Friday, December 25, 2009

Book Review: Born Round

Some months ago I bought a Kindle, the electronic book reader sold by Amazon. The Kindle makes reading (and buying) books so easy, that lately I have been plowing through a good number of books, especially since I have the Kindle app on my iPhone, which allows me to read my books when I'm stuck in traffic in Beijing (not a rare thing) or otherwise have a few moments to spare. In recent weeks I have read a bunch of food-related books, spurred by our having watched "Julie and Juia" on the flight from Beijing to the US in November. So first I read the book "Julie/Julia", and then Julia Child's memoir, "My Life in France", followed by David Lebovitz's "The Sweet Life in Paris", which is a combination memoir/cookbook, as was the next book I read, Molly Wizenberg's "A Homemade Life".

More or less keeping to the food theme, my latest book was the one that spoke to me most deeply. Frank Bruni, the former NY Times restaurant reviewer, came out with a memoir this year called "Born Round" that chronicles his life within his Italian-American family and his development as a leading light at the Times, while also covering his struggles with his weight that plagued him throughout his life. According to his book, Frank had a difficult time with food and controlling his urge to binge from a young age, toying with bulimia, amphetamines and diet pills, overdoses of laxatives and other extreme methods of controlling his tendency to gain weight, while also struggling with other demons in his life.

Without really realizing it, Frank went from being a champion swimmer in high school (a sport her pursued largely as a means of burning the extra calories that he could not help himself from consuming) to being a 268 pound fat guy who went to such extremes as having his book jacket photo Photoshopped beyond recognition in order not to let his old friends and family see how much he had let himself go to seed. The end of this cycle finally came when Maureen Dowd signed Frank up for two sessions with her personal trainer in DC, who forced Frank to exercise regularly and eat more sensibly, leading him to shed the excess weight surprisingly quickly and then providing the additional scrutiny he needed to keep from backsliding. Then, just in the middle of this major change, he got moved to Italy, a place where the food-obsessed could easily fall back into bad habits. Fortunately, Frank had reached the point where his fear of losing his new-won fitness (and the concomitant love life it opened up for him) outweighed his desire to eat all the things that were within easy reach. And then, as though to offer even more temptation, he won a job that would require him to eat out daily at the best restaurants that New York has to offer. However, his will power remained strong and he made through the stint as svelte as when he started.

As someone who also had struggles with weight (though I freely admit that my "problem" was nowhere near as bad as Frank's, though my own body image was probably just as bad as his) this spoke very loudly to me. Looking at old photos of myself now I can hardly believe I let myself get so out of shape, and I thank my friend here in Beijing who signed me up for my first personal trainer session, leading to the transformation that I am still in the middle of. Like Frank, though, my new gig as a restaurant reviewer came tinged with fear that I would revert to my old ways, so I am even more determined to keep to my rowing and training routine (with Pilates thrown in occasionally), and so far, it has been successful.

This was one of the better books I have read recently, and if you're at all interested in food criticism, body transformation or the lives of Italian-Americans, it is a book I would highly recommend.

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.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My New Sideline

A few months ago I went to a talk at Black Sesame Kitchen by Sandra Huang, a food blogger whose blog, I read regularly for restaurant recommendations in Beijing. Her talk was attended mostly by friends of mine from work, so we got to chat with Sandra quite a lot, and she and I arranged to go to J2's and my little dumpy Sichuan restaurant a few weeks afterwards. Not long after that dinner (which went very well), Sandra arranged to introduce me to Lillian Chou, a former food editor with Gourmet magazine who moved to Beijing earlier in the year to learn Chinese (so she left the magazine before it closed down), since Lillian was looking for people to revitalize the food section of Time Out Beijing, a local events magazine catering to the expatriate population, of which she is also the food editor.

Lillian and I hit it off right away. She is a fast talking New Yorker like me, full of interesting stories (read: gossip) about the food industry, which she has been involved in for 20 years or so, both as a chef in places like Paris, Seoul, and New York and as a writer. After our conversation, I managed to angle myself into a role as a restaurant reviewer for the magazine! The very next night Lillian and I went to a newly opened restaurant near my apartment (I'm being vague since the review has not yet come out) so that she and I could experience the food together and then she could look at my review knowing what the food was actually like. I had to keep to within 400 words, which was a real challenge, but I managed to do it and stay within the magazine's style manual, which is a bit odd. She had a very quick deadline for this particular review, so we really churned it on through, but we did it. And I guess it was OK, since last night we went to another restaurant (this time with J2 tagging along) that I'll review for a later issue. Lucky for me, both restaurants were actually very good, too, though she assures me that this will not always be the case.

As it turns out Lillian also worked on Jim Lahey's book My Bread, from which I have been baking ever since I returned from my last US trip. The day we met I was actually in the midst of preparing a new recipe from that book, so I asked her for some pointers. In the course of this I learned that she has no oven in her apartment, so I shared my loaf with her (it turned out pretty well).

It's great to have a new friend in town, especially one who is as interested in food issues as I am. I have offered her the use of my oven and kitchen if she needs a larger place to prepare recipes in, and she has invited me to all sorts of culinary and social events around town. Seems like the beginning of a beautiful friendship!

Taxi Driver Doctor

I have surely mentioned before that one of my main complaints about taxi riding in Beijing in the winter is the need to ask drivers to close their windows all the time. Today as I left work the cab that picked me up, after I had waited in the cold on the street for several minutes, had its window open so I asked the driver to close it. He looked back at me through the mirror with a sort of querulous look, and I knew that he was thinking to himself "this guy has a runny nose, it is not safe to close the window", but I reiterated the request before he could say anything. He grudgingly closed the window, but it was still quite cold in the car, even with my LL Bean down coat zipped to my chin, a wool hat on my head and a scarf around my neck, so I asked him if the heater was on. Indeed it was not, and again he was reluctant to turn it on, but this time he said to me "ni gan mao le", which means "you have a cold". I answered by saying I do not have a cold, I have just been standing in the cold and it's cold in the car, and if he doesn't turn the heat on I will catch a cold. Well, this did not sit with him at all, so he sort of snorted at me. At this point I asked if he was a doctor. Of course he was not, so I said that I work in healthcare and think that I have a good handle on what's a cold and what's not, and what can and cannot cause a cold to worsen. He asked if I'm a doctor, and I figured the easiest way to shut him up was to say yes, but then he asked me what my specialty was. I told him I am a family practitioner, which again elicited a snort from him (there is no such thing in China, where instead every doctor is a specialist), and the question what my specialty is. I explained that I specialize in all general ailments, so he asked if I am a surgeon or not. I told him 'not', so he snorted again, disparaging my qualifications to make a prognosis based on my limited knowledge. He then asked if I trained overseas or in China, and was not at all impressed that I trained in the US.

Of course, I was very offended that he did not respect my medical degree or my qualification to make a medical diagnosis, but before long I remembered that in fact I have no medical degree at all. But then again, neither did he, nor any other taxi driver I have driven with, and yet they all seem to know that they are going to die of a cold if a passenger with a runny nose gets in a car with closed windows.

Friday, December 04, 2009

New Neighborhood Restaurant

For the past umpteen weeks there has been a new restaurant under construction across the street from our apartment. As they got closer to finishing the building, it seemed that it was going to be either a Pizza Hut or a Thai place, judging by the shape of the roof, and sure enough they eventually put up a sign that it was the "Laburnum Thai Restaurant". Since our old neighborhood Thai place closed several months ago, we welcomed the arrival of a new Thai restaurant, and a few weeks ago, when it looked like the place was opened, we tried to have dinner there. Unfortunately, it turned out that they were not yet open, so we tried a few weeks later, when we saw people actually dining inside, but then, too, it turned out that it was not yet open to the public. But finally the place opened this past Sunday, so we decided to eat there tonight.

The restaurant is nicely decorated, with teak-ish wood inside, large tables, comfortable-ish chairs, and countless hostesses bedecked in feathery shawl-type things. We were shown to a table right in front of the Filipino band (they sang quietly, so it was OK) and then J2 was given a copy of the enormous menu. As is typical in China, within five seconds of the (single) menu being dropped off, we were asked if we were ready to order. Instead I insisted that they bring us a second menu, which we perused at our leisure, eventually choosing four dishes to order. We then proceeded to wait for our food to arrive. It was not too terribly long before the first dish showed up--chicken parcels wrapped in pandanus leaves (regular readers will remember that we served these at last year's holiday party). They were very tasty, but small, so they did not really satisfy our hunger, and we were anxious for our other dishes to arrive. We waited, and waited, and waited some more, before finally someone came by to say that they were going to tell the chef to hurry up. Then about 10 minutes later they came around with two bowls of dessert that they were going to give us as a gift to make up for the delay. (It's not uncommon for Chinese to eat dessert alongside of the savory courses of a meal, but I have not gone that native yet, so I told them to take the dessert away until after the meal was finished.) It was at least another 15 minutes before the next dish arrived, and then the third came shortly thereafter. Unfortunately these were all finished before there was any sign of the last dish so we asked for the bill so we could get out of there, having already spent nearly 90 minutes there. Sure enough, the missing dish was on the bill, but they took it off when I pointed out that it was never served.

The other patrons in the restaurant were mostly the Beijing nouveaux riches, dressed in their frillery and their gaudy jewelry and smoking their cigarettes (this was the first restaurant I've been to that had a listing of cigarettes available for sale among the wines). These people have a strange sense of public behavior, keeping their winter coats on as they eat and playing games on their phones while sitting around the table with their dining companions. Very odd.

All the dishes that we had were tasty enough, though no better than any of the other Thai places in the area, all of which are far cheaper than this place. Interestingly, we never did get that dessert that they brought us earlier on, but we were not interested in making a big deal about it. It would have been great if this restaurant had turned out to be a wonderful new addition to our neighborhood, but it really isn't, what with the lousy service, the high prices and the unpleasant fellow diners. Oh, well.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


As part of my contribution to the betterment of mankind, here is a link to 2314 or so of my favorite recipes. Enjoy!

In Case You're Thinking of Learning Chinese

I stumbled across this little story today about a man who decided to eat lions. The English translation is below, followed by the Chinese text, and then the transliteration. This story makes perfect sense when you read it in Chinese, but I doubt that anyone listening to the story would be able to make head or tails of what is going on. And 1.3 billion people actually speak this language on a daily basis...

Story of Shi Eating the Lions
A poet named Shi lived in a stone room,
fond of lions, he swore that he would eat ten lions.
He constantly went to the market to look for ten lions
At ten o'clock, ten lions came to the market
and Shi went to the market.
Looking at the ten lions, he relied on his arrows
to cause the ten lions to pass away.
Shi picked up the corpses of the ten lions and took them to his stone room.
The stone room was damp. Shi ordered a servant to wipe the stone room.
As the stone den was being wiped, Shi began to try to eat the meat of the ten lions.
At the time of the meal, he began to realize that the ten lion corpses
were in fact were ten stone lions.
Try to explain this matter.

嗜獅,誓食十獅. .
氏時時適市視獅. .
氏拾是十獅屍, 適石室.
石室濕, 氏使侍拭石室.
食時, 始識十獅屍,

shi1 shi4 shi2 shi1 shi3
shi2 shi4 shi1 shi4 shi1 shi4,
shi4 shi1, shi4 shi2 shi2 shi1.
shi4 shi2 shi2 shi4 shi4 shi4 shi1.
shi2 shi2, shi4 shi2 shi1 shi4 shi4.
shi4 shi2, shi4 shi1 shi4 shi4 shi4 shi4.
shi4 shi4 shi4 shi2 shi1, shi4 shi3 shi4,
shi3 shi4 shi2 shi1 shi4 shi4.
shi4 shi2 shi4 shi2 shi1 shi1, shi4 shi2 shi4.
shi2 shi4, shi1, shi4 shi3 shi4 shi4 shi2 shi4.
shi2 shi4 shi4, shi4 shi3 shi4 shi2 shi2 shi1 shi1.
shi2 shi2, shi3 shi4 shi4 shi2 shi1 shi1,
shi2 shi2 shi2 shi1 shi1.
shi4 shi4 shi4 shi4.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Thanksgiving Review

Our Thanksgiving dinner was a hit! The actual menu was marginally different from what I posted it would be, changing the turkey to the same one I prepared last year (involving spreading softened truffle butter under the bird's skin, and also making a truffle-butter laced gravy) and also making succotash for J2. The soup that Astri made was a delicious pumpkin soup (that luckily she made a lot of, so we have leftovers). Speaking of leftovers, we did not have an inordinate amount--enough turkey for sandwiches on Sunday and dinner Sunday and Monday nights, plus a tiny bit for Tuesday, and enough sides to have a variety for the same number of days.

As far as the desserts were concerned, since all the recipes were new to me, I was not at all sure how they'd turn out. The pie crust recipe looked like it was not going to be a success, since they turned out to be very thin and fragile, but in fact they were delectable--nicely flaky, good flavor, and held up well under the fillings. The silky pumpkin pie was a big hit with our guests (though frankly it was too silky for me; I prefer my mother's less-silky version), but the pecan pie was stellar--the use of chopped pecans rather than halves really did lead to a crispy top that was a fantastic contrast with the gooey filling, and it suited the crust particularly well. I also made a pumpkin flan as a last-minute addition, and though not many guests tried it, those who did really liked it. The leftovers are going to the office on Wednesday.

It was nice to have a bunch of friends over for the holiday, and we are really thankful to have such a good group of people here for us to spend time with.

Photos, as always, are on my photo page. Click here to see them.