From my husband's emails home....
Dinner tonight at Huajia's Restaurant at 235 Dongzhimen Nei Dajie, 010/6403-0677. If any of you are familiar with the concept of Pareto optimality, this meal plainly was; if not... Well, it was the most wonderful inexpensive meal we have ever had!
I ordered the ox penis, but to my tremendous disappointment, they were out. On the one hand, Meg kind of mocked me for being the guy who has to order the wackiest thing on the menu; on the other hand... I could have eaten ox penis! I could have choked on a piece and died right there in the restaurant, and my obituary could have read "Scientist choked to death while trying to swallow ox penis." Who can pass that up?!
What they did have: Tiny bits of duck in pastry - about 1/2" high by 1.5" wide, extruded cross-section - served with a sweet and fruity and spicy (peppery) sauce. Quite good.
Corn flour crepes with scallion cooked in, served with a gingery soy sauce. I was hoping to wrap the duck in it when I ordered it, but it was not right for it. Still, quite good on its own, and only $0.76!
The most amazing thing of the night were the braised vegetables. Bok choi, "Chinese vegetable" (I am sure it has a real name but I always see it as "Chinese vegetable" on the menu in the US), carrot, garlic cloves, ginger, snow mushrooms (which I am crazy for), tofu, a couple of other types of mushroom, and preserved egg ("1000 year old egg"). Cooked in a broth that I could not figure out - whitish, turbid. Chicken stock and... some kind of bean curd byproduct maybe. I'll have to figure that out. Amazingly good!
I ordered a beer (typical Chinese lager - not bad, but nothing to write home about), and ended up picking at random a pretty looking drink for Meg. Turned out to be carrot juice. Good.
The big disappointment was dessert: little pumpkin shaped pastries, that when I ordered it I had hoped were stuffed with pumpkin. Instead, it was a typical fried Chinese dessert with a chewy outer layer and a soft middle layer with a mildly sweet core (bean paste?). Weak.
Total cost? $17! Not $117, not $170... $17! And one of the best meals we have had in China (the $30/head Szechwan dinner at South Beauty was better).
Went to "Made in China" in the Hyatt for lunch. The service and decor could be right out of NYC. Unfortunately, the food was not as mind blowing as we had heard it would be. Bitter melon with black bean tapenade: flavorful (although we weren't crazy for the flavor), and gorgeous presentation. Thin discs of duck liver cooked rare with plum sauce and "pancakes" (actually what looked like tiny little sesame seed hamburger buns, but tasted much better, and way better texture): fantastic! Best thing we ate all day. I let myself get talked out of ordering dumplings ("is too much" - waiters here are crazy for telling you that you have
ordered too much) and in to ordering spring rolls. Spring rolls were quite good, but... how good can something crispy and fryolated be. OK, pretty frikin' good, but these were not _that_ good. The best part about the rolls were the condiments - chili oil, black vinegar, mustard oil, and some viscous vivid purple stuff. I was treating the mustard oil as like olive oil (totally stupid, I know), and smeared a liberal amount on my first spring roll. Yow!!!! Was I wrong... Mustard oil is like hot yellow Chinese mustard turned up to 11... Actually quite pleasant when you know it is coming (I had it - sure, slightly less of it - on my other rolls), but when you don't, it can be a bit shocking. Twice cooked duck (roasted & fried breast) with more mini hamburger buns: quite good - as god as it can be - but not knocking our socks off. Two types of tea, red and white. A totally western dessert served in a ceramic tray with three divisions: a cylinder of cheesecake swimming in apricot sauce and a poached apricot on top; AMAZINGLY flavorful apricot sorbet; and behind door number three, apricots poached in a sweet anise sauce. The second best thing we ate all day. $40 total.
Afunti, home of "Xinjiang cuisine from Northwest China". Pretty weak food. I ordered the ox dong again, but they were also out. "Pickled cucumbers with **** sauce" which neither Meg nor I realized was... How you say? Ahh, yes... pickles. "Prawns in sesame seed coating" that the waitress took extra care to point out the price - turns out it was _prawn_ in sesame seeds, so RMB 28 was outrageous. And it was way overcooked, dammit. Lamb kidney kabob and miscellaneous meat kabob, both great, but how can you go wrong with grilled meat on a stick. Nann, a bread nothing at all like Indian Nan, more like a small tough pizza with no sauce
and sesamie seed topping. A "baked dumpling" - basically a lamb hot pocket - good. We ordered "mixed green stuff" for the name alone - broccoli, cloud mushrooms, and other vegetables in a very light sauce - quite good. "Lamb cooked in a special way" - lamb ribs cut into bite size pieces in a light brown gravy with a few vegetables; quite good, although the tough connective tissue and sharpness of the ribs made it a bit difficult to eat. I ordered Meg a diet coke like everything else - by pointing at the menu. I wanted the dark beer the guy at the next table was having, but could not find it on the menu. I ended up just pointing at his beer. Another indifferent Asian lager... Some wonderful fruit with the check; kind of a cross between a pear and an apple.
I have to find out what that is...
Far and away the best thing about that place was the ambiance. Bachelor party (or the like) a couple of tables away - one guy has his shirt off; everyone stands up and shouts and raised their glass periodically. There was a quite interesting floor show. Started off with three women dancing and two men playing a kind of banjo (4 strings, long neck, small body) and a drum (bass drum diameter, but basically just a head - played with fingers). Mongolian women are SUPER hot (dancers anyway) - even Meg noticed. Amazingly sensual belly dancing from one of them. Banjo
guy was quite good; he sang and played a couple of solos. Some games involving the audience. These guys take a break, and on comes what is best be described as Kung Fu 'N Sync: five kids doing choreographed dancing and acrobatics to loud prerecorded pop music. They were probably pretty skilled, but unquestionably hilarious. So in my mind the $41 was mostly spent for the entertainment.
Went to Three Guizhou Men "... Guizhou, one of China's poorest
provinces and home to one of its most vibrant food cultures. Many of the region's specialties-which balance sour, hot, salty and sweet flavors-are served here." Quite pretty in a very hip NYC restaurant kind of way. Crappy service, even accounting for the language barrier; when I am gesturing at our empty glasses half way through the meal, do you think it means:
A) please get me more of the same
B) please take these glasses away - we want to enjoy the purity of this fiery food unencumbered by refreshing beverage; moreover, never return to this table
I thought "A", and many other waiters in China have thought the same; our waiter thought "B".
So, as I am sure you have all been waiting for it, to the foodstuffs...
Steamed vegetables - broccoli, baby corn, mushrooms - in flavorful broth with two tiny hard boiled eggs (closer to quail than chicken in size but bigger than any quail egg I have ever seen). Quite good. Lavender tea with milk - Meg loved it. A mango and ice puree - amazingly good - I am a fool for both mangoes and ice. Pork dumplings. Pretty weak - tough, and none of the wonderful gingery soy sauce that normally comes
with them to dip them in. Out of love for Meg, I did not order the cold goose head. Damn you again, wedding vows! However, two of the crazier items on the menu I could not resist. First, something that looked _exactly_ like a tamale - it was even steamed in a corn husk. Much stickier and denser than a tamale, but it also had much more corn flavor. Pretty good overall. The second item, and who could resist this, love or no (answer: Meg, apparently) was the "fried guts". Pig or goat guts, I would guess from the size. Intestines, green onion, hot pepper, and a hot
and quite flavorful sauce (not just one dimensional hot). Good sauce (and good on dumpling), but the guts were a bit chewy. I'd try it again to see if the chewiness is a result of poor cooking. $30.
Amazing dinner at Ding Tai Feng. Some background: xiaolongbao is a small steamed dumpling filled with meat and a tablespoon of flavorful piping hot fluid with great mouthfeel. To eat, pick up the dumpling with your chopsticks and hold vertically (edge up) in a Chinese soup spoon. Bite a hole in the edge and either suck out the fluid or invert the dumpling and drain it into the spoon (that's what we do). Savor the dumpling, then enjoy the spoonful of liquid. We had hairy crab egg and pork xiaolongbao, pork xiaolongbao, chicken soup, warm sesame noodles, and steamed pea greens. EVERYTHING was great! Xiaolongbao was amazing. Soup was very flavorful - simple, but perfect. Sesame noodles were ideal - like the Peking duck the other night, they may have ruined sesame noodles elsewhere for me. Pea green were perfect. Meg and I disagree as to whether this was the second or third best meal we had so far. $27 witha couple of beers.