BEIJING – I last set foot in Beijing in 1982, when travelers could only journey in groups, you needed a guide, and the roads were clogged with Mao-jacketed residents riding rickety bicycles. Restaurants were still tainted with all the negative trappings of capitalism. I remember having some great dishes during a three-week tour of China, but no real great meals. No news here that radical political changes have brought radical restaurant changes.
What better name than Made in China for a year-old, up market, smart, vibrant Chinese restaurant in the center of the nation’s capital? It’s hard not to fall in love here, with the bustling atmosphere, trim and chic wait staff, the open kitchens arranged throughout the long, narrow dining room. Try to get a table right in front of the two flaming ovens, so you can watch the careful ballet of chefs adroitly ushering the long, narrow, Beijing ducks in and out of the apricot wood-fired ovens. The roasting takes a full hour and 15 minutes, and the sleek, elongated poultry arrive at your table only seconds later. Like a trained surgeon, the chef adeptly carves the duck in front of you: first the glistening skin is carved into thin slivers with a giant cleaver. He continues the same movements without skipping a beat, and soon you’ve a platter of delicate crispy skin and meat, then again a platter of just the moist duck meat. The feast has begun before you can take a second breath. Hoisin sauce, vinegar, salt, and scallions arrive, along with a beautiful bamboo steamer basket full of warm pancakes. Season, roll, enjoy. The ducks are just 35 days old, and fattened for the last 10 days. We loved the meal with a few glasses of California’s Geyser Peak Sauvignon blanc, a grape I find pairs deliciously well with all Chinese food. This wine was luscious: it was vibrant, crisp, and aromatic and the notes of citrus and melon played well with the smoky duck.
If you are in Beijing and have already had your fill of duck, there are many other treasures here, in the hip, well-visited treasure of a restaurant . Try the pickled cucumber with shredded ginger and strips of hot red pepper, a palate opener and an excellent way to start the meal. The twice-cooked crispy pork ribs are to be eaten with the fingers, chewy, crispy, moist and touched with just the right dose of garlic. Starters of an unusual and original puree of tofu and chives, as well as a soothing portion of white beans, garlic, parsley and oil, were most welcome. Another starter of smoked duck, cut into bite-sized portions and topped with smooth chunks of white cabbage were clean-flavored, just lightly, slightly smoked, and delicious. Chef Jack Aw Yong insisted we try his double chicken consommé with cabbage and tofu. He was right to push: I have rarely tasted tofu as velvety or elegant in my life. Equally exciting were the gigantic shrimp, grilled and glistening, shrouded in long strips of scallions. Great ingredients, simple food, careful cooking, that’s what it’s all about. My only disappointment of the meal were the Shanghai-style pot stickers, made for seasoning with black vinegar. I found them too bready, not crispy enough, and lacking in flavor.
As a single dish, Beijing Duck is probably one of the world’s most efficient preparations. From the skin and meat consumed ceremoniously in the classic pancake and garnish preparation to a steaming broth prepared with the roasted carcass, everything gets used. One of Beijing’s classic restaurants for this famed dish is Da Dong, a large, traditional restaurant on the outskirts of the city. On our visit, the place was packed with locals of all ages, downing the moist and crunchy poultry preparation with plenty of warm tea to wash it down.
The duck here is delicious, and half a duck can be ordered – preferably in advance, when you reserve – and the assortment of garnishes make for an even more adventurous meal. The encyclopedic menu includes pictures as well as English translations, so even novices can have a good time here. The wait staff will even prepare the first portion of duck for you, deftly dipping pieces of duck and duck skin in the hoi sin sauce, layering the duck with garnishes such as matchsticks of radish, scallion, cucumber, as well as white sugar (for dipping pieces of irresistible roasted duck skin) and a rather forgettable garlic paste.
We loved even more than the duck the two side dishes, a round platter of braised tofu with brilliant green and crunchy broccoli. The tofu stood in little round towers, soft and wobbly as Jell-O, filled with a spicy hot sauce. The mouth-sized towers were electric, with that soothing mouth feel offset by the spice and squish of the spicy red sauce, oozing from each end. Chinese food is often all about texture and the play of texture and here it was a single texture with contrasting colors and strengths. Equally appealing was the platter of fresh, firm, brilliant green fava beans laced with the tiniest of dried shrimp. Here the play of texture was one of dramatic contrast, with the smooth green fava beans adding a tiny bit of crunch and smooth elegance on the palate, with the shrimp supplying a pungent saltiness and dense and crispy crunch. We loved it.
At the end of the meal, after an offering of fresh fruit – excellent watermelon slices and truly delicious strawberries – we were offered a single slice of Wrigley’s Spearmint Chewing Gum. “Because of the garlic,” giggled our waitress.
The trend all over Asia is to recapture the past by restoring or rebuilding spots of sentimental value. Tian Di Yi Jia, an elegant, upscale restaurant overlooking the Forbidden City is like that. The restaurant is a rebuilt mansion, decorated with giant comfortable Chinese arm chairs, oversized round tables, and careful lighting. There is a feeling of space, calm and quiet, with a very sophisticated style of modern, imperial, Chinese food. We most loved the thin rectangles of golden goose liver, smooth, rich and infused with a multitude of spices, making for a palate awakening starter. Equally good were the thick discs of cabbage doused in a powerful mustard sauce, the fresh and crunchy miniature cucumbers, and the tiny, moist dumplings for dipping in a fiery sauce. With the meal, we sampled a dense, tightly knit Australian red, Cap Mentelle, from the Margaret River Valley.
Made in China
The Grand Hyatt Beijing
Beijing Oriental Plaza
1 East Chang An Avenue
Telephone (86) (10) 6510 9221
Fax (86) (10) 8518 0000
Open daily. All major credit cards. From $40 to $50 per person, including service but not beverages.
Beijing Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant
South Eastern Corner of Chang Hong Bridge
Third Ring Road
Telephone: 010 6582 2892
Open daily. All major credit cards. From $20 to $30 per person, including service but not beverages.
Tian Di Yi Jia
No 140 Nan Chi Zi Street
Beijing 100006, China
Telephone (8610) 85115556
Fax: (8610) 85115158-9
Open daily. All major credit cards. From $50 to $50 person, including service but not beverages.