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.

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