'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Monday, 7 January 2013

Beijing 2

If there's one dish that's most inextricably linked with Beijing, it's got to be Peking duck. I'm a sucker for any roast meat with a crispy skin, so you can imagine how much I anticipated eating Peking duck in Beijing. I was taken to a local restaurant for a casual lunch one day, and I had the best Peking duck ever. The skin was dry, crisp and not excessively oily, and the flesh had a nicely earthy flavour to it (the duck fat helped obviously!). The wrapping skin that accompanied the duck was disappointing though.

There were many unusual accompaniments to the duck including pickled radish and haw jelly. I heard that this was a trend set up by the upscale peking duck restaurant Da Dong 大董烤鸭.

Da Dong restaurant also popularised dipping duck skin in sugar which was supposedly Qing dynasty concubines' favourite way of eating them. It was certainly interesting, but dare I say a judicious sprinkling of fleur de sel would have taken it to a high level altogether...

We ordered a few more dishes too: pork offal braised in a 黃醬-based garlicky broth and dry-toasted French beans 乾扁四季豆. They were robust, oily and bursting with bold flavours.

One of the gastronomic highlights in this trip was dining at Li's Imperial Cuisine 厲家菜. As a travel guide puts it,

'尋訪厲家菜的路上,頗有柳暗花明又一村之感。羊房胡同十一號,一個小雜院藏着正白旗後裔厲善麟創辦的仿慈禧太后御膳的厲家菜,現時在上海、東京、澳洲也有分店。厲家菜是地道京城官府菜,厲善麟老先生的爺爺厲子嘉原是內務府大臣,管過御膳房,從小就知道什麼叫好吃,也煮得一手好菜。清亡後,宮廷菜菜譜傳入民間,厲家記下了 180 種,宮廷菜並非純北方菜,而是漢、滿、蒙、回多種民族菜系的精華,選料精、不加味精、雞精,味道天然是厲家菜的特色,只做套餐,由 200 多元至 2000 元不等,每個套餐由 18 至 22 道菜不等,份量很小,但很精緻。'

The owner's grandfather used to work as the supervisor of the Imperial Kitchen during the reign of the Empress Dowager Cixi. The Li family preserved 180 dishes that were served at the Imperial court, and as a result the food served here isn't pure Northern Chinese food, but a conglomeration of Han, Manchu, Mongolian as well as other ethic styles. They insist on using the best ingredients without artificial flavours and MSG. Quality comes at a price - the restaurant only serves set menus ranging from RMB 200-2000 dollars. They have branches in Shanghai, Tokyo and Australia as well.

I had read about this restaurant back in high school in Hong Kong and had wanted to visit ever since then. Did it disappoint? The food wasn't as grandiose as I had expected, but it was probably the only meal in Beijing that had clean, authentic flavours - no MSG. Some of the innocuous-looking dishes actually require sophisticated complications in their preparation. As is often the case in China, the hardware (food) was not matched by the software (in this case the waitresses), who were not very professional and certainly not the standard you would expect from a restaurant of this calibre. In any case, the food here gave a glimpse of the glorious, sophisticated art that used to be the cuisine of China.

The restaurant is tucked in an inconspicuous 胡同, with no sign of the restaurant whatsoever.

The calligraphy on the wall was by 溥傑, brother of the last Emperor of China.
We went for the cheapest set menu...

Ten hor d'oeuvres 十小碟 

The green paste in the bottom right corner is in fact mashed green beans enhanced with dried scallops. The dried scallops lent flavours to the paste in an invisible way - there is not a trace of it in the paste.
Wafer-thin slices of chicken breast, deep-fried:

Soft and succulent pork ribs flavoured with sweet rice wine
Double-boiled pork belly to be eaten with Chinese cabbage. What a nice piece of pork this was!
One of the nicest fish dishes I've ever had. The first was extremely fresh to start with. The chef cut a few incisions into the fish to separate the fillet partially from the bones. The fish was then deep-fried to perfection - it was ever so slightly underdone. The slightly sweet and winey sauce complemented the fish perfectly.
And just to prove that the Chinese eat all sorts of weird things, this is steamed egg with hasma (哈士蟆/雪蛤膏), which is dried fatty tissue found near the fallopian tubes of frogs. It's jelly-like substance that's meant to replenish vital essence in the lungs, kidneys, and improving skin complexion. Anyone?

Even though it was absolutely freezing that evening, we headed to a hip bar called 北京亮 on the 65th floor of 銀泰中心(Yintai centre) after dinner.

As you could expect prices weren't cheap there - an example of how the very rich and the very poor co-exist in the capital of China right next to each other.

It was funny that the bartender didn't know how to make hot chocolate or mocha, so we had to settle for 'normal coffee' instead.

My very nice friends from Cincinnati who took me out for expensive meals in Beijing ;)

No comments:

Post a Comment