Archive for the 'Beijing' Category

Farewell Fuwa*

My last full day in Beijing started with a warm soy milk and an egg McMao sandwich from the bread outlet on Third Ring Road. The bread place is located a few doors down from a hair salon. Every morning during our stay in Beijing, The Astronomer and I watched as the hair stylists performed their daily hand/eye/aerobic exercises. Whereas the women in Saigon are full of energy when they work out, these Beijingers were an unenthusiastic bunch.

Peking Duck? Check. Silk Road? Check. The Great Wall? Check. We saved visting the Forbidden City for last.

The Forbidden Citywas the Chinese imperial palace from the mid-Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. For almost five centuries, it served as the home of the Emperor and his household, as well as the ceremonial and political centre of Chinese government. Built from 1406 to 1420, the complex consists of 980 surviving buildings with 8,707 bays of rooms and covers 720,000 square metres. The palace complex exemplifies traditional Chinese palatial architecture, and has influenced cultural and architectural developments in East Asia and elsewhere.

The Astronomer and I enjoyed the Forbidden City, but weren’t blown away by it. It seems that after a year of living in Asia, we’ve become desensitized to this type of architecture. Granted, the Chinese invented this style of architecture, but at the end of the day, it was “same, same” in our book. The Forbidden City was scorching when we visited, so this peach icy popcicle (3 RMB) was crucial to our survival.

Ancient sundial.

 Nature making wonderful use of negative space.

Local tourists were keen on buying these faux royal head dresses for their little girls. They reminded me of the characters from the Chinese movies—the ones that come in sets of 50 VHS tapes—that my grandmother loves with all of her heart.  

After a couple of hours exploring the Forbidden City, we shopped for Olympic merchandise at the flagship store nearby. While I think Black Friday is a blast, the crowds here were much too much! We picked up a few items for our loved ones back home and then headed down to the basement food court for dinner.

 After two weeks of bravely holding out, The Astronomer finally gave in and chose the most sesame chicken-like item he could find. The texture of the sauce and chicken pieces were spot-on, but the flavor lacked the sweet and sticky punch that’s characteristic of Chinese-American hits like sesame chicken, General Tso’s chicken and orange chicken. It was also kinda cold. Unforgivable.

The pan fried dumplings were excellent, except that The Astronomer chose the celery and pork ones (and everyone knows celery is sort of inferior).

I couldn’t leave Beijing without indulging in one more stick of candied fruit. This time around I chose a mixed-fruit variety with pineapples, tomatoes (!), grapes, plums and crab apples. To encourage more Americas to consume fresh fruit, I highly advocate candy coating.

After our food court dinner, The Astronomer and I rushed to the Bird’s Nest for the last evening of Track and Field action. This time around, we sat on the stretch of track facing the torch and the finish line. We were also seated next to a bunch of Americans so it was good times, especially when the women’s and men’s 4×400 teams took home gold. The group of Finns behind us were the most enthusiastic javelin fans we’d ever met.

Victorious Kenyan and Ethiopian runners after the 5K. It’s too bad that track stars are only elevated to super-star status once every four years.

Goodbye, Bird’s Nest. You are a damn sweet piece of architecture. Don’t get rusty while I’m gone.

*The Fuwa are the mascots of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The designs were created by Han Meilin, a famous Chinese artist. There are five fuwa: Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying, and Nini. Together, the names form the sentence “Běijīng huānyíng nǐ,” which means “Beijing welcomes you.” Originally named ‘The Friendlies,’ they were promoted as ‘Fuwa’ when there were concerns the name could be misinterpreted.

Maison Boulud – Beijing

While in Kunming, I received this amazing offer from my brother via email:

Hey. If you want to have dinner here in Beijing, keep it under $250 and it will be my treat.

Talk about an irresistible offer! I booked a reservation straightaway on an evening without any Olympic sporting action scheduled. Leading up to the big day, The Astronomer and I closely monitored our meals in order to ready our palettes for an onslaught of Frenchy food.

Maison Boulud is housed in the former American embassy building in Beijing’s Legation Quarter. The exterior looks stately, while the interior feels like a library. Granted, a rather hip library, but a library nevertheless. According to the extremely detailed press release for the restaurant, “Maison Boulud’s approach can be compared to that of Chef Daniel Boulud’s highly acclaimed New York restaurants, combining the sophisticated informality of his Café Boulud with some of the grandeur and elegance of Daniel.”

There are a number of rooms inside Maison Boulud, including a few private dining areas. The Astronomer and I were seated in the main dining room—for a layout of the entire facility, see page 16 and 17 of the press release (I told you it was detailed). Dinner started off with a selection of warm breads and slightly cool butter. Why is it that fancy restaurants forgo tongs for two spoons when delivering bread to diners? It’s the most awkward thing, especially for a waiter who’s new to the fine dining scene. After a bit of a struggle (spoon vs. bread), The Astronomer and I were delivered three breads each. My favorite was the rectangular one that had whole cloves of roasted garlic and rosemary. The long one was too crusty for me because I’m more of an innards gal, but the roundish one was solid.

An amuse bouche of tomatoes and creamy cheese served with a cheesy puff (not to be confused with Cheesy Poofs, which were what my friends and I ate in college while inebriated). The pin-like utensil reminded me of the funky tableware Grant Achatz used at Alinea. The tomatoes were perfectly ripe and sweet—I wonder if they were grown in China.

Sometime between placing our order and snacking on bread, I realized that I was being attacked by a hungry swarm of mosquitoes. With several bites on each arm and feeling extremely irritated, I asked one of the suited gentlemen if the restaurant had any sort of repellent on hand. He offered me a pashmina, which protected my guns for the rest of the evening. When these two martinis arrived without being ordered, I suspected it was because of the bug bite incident. As far as I’m concerned, strong drinks are just as good as cortisone cream to stop the itching! The lime (L) and lychee martinis were well mixed and stiffer than Martha Stewart.

Feeling bold, The Astronomer and I ordered three appetizers. Our table was only designed for two, so things got a bit tight with all three appetizers arriving at once, especially with two bread plates and one butter dish already taking up space. I should have requested that the appetizers arrive in courses since we were sharing, but in restaurants this nice, waiters are usually familiar with the protocol. To be fair, the restaurant has only been open for a couple of months, so the waitstaff isn’t as polished as those at Boulud’s other outlets.

I chose the roasted beet salad with Chinese black walnut goat cheese and summer greens (90 RMB) to start, because its been way too long since I’ve enjoyed roasted beets. The dressing was a straightforward vinaigrette, and the greens were a basic mesclun mix. The highlight of the salad were the balls of goat cheese crusted in walnuts that were creamy, rich and nutty.

Our second appetizer were caramelized sea scallops with cauliflower, orange glaze, capers and croutons (195 RMB). This dish was comprised of a number of layers—a florette of cauliflower formed the base, then came the succulent scallops, capers and bits of tart mandarin oranges. The capers stood out among the toppings because of its sour tinge.

The broccoli tortellini, fried artichokes, crispy pancetta and Parmesan emulsion (130 RMB) was our favorite appetizer. With all this street food we’ve been eating, it’s been ages since we’ve dug into some proper foam! The pancetta and chunky tomato sauce coupled with the Parmesan emulsion flavored the delicate pasta wonderfully.

While the appetizers didn’t knock our socks off, the entrees rocked like old school Weezer. Knowing that the pig is my favorite animal to eat, my brother heavily hinted that he wanted me to order the crispy suckling pig with daikon sauerkraut, apple coleslaw and Dijon mustard jus (230 RMB). And boy am I glad I did. Seriously, this dish ruled. The skin was taut and crispy, while the meat was SO tender that I’ve vowed to only eat baby animals for the rest of my life. Is that wrong? The sides were a fine accompaniment, but there was no competing with the star of the show.

The Astronomer went for the cumin roasted loin of lamb with sweet pepper stew, Persian dried figs and summer squash (260 RMB). Although it wasn’t specified on the menu, we suspect that the meat came from a baby lamb because there wasn’t a trace (or taste) of hard living. I find that lamb, even the tenderest of cuts, is usually slightly chewy. However, the texture of Boulud’s lamb was anything but—a cross between foie gras and butter. No joke.

For dessert, I chose the mocha tart with coffee-chocolate ganache, caramel sauce and whiskey ice cream (95 RMB). Everything about the tart was perfect—the crust was buttery and a little crumbly, while the chocolate ganache was intensely rich, silky smooth and not overly sweet. Words can’t do the ganache’s texture justice, it was simply incredible. I haven’t had enough shots of whiskey in my day to tell you if the ice cream was accurate, but I can tell you that it tasted fabulous and provided a cool contrast to the bombardment of chocolaty goodness.

The Astronomer ordered the napoleon with raspberry chilboust, puff pastry and lychee sorbet (90 RMB). The puff pastry didn’t meld with the chilboust, which made it difficult to enjoy all of the napoleon’s components in one bite. Other than that minor glitch, this one was also a winner. The lychee sorbet was absolutely refreshing.

The petit fours arrived next. We were stuffed of course, but that didn’t stop us from eating each and every one. The sugar-coated passion fruit jelly was my favorite. I think petit fours are the best part of fine dining—they’re just so impossibly cute!

And just when we thought we didn’t have room for any more, freshly baked madelines arrived at the table. How can anyone resist freshly baked madelines? I enjoyed one and The Astronomer valiantly polished off the rest. The boy can eat.

After we paid our bill, the waiter brought us additional petit fours and madelines. We tried to explain to him that we had already received both, but the language barrier was too much and he just kept saying, “No, they are complimentary.” The Astronomer squeezed in one more madeline, but the petit fours remained on the table untouched. I hope this newby glitch never gets worked out.

On our walk back from dinner across Tienanmen Square, we waved hello to Chairman Mao.

Maison Boulud
Legation Quarter
No 23 Qian Men Dong Da Jie Street
Beijing 100006
Phone: +86 (10) 6559 9200

Peking Duck at Da Dong (with a side of baseball)

A trip to Beijing wouldn’t be complete without a meal of Peking duck. After consulting a number of food blogs and online publications, I decided to take Diana of Appetite for China’s advice and try Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant even though Quanjude and Bianyifang are the city’s most popular establishments.

Peking Duck originated in Beijing and has been prepared since the Yuan Dynasty. According to Wikipedia, ducks are bred specially for the dish and are slaughtered after 65 days. The ducks are then seasoned and roasted in a closed oven or a hung oven.

 We arrived at Da Dong at lunchtime and were stunned by the number of Olympic-goers who also felt the need to cross “eat Peking duck” off of their to-do lists. The wait time was quoted at 40 minutes, but ended up being more like a full hour.

To pass the time away and to quell our hunger pangs, The Astronomer and I strolled around the neighborhood in search of light snacks. We stumbled upon a convenience store nearby where The Astronomer picked up some cookies, while I went for a mysterious beverage sold in a little clay jar (3 RMB). I’ve noticed Beijingers consuming some sort of liquid from similar clay jars and was curious to try it myself. The consistency was a bit too thick to suck through a straw, so I removed the rubberband and tissue paper and gulped it down. It turned out to be yogurt—thick, sweet, a smidge sour and all around good.   

After our excursion, our table was finally ready. Even though there was only two of us, we were seated at a table for 10. The duck usually takes 70 minutes to prepare because it is made to order, but The Astronomer had a stroke of genius and pre-ordered ours so that it was ready upon arrival! Woot for instant gratification! 

We ordered a half portion, which set us back 98 RMB. This was double the normal price—hotels weren’t the only ones looking to cash in on Olympic fever. Each duck is carved tableside by a fowl artist wearing a surgeon’s mask.

The duck was presented to us in neat slices upon leaves of Romaine. The skin was glossy, thin and crispy—definitely the highlight of the entire dish, while the meat was moist but unspectacular. By the way, Da Dong’s specialty is a leaner duck; apparently it only has 17%  fat compared to up to 47% for other Peking ducks.

The duck is served with an array of condiments. The classic accompainments are scallions, cucumbers and hoisin sauce. The extras included crushed garlic sauce, granulated sugar, julienned turnips (I think) and two mysterious chunky pastes (pink and brown—front and center) that The Astronomer and I could not decipher.

A portion of steamed pancakes to wrap up the duck and condiments in. To assemble, we put a little bit of this and a little bit of that onto the pancake along with a few slices of duck. We wrapped it up neatly, ate and repeated until the duck was gone. The cool cucumber was my favorite condiment; the combination of granulated sugar and garlic came in a close second.

After a year of living and eating in Vietnam, The Astronomer found it VERY peculiar that the proper protocol for eating Peking duck was to spread the hoisin sauce onto the pancake rather than dip the roll into the sauce, a la goi cuon. That’s my boy! 

We finished off our meal with some complimentary fruit and complimentary sticks of Double Mint gum (not pictured).

With our tummies full of ducky goodness, we headed to the baseball diamond.

We caught the semi-final match-up between the USA and Cuba.

The sun setting over the field. There’s nothing like catching an evening baseball game during a warm summer night.

The Astronomer waving his newly purchased America flag during the seventh inning stretch. The lyrics to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” appeared on the big screen for everyone to sing along. We felt like we were back in America. Too bad the minor leaguers couldn’t hack it against the Cubans. It could have been a perfect day.  


Beijing Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant
Dongsanhuan Beilu, Cháoyáng
Phone: (010) 6582 2892

The Great Wall of China

It seems like I’ve been starting off every post from China with a picture of meat on a stick—well, here’s another. There’s no denying that the Chinese love their meat served on a bamboo skewer! The Astronomer procured these sticks of mutton (4 for 10 RMB) at the base of The Great Wall because he needed a protein boost before our assent. I already carbo-loaded in Chaoyang, so I passed.

Vendors selling meat on a stick, corn on the cob and kebabs to hungry tourists. It was a rainy day in Beijing, which meant that the weather at The Great Wall was cool, bordering on cold. Visibility was pretty good despite the looming clouds.

The Great Wall stretches “6,400 kilometers (4,000 miles) from Shanhaiguan in the east to Lop Nur in the west, along an arc that roughly delineates the southern edge of Inner Mongolia.”

We visited the wall at Badaling, which is located 70 kilometers northwest of Beijing. Made of stone and bricks from the hills, this portion of the Great Wall is 7.8 meters (25.6 ft) high and 5 meters (16.4 ft) wide.

The “Hollywood” sign of Badaling.

Badaling is the most popular section of the wall and was moderately packed during our visit. The Astronomer and I were both surprised by how tough the climb was—it really gets steep at some points! Climbing The Great Wall is not a walk in the park, but we saw lots of elderly Chinese people trekking along. Impressive!

A view of rolling hills with rocks jutting upwards from atop The Great Wall.

The Wall just goes on and on and on…

After a 45 minute hike, we reached the highest point of the Badaling section. An imposing brick wall signaled that it was time to turn around and descend. Check out the old man getting a massage for a job well done—lucky fella.

The long road home.

After climbing The Great Wall, I was definitely ready for something warm and hearty. In addition to the roadside stands selling meat on a stick, there was also a food court selling noodles, sandwiches and bi bim bap! The Astronomer and I shared a fired-to-order portion of pork bi bim bap (15 RMB) with sauce on the side. For Korean food served in a Chinese tourist hot spot, the bi bim bap certainly could’ve been worse!

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