In which I happily eat more food in all price ranges.
In Beijing, there is a proliferation of free magazines, in English, for expats. These publications detail goings-on around the city in the way of restaurants (with English menus), nightlife, events and shopping for those foreign residents with cash to burn. Predictably, most articles and listings have a hedonistic slant and make me feel like an unkempt elderly country mouse who is wasting her life away drinking cheap beer and reading in bed on the weekends. This does not stop me from reading these magazines.
Recently, Natalie and I read an article about hairy crabs. This delicacy is in season for a short time in the fall (September for male crabs and October for females) and was promised to be a food experience not to be missed. I don’t often indulge in fine dining (and my definition of a really fancy restaurant meal is anything costing more than 50RMB per person which is, I remind my dear readers, less than $7.50). In need of a really good meal and wanting an experience to match, after much hairy crab research and an exciting hunt for someone’s passport, Natalie and I taxied, bussed and subwayed ourselves into the city for the weekend.
We reserved a place to sleep at a hostel in the very heart of downtown Old Beijing, south of Qianmen, which is literally the “front gate” into the city. Part of this area has recently been revamped into a pedestrian shopping and dining experience, but part remains untouched, except by the constant pressures of commercialism: narrow streets packed with pedestrians, bicycles, cars and vans, tiny restaurants steaming jiaozi and baozi out front with owners bellowing out menu excerpts, stalls selling candied fruit on sticks, shops purveying everything red and Mao, hairdressers, convenience stores, and storefronts that exist only to house three red telephones from which a person can pay to make long-distance calls. We wove our way down these streets, checked into the hostel, prettied up, and headed out.
We had made reservations at the Summer Palace Restaurant at the China World Hotel, at the China World Trade Center. We thought we were dressed appropriately (and seriously, I was wearing one of the nicest outfits I own), but upon entering the grand marble-and-gilt lobby with cathedral ceiling and crystal chandelier and grand piano and the works, we knew…this was going to be quite the experience. The willowy and beautiful, far taller than average, qipao clad girls at the front of the restaurant instantly “lost” our reservation (note to self: acquire high-rolling Chinese “acquaintance” as escort to future fancy meals) and seated us at a too-big table with a great view of the hall leading to the kitchen. Our initial perusal of the menu yielded no hairy crab options, but upon inquiry, the manager found us the crab menu. After some initial sticker shock (which we had promised ourselves would not dissuade us from acquiring some amazing food), we both ordered the hairy crab set meal, amidst giggles from the wait staff who stood behind our table and scrutinized our every move.
This meal was incredible. It was easily the finest, most beautifully prepared and well-thought-out meal I have ever had in my life. It was also the most expensive. The meal started with an appetizer plate of delightful sesame oil-marinated cold asparagus, delicate white radish wrapped around carrot marinated in sweet rice wine, shaved slices of pig’s ear, teriyaki-style pork, and cold poached chicken marinated in rice wine. At that point, I was eager to record the details of what we were eating, and also to be taken seriously by the staff of the restaurant. Natalie suggested that we pretend to be restaurant critics (and in fact, we both blog, so it wasn’t a stretch) and take notes on the meal. Once we started making notes about the meal, the service magically improved, despite the persistence of giggles from the wait staff. I’m going to assume they were nervous, but seriously, they work at an expensive international hotel. Surely, we were not the first foreigners they had ever seen!
Next came shark fin soup. This is not something I would ever order separately, nor am I likely to order it again due to it’s not-so-environmentally friendly nature. It was mild and pleasant, with a thick, rich broth and fine threads of fin. However, it very well could have been an intense chicken broth with rice noodles. Following that was steamed mandarin fish (I have no idea what species that was – some mild whitefish) in the most delicious broth of green onions and yellow wine. I ate the broth with my spoon after I ate the fish. The memory is making my mouth water as I write. Oh my, it was amazing.
Then came a mystery metal bowl of brownish liquid and a lemon slice. Upon inquiry, it was determined, via hand motion of a non-English-speaking waiter, that it was a fingerbowl. Gosh, good thing I didn’t drink it. Finger bowls are intimidating, especially when they look like soup. I am proud to say that I warmed up to mine by the end of the meal and that I can now recognize the item, just in case I ever eat another meal of this caliber.
Next came the crab herself. It was steamed in a bamboo steamer, and disassembled at the table by the trainee crab disassembler. It came with some nice soy and ginger dipping sauce. My crab was full of bright orange, creamy roe that had a deep, mellow flavor. The single most sumptuous bite of the entire meal was the chunk of crab meat in the wide part of the claw. Amazing.
All this was followed by sautéed rice “cake” with pickled pork and vegetables, and white fungus and baby bok choy wrapped in bamboo pith. Then, soup dumplings. These are large dumplings with a broth center (in this case, containing pork and crab roe), with vinegar for dipping. They were scrumptious (and quite difficult to eat). Then, the strongest ginger tea I have ever tasted, to counteract the “cooling” property of the crab. Having had my internal heat balanced, dessert arrived. It was a divine cold creamy mango puree with pearl tapioca and little bits of pomelo floating inside. It was so novel and quite magical – a lovely ending to the meal.
The overall effect of the progression of delicious dishes was almost intoxicating. We really didn’t know what was coming next, and each dish followed beautifully the one before. Every dish was so delicious and a wonderful break from heavy northern China cuisine. Definitely a meal to remember, especially since I doubt I’ll eat like that again for a very long time!
Our meal was followed by an outing to an Irish pub where we met “the boys” who were enjoying a football match (Americans: soccer game), and then an exhausted return to our hostel.
The next morning, after jiaozi and hot soy milk in a little café, and a quick stop to caffeinate, we headed out for my least favorite shopping area in Beijing – Yashow. I believe that I have noted that I’d never return, but Natalie needed this experience. Surprisingly, in the morning (especially for a Sunday), the place was very quiet, and the salesgirls were behaving themselves. But by afternoon, the tour busses had rolled in, and the chaos set in. I bought a pair of knock-off designer jeans for less than $25 and considered it a worthwhile shopping trip.
The evening brought us back to Qianmen for a dinner at a restaurant that aims to revive Old Beijing cuisine. The place itself is full of character – old woodwork, walls lined with black and white photos of life in the city, a big tv showing Beijing opera at top volume. The menu is huge and includes pictures and hilarious English translations. We sat upstairs, which is half the size of the first floor with a balcony overlooking the crowds below. We had a Beijing standard: noodles with an assortment of vegetables (sprouts, soybeans, julienne radish, celery) and cold pork sauce to mix in. We also had a raw green vegetable with sesame sauce, and sugared tomato (one of my favorites). The specialty of the restaurant is quite remarkable: in the evening, a vat of organ meat simmering in a seasoned broth is rolled to the doorway. Small circular breads are added to the pot. The chef chops up a few breads, an assortment of intestines, stomach and liver and pours broth over the lot into a big bowl. Locals, mostly older folks, poured into share tables and devour this delicacy. Tourists and younger Chinese gathered around the doorway to gape at the spread. The place was noisy, crowded and fascinating, and our meal came to less than $7.50, including beer. I will be back!