descriptive) and the dishes are served in enormous platters that are very decorative but take up a lot of space. There is no alcohol served, but they have a very interesting range of fruit juice concoctions. Be sure to try the "Beijing duck", "chili chicken", and the nori cones with vegetables and walnuts.

Bellagio 鹿港小镇. This is a chain of restaurants from Taiwan with three locations in Beijing. The Gongti Xilu shop is always filled with Beijing's beautiful people either before or after they go clubbing at the nearby nightclubs. The quality of the food is good, but the best thing is the desserts, which include the "scraped ice" that is covered with sweet beans and slathered with condensed milk. English and photo menu.

Nine Gates Snacks 九门小吃. We love Beijing snacks, but there are not that many places to find them any more. The city took a bunch of famous brand snack vendors and collected them all in one place near Houhai, so now there is a place to get your snack fix. It's not the easiest place to negotiate--you have to deposit a sum of money and get a magnetic card that you use to buy the snacks from the various vendors, most of whom have samples out so you can see what they serve. Beijing snacks come in two main varieties--those that contain pork, and those that are associated with the Hui (Muslim) minority. The Hui section here is separated from the non-Hui section, and trays from the non-Hui section are not allowed in, so plan accordingly when you buy your food. The fried dumplings (锅贴) are great, as are the pan-fried buns (馅饼), flour soup (面汤), and a slew of others. It's cheap enough, too, that even if you get something you don't like, you're not out of a lot of money. Absolutely no English.

Haiku and Hatsune. Lest you think that we eat nothing but Chinese food in Beijing, here is an exception--these two restaurants are excellent Japanese restaurants, particularly for sushi rolls. They are not particularly traditional (unless Motorola rolls and 119 rolls--named after the phone number you dial for the fire department--are known in Tokyo) but they are very fresh, professionally turned out, and delicious. Not the cheapest place in Beijing. English is not a problem.

W Dine and Wine. We happened to try this place on the day it opened, and have been back several times since, and it has never disappointed. It is our go-to place for special occasions, or when we're just in the mood for good Western food. The wine list is also very good, and reasonably priced. English not an issue.

Morel's. Morel's is an institution here, serving robust Belgian cuisine--including very good mussels (order in advance to reserve)--in two pleasant locations. Reasonably priced, plus a huge range of Belgian beers round out the experience.

Rumi. When you're in the mood for Middle Eastern cuisine, this is a very good choice. It's Iranian, rather than Arabic, but they have many of the same dishes and it's all done very well. The chicken with pomegranate is particularly good. Portions are huge.

Bite a Pitta. Another Middle Eastern choice, this one is more like a falafel shop, run by an Israeli family. Excellent shawarma, falafel, and hummus, and they also cater.

Mugen. Another Japanese restaurant, this one in the premises of the Lido Holiday Inn Hotel, with pretty good sushi and rolls. Half-price lunch specials.

Salt. This restaurant was opened not long ago by a Brazilian woman who previously owned Alameda (a restaurant that went downhill after she left). Salt is near the Lido Hotel, and serves excellent Western-style food. The menu is not extensive, but what they serve they serve extremely well, and the prices are reasonable, too. Won the prize for Best Newcomer in 2007 from That's Beijing magazine.

The Olive. Another Western-style restaurant, with a good menu, nice wine list, and not unreasonable prices. Opening a new branch near the Lido Hotel, too.

Chef Too. One of our colleagues found this place some time ago, and for a while went on a nearly daily basis. Yes, the Australian steaks are good, but they're not really that good. We have yet to try the non-beef entrees, but the brunch is outstanding (I think better than dinner). The place is tiny, so reservations are a must.

La Fattoria. A very hard-to-find Italian restaurant, distinguished by the fact that it's run by actual Italians who also sell Italian specialty foods from the bar area. They make their own dry-cured sausages (which are often left to dry outside under the eaves--wonder what the Beijing air does for them), and a pretty good rendition of Florentine steaks.

Purple Haze. One of Beijing's best Thai restaurants, conveniently located across from the North gate of Gongti. The smoke can be a problem, but the food is worth it.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery


After I got home with my bike yesterday morning, J2 did his usual critical assessment of the bike, and appeared to be a bit non-plussed by it, but then suddenly today, while heading back from the gym (in a cab) he suggested that we ride out to the store so he could look at the selection and maybe get one. So sure enough that's what we did--we got to the store and they told us that they had a new model in (it came in yesterday afternoon), a Mu P8 as it's called, which had the distinction of being easily distinguishable from my bike (since it's not only white, while mine is black, but also has a curved body, while mine is straight). It also appears to be made of aluminum instead of steel, though the weight is almost the same as my bike. So we got his fitted out, and I had a bottle holder and a portable and removable fender added to mine, and we headed back home. This time, the ride took 30 minutes, instead of 23, though we rode at a relatively leisurely pace and made a few short stops along the way. So now to see if we actually follow through on the aspect of the folding bike that tempted J2--putting them in the trunk of a cab and driving out to some scenic spot so that we can bike around there and either bike home or put them back in a cab. Time will tell!

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Getting Ready for Olympics



It occurred to us recently that, given the fact that we live on a street with two Olympic venues (for boxing and soccer) there's a good chance that traffic could be pretty bad around here during the Games, and perhaps we would not be able to get home by car for a spell. It's also possible that traffic in general could be pretty awful, so that we might wish we lived closer to work than we do. Since moving is impractical (and undesirable) I hit on the idea of getting a folding bicycle that I could carry with me in the trunk of a cab and if need be pull out and pedal the rest of the way to wherever I was going.

There is a store across from work that sells a US brand of folding bike (Dahon) that seemed pretty reliable and convenient. So I taxied over there this morning and bought a bike (the KC083, aka the Speed P8). It folds up in 15 seconds (or so) and is pretty light. Having never biked from work to home, I decided that this would be a trial run, and I was surprised to find it took just 23 minutes, and was pretty easy. Now let's see if I ever actually get to do it...

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Nineteen Years Ago

This morning as I was writing something out for our new ayi (maid) I noted that the date is June 4, 2008. Ever since 1989, that date has stood out for me, and I always remember back to where I was on that fateful date. In the couple of years immediately afterwards, 六四, (Chinese for "six-four") also had a great significance for the Chinese people, but as time moved on and the memory of the events of that day faded, and fewer and fewer people even knew what happened that day (since it is mysteriously absent from history books or any public discussion), 六四 no longer has any particular import anymore.

So, here's to the memory of those who died on that day, and the hopes for a freer China that died with them, and that maybe still will one day come to exist.