Saturday, January 30, 2010

Beijing Hotel Equipment Company

For quite some time now, I have been meaning to visit the Beijing Hotel Equipment Company, also known as HEC, to check out this supposed Mecca for all cooking-related gadgetry. Up till now, whenever I had a need for any sort of cooking equipment, whether it be pots and pans, or little gizmos to decorate cakes with, or whatever, I would generally go either to the Dongjiao Market or Pantry Magic. The former is a large market on Xidawang Lu, not far south of Jian'guo Lu, that has huge warehouse-size buildings selling fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, etc, with a hotel and restaurant supply section toward the back. Dongjiao is definitely cheap, but it's also chaotic, and much of it involves walking around outdoors, and I find I really need to work myself up for a visit there. Pantry Magic is at the other end of the spectrum--it's right in Sanlitun, so not far from my apartment, and it's easy to get to. It is also pricey, but they often have things that Dongjiao won't have, especially things related exclusively to Western cooking.

HEC falls somewhere in between these two. It's a multi-storey store, with goods lined up in tall racks sort of like a Home Depot. On the ground floor there are dining utensils, including Western-style cutlery and chopsticks, crockery, glassware, and a bunch of serving utensils, from tea and coffee pots to chafing dishes and platters of all kinds. Upstairs on the second floor they have baking supplies (the biggest selection I've seen outside of Paris and New York), appliances (including enormous planetary mixers and salamanders), and cleaning supplies, along with pots and pans, and on the third floor there are woks, steaming baskets, and all sorts of other goods. The prices are generally moderate, though imported goods naturally are a bit pricey. I bought a non-stick covered pullman loaf pan for RMB 79 (a bit more than $10) and a sifter for about RMB 30 (less than $5), and will almost surely go back to do some more damage before long.

HEC is located just south of the South 2nd Ring Road in You'anmen, at Kaiyangli. The actual address is Fengtai District, You'anmenwai, 1 Kaiyangli Yi Jie (丰台区右安门外大街开阳里一街一号). Here's a map (in Chinese), and their phone number is (010) 83559988. They even have a website: (though it's only in Chinese).

Preparing for New Zealand

In just 12 days we will be winging our way to New Zealand for a long-planned and anticipated holiday down under. After our plans to buy a farm in South Africa fell apart (owing to some clear-eyed reflection on the crime situation in the country, as well as the political instability) we looked at the map and decided that NZ could be a good alternative place to plunk down some cash and buy a house. J2 got busy looking at NZ-based real estate agencies and before long came up with a long list of around 30 properties that fit our needs--priced within our budget, located in interesting areas, and suitable to function as a bed and breakfast or inn. We booked our tickets to leave Beijing on Feb 11, on the non-stop Air New Zealand flight to Auckland and from there on a quick hop to Christchurch on the South Island. After looking around a bit, we decided that we prefer the South Island to the North Island, since it has fewer people (population is less than 1 million on the entire island) and much more beautiful scenery.

We're leaving our itinerary fairly vague, only making plans for the first few days we're in the country. We'll stay overnight in Christchurch the first night and then the next morning we'll drive north along the east coast to the town of Kaikoura, which from the photos looks like the NZ version of Ocean City or some other beach resort. Kaikoura means "Feast of Crayfish" in Maori, and is well known as a place for great shellfish, including South Pacific crayfish, which look to me more like a lobster. We'll have to give them a try! In Kaikoura, we have booked tickets to go on a morning outing with Dolphin Encounter. They take you out on their boat offshore a ways, and there you put on wet suits and snorkel gear and go swimming with dolphins. (Fortunately we found that we brought with us to Beijing our snorkel gear and the underwater housing for my old Canon PowerShot S30 digital camera, so we should have photos to share.) From Kaikoura we have no specific plans, other than to wind up in Oamaru, also on the east coast, but this time 3 hours south of Christchurch, in time for its Food & Wine Festival. And then we're free again until it's time to return to Beijing on Feb 27.

Stay tuned for updates on the trip, and on what we find house-wise there!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Chaine Dinner

Last night the Beijing baillage of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs held its first dinner of 2010 at the Blu Lobster restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel. Blu Lobster has been considered one of Beijing’s best restaurants since it opened a few years ago, but since the Shangri-La is way out in the western side of town, we have never managed to make it out there. As soon as we heard that the Chaîne would be there we knew we’d have to go, especially since Blu Lobster is one of the restaurants that I was supposed to have sampled as part of my restaurant reviewing responsibilities for the magazine.

Decked out in our dinner jackets and beautiful waistcoats that our tailor made us about a year ago (incidentally, thanks to Alpha, those waistcoats are now so tight that we could barely breathe while wearing them; we’ll have to have them remade) we headed out by cab to the wilds of western Beijing. The hotel had organized circus performers as entertainment during the cocktail hour, so there was a flame thrower outside the entrance and men on stilts parading through the lobby, giving the hotel a rather festive (though incongruous) air. Once we checked in and paid our fee, we were in the restaurant bar nibbling canapés and sipping champagne.

The room is really lovely, with a long crystal light fixture with specks of blue glass undulating through the space, giving it a somewhat marine ambience. They set up three tables--one very long one under the crystal light, and two other, less long ones, in a sort of niche. The tables were covered in black cloth with slabs of granite bearing a slice of brioche-like toast at each setting, along with six glasses and all the cutlery we’d need for the dinner. Once they got the induction of a few new members out of the way, the dinner began.

We started off with a wonderful house-made terrine to go with the slices of brioche that were at our places; the terrine had a great, peppery, flavor that was complemented by the flavor of the accompanying champagne (Jacquesson). After the terrines, the wait staff came around pouring our second wine of the evening, a rosé that had people muttering about the appropriateness of serving rosé at such a dinner. But those murmurs faded when they sampled the wine with the course it was accompanying--a beautiful bowl of oxtail consommé with a single foie gras raviolo floating on top. The consommé had tremendous depth of flavor, and was served at the perfect temperature, so that the foie gras in the raviolo was nearly melted but not quite, and the rosé did a great job of cutting the richness of the dish while also providing some nice accents. Excellent!

Following the consommé we had a dish that was evocative of the restaurant’s name--a lobster thermidor. Each diner was served a whole lobster (not too big, maybe a bit less than a pound each, maybe more), with the tail section separated from the front section (the latter standing up on the plate as though it was rearing up to defend the tail from the diner). The tail was slit down its length so that the meat could be removed while maintaining the shape of the tail, and then was refilled with the lobster thermidor, which was also perfect--superb flavor, with lots of meat and just delectable with the organic Chablis that it was served with.

There was a brief break after the lobster, with a palate-cleansing dish of granny smith apple granité served to the guests. Normally these palate cleansers, I find, are not very interesting in themselves, and while chefs often try to concoct interesting flavor combinations, these often fall flat. But not here. First of all, they served the dish in pyramids of ice into which a spherical alcove was hollowed out in which a scoop of granité was placed. Leading into this alcove was a small tube-shaped hollow into which the servers injected (using an ear syringe, it looked like to me) a small amount of Calvados, which poured over the granité. The granité had amazingly bright flavors, and, perhaps because of the Calvados, was neither too soft nor too hard, but just right. Everyone raved about it. Even the accompanying slices of dried apple were a big hit with the guests.

The main course followed the granité, a small serving of Beef Wellington, served with mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts, and a Médoc to wash it down. Unlike most institutional beef wellington, this one was not too well done (though, for me, it could have been still rarer), and the puff pastry wrapping was not too soggy. The meat was extremely tender, and the duxelles had a lot of mushroomy flavor that stood up well to the sauce. J2 still believes mine is better (probably he’s right) but this was not at all bad. And the wine was a favorite of most of the people we were sitting with.

Before dessert they served us a cheese course comprising a long, thin slice of Brie de Meaux with a thin truffle layer running the length of each slice. Apparently they take the wheel of brie, slice it longitudinally and cover one half with the truffles before reassembling the cheese and letting it ‘marinate’ for a week (I know this because each diner was given a small book containing the night’s menu and recipes for each of the dishes). The truffles did not really add much flavor to the cheese, we found, but they did add an intoxicating aroma. And the little slice of toasted panforte that accompanied the cheese was just the right thing for it.

Finally, dessert was served--individual portions of Baked Alaska that had flaming sauce poured over at each setting. Frankly, this would not have been my choice of dessert for this dinner--I would have served something lemony to provide a bit of acid to put a coda to the very rich dishes that preceded, but the Alaska was very good (most people finished their portions, and the portions were pretty big). And the Sauternes that came with it was delicious, though I’d have preferred a Tokaji.

There was not a dud among the dishes served the entire evening, and we sat with some lovely people, our Danish friend Michael (whose wife was off skiing) and some of his friends, who made for a lively and fun conversation to go along with the meal. We got home at around 12:30, not too late really. But the dinner was not really over yet! As we left the hotel they gave all the guests a gift bag that I saw this morning contained a large Brioche Mousseline that was intended to be part of our breakfast the next day! I had noticed the brioche on the menu, and wondered when they would be able to fit it into the meal, never thinking that it would be for the next day. It made for an excellent French toast!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Long Time, No Post

Sorry for the absence of posts lately! There's not been that much worth reporting about here, so I have been a bit remiss. Apologies! I will just write now to say that things are all well with us, though we are suffering through a lengthy cold snap here in Beijing that shows no signs of abating. Also, I had my first encounter with a "counterfeit cab" the other night. After waiting for a really long time for a cab after the gym, when one finally came I jumped right in, since I was just so cold. I told him where to go, and asked him (as always) to close his window, which was wide open. But when he did so, he first reached up to the roof and pulled in his taxi sign from the roof, which it seems was only stuck on by a magnet and wired to his dashboard somehow. That seemed odd, so I asked him if he was really a cab, which he answered in the affirmative. But all during the trip he kept peering at me in his rearview mirror, and when we got to my usual place to have cabs drop me off the fare was RMB 3 more than usual. Also, he did not take the extra RMB 1 that the city has imposed since late last year to compensate drivers for the high price of fuel. Lastly, when I got out and he drove off, I noticed that his license plate did not have the "B" that all other cabs have, instead it had a "P" like a regular car. So clearly he was a fake cab, though he had the meter, the sign and the other trappings of a cab, other than the inspection card inside, which was missing. I'm glad he did not try to kill me or anything (though maybe he was sizing me up while looking in the rearview mirror!).

We're off to a Chaine dinner tonight at Blu Lobster, at the Shangri-La Hotel way out in the western side of town, so I'll probably report about that tomorrow or soon thereafter. Till then!