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Zhang Mama

10 Nov

Our friend Ellie admitted she had an illness. “Mention-itis” she called it. Apparently she’d been telling anyone and everyone about this great hole-in-the-wall Sichuan restaurant near her house in Yonghegong. Now Ellie is a great cook, but luckily for us, she also loves hunting out new places around Beijing for great food. And also luckily for us, she took us to this new favourite place of hers, Zhang Mama.

Although tiny, the place already has a loyal following of fans who will happily line up in Fensiting Hutong to eat at this uber-spicy joint. We got there early, as Ellie had predicted it would fill up quickly on a Saturday night, and still waited for around 20 minutes. When we were finally seated, we were offered big bottles of 4rmb Yanjing beer served in wooden cups…quite medieval I thought. The décor was nothing fancy, and the floor was already littered with cigarette butts, used napkins, and dare I say it, spit globules. But, not to be put off, we sat down and Ellie ordered for us.

A palate cleanser/cooler came first – delicious garlicy broccoli. In hindsight we should not have wolfed this dish down so quickly, and had we known the spice that was to come next, we would have saved more of it. Next up was shangxin liangfen, thick jelly-like noodles that were smothered in chilli and hard to get from the bowl to our plates, and huigourou pork with pepper and cabbage in a drypot.

Dan dan mian noodles didn’t look like much, with yellow noodles and a bit of topping, but once mixed through the flavours were great. Chicken in chilli was a little like gong bao ji ding, but hotter and no peanuts.

Every new dish that came we remarked on how delicious it was, and how much hotter it seemed than the previous. We knew we’d probably be feeling this meal in the morning! But we were happy Ellie came down with “mention-itis”, as we’d never have got to go there with her, and enjoy the authentic Sichuanese spice and flavour. Oh, and the price…it was so cheap we couldn’t believe it!



5 Nov

I got off to a bad start with Hatsune, probably because we went there immediately after the Wallabies lost to Ireland in the Rugby World Cup. I watched the match at an Irish pub and had a little leprechaun in my ear the whole match rubbing it in.

It may also have had to do with the fact that you can never get into the restaurant without a booking, or the fact that it doesn’t have its own toilet. To me, when you’re paying good money, a restaurant should either have a toilet on the premises or its own private toilets nearby. Anyway, that’s probably just me though. It also didn’t help that our waitress wasn’t overly courteous.

Fortunately our experience with the food was more pleasing. The Moto-roll-ah California rolls with avocado, snow crab, roe and deep fried AND sashimi tuna, generously portioned and well presented, were on a par with any sushi I’ve had. We mopped up the remaining roe and mayonnaise on the plate with the last roll.

The sashimi included salmon, kingfish, red tuna, sea bream (I think) and another fish which the waitress told us was white tuna. We were rather interested after the meal to look this white tuna up on the internet, and were quite disturbed to find out that it has been banned in Japan because it can cause all sorts of nasty surprises, including nausea, diarrhea and leakage from the derrière. Luckily we didn’t experience any of these symptoms. Anyway, it was nice to eat sashimi again after a few months. Back home we generally eat sashimi at least once a fortnight, but not since Japan had we eaten it.

The pork shabu shabu – with lotus root, radish, fried garlic and fresh greens – on reflection one month after, was a nice dish but not overly memorable. I do remember the nutty sauce poured over the salad at the table and the different textures and tastes as we ate it.

Atmosphere-wise, Hatsune was an enjoyable night out and the fish hanging from the roof (not real) looked cool, and the comfyness of the chairs was a plus. With the moody lighting you could almost forget you are at the top of one of Beijing’s busy shopping centres.

I’d heard so much about Hatsune from others who’d eaten there, and I’d recommend eating there for Californian-style Japanese. It wasn’t overly cheap although we did feel that the food was clean and well-presented, which is so important when eating raw fish, particularly in Beijing.

Although a very different experience, for value, taste and authenticity, I’d just as soon suggest Sake Manzo for Japanese in Beijing. If you’re lucky you might see our friends and fellow food lovers Ningyi and Amanda dining there who can run you through the intricacies of the menu!

Aimo Town

24 Sep

For one of our favourite, most reliable and great places to take visitors, it certainly has taken us a long time to blog about Aimo Town.

We don’t even have the excuse that we’ve been going back sampling all their food, because we haven’t – we stick to almost the same tried and true dishes every time.

It’s because this cheap Yunnan restaurant does these things so well that we can’t bring ourselves to desert the mashed potato, mint salad, tempura beans, thick noodles with egg and chicken or grilled fish.

Yunnan is at the bottom of China, on the borders of Laos, Vietnam, Burma and Tibet, so takes food influences and tastes from those countries. There’s spicy chili, fresh mint and fish sauce through many dishes, and preserved ham in the delicious rice. It takes a lot of self control for me not to duck in there every lunchtime…I work next door to it!

Set inside a funky and arty hutong complex, Aimo Town has a cosy ambience. Yunnan handmade paper lamps and textiles adorn the walls, and there’s often really good folk singers and instrumentalists playing live in the main dining room.

The fish come on skewers, wrapped in banana leaf and barbecued with herbs and spices stuffed inside. The mint salad has punch, with fish sauce, chili, garlic and other flavours we’ve tried to distinguish but haven’t yet.

Fried beans are really something special, and are so moreish. They come with what seems like nori (dried seaweed) and an incredibly tasty green vegetable mixed through. Virtually every table has a potato dish on it – either the dome of mash (who doesn’t love mash!?), or the shredded and fried pancake, like a rosti.

We love it because it’s so different to other regional cooking and eating in China – visitors love the flavours and how it’s almost “unexpected” when you think of Chinese food. There’s no sign of sweet and sour pork, beef with black bean or special fried rice on this menu.

But, Aimo Town needs to improve on one thing…the Yunnan flavours call for a lovely cold beer, and while most of the time they leave their Dali beer in the fridge, on a few occasions we’ve visited when they haven’t turned the fridge on!

Hearty home cooking

11 Sep

Recently we had a few people over for burritos. The toppings for the burritos were delicious, if I do say so myself, even though I can take no credit for them whatsoever – Jess cooked the whole meal by herself while I was held captive (literally) to unforeseen circumstances for 5 hours while she was in the kitchen.

Anyway, back to the toppings. Even though Jess cooked them, she cannot quite take all the credit either, as the recipes were given to us by a few friends of ours in Beijing.

The chilli beans – a meal by themselves, but just as good added to burritos – are Ellie’s specialty. Ellie, a fellow volunteer over here in Beijing, straddles the vegetarian and carnivore worlds with aplomb. She’s a food lover who eats meat, but her long term partner Brendan is a vegetarian. It’s probably as a result of this gastronomic balancing act that her food creations are so very, very tasty. Ellie has been very generous with her recipe to vegans, vegetarians and food-lovers alike, so I’m sure she won’t mind me saying her chilli bean mix comprises a few types of beans (we used four), celery, chilli, onion, spices and canned tomatoes. Simply delicious and very healthy. Ellie has also introduced us to an Eritrean eggplant dip, handed down to her by her Eritrean friend. I’ve tried to make it as good as Ellie but it just wasn’t on par. I think Ellie could potentially be withholding a few essential ingredients …

Anyway Ellie, you’ve enriched our food world and we’ll think of you when we leave Beijing and cook your creations.

There were other toppings which we can lay claim to, like Jess’s spicy chicken mix with celery and capsicum, and the stock standard guacamole we make, but the corn sauteed with red onion, cumin seed, fresh chili and finished off with fresh coriander and lime juice is a recipe provided to us by Jemma and Andrew, two Kiwi pastors who are very good cooks. Thanks to you J & A as well for such a simple but tasty recipe. And while on the topic of Kiwis, It would be remiss of me not to say sorry about the rugby game on the weekend (Australia won the Tri-Nations after 10 long years of being defeated by the All Blacks). I promise not to choke on any of my food over the next few weeks during the World Cup (NZ, despite being far and away the consistently best team in the world, have only won the World Cup once since 1987 and usually choke at the tournament).

If you’re inspired to cook burritos with any of the above toppings, my suggestion would be to knock them down with a few pomegranate margaritas, or freezing cold beers. We’re off to Mexico in a little over a month and are hoping to have plenty of those …

Maison Boulud

29 Aug

Ok, I’ll say it upfront and get it out of the way.

In our extremely humble opinions, we were not so impressed with our meal at Maison Boulud e Pekin. Yes, it’s constantly ranked as one of, if not the best restaurant in Beijing, and yes, we only ate brunch here, and yes, what would be know, we’re only bloggers.

Although we don’t do fine dining often (being volunteers doesn’t really allow for that!), we have dined at some of Beijing’s best ranked restaurants, as well as fine dining establishments in Sydney (Quay, Tetsuya’s), Melbourne (Ezard) and New York. So it’s not like we are complete novices to this.

But, a few things combined here to sour our experience, including Dan’s butterfish being served dry and a little tough, a waitress laughing at us when she didn’t know what something was on the menu, and the overall value (Capital M brunch menu is much better value, with a cocktail included, bottomless tea and coffee and no 15 per cent surcharge).

One the positive side, my sardines were flavoursome and paired with some delicious sauce and vegetables, and the egg yolk fettucine was a hit in our dining group – if a little rich for brunch time. Dan’s steak tartare was juicy and moist, and one of the famous DB burgers with fois gras was eaten and enjoyed.

Our caramel dessert was a little lacking in flavour, although a bite of a friend’s coconut one gave me order envy.

The small touches such as the basket of warm madeleines at the end, and the house-made tree bread were enjoyable.

I really wanted to like this place. And it’s not often that I don’t like restaurants. I can handle snooty wait staff (most of these ones weren’t, by the way), lacking decor (this was lovely), and prices that are slightly higher, if you get what you’re paying for.

But there was something that didn’t sit right with Maison Boulud. It was a special occasion brunch (for the money, it has to be!), and we were all happy to have tried it out, but just not blown away as we had hoped to have been.

Crescent Moon

23 Aug

It’s safe to say this entry is long overdue. After eating so many meals at this restaurant since arriving in Beijing, I’m not quite sure why we haven’t written about it sooner, but better late than never.

I’m referring to Crescent Moon, which serves Xinjiang Uyghur food. For those not familiar with these terms, Xinjiang is located in north-west China, and the Uyghur people are a Turkic ethnic group living in this region.

The first thing one notices when entering the restaurant is the colourful, traditional clothing of the waitresses, who have long, braided hair and distinguishing Uyghur features – green/blue eyes and European-looking faces, reflecting their part-Caucasoid ancestry. Most Uyghur are Muslim, so the music, decorations and writing around the restaurant reflect this. Jess particularly loves the pigeon statues sitting in the corners of the ceiling.

A simple but favourite dish of ours is the peanuts soaked in brown vinegar. Washed down with a cold, Sinkiang beer (it comes in pale, regular or dark brews), it’s the ideal way to start the meal. I’ve soiled many a shirt by trying to get more than one peanut to stay in between my chopsticks – perhaps next time I should ask for a bib, or better still, a spoon!

Without fail we always order the lamb kabobs (kebabs), a signature dish of the region. These arrive on long metal skewers and are sprinkled generously with spices including cumin, chilli powder and salt. If you do order the kebabs, listen out for the waitresses screaming out loudly to “RACHMAN” to cook more kebabs. Presumably he’s the little genius upstairs in the kitchen who sits all evening over the hot coals making these delicious creations. The meat is always tender and juicy, and although Jess doesn’t eat the fatty pieces which are included on each skewer, I gladly eat hers. I’ve not tried better kebabs/chuanr in China. We always order the house-made sweet yogurt to dip the meat into – it’s a terrific combination. Not quite as terrific a combo as banana and Nutella, but terrific nonetheless.

The fish-flavoured eggplant (yu xiang qiezi) is rich, silky and smooth and always way too hot to eat until it’s been on the table for at least 10 minutes. Still, I’ve burnt my tongue too many times than I care to remember because I can’t resist the flavours and wait for it to cool down.

The fried beans with garlic and Sichuan peppers is another one of our go-to dishes, even though I don’t like Sichuan peppers. Like a greedy bear in a honey pot I’ll eat every last morsel of garlic, carefully avoiding the peppers, but the dish overall could do with a little less salt in my opinion.

The cold vegetable salads – one with purple cabbage and a sweet dressing and another with finely chopped onion, tomato and cucumber served with a sweet and sour vinegar dressing – are the perfect complement to all of the above.

For atmosphere and consistently good food with no frills, we strongly recommend a meal at Crescent Moon. You’ll find it down Dongsiliutiao hutong, past all the plumes of kebab smoke from all the other little restaurants and outdoor diners sitting at little tables along the street. After writing this I can almost taste the juicy lamb … think we might head there again tonight!!

Capital M

5 Aug

Where to begin with Capital M? We could start with the beautiful setting overlooking Tiananmen Square, the perfect service starting from the maitre’d to our waiters, or the extensive wine list featuring top drops from around the world and yummy fruity cocktails. These are all standout features of Capital M, but we’ll talk about the thing that really shines through above the rest. The food.

And where to start with that? Perhaps with the sweetest dish, at the end, with their famous dessert platter, featuring amazing (and also famous) passionfruit pavlova, mille feuille, sorbets, souffle, chocolates, jelly and tarts. It was a divine way to finish the meal. The “Happy Birthday” written in chocolate was a thoughtful touch, particularly as they must have remembered from my original email booking that we were celebrating Dan’s birthday.

But, we’ve got ahead of ourselves. A bread basket of house-made lavosh and grainy bread was completely moorish, and luckily, bottomless, and the Meditteranean seafood mezze plate was a delightful display of colour, flavour and texture, featuring squid, octopus, fish, olives, taramasalata and fresh pita bread.

While it was a toss-up between Australian wagyu steak and pork, a friend’s recommendation to try the suckling pig was spot on. Three juicy, melt-in-your-mouth squares of pork topped with crispy, sinfully-good crackling, sitting on summer fruits, fennel and endive left Dan wondering whether he could lick the plate in a restaurant like this…he did the next best thing by mopping up the juices with the house-made bread.

The salt-encased Australian lamb was also cooked to perfection, with yoghurt tzatziki and a little spinach ricotta pie on the side.

Much like a great book you have to keep reading but don’t want to as you know if you keep reading you will finish too soon, this meal was like that. And then, our attention turned to the dessert platter…which we won’t make you jealous by writing about again.