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 rag├╣, 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.