Thursday 30 September 2010

Gai Lan with Wasabi Soy Dip

I made this, honest I did!
This is the last of my Beijing posts and to sign off, I'm going to do something a little different by recreating a dish that I ate at a restaurant. This isn't something that I'd normally attempt, as one of the main reasons I eat out is to try food that I can't make at home. That and the fact that I'm a bit crap in the kitchen!

Anyway, this simple dish of gai lan with wasabi soy dip that I sampled at Beijing's Modern China (金满庭) seemed easy enough to have a crack at. The unusual thing about this dish is that the gai lan is served ice-cold. In fact in the restaurant, it was served on top of some ice in a fancy dish.

I feel a bit silly posting this recipe now, as this is a dish that's best enjoyed at the height of summer rather than at the onset of autumn. Just imagine how refreshing the ice-cold crunchy gai lan stalks enlivened by a spiky wasabi soy dip would be on a sweltering day.

Gai lan with Wasabi Soy Dip
6 stalks of gai lan
a slice of ginger
wasabi paste
light soy
ice cubes

This dish is all about preparation so before you start cooking, set up an ice bath with loads of ice cubes topped up with cold water.

Wash the gai lan and trim off the tough bottoms and loose bits. Stick into a pan of salted boiling water with a slice of ginger and cook for 3-4 minutes.

Remove the gai lan and plunge into the ice bath so that it stops cooking. Leave it in the ice bath for a while until it gets ice cold.

Shake off the excess water and plate up the gai lan. Prepare the wasabi and soy dip to serve on the side.

Some Hints
My first attempt at this dish wasn't a total success, as some of the gai lan stalks weren't as crunchy as I would've liked. On further analysis, these were the thinner stalks as the thicker stalks were al dente. Therefore, I recommend that you choose stalks of a similar thickness and adjust cooking time accordingly.

Looking back, my ice bath was also a bit inadequate, as I should've loaded it up with more ice. This would've stopped the cooking process and got the temperature down a lot quicker resulting in crunchier veg. Another factor to consider is the quality of the produce. The gai lan I used was fresh but I can imagine this dish being a bit of a shocker if you used tired vegetables on the verge of wilting.

About Gai Lan
Gai lan (芥蘭/芥兰), like many Chinese vegetables is known by a multitude of names in English, the most common of which are kai-lan and Chinese broccoli. This vegetable is widely available in Chinese supermarkets but isn't as common in High St supermarkets, although the likes of Sainsbury's and Waitrose might stock it.

Gai lan is very common in Chinese cuisine, in particular Cantonese cuisine as it originates from the south of China. Popular dishes that feature this vegetable include steamed gai lan with oyster sauce (蠔油芥蘭) and stir-fried gai lan with garlic (蒜茸芥蘭).

About The Dish
Modern China, where I sampled this dish, is ostensibly a Cantonese restaurant but one where they obviously like to experiment. My colleague who ordered this dish is originally from Hong Kong but she's never seen it in her hometown or anywhere else for that matter. Her suspicion is that this dish is unique to this Beijing restaurant.

Monday 27 September 2010

The Full English @ Light Café

"To eat well in England, you should have breakfast three times a day" – Somerset Maugham
It doesn't quite hold true today but we all know where Maugham is coming from. Of the three meals of the day, breakfast is the one where the English can hold their heads up high on the field of culinary battle. It really is superior to the French croissant and I don't quite know what the Germans are thinking of with their cheese and cold cut combo.

For me the full English is best eaten at home or at a greasy spoon but occasionally I like to go to a slightly posher caff. I'm thinking of places that are two-a-penny in Antipodean cities like Sydney, Wellington, and my favourite, Melbourne. Places where you can enjoy a superior breakfast/brunch in a chilled out environment with fresh juice and proper coffee. Like endless boasting about their sporting prowess, it's something that our Aussie and Kiwi friends excel at.

I don't think it has any Antipodean links but the Light Café in Wimbledon Village wouldn't look or feel out of place down under. Our group of four pitched up here for a spot of Sunday brunch and were seated in the lovely conservatory at the back.

We all went for the full English. The lone fried egg was on the small side and we weren't offered the option of scrambled or poached. The Gloucester Old Spot sausage was very good and I can't complain about the quality of the other items just the quantity. I know I'm paying for the privilege of eating in Wimbledon Village but for £7.50, an extra egg, baked beans and some more toast wouldn't have gone amiss.

On the plus side, they did have black pudding, which for me defines a cooked breakfast from these shores. The Ref didn't fancy his and mentioned that he would've preferred hash browns. I proceeded to do 'one' on how hash browns are American and had no place in a full English. I perhaps took the banter too far by proclaiming how Surrey boys like The Ref didn't 'get' black pudding and that he was a 'Southern Jessie'; especially, as I did snaffle his black pud.

Around the table there were minor moans, as I know Mr Pak Choi prefers his eggs scrambled and DK wasn't happy at how small the drinks were (he is from Yorkshire). But for all that, it was a superior breakfast compared to the one I had at Wallace & Co.

Moreover, this place is a spin-off from the acclaimed Light House restaurant and it's good to see a local business take over a spot formerly occupied by a chain (the now defunct Tootsies). I'll be back but probably for lunch in the hope that the portions are more substantial.

Light Cafe on Urbanspoon

Light Café, 48 High Street, Wimbledon, London SW19 5AX (Tel 020-8946-3031)
Nearest tube/rail: Wimbledon

Thursday 23 September 2010

A Slightly Inadequate Guide to Taiwanese Cuisine

Bellagio (鹿港小镇) isn't as you might think an Italian restaurant but rather it's a chain of Taiwanese eateries. It's a bit more casual than most of the places I was taken to in Beijing and that was no bad thing. I left the ordering to my host but I was invited to contribute with some ideas and my thoughts on the noodle order (was my cover being blown?).

I had a lot more success in tracking down both the English and Chinese names of the dishes for this post. However, I still feel that this is a slightly inadequate guide, as I'm not entirely sure if what I ate here was proper Taiwanese food. Come to think of it, despite having been to Taiwan, I'm not even sure what constitutes proper Taiwanese food!

My Favourites
三杯鸡 Three-cup chicken – or san bei ji is named as it's cooked with a cup each of soy, sesame oil and rice wine. The 'three cups' reduce and combine with chicken bits (on the bone), Thai basil, ginger and garlic and the end result is just the most aromatic and fragrant dish. This version was superb with the chicken having absorbed most of the 'three-cups' but without drying out. I also loved the abundant whole cloves of garlic, which I devoured. This is my favourite Taiwanese dish and the one that I suggested although I'm sure it would've have been ordered anyway.

蒜泥龙豆 Dragon beans w/garlic – I've never seen these in the UK and I loved the crunchy texture of these stir-fried beans, which were perfectly complemented by the garlic.

油淋鲈鱼 Steamed sliced perch – Steamed fish is one of my favourites and this was a decent rendition. Unusually, the perch was filleted rather than served whole.

The Rest
菠萝油条虾 Pineapple w/shrimp stuffed in crullers – this dish is wrong on so many levels. I'm no fan of pineapple in savoury dishes and the sweet cloying sauce isn't great either. But whoever decided to stuff a dough stick or cruller (you tiao 条虾) with shrimp paste before deep-frying it is a genius. This would work well as a cheung fun (腸粉) filling in my opinion.

客家小炒 Hakka-style stir-fried celery w/dried squid – considering this dish includes two ingredients I dislike, celery and tofu, it was better than I expected. Perhaps Chinese celery is less crap.

Rice & Noodles
黑胡椒牛肉炒饭 Black pepper beef fried rice – this looks a bit too dark but it tasted better than it looked. The black pepper lent this dish some heat and there was a pleasant kick. I may try adding black pepper, the next time I make fried rice.

台式炒米粉 Taiwanese style fried rice vermicelli – there were many noodle dishes and when we discussed the options, I voted for the rice vermicelli. A Taiwanese favourite and one of mine too.

What is Taiwanese Cuisine?
The menu at Bellagio confused me, as I spotted some Cantonese and Sichuan dishes. I thought this was a Taiwanese restaurant, which begged the question, what is Taiwanese cuisine?

Taiwan came under Chinese rule in the 17th century and settlers from Fujian province soon became the majority population. Therefore, Taiwanese cuisine has much in common with Fujianese food. Dishes like oyster omelette (oa-chian 蚵仔煎) and black pepper bun (hujiao bing 胡椒餅) can be found in both Fujian and Taiwan. There were also many Hakka amongst these early settlers, which explains why that celery stir-fry was on Bellagio's menu.

Later the island came under Japanese occupation (1895-1945) which influenced the cuisine with dishes like tianbula (甜不辣). However, the most profound influence on Taiwanese food came with the influx of Nationalist Chinese following the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Coming from all corners of China, some of their dishes came to be regarded as Taiwanese, most notably beef noodle soup (niu rou mian 牛肉面).

Last but not least, Taiwan is renowned for desserts like baobing (刨冰) and drinks like bubble tea (珍珠奶茶), and these are very popular at Bellagio. So much so, some groups came in just for these sweet treats. Sadly we were too full to try these amazing creations. In conclusion, I guess Bellagio's eclectic mix of dishes isn't that unusual for a Taiwanese eatery after all.

The Verdict
You can get banquet fatigue in Beijing, so the simpler pleasures at Bellagio were a welcome respite. In particular, the three-cup chicken was out of this world.

I ate at the branch near the Olympic stadium but there are outlets across Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou amongst other major cities.

Bellagio, No.4 Building, Area 2, Yayuncun An Hui Bei Li, Chaoyang District, Beijing
鹿港小镇 北京朝阳区亚运村安慧北里2区4号楼 (Tel: +86-10-6489-4300)

Taiwanese Cuisine in the UK
Taiwanese cuisine isn't that prevalent in the UK, as historically there's been very little immigration from Taiwan. However, in recent years some Taiwanese eateries have popped up in London, most notably Leong's Legends, with its three branches dotted across Chinatown and Bayswater.

From the more interesting corners of the London blogosphere, Su-Lin from Tamarind and Thyme has reviewed Fulham's Formosa whilst Pig Pig's Corner made the journey to Golders Green to check out Old Tree. Incidentally, Pig Pig's Corner has some amazing posts on Taiwan itself.

I've also spotted Taiwan Village in Fulham (I need to check this place out), where I believe a former alumnus of Belgravia's Hunan is in the kitchen. Both places are Taiwanese run but are more renowned for their multi-course 'leave it to us' banquets rather than their native cuisine. If you know of any other Taiwanese eateries in London or further afield then please let me know.

Monday 20 September 2010

Gourmet Garden - Malaysian Chinese in Zone 3

Although the likes of Rasa Sayang and Kiasu have opened up in recent years, you'd think there'd be more Malaysian eateries in London. Especially given the number of Malaysian Chinese that work in the catering industry. However, most tend to either follow the Cantonese restaurant formula or the Pan-Asian canteen model.

That's why I was intrigued when I came across Gourmet Garden (膳園) in Hendon. On the outside, it looks like a suburban Chinese restaurant but among the everyday Anglo-Chinese offerings, its menu features a wide selection of dishes from Malaysia and Singapore. Most of these are Malaysian Chinese with the odd Malay dish.

The Big Dish
馬來棧焗蟹 Fried crab with sambal belachan (seasonal price apx £20)

Visitors to Malaysia and Singapore will be familiar with the likes of chilli crab and black pepper crab. However, I've never seen crab prepared this way before despite belachan, a pungent fermented shrimp paste, being a common ingredient in Straits cuisine.

Frying belachan with chilli, minced garlic, shallot paste and sugar makes sambal belachan, the basis of the gravy in this dish. And what a gravy, already fiery and shrimpy, it was further enhanced by a generous helping of dried shrimps (har mai 蝦米); an ideal accompaniment to the perfectly cooked sweet fresh crab.

Gourmet Garden's boss explained that as well as being their signature dish; this style of crab is quite unique to her restaurant as it is their very own creation. Served as an intermediate course, it was the highlight of the evening. Looking back, I should've asked whether they had any deep fried Chinese buns (mantou 曼頭) to dip into the rich gravy.

Teochew ngoh hiang
Kweh pi tee
The Starters
潮州五香 Teochew ngoh hiang (£4.30)
香脆金杯 Kweh pi tee (£4.30/4pcs)
阿榨 Achar - Malaysian pickled mixed vegetables (£3.80)

My favourite starter was the ngoh hiang, minced pork & prawns wrapped in beancurd skin then deep-fried. This was served sliced and was liberally laced with five-spice powder (五香粉) from which the dish's name is derived. Kweh pi tee are dainty crispy pastry cups filled with vegetables and topped with a prawn and these were OK. I wasn't that impressed by the achar but I'm not really a pickled vegetable kind of guy.

The Mains
海南雞 Hainanese chicken w/house chilli sauce (£5.80/qtr)
干咖哩牛 Rendang beef (£6.90)
椒絲腐乳通菜 Fried kangkong w/fresh chilli & fermented beancurd sauce (£6.50)
叻沙 Singapore laksa (£6.00)

I fear that my impressions of the Hainanese chicken were spoiled by the recent memories of eating this dish in Singapore. This dish demands that the bird be just cooked and whilst it wasn't overcooked, it just didn't seem as juicy and moist as the version at Boon Tong Kee.

The spice level of the rendang beef hadn't been dumbed down and it had a reassuring kick. Unfortunately, the meat wasn't as tender as it could be but this is a common problem with 'slow-cooked' dishes in restaurants. The kangkong (morning glory) was perfectly adequate but with hindsight, I would've preferred it stir-fried with belachan rather than fresh chilli & fermented beancurd.

There was plenty of chicken, fried tofu, prawns, fish balls, and rice vermicelli in the Singapore laksa. So it was quite ironic that this generosity slightly spoiled the dish as the noodle-soup balance was all wrong. With so much 'stuff', there just wasn't enough spicy coconut soup to go round. That said, I thought it had the right level of heat and I shouldn't really complain about big portions.

The Bill
With two bottles of wine, rice and a pot of tea, the bill racked up to £116.30 including 10% service charge between three. This may seem expensive but we probably over-ordered and did have two bottles of Chablis (£20.50 each). If you strip out the booze, the food costs apx £24/head, which is damn good value.

What The Others Thought
Joining me for dinner was Kake and Bellaphon. The latter has been dubbed in certain circles as a misguided self-important contrarian rebel. Personally, I think 'narcissistic iconoclast' sums him up better. I'm also not sure why he's been singled out, as some of us work bloody hard to be contrary (but not misguided or self-important) and for Bellaphon to earn that reputation without really trying, sticks in the craw. For this meal though, it was his expertise in his native Malaysian cuisine that I was seeking out rather than his perceived character flaws.

There was much consensus around the table but there were a couple of points of disagreement. Being more of a spice-fiend, Bellaphon thought the laksa was a bit tame and he needed some extra chilli sauce. Whilst Kake is a big fan of fermented bean curd and was quite happy with how the kangkong was prepared.

About The Restaurant
Gourmet Garden sits aside six lanes of traffic on the A41 and is accessed from Hendon Central station via a piss-streaked underpass. However, don't let that put you off visiting this fine restaurant, as it's only 25 minutes by tube from Euston.

The boss, who like the chef is from Kuala Lumpur, has run Gourmet Garden for the last eight years and her pride and passion in the food they serve is clear for all to see. I was impressed with how she dealt with the multicultural clientele in English, Cantonese and Mandarin. Overall, service was a cut above with that personal touch, which is characteristic of quality local restaurants.

The Verdict
The suburbs have been a happy hunting ground for me lately and I really enjoyed Gourmet Garden. The fried crab with sambal belachan was simply amazing and whilst the other dishes didn't quite hit the same heights, there's a lot to like about this restaurant. If you're a fan of Malaysian Chinese food then it's well worth checking out.

Gourmet Garden on Urbanspoon

Gourmet Garden, 59 Watford Way, Hendon, London
 NW4 3AX (Tel: 020-8202-9639)
Nearest Tube: Hendon Central

For more on Malaysian food, I highly recommend that you go to 3 Hungry TummiesTest with Skewer and House of Annie for their 'Muhibbah Malaysian Monday' feature. Each month, they take it in turns to round-up the best of Malaysian on their respective blogs.

Thursday 16 September 2010

A Slightly Inadequate Guide to Shanghai Cuisine

Beijing is a great foodie city and like London or New York its excellence derives from its culinary diversity. In Beijing's case, this is reflected by the ability to eat across China without leaving the city limits. So it came as no surprise that my first meal in the capital was at Shanghai Spring, which also goes by the Chinese name of Xiao Nan Guo (小南国), to sample some upscale Shanghai cuisine.

I'm afraid this is a slightly inadequate guide to Shanghai cuisine, as I'm not sure of the exact names of many of the dishes ordered. I've pieced together as much as I can from my photos, brief glimpses of the menu, and the internet. Incidentally the bilingual Chinese-English menu is a great read with explanations of the dishes and stunning photos.

I was asked to suggest a dish or two but otherwise my host did the ordering. For our party of four, she ordered a varied selection of small plates and some bigger dishes. Whilst the small plates might be viewed as starters, the dishes were brought out in no particular order.

Small Plates
The photo at the top of this post shows off that most famous of Shanghai dishes, xiao long bao (小笼包). These soup-filled dumplings need little introduction and whilst the XLB here weren't quite as good as those I had in Shanghai last year, they remain streets ahead of the stuff served in London.

I also enjoyed the pan-fried wonton (jian yuntun 煎云吞?) as did the rest of the table. Shanghai-style wonton pastry is quite different from the more familiar Cantonese-style and its more robust nature allows it to be pan-fried like a potsticker dumpling (guo tie 锅贴). The juicy pork and pak choi filling was different class and I'd love to see these on a dim sum menu back home.

Less successful was the sweet & sour spare ribs (tangcu paigu 糖醋排骨), which were served cold as is apparently customary. I would've preferred them warm. The fish & tofu soup was a bit bland and needed some pepper to lend it some flavour.

Big Dishes
I'm proud to say that my one contribution to the order was the sautéed fresh river shrimp (清炒野生河虾仁). Some might say that having a whole page dedicated to this signature dish in the menu swayed me. And they'd be right. I loved the simplicity of this delicately cooked dish. Seasoned with a light hand, the sweetness of the shrimp shone through. Incidentally, other freshwater produce like river fish and hairy crab also feature prominently in Shanghai cuisine.

My other favourite was the braised bamboo shoots on a bed of watercress. I've seldom eaten fresh bamboo shoots and they were full of flavour. The just cooked watercress was also the perfect complement. I was less enamoured by the fried fish with pomelo, which was served with what can be best described as a kind of mayo. This dish committed the sin of looking better than it tasted and I suspect that it is a creation of one of the chefs rather than being traditional Shanghainese fare.

The last big dish was the crab & tofu potage, which I can tell you little about, as I'm not a big fan of bean curd. I nearly forgot to take a photo but it must have been good as the others devoured it.

What is Shanghai Cuisine?
The term Shanghai cuisine is a bit of a misnomer as it actually draws upon the culinary traditions of neighbouring Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. No matter what you call it, I haven't always been a fan of this kind of food, as I thought it was too sweet and oily. However, I was converted on a visit to a branch of Xiao Nan Guo in Hong Kong, where I was impressed with its elegant and refined take on this cuisine. I've been a fan ever since.

Other famous dishes that you might find in restaurants serving Shanghai food include red-cooked dishes like Dongpo pork (东坡肉), beggar's chicken (jiao hua ji 叫化鸡), drunken chicken (zuiji 醉鸡), squirrel fish (songshu gui yu 松鼠鳜鱼), Shanghai hairy crab (da zha xie 大闸蟹) and lion's head meatballs (shizi tou 狮子头), which I sampled on a previous visit to Xiao Nan Guo. If you like xiao long bao then I think you'll also like the lesser-known sheng jian bao (生煎包).

The Verdict
The smart and elegant Xiao Nan Guo isn't just my favourite Shanghainese restaurant; it remains one of my favourite restaurants in Beijing.

I dined at the Financial St branch but there are other branches in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong amongst other major cities.

Xiao Nan Guo, 3/F China Life Center, 17 Financial Street, Xicheng District, Beijing
小南国 北京市西城区金融大街17号人寿中心大厦3楼 (Tel: +86-400-820-9777)

Shanghai Cuisine in the UK
Sadly Shanghai cuisine isn't that common in the UK. Granted there are loads of restaurants across the land with 'Shanghai' in their names but that's usually a marketing ploy to lure white people the gullible. And whilst xiao long bao appears on the menu of most dim sum eateries, it isn't the same as having a proper Shanghainese restaurant.

I remember there used to be an authentic Shanghai joint in London's Chinatown on the site of what is now Haozhan but I struggle to think of a restaurant that currently majors in this cuisine. If anyone does know of anywhere in London or elsewhere in the UK then let me know. By the way, I don't consider either Shanghai Blues in Holborn or Dalston's Shanghai as being authentic Shanghainese.

Sunday 12 September 2010

Imperial China - Dim Sum in the Suburbs

I'm keeping this post short and sweet. Besides, I'm not sure you want to read about the 18 different varieties of dim sum that we ordered (nearly half the dim sum menu!). In case you're wondering, I sampled a mere 13 of these dishes.

Imperial China (唐朝) in Teddington is proper old school and has everything I look for in a dim sum restaurant. However, I can't take the credit for unearthing this hidden gem, as it was my sister who suggested coming here for a family get-together. We reserved a table for 11.30am, as this was the only slot available for a busy Sunday. The dining room was near empty on our arrival but by the time we left, the restaurant was full and there was a queue.

It wasn't surprising that it was busy, as the food at this unassuming suburban restaurant is of a very high standard. The dim sum is freshly made with a light hand at the steamer and the fryer. Some of the highlights included:

蜜汁叉燒包 cha siu baoRoasted pork buns (£2.30)
鮮竹牛肉球 ngau yuk kauSteamed minced beef balls (£2.30)
蜂巢荔芋角 wu gokYam croquettes with pork (£2.50)
鬼馬炸兩 zhaliangDeep fried dough cheung fun (£2.80)
擂沙湯丸 lei sha tong yuanSesame paste in peanut crumbs (£2.80)

There's a lot to like about Imperial China with its quality food, good service, wallet friendliness, and warm family atmosphere. Compared to dim sum joints in London, I prefer it to Camden's much-lauded Yum Cha and its streets ahead of anything Chinatown can offer. In fact I'd go so far to bracket it alongside Pearl Liang and Phoenix Palace as my 'go-to' dim sum restaurants.

I know Teddington might as well be on Mars for some but if you don't live too far away then I highly recommend making the trek to Zone 6. Don't just take my word for it, Ma and Pa Noodles loved Imperial China and their opinion counts for a lot.

Imperial China on Urbanspoon

Imperial China, 196-198 Stanley Road, Teddington TW11 8UE (Tel: 020-8977-8679)
Nearest rail: Fulwell (trains from Waterloo)

PS: To the best of my knowledge, this restaurant ISN'T related to the Chinatown restaurant of the same name.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Beijing Snapshots

Here are a few snapshots of the weird and wonderful food that caught my eye during my trip to Beijing.

The last thing you expect to see in Beijing is a churros stall. So it did come as a surprise to see a lengthy queue for these Spanish snacks when strolling along Nanluoguxiang Hutong (南锣鼓巷胡同). I gave these bad boys a miss, as I really couldn't squeeze them in. Proof if proof was needed that the Spanish and Chinese are kindred food spirits.

A Beijing must eat is the humble jiaozi dumpling (饺子). Simply boiled and served with vinegar, they come with a variety of fillings such as the everyday pork & chive, crab, and sanxian 三鲜 (pork, prawn & chives). Should you find yourself in the Xidan (西单) neighbourhood, pop into 天津百饺园 – there's no English signage but the name translates as Tianjin Garden of 100 Dumplings.

You always get more interesting dim sum in China like these baked bbq roast pork buns (cha siu bao 叉烧包) from Modern China (金满庭) in the Times Square mall. I've not seen baked cha siu bao served as dim sum in London but you can get a man-sized version at Chinatown bakeries like Wonderful Patisserie.

Mushroom 'pie' with dim sum? It's not a classic combo but one that you can put together at the Golden Jaguar (金钱豹) buffet restaurant located in The Place mall. In common with the rest of the Western selection, the 'pie' was no great shakes but the Chinese and other Asian food was of a decent standard with many dishes cooked to order.

Le Quai (有璟阁) has a stunning interior and this restaurant, located near the Workers' Stadium, offers a mix of classic and contemporary Chinese cuisine with a fusion touch. It sounds like a car crash waiting to happen but I needn't have worried; fusion dishes like tea eggs filled with foie gras worked just as well as traditional dishes like the steamed Mandarin fish (gui yu 鳜鱼).

Eating Sichuan food in Beijing is another must. We went to Yuxin Sichuan Dish (渝信川菜), which is found inside the Chang'an Grand Theatre. Our selection of old faves such as dry-fried green beans (si ji dou 四季豆) and more unusual dishes like bullfrog in chilli oil was all good. Be warned, Sichuan cuisine in Beijing is a lot more potent than its London counterpart.

Grand Steam (蒸) is a trendy Cantonese joint just off Financial St. As you might have guessed from its name, this restaurant serves mainly steamed food including dim sum and larger dishes. I adored dishes like the steamed cod & beans with garlic soy. Less successful were their wonton noodles (yuntun mian 云吞面), as they didn't use the proper fresh egg noodles (san mein 生面) – sacrilege!

As much as I liked the healthy concept of Grand Steam, it seemed the locals preferred the unhealthy TGI Friday's next door. I have no objections to Beijingers sampling Western food on a night out; I just wish that they had better options to choose from. Mind you, there's not much chance of that when Grand Steam's other neighbour is Pizza Hut with a KFC two doors down.

Monday 6 September 2010

The Genius of Dadong

Some blog posts write themselves. This is one of them. The following sequence of photos shows the courses in the order in which they were served.

Poached chicken in chilli oil with fruit salad shot - after eating the spicy chicken, you tackle the hollow tube of fruit salad. I was instructed to suck through the bottom to taste the mango puree first, followed by fruit, and ending with foam.

Spare ribs & sour plum arranged in a Chinese landscape - as our waitress sprinkled the icing sugar 'snow' onto the landscape, she recited a famous Chinese poem by Su Dongpo. This would've been self-indulgent if it hadn't been so damn tasty.

Roast beef with potatoes - I thought it was really clever how this dish looks 'European' but tastes Chinese. The trail of 'dust' consists of ground chilli and Sichuan pepper.

Stir-fried fish fillets – these were arranged in fried fish skin with a spoon of white pepper dip (off photo). Perfectly cooked.

Braised Chinese leaf with chestnuts – usually such a boring vegetable, the rich creamy chicken stock based sauce lifted the humble Chinese leaf to new heights. Apparently this is an re-interpretation of a famous Shandong dish.

Pak choi with braised mushrooms – I'm not sure what type of mushroom (similar to Chanterelle?) featured in this dish but they sure as hell absorbed a lot of flavour.

Chicken consommé with snow fungus & bamboo pith – a super clean tasting soup and a perfect palate cleanser for what was to follow. Students of Chinese cuisine will understand that the two kinds of fungus are there for texture.

With the exception of the ribs and the fish, the courses were served individually 'Western-style'. In some cases, I feared that the Blumenthal-esque presentation might have been at the expense of flavour. I needn't have worried as each dish passed the taste test with flying colours. But for all the excellence of these seven courses, they were merely a prelude to the signature dish of Peking duck (Beijing kaoya 北京烤鸭) at Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant (大董烤鸭店).

Peking duck is a must eat when visiting China's capital and this is the place to do it in style. Roasted in a traditional wood-fired oven, the bird is leaner than most with super-crispy skin and very tender meat. The duck is carved at the table and served with the usual accoutrements alongside the more unusual such as the sesame buns (zhima shaobing 芝麻烧饼), which I preferred to the traditional pancakes. The highlight was the crispy skin, which I liked eating the modern way by dipping into sugar. To round off this veritable feast, milky duck soup was served.

There were desserts but without sounding churlish, fresh fruit and sorbet seemed a bit out of kilter with the previous nine courses. But that's a minor quibble as this was the culinary highlight of my visit to Beijing. Chef Dong is a genius and if he was plying his trade in London or Paris, he'd possess Michelin stars. Big thanks to my colleagues for bringing me here and for ordering so well.

Dadong is quite bling and if you fancy an earthier (and cheaper) Peking duck experience then I recommend Ya Wang (鸭王). Whilst the former is undoubtedly a better all round restaurant, there isn't much in it between the two when it comes to the duck.

Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant 1-2 Nanxincang International Plaza, 22A Dongsishitiao, Dongcheng District, Beijing (Tel: +86-10-5169-0329)
大董烤鸭店 北京东城区东四十条甲22号南新仓国际大夏1-2 

PS: I did take a look at the bilingual menu and it would make a great coffee table book with its amazing photos. However with the exception of the Peking duck, I have no idea what any of the dishes are actually called in English or Chinese.