Monday, December 21, 2009

A Restaurant Review--Capital M

This past Saturday night we went out to dinner with our friends Michael and Sandra (whom we know through the Chaine des Rotisseurs) at a new restaurant in town, the very fancy Capital M. Capital M is part of the same group that opened M on the Bund in Shanghai several years ago, which was one of the first fancy Western restaurants to open in Shanghai in recent years. I went to M on the Bund once many years ago when my old childhood friend, Debbie, came to Shanghai with her son on a study tour. It was a fantastic restaurant, with an interesting menu and a phenomenal view across the Huangpu River toward the still-under-construction Pudong skyline.

Capital M is very much in the same vein as M on the Bund. It has a very prominent and desirable location on the Qianmen pedestrian street just to the south of Tian'anmen Square. I can only imagine the negotiations that the restaurant had to go through to get such a prime spot, but they were worth it, since there is really nowhere else where you can get such a good view of Tiananmen and Qianmen, which, when all lit up at night, really make an impressive backdrop to your meal. The only downside of this location is that Beijing's byzantine traffic rules make getting there really difficult, since there is almost nowhere nearby where a cab can stop, and the one-way road system lobbies against anyone arriving from the east, where most of Beijing's expat population mostly lives.

But once you get to the restaurant, you forget all that nonsense and can just enjoy the ambience, the service and, of course, the meal. Typical of Chinese restaurants, or any business in China, really, the place is lousy with employees, and though they clearly went through extensive training, they have a ways to go in some respects. Since J2 and I arrived before our friends, we were asked if we wanted to wait at the bar or at the table. We chose to wait at the table, and were seated at a table in the middle of the room with a decent view out the windows toward the Square. However, after sitting for a while, with waiters passing by constantly from all directions, not one of them thought to ask if we wanted to see a menu. Finally the foreign maitre d' noticed our situation and brought us menus and the wine list, and a little bowl of chips to munch on while waiting. Also, someone came to pour us some water. Interestingly, they serve their non-bottled water out of an antique silver teapot, which was a nice touch, I thought, and in keeping with the overall decor of the place, which is heavy on art deco elements. As the waiter poured our water, ever so slowly and carefully, as though it was the first time he had ever done so, he still managed to knock things over on the table while pouring. Oh, well.

As part of our effort to get into the NZ frame of mind, we ordered glasses of Marlborough Pinot Noir, which were very good indeed, and sipped those while looking around at our surroundings. The floor of the restaurant has a nice mosaic pattern that is very Art Deco, and there are some interesting murals on the wall, though I don't think they really suit the room. But the ceiling! The ceiling is a horror! I don't know what they were thinking when they chose the ceiling for this place, but it was a non-descript, unattractive, sort of faux pressed-tin ceiling that did not relate to anything. And as for our fellow diners, most of them were, surprisingly, Chinese, including a table of four who sat in their coats for the entire evening (it was not cold in the room, though it was frigid outside).

Eventually our friends arrived and we got down to ordering. The menu is very long, and is printed in a font that is not all that easy to read, but once you get used to it, it's manageable. There were two starters that grabbed me--a roasted marrow bone with onion rings and a red wine reduction, or a twice-cooked crispy pigeon with boudin noir and harissa--but I chose the latter, while J2 chose a dish of tortelli filled with ricotta and spinach. (Our friends had shellfish bisque and a salad.) The pigeon was excellent, with a nicely spiced crispy skin served on a rich black pudding. The tortelli were also very good, though not as interesting. For main courses J2 had "couscous royale" made with three meats and seven vegetables, which I found lacking in flavor, while I had their famous crispy suckling pig, served with roasted root vegetables and baked apple. It was simply astounding--the skin was done perfectly, with a lot of flavor and wonderful contrast between the crispy skin and the juicy flesh. It was totally worth the additional session on the stationary rower that I will have to do to work it off. (Our friends had an Iranian duck stew that was also delicious, and a dish of gnocchi that I did not try.)

While we were waiting for our friends we perused the wine list and chose a bottle of Australian Terra Rossa 2003 Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon that seemed promising, but Michael is more knowledgeable about wine, so I suggested that he choose. He ended up choosing an Australian wine, too, the 2005 Dead Arm d'Arenberg shiraz, which was exceptional. When that was finished we ordered the bottle that I had picked out, which was very weak in comparison.

We could hardly pass up dessert (especially since, as part of my new gig as a panelist on the restaurant awards for one of the expat magazines in Beijing, I am supposed to try all courses that a restaurant offers), so we didn't. I had something that I normally would not have ordered, but that had been recommended by several people--their "famous" pavlova with fruit, while J2 had the soft chocolate pudding with ice cream and chocolate slivers. The pavlova was very, very big, though I took solace in the knowledge that meringue is pretty light, as desserts go, and it was also very good, much better than J2's dessert, I thought, which I might normally have gone for myself.

With our coffee and tea they served a little dish of petits fours that included one of the best chocolate things I have had in recent memory--dark chocolate surrounding a crispy center that had a sort of honey-ish flavor, but I could not really place it.

Overall, we really enjoyed our evening at Capital M, though it was not without its failings. The bill when it came, was within the realm of what I thought it would cost to eat here, though perhaps on the high end of that scale. I figured out why that was when I saw the breakdown on the bill, and noticed that the Dead Arm wine was RMB 2,145 a bottle ($320 or so). That's quite a bit more than we normally spend on a bottle of wine, though now that we know what such a pricey bottle can taste like, maybe we need to change that policy!

I would happily go back to Capital M anytime someone wants to treat me, or we have something to celebrate.