Beijing Bites

Hmm, capital of China, wonder if they have any decent restaurants…

Liu Zhai Shifu (Intermediate A), 8 Meishuguan Dongjie (at the end of Wangfujing Dajie) about 15 mins walk from the Kapok. Tel. 6400 5912.

This great little place is about one block before the end of Meishuguan Dongjie, the continuation of Wangfujing Dajie, before it kinks forty five degrees to the left. Make sure you get someone to write the name down in kanji so you can ask for local directions as you could easily miss it otherwise. Look for the last alleyway on the left hand side of the road before the turn (as opposed to the right as Time Out would have it); it’s between a hairdressers and a convenience store. You will see two red lanterns a few metres down the hutong and a wooden door,with a green padded curtain to keep the heat in, on the right side of the alley. Inside this one hundred year old former family home there is a covered courtyard with a trellis with hanging flowers and lanterns, all very atmospheric. There are quaint private rooms too but I was seated at one of the wooden tables in the yard which was a bit cold in November, so make sure you wear warm clothes.

The food here is typical Beijing cuisine and there is an extensive picture menu with English translations to help you. I did my usual over ordering act and received, in order of preference; Stir-fried Duck Liver with Spring Onions (A), Pan Fried Mung Bean Curd with I think spinach mixed in, and topped with chilli oil and dried red chillies which had a smooth texture, broken by the occasional crunch of a whole mung bean, and a lovely sour aftertaste (B+).  I also had Zha Gezi mung bean chips or as the menu would have it, Deep Fried Peaflour ‘Box which came with a dip of dark soya sauce and raw garlic (B); nice but I couldn’t finish them unlike the previous dishes. Finally I had Zha Guandung; thin slices of sausage, battered, deep-fried and served with a garlic sauce, which were edible enough but failed to impress (C). The bill came to 98 RMB with two 500ml beers i.e. about £10. On another occasion I had Fried Spinach and Nuts (sunflower seeds and peanuts) which was ok (B-) but I wasn’t overly keen on the vinegary aftertaste. The waitress recommended Stewed Chicken with Chestnuts which included onion, red and white bell peppers and huge unpeeled and for me inedible chunks of ginger. Although I liked the sauce other veggie ingredients, I’m not keen on the Chinese habit of chopping up meat and leaving the fragments of bone in so only scored this dish a C. Bad choices the second time but it wouldn’t stop me going again. They open from 11am till 10.30pm so you can show up anytime. However, according to Time Out, this place is always packed with locals at peak time every night so maybe get there early, as I did at 5pm, or reserve.

Huanghe Shui Shaanxi Miangian (Elementary C), A24 Meishuguan Dongjie (the continuation of Wangfujing Dajie). Open 24 hours according to the sign outside.

This is a simple noodle bar selling Shaanxi food immediately opposite the entrance to the alley above, on the right of the road as you near the end. The menu on the wall is in Chinese with only a few pictures so I resorted to pointing to ‘pork’ and ‘chilli’ in my dictionary hoping I would get my favourite soup. What arrived were huge ribbon noodles with shredded pork, a few tiny members of the pak choi family and a dollop of chilli sauce but only a splash of soy based liquid. A kindly waitress came and mixed it all together for me when she saw I was at a bit of a loss. Of course it tasted delicious. It cost 15 RMB for the noodles and 5 for a beer, about £2.

On another occasion I had Roujia Mo, a small ‘hamburger’ with shredded pork and small pieces of green pepper in a bun of unleavened bread, a tasty snack for 6 RMB. After this a bowl of pork filled dumplings in hot and sour soup with spring onion, coriander, sesame seeds and chilli oil. The sour part was the vinegar which spoilt the broth for me but the dumplings were delicious. Thick noodles and the use of vinegar are characteristics of Shaanxi cuisine.

If I’m honest the hygiene standards in this place always leave me feeling a bit queasy but if you’re after a cheap late night snack and a beer, this is a handy place.

From here I walked for about 15 minutes to Nanluoguxiang Hutong. This is a very cool little strip with lots of small bars, intimate restaurants and funky little shops. I particularly liked Reef Bar (on the right at the far Northern end of the hutong) for its laid back atmosphere, comfy leather seats and friendly staff. A Gordons and tonic is 25 RMB here. A more happening place is Salud, about halfway up on the right, but I wanted somewhere more peaceful to write my blog. You could walk here from the Kapok Hotel in about 30 minutes by going straight up Beiheyan Dajie till the end, turning left and first right. A lot of taxi drivers don’t like making such short journeys but you will probably get one eventually, especially if it’s off the meter.

Being the capital, Beijing can offer the chance to try lots of regional cuisines from places I’ll probably never get to. I had some good meals in the restaurants of two local government offices. Both are a bit hard to get to but the food is great and authenticity is guaranteed. Remember to get the names written in pinyin or preferably kanji to show people for directions along the way.

Yunteng Shifu (Yunnan Restaurant) in the Yunteng Hotel attached to the Yunnan Provincial Government Office(Intermediate A), 7 Donghuashi Beili Donqu (between Chongwenmen Dongdajie and Donghuashi Dajie). Open from 11am to 10pm.

From the massive intersection of Jianguomennei Dajie and Jianguomen Nandajie, head south while keeping to the right of the slip road, and keep going till you have crossed over two big intersections. On the way you will see some of the remains of the old city wall on your right. When you get to the intersection with Chongwenmen Dongdajie go over the foot bridge, under the railway bridge and two other road bridges, keeping on the same direction to the south. The slip road will curve to the left and fairly immediately you will come to another small road leading off to the right onto a housing estate. The Government Office is on the right at the beginning of this road. You will recognise it by the stone clad drive leading up to it, gold letters going down the side of the building and red letters going across the front above the entrance. The kind doorman confirmed I was in the right place and took me inside, past the hotel reception desk and down into the restaurant at the back. The decor is pretty startling, like being in a plastic jungle, but there’s a nice relaxing atmosphere nonetheless.

The next challenge was ordering the food but it was relatively painless as I had some suggestions courtesy of Time Out and a web review I had read, as well as the help of the picture menu, two waitresses, the chef and my dictionary. The best thing to go for is probably the classic ‘Crossing the Bridge Noodles’ (Guo Qiao Mixian) which arrived on the table as a big bowl of soup stock, probably chicken, and with four small side dishes. The first contains a raw egg which should go in straight away and left a couple of minutes to cook. Next the thick white noodles go in and the dish of four different kinds of ‘meat’, one of which was a cured ham tasting very similar to prosciutto. The final dish had coriander, spring onions, ribbon tofu, something that may have been shredded mushroom but looked like seaweed and some yellow flower petals. It tasted great and had a slight afterburn, perhaps from chilli in the stock.

In addition to this I had Rubing, Grilled Goat’s Cheese, which came with salt on the side mixed with a strange spice that left my lips numb for a few minutes. It was really nice but there was a lot of it. I also had Bolo Fan, aka Pineapple Rice, which came in a hollowed out pineapple and filled with rice mixed with the fruit and what may have been miso beans (Japanese name), giving it a purplish colour. Didn’t think I would like this too much at first but it grew on me and I polished off the lot. The only thing I didn’t eat was the Quigoji or Chicken Soup which had hunks of meat and what seemed like pieces of prawn crackers floating in broth. I picked out the chicken which was very tasty but left the broth which was a bit tasteless.

With two local Dali beers I paid about 120 RMB which was very good value. Yunnanese food is very trendy in Beijing and you would pay a lot more elsewhere. The province borders with Myanmar, Laos and Viet Nam so the food is an interesting fusion of several cultures. Things I didn’t manage to order (bad pronunciation?)but which are apparently very good were the Dai mint salad, deep fried Bee Pupa (?), battered and fried cactus and rice wine made with black rice. Also there are several types of wild mushrooms (niuganjun, jizhong, songrong) but these were a bit expensive so I’ll wait till I go to Yunnan for those.

Chuanban (Intermediate A), 5 Gongyuan Toutiao, Jianguomennei Dajie, Dongcheng. Open from 4.30pm to 10pm.

As the nights started to get colder I fancied some chilli heat so I headed for this backstreet restaurant in the Sichuan local government office. It’s a bit hard to find but once you get near, keep saying the name to locals and they will point you in the right direction. Walk east along Jinbao St and turn right onto Chaoyangmen Beixiaojie. Cross over the street and take the second small road on the left, there’s a fruit shop on the corner and a red arrow saying Dongzongbu Hutong pointing down the long straight road. The office is a few hundred yards down on the right, behind one of those concertina metal gates on tracks that most institutions have. You will see the windows of the restaurant on the ground floor but once you are through the gate, turn right and go round the back and in through the ornate entrance in the courtyard.

On the first night I tried to go they were finishing up at 10pm despite Time Out saying they were open till 2am; however a friendly staff member took me to a Sichuan cafe on the other side of the block and got me fed there. For 23 RMB I got a beer, two bowls of rice and the typical dish of Twice Cooked Fatty Pork which involved what seemed to be belly pork sliced like bacon, sliced onion, spring onion, green and red mild peppers and black beans cooked in chilli oil. Although a bit oily it was just what I was hankering for (B).

A few nights later I legged it down to Chuanban again after work and got there for 8.45 which meant I could get a table (although a big place it’s very popular and always full at peak times) and still left me time to enjoy the great food. I had Kungpo Chicken(B), Madofu (tofu in a mince and chilli sauce) (B) and Beef Lung(B). The best dish however was the Twice Cooked Fatty Pork again and it was interesting to compare it to the one I had in the cafe above. This was a more classic version with beautifully tender pork and made with spring onions rather than capsicums (A).

Din Tai Fung (Intermediate A), 22 Hujiayuan, Yibei Building, Dongcheng, Chaoyang, Tel. 6462 4502, Open 11.30-2.30 and 5-10pm daily.

This is primarily a dumpling restaurant but also specialises in other dishes from the Eastern provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu.The surroundings are modern but rather stark and uninteresting, rather like a hotel breakfast room. The staff are pleasant and efficient and some spoke English and the picture menu also has an English translation.

Their signature dish is Xiaolong Bao, steamed dumplings wrapped in transparent light dough, has won accolades from some quarters for being the best dumplings in Beijing. I had the pork version (they have seafood and crabmeat too) which were wonderfully juicy (B+). Even better were the Cairou Zhengjiao dumplings, also in a delicate dough and stuffed with a small bok choi called ‘youcai’, pork and a little lard to taste (A).

On the side a dish of Sliced Hairy Gourd with Shredded Jellyfish which was nice enough (B) though the gourd dominated, and a plate of Sautéed Water Lily (B), yet another green vegetable, which tasted err…very green!

To finish the rather suggestive Dousha Bao, much larger dumplings in a thicker skin, stuffed with sweet red bean paste which were nice (B) but a bit heavy for my already very full stomach. Total cost for my lunch, with two Yanjing beers was 170 RMB; pretty good considering how much I had.

Han Cang (Intermediate B), Shichahai Dongan, Xicheng, Houhai (6404 2259). Open 11am – 10.30pm. Get the taxi driver to drop you off on Dianmen Xi Dajie by Qinhai Lake. As you face the lake, walk down the right hand (east) side and the restaurant is the second building on the right.

Continuing my search for minority cuisines, I came here to try the food of the Hakka people; a hearty south-eastern style that emphasises the texture of the food. Apparently many Chinese restaurants in the UK and other countries are owned by Hakka, a sub-group of the Han Chinese.  The ambience is nothing special, crude wooden furniture in two big rooms and the odd black and white photo on the wall but if you get a seat by the window you will get a nice view of the lake, especially in the private rooms upstairs.

The picture menu has English translations and is quite scary with spicy donkey, ‘duck chins’, chitterlings and steamed turtle all featuring, but I went for the house speciality, and one of the signature dishes of Hakka cuisine, Sanbei Ya, or Three Cup Duck, where the birdie is braised in equal amounts of dark soy, rice wine and water before futher cooking. It was good but not as exciting as I’d hoped (B). My favourite, and the most expensive dish, was the ‘Boletus Edulis’ (B+), stir-fried with red and green capsicums, garlic, spring onion and ginger, and which tasted just like European ceps/porcini.

I also liked the Ngiong Tew Fou or ‘Self-grounded’ Tofu which had been lightly fried and served in a light brown sauce with small balls of pork on top of each slice (B+). I also had sautéed Black Bean Sprouts with red capsicum, dried chilli (imperceptible)and the odd black bean in a clear sauce(B). I ordered a Baiwei beer but when this turned out to be Budwieser I sent it back and got a Pure Yanjing beer instead. Total cost 172 RMB, massive overkill again but still pretty cheap and very tasty.

You can walk it off round the lake and go to one of the many nice bars for a digestif afterwards, although be warned a small beer can cost 45 RMB in some of them.

Guo Yao Xiaochi (Advanced A) 58 Bei Santiao, Jiadoa Kou, Andingmennei Dajie, Dongcheng, Houhai Tel. 6403 1940, Open 10am-2.30pm and 5.30-9pm daily

As you head north up Andingmennei Dajie,  from the crossroads with Jiaodaokou Dong Dajie, it’s the third alley on the right by my calculations, but the fourth according to the Time Out map. #58 is the first building on the right of the alley, with red lanterns hanging outside, whereas Time Out has it at the other end.

This is a great place, still deserving its award for Best Restaurant for Private Dining in 2005 from the Beijing Culinary Association. The food is cooked in the aristocratic Tan style, a cross between Guandong and Huaiyang cuisines, which is very delicate and light. Tan emphasises flavour and uses only the best ingredients (so for example only the most tender stems are used for vegetable dishes), judicious use of heat and intricate steps and techniques. You can see the hands of Chef Guo Xinjun at work through the kitchen hatch on the left as you enter. He has cooked for numerous Chinese leaders and American presidents during his time at the Beijing Hotel.

It’s a tiny room with just five tables and seats for twenty two and has the feel of being in a museum with aged ornately carved door panels, old wooden lanterns with red tassels, glass-covered tables that double as display cases for more wood-carvings and period pictures pointing face down from the overhead trellis. The service is exemplary with highly attentive waitresses, one of whom spoke English. The menu has an English translation but no pictures. Whilst perusing it I drank some wonderfully perfumed Mou Ti Hua tea and nibbled on some spiced pumpkin seeds.

To start I chose Nongtang Yadu, a yellow soup of fish maw (the air bladder) where the stock is made by double boiling chicken, duck, ham and scallop which didn’t look like much but was tasty and full of flavour (B). To follow Yasi Danjuan (A), a crepe filled with shredded duck, spring onion and a little red pepper, deep-fried and cut into slices.

I also had Steamed Baby Napa Cabbage with Glass Noodles in Garlic where the noodles were hiding under a topping of red pepper and spring onion in a sauce of light soy (A). I grabbed rather too many of these with my chopsticks and they wouldn’t separate as my sticks went higher and higher towards the ceiling which caused one waitress to leave the room in a fit of giggles while the other rushed to my aid with a knife and fork to cut them up, although I think scissors would have been more appropriate! Anyway they were beautifully presented and completely delicious (A), if a bit much for one.

To finish I had a bowl of hot almond paste soup, again quite simple (B)but very warming for a cold November day in Beijing. Total cost 128 RMB with a bowl of rice and a beer i.e. about £12. The sausage is also apparently good as are the other dessert soups made from peanut paste or osmanthus flavoured red bean paste. All wonderfully satisfying food; a must visit I would say.

Three Guizhou Men (Intermediate B), 6 Guanghua Xili, Chaoyang, Tel. 6502 1733

Guanghua Xili is a side street next to the Mexican Wave restaurant on Dongdaqiao Lu. As you head North it’s on the right, quite near the beginning of the road. Don’t get in confused with Guanghua Lu which is a main road. Go through the arch adorned with red characters and it’s the second building on the right. On the windows there is a picture of a mask and the words 3G Chairman. There are other branches around town but there flagship branch near the Worker’s stadium doesn’t answer the phone so may be closed, although it’s still up on several websites.

Guizhou is a prefecture in the south-west of China, bordering Sichuan province, so the food is hot and spicy. The chain intentionally lowers the heat (still pretty hot) and uses less oil so the food makes a healthier alternative to Sichuan cuisine where the food is often submerged in chilli oil. The dishes they serve are apparently a fusion of popular dishes of the region. My waitress was helpful, writing the pinyin translations for me, but we needed the English picture menu. The decor here is pretty plain and uninteresting, surprising given the original three owners are supposed to be artists. The soundtrack was quite appropriately the Spice Girls’ first album.

To start I had Guizhou Paocai /paushai/, a pickled dish with cabbage and another indiscernible vegetable which you dip in a dry chilli powder similar to peperoncino i.e. with the seeds still in, but more finely powdered. Also Xiangban Bohe /bohoye/, a peppermint salad with more peperoncino and a soya sauce dressing. Both were interesting with powerfull flavours (B) but too much for one person.

With these dishes I also had Guizhou Fried Spicy Prawns /shaa naa sha/ with a chunky dressing of peanuts, dried red chillies, Sichuan peppers and spring onions. The prawns had been deep fried so you could eat them whole; shells and all. Very tasty (B+) but there were about twenty of them so I left the heads to save room for what was to come.

For round two I ordered Beef on Fire which is a dish of marinated and pre-cooked beef on a bed of chives with red and green capsicums and onion. The food is on a wire rack on top of a plate containing petroleum jelly (hot coals at other branches?) which the waiter lights to heat the food rather than cooking it as such (B+).

In addition I had Ma Yi Shang Shu, which translates as Ants Climbing a Tree; glass noodles with chilli oil and some unknown but pleasant enough flavouring and garnished with spring onions (B). As usual, it was total overkill but the bill only came to the equivalent of about £18 with two large beers. Next time I go I’d like to try the spare ribs, Guizhou mashed potato and the aubergine with coriander.

LAN Club (Advanced A) Floor 4, LG Twin Towers

Being a lover of modern design, I had to go to this Phillipe Starck styled restaurant, bar and club, even if a lot of his other creations leave me cold. After coming here though I can just about forgive him for that ridiculous lemon squeezer.

It’s a huge place with lots of private dining rooms for corporate entertainment and smaller ones that can be curtained off. The decor is an amazing blend of influences, freaky plastic chandeliers, fragments of Renaissance paintings facing down from the ceiling, cowhide sofas, ceramic mushrooms, metallic faces and display cabinets of Maoist porcelain, stuffed birds and medicine jars. The air conditioning pipes in the ceiling are left exposed in true modernist style but there’s also the odd shoplifting camera up there for some reason. Each bathroom has a beautiful water tap in the form of a silver swan. The soundtrack is a mixture of acid and latin jazz befitting the trippy atmosphere.

The prices are pretty steep as you’d expect with most things around 250 RMB. Time Out recommends sticking with the Szechuan classics on the menu, as opposed to the Cantonese and Fusion dishes, but I went for the Sashimi Set for 198 RMB which turned out to be a good choice. It included two oysters in shot glasses with a slice of lemon, two sliced pearl abalone beautifully presented in their glittering shells, three slices each of smoked salmon, yellowtail and white tuna and some diced scallops and shrimps served in a chrysanthemum leaf in a shell. On the side came Kikkoman soya sauce (essential) and Tabasco (not essential).

I filled up with two orders of Rice in a Bamboo Bucket, which came with tiny pieces of ham, peas and corn with pickles on the side. At only 10 RMB this is a cheap way to fill up if you need to. The service was rather hovery but friendly and not at all snooty which can be a problem in these kinds of places. With a couple of beers my bill came to 390 RMB, one my more expensive meals in China but although the food is good, it’s really the surroundings you are paying for and they are quite spectacular.

Another must visit on the foodie front is Wangfujing Food Market, more for the shock factor than to acutally eat anything, although I am gearing up to munching on a scorpion which aren’t too bad apparently. You know they are fresh because some are still moving! A stall holder told me the tastiest things are the big spiders, but it might take me a while for me to get round to them.

Another really nice area to walk around is Hou Hai, one of 3 lakes to the north of Beijing. Catch line 2 to Gulou Dajie and take in the drum and bell towers which have commanding views of the hutongs around the lakes. The streets immediately around the Silver Ingot Bridge at the south-eastern end of Hou Hai are very pleasant to walk around in the daytime with lots of nice shops and old buildings. You can hire a rickshaw for a tour if you wish. The southern shore of the lake is lined with bars and is perhaps the best area to go out to in the evening. In the daytime, the Mansion of Prince Gong on nearby Liuyin Jie is an extensive former royal residence with beautiful gardens; it costs 20 RMB to enter. Right next to the entrance is one of Beijing’s oldest restaurants, Sichuan Fandian, selling spicy food from that province. I didn’t get to go myself because I arrived at five past two and missed lunch, but Deng Xiaoping has eaten there so it must be good.

Nearly all the eateries and bars described in this post were gleaned from the Time Out Guide to Beijing, the best guide for urbanites as far as I’m concerned. However, be warned the maps in the 2005 edition do have some errors and their directions to some of these places could be better. Always get the restaurant name written in kanji so you can ask locals for directions and the telephone number so the driver can phone the place. I would refuse to get out unless I could see the sign! The 2010 Time Out came out just after I came back, so hopefully the mistakes have been rectified. A useful website is www.thebeijinger.com The restaurant and nightlife scene in Beijing is constantly changing (for the better) so there are probably lots of new places to try by the time you read this. Personally I can’t wait to go again.

Beijing also features in Episode 1 of the 2012 BBC series about Chinese food; Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure.

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