[Guest post from Snooshiking.] Before going to China for the Olympics, we weren't exactly looking forward to the food in Beijing. Sure, I've had Peking Duck, but aside from that (and real authentic Chinese Ja-Jang Mein, not the Korean version), what else was there to eat there? The northern part of China is not known for its food. Aside from hearty dumplings and stews, what else was there? I've been to the Northern Chinese restaurant in San Gabriel before, but only when I was in the mood for rustic, peasant food.
Day 1: The first few days in Beijing confirmed my fears. At a friend's suggestion, we went to Hua Jia Yi Yuan (Flower Family Garden) on DongZhimen Inside Road. It was a really nice location, felt like a '30s style grand courtyard with natural lighting and chirping birds in cages. Mostly northern Chinese, with a few Szechuan dishes thrown in. Tried their famous Mandarin fish, fresh bamboo, hot and sour cabbage, vegetables with mushrooms, and even their Peking Duck. But the food was a bit rough around the edges, a bit too salty and a bit too oily. Decent, but not great. The duck - definitely not great. In fact, not even good. (I later learned that to really have good duck, you have to go to a place that specializes in duck.)
Day 2: On the second day, we tried the Red Capital Club, located down a small alley in a traditional hutong. A few years ago, it was named as one of the hot 60 tables in the world by Conde Nast, so we thought it would be good. The vibe is fantastic - an old, restored courtyard home filled with Communist memorabilia, including furniture from Lin Bao's office (former defense minister under Mao) and Madame Mao's Red Flag limousine parked in front. The menu features interesting historical tidbits, and the owner just might be one of the longest-residing Americans in Beijing (25 years). A real friendly guy with great stories. But the food - just so-so. A mixture of different cuisines. Mao's pork is bland. Spicy chicken - OK, but not that special. The best dishes - the cold vegetable appetizers. Clearly made for the western palate.
Day 3: It wasn't until the third day that we finally had something good. Lu Lu, right near the entrance to the Military Museum, is a Shanghainese restaurant that can almost compete with the best from Shanghai. Thoroughly modern, clean and authentic. We had a group of 10 people and ate almost 15 dishes, so I can't remember any with any particular detail, except that it was all pretty good.
Day 4: Next up, authentic Peking duck at Ya Yuan, in the City Hotel. Not the most modern place, vibe is a bit "local," but my friends told me this was the best duck in Beijing. Not as well known and not as big as the mega-duck restaurants, but the best because it's prepared the old-fashioned way. First came the appetizers. Duck tongue - amazing! Cold sliced duck liver - sublime. And then came the actual Peking duck. Sliced in front of you, the duck skin and meat is rolled into something like a thin flour tortilla, along with green onions and sauce. Most important is the skin - the best I've ever had. A rich dark brown, it has a crisp yet resilient texture, but once you place it in your mouth, it almost melts. The meat is infused with the taste of apple wood, which is the traditional way of roasting the duck. The chef explained that each duck takes approximately 1 week to prepare, drying and refrigerating, to get the skin just right. And the sauce is rich and multi-dimensional, almost like a fine Bordeaux. He explained that he gets it from one particular small producer, then adds his own secret ingredients.
Day 5: That night, I go to sleep craving for more duck, so the next day, we go to DaDong one of the most famous (and many people say the best) duck restaurants in Beijing. Now, this is a big, fancy restaurant. Four floors, private rooms, nice tablecloths. Their menu probably the thickest thing I've ever seen! Imagine a wedding album, full of beautiful photos, but triple the size. It must have weighed 15 pounds! The opening courses were fantastic! Seared foie gras, cold numbing hot sesame chicken, prawns, etc. All were amazing, and almost French-Chinese fusion in their execution. I was getting excited, and I later learned that they're particularly well known for having great dishes aside from the duck. They even have good Chinese wine (the price is directly proportional to the quality in China, and the expensive wine (by local standards) can actually be quite good. Now, about the duck - it's just OK, especially compared to Ya Yuan. The skin is crispy, but the texture is like a shrimp chip - a bit too crisp. The meat is almost flavorless. I mean, it's definitely good, but is it the best? For me, no.
Day 6: On the sixth night, we stumbled onto a restaurant right by our hotel. We had just finished watching Track & Field, it was almost midnight, and we were starving! Luckily, Beijing has lots of late-night choices (like most Asian cities). We choose this restaurant, Meizhou Dongpo, because the large number of government plaques on the outside. (In China, the government will give awards to certain restaurants, and you'll see these plaques proudly displayed by the front door.) Once inside, we knew we were in the right place. It's Sichuan food, but in a refined style. Supposedly, the famous poet who invented Dongpo Pork (otherwise known as Pork Pump, or Roasted Pork Leg) was actually from the city of Meizhou in Sichuan before he moved to Hangzhou (near Shanghai), where the dish eventually became more famous. This restaurant's version of the Dongpo Pork is roasted with ginger, picked green peppers, and other assorted goodies that, in my opinion, make it much more interesting than the typical Shanghai version. In the Beijing Food Olympics, before the actual Olympics, the dish even won a gold medal! In fact, three of their dishes had won a gold medal award from the city, including their Bang Bang Chicken and smoked numbing sausages.
Day 7: The next night, when we came there again, we enjoyed a spicy buckwheat noodle as well as this amazing fish. It was a live fish, cut into a fan shape, and steamed with fresh green numbing peppers which impart almost a pine-like fresh scent with just a little bit of numbness.
What started off badly definitely ended well. Overall, I think Beijing offers greater variety than Shanghai in terms of cuisine styles, and if you know where to go, you'll definitely be rewarded.
Hua Jia Yi Yuan
235 Dongzhimen Nei Dajie
(two other locations as well)
Phone: 6405 1908
Red Capital Club
9 Fuxing Road, West side of the Military Museum entrance
Phone: 6858 3661
Inside the City Hotel, Beijing
No. 4 East Gongti Road, Chaoyang District Phone (hotel): 6500-7799 Call 1 hour ahead so that they can begin preparing your duck
Bldg 3, Tuanjiehu Beikou, Dongsanhuan Lu, SE corner of Changhong Qiao, Chaoyang District (Other locations as well)