Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bespoke Mustache Cardigan

On days like this, when snow and smog commingle as sludge, adding insult to sub-zero injury, we expats get to wondering just why exactly we continue to live in Beijing. But, it's also days like this, when the call finally comes to pick up my custom hand-knit cardigan, that remind me of some of the advantages to living here.

After Marilyn had her Totoro Cardigan made for a work assignment over at The Beijinger, I got jealous and decided to have my own sweater made, something with a more manly pattern...something a little more "me."

Eventually I narrowed it down to either ninjas or mustaches, or both. I even looked around for mustachioed ninja knitting patterns, but alas, Taft-ian Shinobi was nowhere to be found on Etsy.

Both of them hold special places in my heart, but I eventually went with the mustache. Needless to say, the ladies at the wool store were befuddled by the pattern, but hey, an order's an order, and they agreed to knit it up for me.

I ordered this back in September hoping it'd arrive in time for Movember and the onset of the cold, but apparently some German model had booked up all of the kindly knitting lady's time, so she didn't finish my piece until today.

All told, this woolly tribute to hirsute upper lips set me back 452RMB ($71, or maybe more since the yuan just hit a record high against the dollar). I'm sure some of you would never pay $70-something dollars for an ironic sweater, but I'm comforted by the fact that this dastardly cardigan is lusciously soft and perfectly fitted to my figure.

Unfortunately, I got to the Wool City too late today to order the crowning glory for this sweater: suede elbow pads, so I'll have to head back there for the finishing touch. I might also add a lining to keep it from snagging and make it even more warm. Once I'm done, I'll finally be able to put my feet up by the fireplace with a leather-bound book, a briar wood pipe, and a monocle. Dastardly indeed.


To have your own knit-tacular wearables made, visit (via The Beijinger):

Wool City. Daily 9.30am-4:30pm. Anningzhuang Donglu (west of Qinghe Xiaoying Qiao), Haidian District 清河毛纺城, 海淀区清河镇安宁庄东路(近清河小营桥). Shop 321 (6291 0284)

Monday, October 10, 2011


Hello from Taipei.

I have this random tradition of writing a post whenever I step outside the Great Firewall. I've been thinking about why that is, and I've mostly decided that it's to maintain the illusion that the reason I don't blog on here as much as I'd like is because I have to go through the trouble of posting from our VPN.

I spend about 90% of my online time on VPN while in Beijing, though, so that's not a real excuse, even if the Blogger dashboard is crazy slow when accessing from Beijing. Btw, I've been considering a jump to Tumblr or Wordpress if anyone has any thoughts on that.

Anyway, Marilyn and I zipped over to Taiwan for a week to spend some time with her parents. Oddly enough, it's Taiwan's "National Day" today (not sure how to word that without getting in trouble). We had several large tour groups from the mainland on our flight (one feisty tour member tried to cut in front of us at the check-in counter before being regulated on by her tour guide), and M's dad remarked that they were commemorating back-to-back national days, since China's is on Oct. 1.

Looking forward to a restorative week here. Us Beijingers have to get out of the city every once in a while to take a breath (of fresh air) and return, if only temporarily, to sanity.

The truckloads of ultra-fresh seafood that we'll be consuming this week should help with that...

Saturday, August 27, 2011

48 Hours in Shanghai - Part I

So, my brother spent a couple months with us in Beijing this summer, and it made for some crazy times and TONS of nonstop eating. We have lots of pictures and adventures to share, including some from an epic midnight showing of Harry Potter, but as it's taken me weeks to get to posting this one about Shanghai (and it's just part one of three), we'll have to save the HP7.2 for another time.

Against our better judgment, J, me, the little bro and our friend BChew (the noodle master) bought tickets for the bullet train to Shanghai amidst a string of high speed rail issues and typhoon warnings. Brilliant, huh?

Luckily, we arrived at the train station and got on with no problems. Our train ran smoothly, I threw back some Kangshifu ramen noodles (my train ride tradition :P) and we were there in no time. Oh yeah, and Bchew was also kind enough to lend me his iPod so I could begin my task of rereading all the Harry Potter books in an uninterrupted row. That might have helped pass the time, seeing as how I was just a few pages shy of finishing the book by the time we pulled in to Shanghai's Hongqiao station.

The next morning, after a nice sleep-in and padding about in pajamas, we were ready to leave the house, but our decisions were legion: xiaolongbao (XLB), shengjianbao (SJB) or both, and in what order/combination?

After Jenny Gao (China foodblogger and J's Twitter buddy) gave us some recommendations, we decided to head to one convenient location that had a good XLB place (Jia Jia Tangbao) right across the street from the city's most highly recommended SJB locale (Xiao Yang Shengjian).

By the time we got to Jia Jia Tangbao, it was already close to 3pm, so they were (of course) sold out of their basic XLB. "Guess that leaves us with the hairy crab roe rendition then!" These were tasty, but most of us admitted we were more excited about the SJB across the street. Also, not to reveal our lowbrow tastes, but J and I for one (for two?) actually prefer the non-crabby version of XLB, so spending thrice the amount for a product we actually enjoy less doesn't really tickle our pickle so to speak. So, off we went.

The thing about SJB is you really gotta time it right. When those suckers are fresh, they are quite possibly the world's most perfect food (meat, dough, crunch: your basic food groups in one handy bite). The hawker lifts the cap off the giant pot, steam billows out and you spy a honeycomb arrangement of perfect little white buns that are soon scattered with sesame seeds and diced scallion. Gah!

We ordered 16 of the little guys to start with, and trudged upstairs with our plates. After dreaming about good shengjianbao ever since the last time we were in Shanghai with Flo and Preston (2.5 years ago), biting into one was like that 6th grade make-out session after being apart from your prepubescent boyfriend due to summer science camp: hot and messy (not that I would ever know, I never had a bf in 6th grade...). The other thing about SJB is managing to get through the meal without burning your tongue. I failed. Definitely worth the pain, though.

J and the bro were done after theirs, but Bchew and I went for one more order of 4. By the time we stumbled out of that shop, I was pretty sure my blood had been replaced by the fragrant pork juice that burst out of each bun. As you can imagine, this slowed my (already slow-ish) movements a great deal. I probably could've used a walker right then.

Just thinking about that meal has made me lethargic again, so we will continue our Shanghai exploits - including a Pixar exhibit, food, and... more food - in coming posts. Stay tuned!

Friday, July 08, 2011

Review: (Ultimate) Noodle Bar

I'll level with you. This restaurant isn't actually called Ultimate Noodle Bar. I just made that up because it sounds cool. Usually we just call it the Sanlitun Noodle Bar, but there are several of those around. Sometimes we call it the Hidden Noodle Bar, but then we get confused between that and the 1949 Hidden City Noodle Bar (which is also excellent and deserves its own write-up).

So as of right now, I've decided to call the place Ultimate Noodle Bar.

I've been selfishly hesitant to write this post. This place is already way too busy for my own liking. But after our last visit, I couldn't not write about it.

Besides, I actually found out about this place from The Beijinger's interview with SALT chef Ana Esteves, so to whom much is given, much is required, or with great power comes great responsibility or something like that.

M owes me several big fat "I told you so"s on this restaurant too. For years, we've wandered past it in that alley behind Tongli Studios and M, being the sucker that she is for all things noodles, would always point out the large "麵" (Noodle) signs on UNB's 2nd floor window. Given that Sanlitun has a wealth of excellent non-noodle foods, I would shake my head and walk on by.

So, a few months ago, when we were perusing an issue of the magazine and saw that Ms. Esteves' favorite bowl of noodles was at a hard to find noodle bar behind Tongli Studios, M shrieked and ran directly there. I know what you're thinking: "Ah, interesting use of hyperbole--obvious exaggeration used to emphasize a point or add excitement and humor to a story." Nay, my friend, nay. I'm reasonably sure that she actually ran straight there.

And when we arrived, the good people at UNB were sorry to inform us that they had in fact run out of noodles. They were as surprised as we were, noting a sudden seemingly random spike in foreigner clientele asking for their Eggplant Noodles.

M was crushed, but we ate something else (Eggplant Rice if I recall correctly) and vowed to return for the noodles. We've been back several times and have been impressed each time.

How to get there

Ok, so if you're standing in that alley (stroll north through the Village past the Apple Store and into the a sea of sidecars, cigar vendors and body odor) and then turn left into a small courtyard. There's a sign for 家常菜 No.42 Chinese Restaurant. Turn in there. By the way, you might want to hold your breath on your way through this mini-tunnel, as there are trash cans on your right that any sane person would not want to smell.

Once you emerge, turn right and walk down to the end of the so-called lane. If you're keeping score, you'll want to head to 七单元 (Unit 7). The Noodle Bar sign should help you find it. Enter the building and head up the stairs.

At the second floor, you'll notice a styrofoam sign with their hours. M and I discovered a trick last week. This illustrious family rests (and preps) from 2-6, you'll want to arrive right at 5:55 to avoid having to wait. Basically, we wandered in right as they were turning the sign, said hi to the chef on our way to the kitchen (yes, it's one of those places) into the small dining room. By 6:00, the place was packed and angry noodle-fiends were harrumphing outside.

We tried to go for a late dinner a few months ago and the place was packed with a 45 minute wait. Unfazed, we went for a bit of shopping while we waited for them to call.

You should be warned. This restaurant isn't perfectly suited for everyone. This is homestyle cooking done well and they charge a bit of a premium for it. And I do think they're actually cooking in their home. As far as cleanliness, the place is quite clean when compared with Xiaochi's and other homestyle restaurants, but less clean than the full service luxury Chinese restaurants. Noodle dishes are in the 30s, as are several rice dishes and plates. The Pork Belly (more on that later) runs 45.

Now, in our minds, that's a friggin' steal. But we have friends who would way rather spend that kind of cash on budget foreign food (say at Biteapitta which is directly across the way).

Ok, on to the food.

Om nom nom

Cherry Pork (Xiao Yintao Rou)

Don't let the name fool you. This ain't no Pick-up Stix deep-fried cardboard in a sweet sauce.

This is a serious slab of pork belly. One of the amazing things about this dish is the layering. On top you've got classic gelatinous belly goodness. I'll be honest with you, everytime one of these lardkins slides down my esophagus, I can hear my slowing heartbeat pounding in my ears. But I'm usually too raptured by awesomeness to care.

Beneath the collagen bombs, you've a nice pulled-style pork. This reminds me of the Carnitas we make at home, rendered in its own fat and caramelized with orange juice.

And beneath the strings of meat, you've got little cubed chunks of sauciness. Not really sure how they do this, it comes out as one slab, but this is a miracle on your plate. They used to have a noodle version of this dish but they've crossed it off their menu. What a pity.

I recommend this for sharing. I got this with a bowl of rice last week, while M and her brother each got noodles and I could only get about halfway through it.

Here's a shot of their noodles. I forget what exactly they have, but they've got several varieties of fried noodle dishes and you can choose from eggplant, eggplant and egg, saucy noodles, strips of meat, mushrooms, etc.

I'd venture to say this is the best bowl of noodles I've had in Beijing (and so much easier than pulling them yourself). But after being married to M for 4 years, the noodles start to run together...

Lastly, we ordered up some veggies. Somehow the veggies here are abnormally verdant, which I assume is a good thing.

These are Jielanmiao, which I guess you could call Chinese Broccoli (Kale) shoots. I'd also highly recommend their Ganbian Doujiao (this is a must for me. This dish is so dang good when done right. Like crack-dusted french fries in vegetable form) and their Kongxincai.

I'm blanking on the story behind this family, but from what I can remember, the floor manager and the chef are brothers. The chef is trained in Sichuan style cooking, but he's not actually from there. So as you can expect, there's a whole lot of Sichuan peppercorn action going on, so if you're not into that, you might want to ask them to tone it down.

When I eat this food, it's clear to me there's a lot of love and self-respect that goes into it. And having had several really pleasant (albeit efficient) interactions with this family, I hope they do well for themselves. Judging by the looks of the line outside their door, I think they're doing fine.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Baking Alaska in Beijing

Baked Alaska has occupied a special place in my heart since my brother made it as a precocious baking obsessed teen. I must have been 10 or so at the time and watching him construct a tower of cake, ice cream and meringue was a dream come true.

Unfortunately for us, our family left for vacation the day after my brother finished the cake and there wasn't any room in the kitchen freezer so it was relegated to the garage. You know, the 1950s era pea-soup green monolith of a refrigerator that smelled perpetually of third-degree freezer burn. The one with tens of thousands of dead, frozen ants crisping along the edges of the door. It was a frigid black hole.

As you can imagine, we got back from our trip (to the Great Salt Lake, the Motherland as my friends used to call it) to discover a monumentally ruined Baked Alaska in our freezer. Some part of me died inside, and my love for Baked Alaska continued unrequited until last year.

We have a friend who grew up eating ice cream cake for her birthday, so last year I had the crazy idea to make her Baked Alaska to celebrate. When I'm absolutely honest with myself, making her birthday cake was mostly just an excuse for me to take on some crazy project in the kitchen.

We couldn't find any one recipe that struck our fancy, but we decided upon the components one at a time. Alton Brown's pound cake for the base, Dreyer's ice cream for the middle (at the time it was half-price at the local supermarket) and Gordon Ramsay's italian meringue for the outside. And now I've forgotten who gave us the idea for the saran wrapped bowl, but I'm thinking it was one of those matronly women like Martha Stewart or Paula Deen. I tend to get them confused.

I'd like to say that we rocked this, but we didn't. We discovered later that our oven had somehow switched to keep warm (the original owners broke the nob, so we have to use pliers to crank it) and the removable tray at the bottom had covered up the heating element. So basically, we assembled the pound cake and it just sat in the oven warming for several hours. Thankfully, the top cooked and was usable. And the rest we just kind of left in the lukewarm oven and ate it for breakfast the rest of the week. (We've since redeemed ourselves by remaking the pound cake for an autumn trifle: pumpkin caramel, vanilla bean pudding, apple compote and graham cracker crumbs)

The meringue took us a couple tries too, but finally we were able to get the right consistency.

To build the ice cream layers, we saran wrapped a glass IKEA bowl, packed in several layers of ice cream and then stuffed it in the freezer. Once the cake was ready, we layered it on the bottom and then put it back in the freezer to harden up.

Once we were ready to put the meringue on, we flipped the bowl over and gave it a good smack while tugging at the saran wrap. The whole thing came down mostly intact.

Then we quickly slathered on a generous helping of meringue and fired up the torch that the good folks over at Pie House had lent us).

There's something viscerally gratifying about torching up an ice cream cake. Those of you who've never done it, you're seriously missing out.

So there you have it, though not without a few mishaps. But it's a rare day where any baking in Beijing goes smoothly for me.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Someone has really crappy aim (gross)

Warning: This post is gross

I discovered this little gem while wandering around Huaqing Jiayuan in Wudaokou a few weeks ago. I held off on posting it because we were in the middle of the 'I'll Bite' series. And because I couldn't decide how to post this without committing food blog suicide.

Actually, I still haven't figured that out; I'm just posting it anyway. Besides, this technically isn't a food blog. It isn't even specifically a China blog. It's just randomness.

So at the extreme risk of alienating our 11 faithful readers, I present to you my latest attempt at photojournalism:

Crap Aim

Okay, so some friends and I walked past this cup and did a double take. "What the crap?" we literally thought as we pulled out our camera phones.

We've been here in Beijing for almost three years now, and our "Only in China" posts have become less frequent. I like to tell myself it's because we've adjusted to life here and things just don't confound us they way they used to. But it's entirely possible we've just gotten lazy.

But this little guy burst through our complacent quasi-adjustment and left us reeling in confusion.

Beyond just being (slightly) grossed out and now having passed that on to you, I'm really fascinated by this (that doesn't surprise you, now does it?). What's the story here?

What would possess someone to deposit a turd in a cup and leave it on the wooden steps outside of a real estate agency. Malice? Perversion? OCD?

We'll never know the truth. We're left to roam this world in ignorance, haunted by the image of a lonely defiled chalice.

So that's it. Turd in a cup. And for that, I'm sorry. I promise next time I'll write about something delicious and un-scatological.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Is Little Yunnan Beijing's Best New Chinese Restaurant of the Year? I'll Bite Part IV

And so we come to the end of our little series, a four-part romp through the Beijing masses' four favorite restaurants by way of the Beijinger's 2011 Reader Restaurant Awards.

I've been obsessed with Yunnan food lately--mintfully fresh, often fried-tacular and surprisingly bright with its flavors. For me, our visit to Little Yunnan wasn't about the newness of the restaurant or the food; I was more interested in how the food held up against other Yunnan places in town.

Several weeks ago, a friend turned M and I on to Aimo Town near Wudaoying. We'd had several fantastic meals there that set the bar really high, so I went to Little Yunnan with expectations.

The day we went, the weather was phenomenal so we sat outside. There are probably only a few weeks out of the year where you can do this comfortably, but I can't recommend it enough if you happen to go on a day when Beijing is neither freezing, muggy, nor mosquito-ridden. The restaurant's got a small courtyard, some indoor seating, and then a small upstairs loft with couches that seats a party of six or so. (By way of warning, watch yourself on those stairs if you decide to head up to the loft.)

Service was delightful. Warm and attentive without being creepy or pushy. They were very helpful whenever we had questions or needed something and could handle a little bit of banter.

At one point, we were trying to figure out if they had dessert (because it's on the menu but they didn't have it that day) and the waitress was trying to explain that they had an aloe jelly, but we were trying to figure out what she meant, and the owner told the waitress to comp us one. Probably a difference of just a dollar or two, but I definitely appreciated the gesture, especially given the service I've gotten at similar restaurants.

Before I get into what we ate, I want to complain about something we didn't eat. Fried red beans (su hong dou?), which I just discovered (courtesy of our friend N) at Aimo Town. I know it sounds kind of weird, but it's like eating fried butter. Yum. So why don't they have those here?

Also, I had read that their house-made rice wine is a treat, but they were out of it on the day we went. Which in the grand scheme of things was probably a good thing.

So instead, we got a Yunnan xiaoshan cha, literally Yunnan little mountain tea. Apparently, it's good for removing "fire" (based on the Yin - Yang Chinese medicine theory), which works out well for me because I spend most of my life with an overabundance of 'fire qi.' I blame all the fried food. And as you're about to see, fried was in abundance that night.

Without digressing too much, I found a list of "hot" foods:
Garlic, Green onion, Raw onions, Red pepper, Deep-fried or grilled meat, Dog, Grass fish, Sparrow meat, Turtle, Black pepper, Cayenne pepper, Chili pepper, Horseradish/wasabi, Mustard, Chocolate, Cocoa.

With a few exceptions (dog, sparrow, turtle?), you're looking at my average diet. And if you add in the "warm" foods, it gets even worse.

So anyway, I drank a lot of that tea in hopes of drawing out all the 'fire' I was about to ingest…

Ok, on to the food.

We started off with Jingbo Ghost Chicken. Mostly because someone wanted to see what "ghost" tasted like. I was a little skeptical ordering it because I'm rarely a fan of traditional "cold dishes" involving meat. (This borders on blasphemy in traditional Chinese cuisine. It's a regular occurrence that after ordering a large meal at a Chinese restaurant, the waiter incredulously points out that I have not ordered any cold dishes...)

But surprisingly, this was one of the big hits of the night. Everyone we were with had a mini freak-out when they tasted this dish. I won't go into too much detail, but basically there's this lime - mint interplay going on that lifts the dish. Probably the closest thing to a Chicken Mojito that I've ever eaten.

Since we can't get enough mint at these places, we also got the Mint Salad. It was actually better here than at several other Yunnan places I've had around town. I'd also recommend their Scrambled Eggs with Jasmine Flowers. Unless, of course, you don't like jasmine. The jasmine flavor seeps into the eggs nicely, although it's a bit disorienting since it kind of feels like you're eating tea.

I had high hopes for the Crispy Deep Fried Fish, but he actually ended up being a bit of a disappointment. To his credit, he definitely lives up to his name: crispy. deep. fried. fish, but I just couldn't shake the feeling that he wasn't living up to his potential. This would be a nice dish to impress visitors, but I found the crispy skin to be unpleasantly scaly. The meat inside dissolves into gobs of tenderness, too much so. This is a dish I want to love, and it's possible I had an off night or my palate was just too unfamiliar with the textural contrast to enjoy it. It may also have to do with it being carp… those bottom feeders have notoriously "tender" skin which kind of threatens to fall apart. This one made good on that threat, a little too much. (Next time, we'll try the Yunnan-flavor tilapia…)

Pan-Fried Yunnan Goat Cheese was, of course, a winner. I love that it comes with a pile of black pepper and salt and a pile of white sugar. Just to be crazy, I dip it in both. The flavor of the cheese was actually not as strong as I expected. Which depending on which side of the cheese fence you're on is either a really good or really bad thing. Discuss amongst yourselves.

The Roasted Spareribs with Lemongrass were a favorite among some, mostly the guys. Lemongrass is such a nice flavor and I couldn't resist eating the lemongrass bow that was tied around the rib. A little on the spiky side, but still scrumptious.

And the ladies in our party loved the Fried Shrimp with Mint Leaf. Yes, more mint. This time around, though, the mint is fried, which earned serious points in my book. The shrimp itself had great flavor, though I'm always unsure what to do about shells and legs. We mostly just ate the shells because we couldn't be bothered with picking them apart.

Smashed Potato (which I think in Chinese was literally called Old Grandma Potato Mash) was a hit too. There's a nice depth of flavor here that goes beyond just the cream potato starch.

M was feeling particularly authentic that day and ordered the Deep Fried Ge Jiu Tofu, which people feared would be the notorious Stinky Tofu. Our less adventurous comrades were pleased to find that it wasn't nearly as stinky as the stuff they sell on the street. (Seriously, we have friends who spend years living in Beijing without realizing that smell is actually coming from a food item and not trash and/or sewage.) This dish is actually quite good, if you're bold enough for it, but tofu's a bit of an acquired taste. Especially when it's fermented, even if only nominally so. The sauce that comes with these guys is incredible - made of more fermented tofu, in liquid form. (I know that sounds gross but it's delicious.) M and our friend Liz kept dunking their tofu deeper and deeper into the bowl until things got way out of hand.

Deep Fried Potato Shreds are a must for us whenever we go to a Yunnan place that has them. They're basically wedges of hashbrowns, but the strips of potato are so delicately fried that they have a light almost springy crisp.

For our greens, we got the Stir-Fried Leaf Mustard with Sour Chili, which probably sounds crazier than it actually is, and we all really enjoyed the tangy bite to the mustard leaves.

We also tried their Cross-Bridge Rice Noodles. The broth had a rich, substantial flavor and the noodle texture was pleasant. But if you're not into ham, you might want to have them hold off on putting it in, since it might be a bit of a non sequitur for some palates.

And here's a shot of the Aloe Jelly. This was a great way to end the meal--like an airplane gently caressing the ground as it lands instead of one of those bumpy quasi-crashes that the Air China pilots always make.

So there you have it: Little Yunnan. The six of us ate for about 60RMB a person, not including drinks.

You might have noticed too that they put a lot of work into plating their dishes. The soy sauce streak on all the dishes do get old after a while, but at least they're trying.

Ultimately, I find myself torn between Little Yunnan and Aimo Town. Some of these dishes were positively fabulous, and some of them were just good. And the atmosphere there is charming and actually adds a lot to the dining experience. Plus, it's a great place to take visitors looking for an interesting meal that's hard to get in the states (without endangering their stomachs).

See also:
Is Da Dong Beijing's Chinese 'Restaurant of the Year'? I'll Bite - Part I
Is Maison Boulud Beijing's Non-Chinese 'Restaurant of the Year'? I'll Bite - Part II
Is Modo Beijing's Best New Non-Chinese Restaurant? I'll Bite Part III

Monday, April 11, 2011

Is Modo Beijing's Best New Non-Chinese Restaurant? I'll Bite Part III

It's been a busy week--one filled with plenty of delicious meals, so I didn't get a chance to write this until the weekend (now Monday because I passed out last night before I could get this up). In the interest of living the high life, I've setup shop on the rooftop of Sculpting in Time to enjoy a rare day of balmy Beijing weather.

I've really been looking forward to writing this post (which, for those of you just tuning in, is part 3 of a 4-part series offering up the my take on thebeijinger's 2011 Reader Restaurant Awards).

Sometime in 2009, M and I checked out Mosto and quickly bumped it to the top of our list of favorite restaurants in Beijing. We've had a solid meal every time we've visited, and the service has always been attentive.

So when we found out that the team at Mosto had opened up a new restaurant in the Sanlitun Village, we wandered over to give it a try. M was actually getting ready to write a feature on it for her old job, so co-owner Alex Molina invited us to drop in for dinner.

Our meal at Modo was fabulous, helped, of course, by Alex's generous hospitality, but we've been back several times since and had a noteworthy experience each time.

Modo's concept of "small plates" is similar to tapas: meant to be ordered in variety
and shared with friends. As such, some people who go are disappointed by the
price to portion ratio.

Also, most of the dishes at the restaurant have a Spanish flair to them, but keep in mind, this isn't your typical tapas bar.

Whereas Mosto is comfortable, reassuring in its consistent ability to produce quality, though sometimes predictable, food, Modo dares to take more risks.

Personally, I love being able to order several smaller dishes to try different things and build variety, but I can respect those who would rather pay for one big platter. So consider yourself warned :).

In keeping with the restaurant's smaller portions, Modo serves tasting sizes for a number of wines via its Enomatic wine dispenser. Those of you who've been over to Mosto will recognize the machine, but Modo's changed it up by being the first venue in the city to offer the first card-based Enomatic experience.

It's worth noting here that I'm a complete hack when it comes to wine. However, during the course of our meal we tried most of the wines on offer from the machine and loved all of them. I'll spare you my amateur analyses, though.

We've enjoyed just about everything we've had there, but if we had to pick a few standouts, they'd be: the Wagyu meatball with an heirloom tomato ragù, parmesan crisp and rice cake; the sundried tomato tortelli with goat cheese and a pumpkin foam; and the white chocolate mousse with black currant sorbet, almond crisp and pistachios.

As with my notes for Maison Boulud, I'm having a hard time reading my handwriting. So it's possible I got something wrong there…

Let's start with the meatball. If I were going back to Modo for one dish, it'd be that meatball. There's a bold gentleness to the Wagyu flavor and texture that the conversion to meatball has enhanced and it plays nicely with the rich, bright flavor of the heirloom tomatoes sauce. The parmesan crisp and rice cake do more than just add texture, and we were surprised by how well the rice cake worked with the dish.

This meatball haunts my dreams, beckoning me from twilight's shadows with the alluring promise of a lurid, sensual duet of tomato and meat.

Hmmm, so that might be slightly melodramatic...

But seriously, this meatball is worth trying. Don't be scared of the 80rmb ($12) price tag. Yes, I realize that you've probably never paid this much for a lone meatball, bring a friend to share it, and you'll most likely be fighting over whether you got your fair share.

Granted, I realize that not all of you are like me: continually in search of the best version of traditionally homestyle comfort foods. (For instance, Gregoire in Berkeley used to serve this white truffle egg salad sandwich that was simply revelatory, but I digress.)

And I'll admit that a small part of me recoils at having endorsed the grinding up of and subsequent balling of an excellent cut of Wagyu, as opposed to my natural inclination to just leave it as a steak and lightly sear it. But in my opinion, some of the best restaurants set out to challenge the routines and habits that we (sometimes unwittingly) fall into with our food preferences, pleasantly surprising us with the deliciously unexpected.

Two words: pumpkin foam. Pumpkin in any form (roasted, souped, pied, etc.) is hard for me to resist, but foam is on another level. This dish is so gentle, it's like a caress. Sundried tomato provides a bite, but the pasta and cheese join up with the pumpkin foam to melt in your mouth. The finish ends up being both delicate and enriching.

Dessert was easily one of the best I've had in Beijing, and anytime that M and I have been in Sanlitun after dinner since, I'm tempted to drop in just for the white chocolate mousse. And I've given in on more than one occasion.

Black currant has always been one of my favorite flavors, probably because of my mom's Hong Kong roots (Ribena, Fruitips, etc.), and I found the black currant sorbet to be simply magical. The chill of the sorbet against the creaminess of the white chocolate dances on the tongue and the almond crisp and pistachios break up the smoothness with a satisfying crunch and toasty nuttiness.

Also of note is their cheese plate. Though the cheese is made locally, it's made by a fromager who spent time in France (and clearly learned a thing or two in the process).

I know it's cliche, but Beijing's restaurant scene really seems to be exploding, and Modo had several worthy competitors for the 2011 award. I haven't visited anywhere close to all of them, so I'm hardly qualified to pass judgement on whether it is indeed the best new restaurant.

But I can say with confidence that Modo offers us Beijingers a varied experience easily worth the recognition. Not everyone will agree, especially those who don't subscribe to the Modo "way" of small plates and communal eating, but that's a risk inherent to taking the kind of chances that Modo does.

From our conversation with Alex, it's clear he and Chef Daniel have a deep love for Beijing and are inspired by life here in this crazy city. And, having partaken of the results of their passion and inspiration, I'm thankful to them for their commitment both to the craft and the city.

Unfortunately, M and I didn't take any photos of our magical night, mostly because she was planning on using press photos for her write-up. And because our camera is big and obnoxious.

But we did snap some quick shots of their set lunch on a later visit:

See also:
Is Da Dong Beijing's Chinese 'Restaurant of the Year'? I'll Bite - Part I
Is Maison Boulud Beijing's Non-Chinese 'Restaurant of the Year'? I'll Bite - Part II

And tune in next week for Part 4 of our series, where we'll take a look at 2011's Best New Chinese Restaurant: Little Yunnan.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Is Maison Boulud Beijing's Non-Chinese 'Restaurant of the Year'? I'll Bite - Part II

So Part II is a little tenuous here. Let me just say that I don't really have the credentials (or wallet) required to properly review Maison Boulud. It's like the cheerleaders I knew in high school-- out of my league, but I still get to help it with its homework. Hmm…maybe that simile didn't work out so well.

Anyway, so this review was made possible by our dear friend "V" (and before you ask, no, not Hugo Weaving in a mask). V came for a visit last spring and as a token of gratitude for staying with us, offered to take us to the restaurant of our choice. On the condition that we write it up, since she's supportive (in that slightly authoritative, big sisterly kind of way :P) of our burgeoning careers as writers.

Our meal at Maison Boulud was fantastic, but had a few low notes as well. And (as I so often do) I've procrastinated writing it up. So much so that the GM who was there when we visited has since left.

Faced with the guilt of having eaten a very delicious meal and not kept up my end of the bargain, the Beijinger's reader restaurant awards this year seemed like a good enough excuse to finally sit down and tackle the review.

A word of warning: I'm going to write this review from my own perspective, which probably differs from most of the people who actually go to Maison Boulud and (hopefully) lines up more closely with you, my reader. Also, it was VERY dark in that restaurant (and we didn't have our magic Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Camera Lens yet), so the photos are poor. But let's be honest, you're used to it.

Ok now after that very long introduction, I present to you: rambles on a free meal at Maison Boulud.

I should probably level with you. There are vain enough reasons why I chose Maison Boulud as the one restaurant I wanted to try at V's expense. Chef Daniel has the celebrity chef firepower and foodie high-street cred that is hard to get in Beijing. Okay, okay, if you really must know, I've seen him on Top Chef and came away with the impression that I should have a deep respect for him.

I've never been to New York City, that mecca of deliciousness, and these days it seems less and less likely that I will ever go and eat at one of Daniel's flagship restaurants. So when the opportunity to try Maison Boulud presented itself, I leapt at it like the opportunistic glutton that I am.

Chi'enmen 23 (a self-titled "integrated lifestyle project") has had a rough year since we visited, and there's a certain bourgeois guilt that hangs over your head as you wander into the compound, which positively glows with the luster of its new(ish) grey stone walls. It's a nice retreat from the wildness of Beijing, while still being centrally located (just East of Tiananmen Square).

Situated in the area that comprised , it brings with it a certain history, and a certain right to its decadence, but its restoration also runs in the same vein as the newly renovated Qianmen Pedestrian Street, which in my uninformed opinion often serves more to reflect the kind of troubled relationship we have with the past than to actually preserve it. Oh, and the mustachioed valet sauntering over to a yellow Lamborghini might have contributed to the impression.

But, for better or worse, there's a certain decadence to Chi'enmen 23 that is fun. From the outset, knowing that I was out of my league, there was that mysterious feel of playing dress-up as a child. The thrill of pretending to be sophisticated, to be bigger and better than you are.

Walking into the doors of Maison Boulud widens the distance between the diner and the establishment. The decor is, and I may be using this improperly, positively baroque. And I mean that in more of the original "gilded and prone to excess" definition, rather than the "16th to 18th century European art style" definition. Although, a more trained eye could possibly identify it as both.

It's certainly beautiful, while being garish. That's actually the secret paradox of all things baroque. And while a part of me loved the setting, part of me hated myself for loving it.

But let's move on. Service is well-trained. But I couldn't help but shake the feeling like they were trained too well. Like someone had decided to plant in them the down-your-nose snobbery that I've experienced at fine dining in the States.

For some sick reason, there are people out there who like to eat at restaurants where the wait staff think they're better than you. I am unfortunately not of that persuasion. Call me a romantic, but it's just too much ugly step-sister and pumpkin and not enough Cinderella.

Anyway, moving on. Let's talk food.

We started off with several amuse-bouches: tuna on a radish and a steak tartare. Nothing particularly shocking, but good quality and presentation.

M and I tended to order more of the traditional French dishes on the menu, rather than some of the more modernist stuff, simply because we've had so little exposure to good French cuisine. And we figured Daniel should be able to get things right (while pulling the puppet strings from New York, or wherever he happens to be at the moment).

For appetizers, we had escargot with crostini, king crab and shrimp ravioli. The escargot was fantastic; I judge my escargot my whether it can make me forget that I'm eating a snail, and this was definitely the case. It still had a bit of the wild bite that escargot does, with a rich bold flavor. The crostini was, of course, a nice textural complement.

The king crab was memorable and definitely one of the high points of the meal. It had an avocado chutney, soy gelee and seaweed all rolled into a loaf of deliciousness. Like a tasty magic brick.

For mains, the three of us ordered steak au poivre, salmon and chicken. M admitted later that maybe ordering chicken was a mistake (i mean seriously, who goes to Maison Boulud and orders chicken?), but she also holds this romantic belief that a chicken in the hands of a good French chef can become some kind of revelation, both comforting and refined. Sadly, that didn't quite pan out.

I have in my notes something about a fricassee of morels, snap peas and potato with savory cream. It was moist, but overly salted (to the point where it got hard to finish toward the end, which is really unfortunate for a place like MB) and hardly noteworthy. And the surprise bone that nearly did some gum damage was just not ok. I might let the occasional bone fragment slide when eating lazi jiding at my local Chengdu Xiaochi, but I'm also not paying $30 for it.

Luckily, chicken was not the only thing we ordered. Straight up, the steak was one of the best steaks of my life, and therefore one of the best things I have ever put in my mouth. It came out radiating heat with a succulent aroma, while still maintaining a perfect medium rare in the middle. The combination of the peppercorns with the seared foie gras made for some of the most decadent and flavorful eating that I've ever had. Even so, I had a few issues with the dish.

If I recall correctly (which is not a guarantee; I'm having some trouble reading my notes. I'd like to blame the dim lighting, but my poor penmanship is the more likely culprit), the steak came served on a bed of greens, which practically made it difficult to eat. Was I supposed to lift it off the bed of greens to cut? Or just slice through as the meat wiggled on its foundation of verdure? The greens were delicious, though I tend to believe it was a high ratio of cream that made it so (not that there's anything wrong with that). The potato puff was also a tad disappointing. Maybe I'm just spoiled from the glory of the potato puff at Gregoire's in Berkeley.

V's salmon was regrettably overcooked, and she knows her stuff. The girl used to ball it up in NYC before moving to Singapore, so she ought to. The vegetables were also overcooked and under-seasoned and made for a very low note as a main. Granted, it was probably still one of the better pieces of fish in the city, but that's not really saying much.

Dessert was delightful, though only slightly memorable. Vanilla creme brulee with fruit, Paris-Brest with whipped ganache, toasted almonds and vanilla ice cream and rhubarb poached with hazelnut financier compote with yogurt sorbet.

M and I walked into Maison Boulud hoping that the meal would not be the kind of "Oh, it's good. For Beijing…" experience that had become all too familiar for us. The restaurant certainly succeeded in rising above the kind of categorical dumbing-down that we've unfortunately internalized. So, while Maison Boulud is certainly able to compete on a global level, I'm also fairly confident that several of the glitches and mistakes from our meal would not hold up well at the "Restaurant of the Year" at another major international city.

For the sake of my much wealthier compatriots, I hope that our experience was an anomaly. But, I'll be unable to pass judgment again until some other benevolent patron passes through town (slight pause here while I wait for volunteers). And to be honest, the next time one does, I'll more likely take them to Capital M, which I've found to be more deserving of the title while treating me with the kind of warm cultured respect that makes the fine dining experience an uplifting one, rather than a rude reality check.

And one more thing. As critical as I can be about food like this and these price points, I am very thankful for V for helping a mini-culinary dream to come true. Thanks for your graciousness in putting up with me and M not knowing which forks to use for what dishes and where to put them when we're done with them. And thanks for being delightful company during the meal and a splendid houseguest during your stay.

See also: Is Da Dong Beijing's Chinese 'Restaurant of the Year'? I'll Bite - Part I

In coming weeks, I'll tackle Modo as Best New Restaurant (Non-Chinese) and Little Yunnan as Best New Restaurant (Chinese)