Snowglobe! That was what first came to mind as soon as our group set foot in Beijing. Little fluffs of what looked like cotton candy gracefully floated above our heads in the cool morning glow at the airport terminal.
The city’s poplar and willow trees flower at springtime, producing catkins that burst and released white fuzz that wafted all over the capital.
This “spring snow” gives off a rather romantic atmosphere, inspiring artists and poets such as Madame Chang from the Tang Dynasty, as illustrated in her poem “Willow Floss”:
“Thick with mists, / this sweet new day/ in spring. // A snow of catkins/ lifts from greening withes. // They pass over goblets, float in clear emerald wine or brush onto bed-drapes, / and stitch their/ designs on dark red heavy silk.”
WOOD CARVINGS AND LAURIAT
Barely had we descended from the ethereal dream when we were brought to our first stop: the Huajia Yiyuan Restaurant. Its imposing and colorful façade had me mesmerized for a few minutes. The detailed wood carvings spoke loudly of what I imagined to be the owners’ genteel level in society, for them to be able to command such highly developed and well-honed craftsmanship.
The restaurant boasts of old family recipes handed down by the ancestors of the owner Hua Lei. A ‘family-style lauriat’ proved an understatement, as the servers lost no time in bringing out the dishes to our tables one after the other, all 15 of them, namely: Egg Yolk with Beef Rolls, Duck Rolls with Diced Mushrooms, Gongbao Style Diced Chicken, Sautéed Eggplant with Abalone Sauce, Stewed Tofu in the bucket, Hua Style Stir-Fried noodles, Hua Style rolls pie, Dry-Fried French Beans with Minced Pork, Vegetable soup with sliced pork and mushrooms, the Filipino favorite Deep-Fried Sweet and Sour pineapple, Sautéed Meatballs, Bean sprouts and spinach Egg roll, Fried Sweet and Sour Tenderloin (Lean Meat), Pan-Fried chicken breast, and Steamed Rice with Semen Nelumbinis and sweetened bean paste.
Dainty catkins, exquisite folk artistry and centuries-old banquet dishes in an ancient courtyard…It didn’t take much to convince me that with this preview of things to come, the next few days would no doubt be amazing.
It was that time of the year when PMFTC Inc. gallantly awards its annual BLAJA or Bright Leaf Agriculture Journalism Awards winners. This time around, our group undertook a more gustatory journey compared to the previous years’ itineraries. Joseph Albert Gamboa of Business Mirror, Alfred Yuson and Czerisa Shennile Valencia of Philippine Star, Ann Marie Jambora of Philippine Daily Inquirer, and this author re-connected with PMFTC representatives Bayen Elero-Tinga, Dave Gomes, Didet Danguilan and Marco Angelo Eugenio.
With us were the following lucky and well-deserved writers and photographers: Ruben Gonzaga of ABS-CBN, Henrylito Tacio of Marid Agribusiness Magazine, Malu Cadelina-Manar of DXND, Flornisa Gitgano of Sunstar Cebu, Mauricio Victa of Business Mirror, Gabriel Cardinoza of Philippine Daily Inquirer and Sunstar Cebu’s Liberty Pinili.
BEST ROAST DUCK
Unquestionably, one cannot claim to have absorbed the real culinary essence of Beijing, formerly known as Peking, without partaking of its pride and masterpiece: Peking Duck. In fact, numerous well-respected food critics rank the Peking Duck 1st in the list of “10 Foods to Eat Before You Die.” This dish has become one of the national symbols of China. And what better place to experience its decadent succulence than in Da Dong Restaurant.
Deemed as Beijing’s best and most expensive roast duck restaurant, Da Dong lived up to expectations. While we still reeled from the welcome lunch banquet, the dinner was no less divine with another 15 dishes served, albeit more elegantly: Cherry Foie Gras, Sweet Pork Ribs at Snowy River, Lake Shrimp in Spring Tea, Hand peeling bamboo shoots, Yellow Croaker in Aspic, Bean Curd with Chinese Toon, Traditional Beijing Snacks, Lobster Soup “Cross Bridge” Leopard Grouper, Chef Dong’s Fried Prawn with Spicy Sauce, Stir-Fried Beef in Spicy Sauce, Fried Scallops with Yunnan Mushroom Sauce, Sautéed Duck Chestnuts in Crispy Nest, Sautéed Spring Bamboo Shoots with Shepherd’s Purse, the specialty of the house Da Dong “Super Lean” Roast Duck and Yogurt pudding.
As with other fine-dining roast duck establishments, Da Dong’s was carved into no fewer than 100 thin pieces. I must have 99 of those, for I just love, love, love roast duck. The heady and quiet ritual of carefully arranging the luscious slivers on find pancakes together with the julienned vegetable accouterments and superb Hoisin sauce virtually detached me from reality. My tablemates, already done with the burp-inducing lauriat, must have noticed that I couldn’t have enough, thus graciously offered me their shares.
Truly this time for me—this trip, this meal, trumps all others.
If I had to bestow the title of “typical Chinese cuisine and service,” however, it would have to be for the Tangrenfu Seafood Restaurant on our second day. Absolutely no pretensions here. Perfunctorily, the dishes were again served in what seemed to be the prevailing norm, that is, in rat-tat-tat speed, with one serving plate literally placed on top of another in Jenga-tower fashion.
The skilled waiters deftly balanced the full dishes on the lazy susans: Baked Chicken, Poached Fish, Braised Pork, Stewed Three Delicacies and Tofu, Sautéed Beef Fillet Country Style, Braised Eggplant with Soy Sauce, Braised Pork Ribs and Mushrooms, Sautéed Squid and Celery, Stir-Fried Beef, Sautéed rape, and Duck soup.
I was particularly curious about the Sautéed Osmanthus as I had a not-so-good experience with this ingredient (a type of flower native to Asia) in the past. Coupled with Conpoy, a type of dried scallop with a rather pungent smell, it induced anxiety on my part. Gladly, it did not disappoint. Overall, what the restaurant lacked in indulgent luxury, the incredibly tasting 13-course meal certainly made up for, so that it was an engaging experience nonetheless.
We were obliged with a few hours of shopping and serendipitously stumbled upon the most famous walking street in China that had the most exotic cuisine in the world, the Wangfujing Snack Street. Not for the faint of heart and stomach, the stalls offered every imaginable creepy crawler: grasshoppers, bugs, scorpions, spiders, snakes, worms, even roasted bats if one cared to try, all deeply fried in their entirety. If the idea of flipping your world upside down is in your bucket list, to be experienced at least once in your lifetime, then THIS is the place to go.
A dear friend residing in the city had informed me that sandstorms are as common during spring as our Manila typhoons during wet season. However, despite the facemasks that were distributed to us earlier by our thoughtful guide, none of us were prepared for what apparently was the worst and most massive sandstorm to hit Beijing in decades.
We were casually walking towards the venue for our dinner when suddenly the skies turned crimson and, in seconds, a thick blanket of red dust swept across the streets. Traffic came to a halt and pedestrians sought immediate refuge in alleys and stores. Clueless about the strange phenomenon, our group continued walking, oblivious of the danger.
It was a good decision after all. Capital M Restaurant is an oasis of tranquility. An air of old-world glamour combined with Parisian chic spelled classy ambience. Fancy teacups, stylish menus, muted twinkling lights from crystal chandeliers and soft piped-in French music all composed a welcome respite from the raging sandstorm outside.
The menu was simple and elegant. An Elizabethan Salad for starters—soft leaves and fresh herbs layered with oranges and almonds, rockets, sippets and fartes. Steak Diane, very tender, melt-in-the-mouth beef fillet in a brandied mustard sauce. And of course M’s most famous dessert, the fruit-laden Pavlova. I was honored with the task of selecting the wines to pair the food with from the extensive wine list, and I chose the following: Capital M’s House Sauvignon Blanc (Angove’s Winery, 2012, South Australia) to go with the salad, a Malbec (Amancaya, 2012, Argentina) for the steak, and a bottle of crisp and fruity Riesling (Kabinett Trocken, Siegbert Bimmerle, 2012, Germany) for the benefit of the teenagers with just-awakening taste buds. (They loved it!)
What better way to complement a great meal than sip and enjoy one’s glass of wine out on the terrace, while taking in the most stunning view (right across the street) of the Forbidden City and Tianenmen Square at night? With only stars above to bear witness, Capital M has got to be the most romantic restaurant in Beijing. And as further reflection of its contemporary flair and level of sophistication, the restaurant exclusively hosts the annual Capital Literary Festival during early spring. How fabulous is that.
MUST TRY FOODS
One question I often get asked is what are the must-try foods during my travels. In China, this item needs no further introduction: the Xiao Long Bao. Originating in Taiwan, Din Tai Fung Restaurant was named one of the Top Ten Restaurants in the World by The New York Times for its internationally renowned soup dumplings. The quintessential dumpling with its iconic 18 ripples and hot soup inside is an experience in itself. We had a taste of their four variants: pork, black truffle and pork (to me the BEST), seafood, and pork shao-Mai. In addition, we also savored the multi-Michelin-awarded restaurant’s other offerings: Tossed bean curd with seaweed and bean sprouts, Braised duck with homemade sauce, Hot and sour soup, Fried green peas with fresh shrimps, Fried rice with shrimps and eggs and the Kacang-style Combination Snow Ice reminiscent of our very own halo-halo.
I was very fortunate to have dear old friends residing in the city. When they learned of my trip, Filipino expat Raul Villegas and his wife Bea graciously invited me to stay over with them for a few more days. Their daughter—my spunky 16-year old inaanak Andie—completed the picture of a happy family.
Right on our first meet, Bea, my best friend indulged me with a terrific brunch at the Feast (Food by EAST), located in a swanky part of the metropolis. By the looks of the fashion-forward patrons donned in de rigeur palette of grays and blacks, I was in eager anticipation of what was to come. After all, I was told that the former executive chef from Capital M was pirated to lead Feast’s culinary team.
Apart form the Feast’s menu of mixed Western and Asian items, the restaurant lived up to its name in the aesthetic sense: the interior design was a feast for the eyes. It was an urban loft awash in light, with hand-drawn offerings in colorful chalk illuminated up on the walls. There was something for everyone on the buffet spread, with each dish obviously meant to please.
Another restaurant worth mentioning is I / Ang Sh located at the 798 Beijing Art Zone. This district is a 50-year old decommissioned military factory with buildings that now house a thriving artistic community, closely resembling New York’s Greenwich Village and Soho. Galleries, lofts, design companies, high-end couture, cafes and fancy restaurants are set-up here, together with the city’s artists’ organizations and their respective studios.
The cozy restaurant greets you with post-industrial chains hanging from the ceiling, lending a cool bohemian vibe. We shared our choices family-style, and most delectable for me were the cold Grapefruit Prawn Salad with the firmest and juiciest prawns, and uber tender and flavorful Inabe Mi Pepper Pork Ribs, the latter served in a very artful presentation. Stylish, imaginative and edgy: rightfully apropos to the fascinating art scene that is a must-visit in Beijing.
Chinese food is beyond question one of the best cuisines in the world, and it is so effortless to get excellent food anywhere in Beijing. While I love trying new tastes and flavors from different corners of the globe, this cuisine’s possibilities are endless. They have the freshest ingredients, aromatic spices, and the mix of old traditions and new inventions ingenuously fused together.
There is a lot to be excited about in Beijing and if one has the good fortune to visit, it is indeed a worthy inclusion in one’s gustatory bucket list, as the offerings continuously impress even the most tired and jaded palate.