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)

Friday, March 25, 2011

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

M and I had the privilege of attending The Beijinger's 8th Annual Reader Restaurant Awards presentation on Monday. She went for work, I went for play, but either way, good times were had by all.

Most of the awards they just had up around the room, but they saved the four most prestigious to present throughout the event:

Restaurant of the Year (Non-Chinese): Maison Boulud
Restaurant of the Year (Chinese): Da Dong
Best New Restaurant (Non-Chinese): Modo
Best New Restaurant (Chinese): Little Yunnan

I had a chance to meet up with an uncle, aunt and cousin and a couple of their friends on Wednesday. Since this is my cousin's first trip to China and he's only got two days here, my uncle's friends decided that we should head to Da Dong.

Which works out quite well for a blog post. Buckle your seat belts, readers, I'm about to go foodie on you.

(And, as usual, my apologies for the mis-focused photography. I shot these ninja style...)

M and I had eaten at Da Dong several times before. In fact, the first time M's family came to visit us, we took them there for duck. M's mom was crazy jet-lagged, and I'll never forget the sight of her nodding off over dinner.

We had been to the Dongsishitiao and Tuanjiehu locations before, but walking into the Jingbaojie restaurant was a completely different experience. Apparently the Tuanjiehu restaurant is the oldest Dadong and decorated in more of a traditional Beijing style.

The Jingbaojie location, on the other hand, is significantly up-scaled, with ultra-modern decor (black and white leather sofas, you know what I mean). But I've never really been one to make a fuss over restaurant ambience.

Our host was well-acquainted with the menu, so she went ahead and ordered for us. As such, I don't have all the info on the dishes. Sucks for you.

We started off with a cold duck liver pate. Liver's always been hit or miss for me, mostly because I'm rarely baller enough to afford the good stuff. This one was nice, though, not mind blowing like foie gras that I've had elsewhere in the city, but full flavored without being too oily.

Next up, we had a bit of a fusion salad. Greens, parmesan, fruit (was that watermelon?), mustard grains and a lao Beijing vinegar dressing. This ish was fantastic, really light and refreshing. I'm of the opinion that mustard can go on just about any salad, though, so you'll have to decide if it's for you. Oddly enough, this was one of the highlights of the meal.

My cousin wanted beef, so we got Mongolian style iron plate beef with onions and peppers. Presentation was nice, the plate comes on a chunk of nearly-petrified wood. The beef was supposedly from Australia. To be perfectly honest, this dish was a bit of a miss. Granted, my expectations are kind of high, but only because it has so much potential. I mean, you're starting with thinly sliced quality beef, it's hard to go wrong with onions and peppers, and iron plate done right is usually freaking' delicious. Not sure what went wrong here, but I think the soy sauce marinade was too heavy for how thinly the beef was cut. Basically, the flavor of the beef didn't really come out, so the dominant experience was sodium overload.

I'm being a little harsh here, actually. It was a decent dish. Just too salty, and a tad disappointing given how well-suited it should have been for my particular preferences.

Squirrel fish was up next. (Not really sure why it's called that. Totally unappetizing.) The fish was done up in the northern sweet and sour style, with chunks of the fish bunched up along it for a nice presentation. This dish was good, but not amazing. Trust me, I'm as big a fan of sweet and sour fried stuff as the next American, just not on a quality fish. So yeah, it was sweet, it was sour, but I couldn't really taste the fish. Presentation was impeccable, though, and it's certainly the kind of dish that will impress guests.

We had a couple other vegetable dishes, which were pleasant. Stir-fried kongxincai, I think, which was fantastic, and some kind of kidney-shaped bean with crunchy dried shrimps. I'm usually not into crunchy dried shrimps (which is a bummer because those buggers find their way into the randomest dishes), but they did a lot for the dish in terms of flavor and texture, especially against the butter-smooth bean texture.

There was also this mysterious napa cabbage dish in a yellow soup sauce that was really delicious. I think it's like chicken broth with a Tibetan lavender or something.

But, of course, you're waiting to hear how the duck was. I was pleased with how their duck turned out this time around. It was definitely better than some of the other Da Dong ducks I've had. I tend to prefer Da Dong over Quanjude, partly because I can't get over the tourist trap feel of QJD.

I had some stellar pieces of duck skin, which I like to take with a dusting of white sugar and a hint of garlic sauce. But a couple of the pieces were on the smoky side and not as crispy as I'd like.

The duck meat wrapped in the tortilla with accoutrements was good, although since there were 7 of us sharing a duck and I was trying to be polite and not eat it all up, I had some trouble getting the duck to balance with all the fixings.

The duck broth was a nice change of pace. Gently and subtly flavored, while still preserving the smokey character of the duck.

Dessert was a bowl of black sesame porridge. A nice touch of restraint here in keeping it only lightly sweet. While my sweet-teeth cried out for a dose of sugar, the nuttiness of the sesame was able to take center stage without being crowded out by sweet.

So there you have it, that's what the populous thinks is the best Chinese restaurant in Beijing. All said, we had a splendid meal there, and my uncle's family was thoroughly impressed with the experience. I know I've been critical in this write-up, but that's just because Da Dong operates on such a high level. The next time someone important comes to town and wants Chinese food, I'll definitely consider taking them here. Especially if they're paying...

Oh, and be sure to make a reservation (though they're only allowed until 6:30, so one of our party had to hold the table and wait for the rest of us to get there), though, as this place draws crowds. And all the more so after picking up the title of Chinese Restaurant of the Year for the third year in a row.

Stay tuned, in coming weeks I'll write up the other 3 main winners. I'm going hardcore on you and turning this into a series.

Also, for you duck lovers, I'm hoping to make it out to Duck de Chine and Made in China in the near future to see how their ducks compare.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Deep fried bacon

Every so often I have these moments where I arrive at a pinnacle in life. Where everything I've done up to that point pales in comparison. Where time stops, the clouds part and an angelic chorus proclaims in perfect four part harmony: "Nice one, dude."

I've put off writing this up because I knew I just couldn't do it justice.

But seeing as I've got 500 words left on my daily write over at, I figured I might as well tackle this post.

So it all started with the Super Bowl. I invited some guys over to watch it, but with the time difference, kickoff was at 7 in the morning. Those of you who know me know that I'm extremely unathletic, and not the most avid fan of professional sports, but this time around I had something at stake. One time in college, I made scrambled eggs for Aaron Rodgers. So I figured this was my one shot at having my cooking win a Super Bowl (albeit 5 years after the fact).

In the interest of (awkward) full disclosure, I was actually more excited about making breakfast for the guys...Not sure what that says about me. Especially since I donned M's "Cihp and Adle" apron to do so.

But I digress. So the night before, I go by the supermarket and realize they no longer have the brand of bacon I like to buy out here (Maverick, for those playing along at home). For whatever reason, I'm just not a big fan of the bacon that Hormel sells in China. But I figure the Super Bowl is all about quantity over quality, so I buy the super pack of Hormel Value Bacon: 2.2 pounds of low-grade goodness.

Monday morning rolls around and I start frying up some bacon, but it's just me and a couple other guys because everyone else slept in. Hmm...

So I eat a few slices, the other guys eat some, and M eats some when she wakes up. But we've still got about a pound and a half left.

Throughout the following week, I cooked it up for breakfast (at one point I used it to make a sandwich using half a sesame bagel, half a rosemary garlic bagel, a fried egg, cream cheese, fresh parmesan and, of course, bacon. So glorious.) and lunch, but I was worried that I wouldn't finish it before it went bad.

(By the way, Beijingers should definitely try the rosemary garlic bagels from Hegel's Bagels. They're phenomenal.)

And then Saturday rolled around and I had a genius idea. We had scheduled a fry party for that night, and in the interest of frying something new every time, I decided to go ahead and try to make deep fried bacon.

I consulted this recipe, although at some point different battering processes start to run together in my brain. In fact, I think I used the dry mix leftover from my favorite wings recipe, which has a nice kick to it.

So here's the cliff notes recipe:
Step 1. Dip bacon in some kind of egg + milk mixture
Step 2. Dredge bacon in some kind of flour + spices mixture
Step 3. Deep fry for several minutes in 350 degree oil
Step 4. ????
Step 5. Profit!

The original recipe says to put it in the oven for extra crispiness, but I found that it was cooked through and crunchy enough just from the deep frying (as it should be).

Eating this, I could almost imagine my heart slowing down. Although, it can't be much worse than some of the other stuff I make (Amy, you're the resident nutritionist. Any thoughts?)

Fittingly, I had added bacon lard into the frying oil because I started out by trying Cook's Illustrated's Easier French Fries recipe, which turned out ok, but not crispy. Counterintuitively, that recipe has you start with the fries in cold oil and gradually increase the heat.

I like to lightly salt anything savory that comes out of the deep fryer, but this might be one case where I'd advise against it.

Anyway, I've rambled on long enough. Here's how the deep fried bacon came out:

You'll have to trust me on this one. It tastes better than it looks :).

Not sure where to go from here. Although, I did come up with the crazy idea for "deep fried deep fryer"...hehehe, maybe next time.

And yes, in case you were wondering, this is a shameless attempt at going viral.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

The writing on the wall

On my flight to Beijing the other week, I noticed something interesting in the lavatory. Someone had taken a sharpie and done everyone the favor of writing onto the walls and doors the Chinese translations of various signs. I wondered if the United staff had taken the liberty to mod the plane themselves, or whether it had been some vigilante had taken it upon themselves to add some functional graffiti.

I had the same crew, similar plane on the way back, but early on I noticed that the sharpie characters were missing in the bathroom on this flight. Could it be that eastbound flights on United have the handwritten Chinese translations but flights originating in the U.S. and headed to China don't? That might be a bit paranoid of me and my sample size is small.

Halfway through the flight, though, while waiting for the toilet, I noticed the occupied sign turn off, so I headed to the lavatory. When I got to the door, I was surprised to find it rattling heavily with the vacant/occupied lock flashing back and forth.

I pushed the door in, and a flushed middle-aged Chinese man emerged from the toilet.

Poor guy. Those lavatory doors sure are weird contraptions.

Definitely made me think, though. We're going to be seeing a lot more bilingual English/Chinese signs in coming years. And signs that don't catch up with the times will continue to face the wrath of the sharpie.