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Sake Manzo

24 Jul

As a foodie, you  know you’re in top company when one of your fellow diners, a soon-to-be-bride, says something along the lines of “The wedding is as much about the food as it is about the wedding” …

We had the pleasure of dining at Sake Manzo with Amanda and Ningyi, who will tie the knot in Beijing in October. Ningyi is the sort of guy whose eyes light up at the mention of good food and he’s a wealth of knowledge on Beijing cuisine. To hear them both wax lyrical about the Bubbles brunch at the Hilton, slow roasted beef noodles at a local restaurant or the suckling pig at Capital M is a real treat.

I’m a little hesitant about eating Japanese cuisine in Beijing, for several reasons. Firstly, we’re from Australia and we have excellent fresh seafood, so we tend to fall into the trap of comparing to back home. Secondly, we just travelled in Japan not long ago (enough said). And finally, I’m a bit wary of eating my favourite Japanese food, sashimi, in China. However, given that Sake Manzo was Ningyi’s recommendation and he spoke very highly of it, we were keen.

Overall I think we tried around 10-15 dishes and I would rate the food and service as very good. The ambience was also great – a bit like stepping into a little izakaya in Tokyo. The homemade basket tofu, apparently made using concentrated Japanese seawater (hopefully as far away from Fukushima as possible) and topped with French shallots, was superbly subtle and delicate, with the texture of ricotta cheese.  The okara was also very tasty – it’s made from the remaining fibre from the soybeans when making tofu and mixed with small prawns and octopus and ends up looking like a drier version of chicken stuffing. Bonito tartare topped with a quail egg was delicious (and Amanda’s favourite dish, if she had to chose one), as was the sashimi, which I was pleasantly surprised about.

Before we went to the restaurant Ningyi raved about the chicken wings and they certainly didn’t disappoint … good, tasty bird! And finger licking good. The smoked eel was as good as I have ever tried and I can still taste my favourite dish, the black pork, which was cut and cooked like bacon rashers, a real house specialty. Another dish that hit the right note was the deep fried calamari. My fellow diners rated the tuna neck as being average (in Ningyi’s words “it’s just a piece of fish really”), although I gladly polished it all up. The only dish I was a bit so-so on was the chicken meatballs with gristle, which I thought lacked substance and taste, although others at the table seemed to find them tasty.

We washed all of this down with Asahi on tap and sochu, a distilled beverage which is typically distilled from barley, sweet potatoes or rice.

We ate at the Sake Manzo at Panjiayuan, and there is apparently another location planned for Tuanjiehu Beisantiao, opening in early August. Between  the four of us we paid around 200rmb each, but we were very liberal on the ordering and the spirits, so you could get away with less if you’re on a budget. Overall we’d strongly recommend Sake Manzo if you love Japanese food, and we’re very grateful to Ningyi and Amanda for introducing us to it. We’ll be back, and will continue to pick their brains on Beijing eats!


Da Dong

6 Jun

Our quest to find delicious Peking duck continued to Da Dong, where we took visitors Chris and Vanessa, and chef Pete van Es. Da Dong has consistently been rated as one of, if not the, top restaurant for duck in Beijing. Many guidebooks recommend a meal in either Da Dong or Quanjude for traditional Beijing kao ya (Peking duck). The awards and plaques on the walls are there on show, including one from Juan Antonio Samaranch before the Olympics declaring Da Dong deserving of a gold medal. They don’t take bookings for dinner after 6.30pm, so we just arrived and sat in the foyer, drinking free cask wine and watching (and salivating) over the ducks that were being pulled from the wood fired ovens in the open kitchen. At Da Dong, service is top notch – waiters looked after our every need, from laying the napkin across our laps, to helpful Chinese language tips.

Between five of us we ordered one and a half ducks, chicken with mixed nuts, a whole fried fish, bamboo shoots and Chinese greens. The regular dishes came out first, and while the servings were smaller than your average Chinese restaurant, the flavour was less salty, with more texture and subtle flavours. The fish looked spectacular, arched up on the plate with scattered mango salsa around it. It looked like a work of art, and almost too good to eat. I said almost though – it tasted incredible, with the crispy skin reminding me of pork crackle.

Our individual side dishes for the duck arrived before the duck. Portions of regular cucumber, shallot and plum sauce sat alongside sugar (to dip the duck skin into), finely diced garlic, chopped radish and pickles. Baskets of wrappers were placed on the table, as were some crispy buns.

It was a tantalising wait before two expert carvers lined up next to our table, each one deftly carving our ducks, and piling up the tasty looking flesh and glistening skin. Dipped into the sugar, the skin melted in our mouths. There were oohs and aahs as we tried this, and the boys also loved getting stuck into the duck legs.

The meat, although, was considered a little dry by Dan. Duck pancakes made with thin wrappers, a dollop of sauce, a few slithers of cucumber, shallots and radish, topped with a little garlic and pickles, finally with a few slices of duck flesh and skin, were morsels of tastiness though. Sweet, savoury, crispy, fresh, salty all combined in a few mouthfuls. We were all fans. Unfortunately though, we didn’t enjoy the duck soup as much – it was light on flavour and had a funny taste. Not on par with the soup we love to get at Jing Zun, which has chunks of duck meat, cabbage, tofu and a heady flavour of white pepper. To clear the palate, we ate sorbet in champagne glasses, which none of us could figure out the flavour of. The closest we could think of was a suggestion of longan by Vanessa. We’d heard rave recommendations about Da Dong, as well as scathing reviews. Service not up to scratch or too much ego towards foreigners, duck not amazing.

We were happy to say, despite the long wait to get a table, and the heat of the restaurant, we were mostly impressed with the food, and the service. Da Dong is a more formal dining than I’ve experienced in China, and for that, and the name, you end up paying more for the experience. When you can get a huge delicious meal for a quarter of the price elsewhere, you wonder if it’s worth it. But of course, Da Dong is definitely somewhere to be tried and experienced.

Rou jia mo

16 May

We stumbled on rou jia mo almost by accident. We’d been researching the Shaanxi Folk Custom Culture Restaurant and were warned the menu was only in Chinese, with no pictures, so luckily a few blogs gave some suggestions of what to order. When we asked for “yi ge rou jia mo”, we actually had no idea what was going to be delivered to our table. But thankfully we were experimental that night because what we got started a love affair that will probably last our entire time in China. I think we ended up ordering another two or three of them.

Rou jia mo (肉夹馍;  ròu jīa mó) is a Chinese-style hamburger. With a round thin roll, crispy on the outside and a little doughy on the inside, the pocket is cut and stuffed with pork or beef that’s been simmering for hours and hours in star anise, five spice, cinnamon and other spices. The meat is chopped finely (by this stage it’s melt-in-your-mouth tender) and sometimes coriander is added to give a little bit of fresh greenery. The result is an amazing little snack, usually demolished by Dan in under a minute. We’ve tried a few of these delights in Beijing – both at the Shaanxi Folk Culture Custom Restaurant (the owners now know Dan and what he orders there) and also from the Paomo Guan’r restaurant nearby our house.

On a recent visit to Xi’an, in Shaanxi province, we were told to watch out for the good rou jia mo, as that’s where they apparently originated. As Xi’an is known for it’s Muslim cuisine, the rou jia mo there mostly used beef rather than pork. Unfortunately though, we found we were disappointed. One of the ones we asked for the less fatty meat, and we were surprised to see the seller get out raw meat and sauté it in his wok with green peppers and bean shoots – additions we hadn’t ever had before. He added cumin and other spices, and stuffed it in a larger bun. Despite feeling virtuous that we’d eaten the less fatty meat, it was a little tough, and the bread was not warmed. Lesson number one of what makes a great rou jia mo: warm the bread before adding the meat.

 The same night we saw people eating what looked like the real deal – smaller buns with meat and wrapped in the ubiquitous half-paper bag they normally come in. We tried it the next day, and while it looked like what we were after, we were also not taken by the taste. The meat was too salty – it tasted like brisket – and the bread was tough and too doughy. Lessons two and three: spice the meat well but don’t oversalt, and use thin mo bread.

Back in Beijing, Dan decided to go back to Paomo Guan’r to try their rou jia mo again, as the first time I’d bought one for him, he’d been very ho-hum about it, perhaps as he was trying to skype his mate in New York. When I asked him later if he liked it he said it wasn’t bad but not amazing. Funnily enough, the next time he tried it, he raved about it. Lesson number four: take the time to enjoy your rou jia mo.

It’s not hard to make a good rou jia mo, although it does take time, and effort. At Paomo Guan’r during lunch and dinner peak times, there are normally three or four cooks in their special mo open kitchen. Some are kneading the mo dough, others shaping it and cooking it, another stuffing the rou jia mo…It’s a very impressive work train. These guys don’t need any lessons from us though. They are doing them perfectly.

Tang hu lu

25 Apr

There’s not many people I know who will mourn the passing of Beijing’s winter. The trees that have been ghostly bare for almost more than seven months suddenly burst into cherry blossom and leaves herald the beginning of the short spring. Winter was long and harsh in Beijing, but there’s at least one thing I know I’ll miss during the hot summer months.

Although Wikipedia refers to tang hu lu as a traditional winter snack especially for children, I beg to differ. I’ve seen every age of person buying the candied hawthorne fruits on sticks – young kids, old grandparents, young groups of teenage boys, trendy businesspeople, parents, well-off, not so well-off. The sweet snack is loved by all. And what isn’t to love? I originally thought the fruit was a crab apple, but hawthorne fruits are different. A small, round fruit, with red skin, usually about six or seven are pierced onto a skewer, then rolled in hot toffee. The toffee solidifies and you have what’s similar to a toffee apple. Only the toffee is thin and easy to bite into and you get a lovely sweet : sour tang of the fruit ratio. And the fruit is small enough to be the perfect mouthful! This is the original version, but I’ve also seen pineapple, orange, cherry tomatoes, strawberries and banana toffee on sticks. There’s also sprinklings of sesame seeds, peanuts, walnuts and rice stuffed into haw fruit.

But they are a winter snack, and I’ve already noticed my local tang hu lu seller in Wu Mart isn’t open until 9pm as he used to be open. The fruits are winter ones, and although they may be seen in summer, I’ve been told they will be old fruit and nothing like their cold weather counterparts. So perhaps I’ll have to quickly have my fill, until that long Beijing winter rolls through again.

Beijing’s best milk teas

21 Apr

Being a fan of milk teas back home – particularly those from the Easyway chain in Australia – I’ve been trying a few over here.   Most places that sell milk tea in Beijing offer a good variety of hot and cold drinks over and above milk tea. For example, coconut milk with pearls, slushy/icey desserts, fruit drinks etc. I must admit that I haven’t tried most of these and generally stick to cold milk tea with pearls (ie little tapioca balls)  . I love tea, I love cold milk and I also love the tapioca pearls, so for me it’s a great combination and I find it very refreshing. The tapioca pearls also make a nice snack when you’re peck-ish, which kills two birds with one stone.

In Beijing, for delicious flavour and milk that’s very close to being organically produced (so they say), Wondermilk is definitely the cream of the crop. It’s located at Sanlitun and I must go through four or five a week from there. Comparatively it’s not cheap (18 yuan for a small cup), but I’d sooner go one of these than any of the other milk teas I’ve tried over here. There’s the real taste of tea through the milk, and perhaps it’s the use of fresh milk rather than powdered that gives it an extra special taste. We both love the frozen yogurt and their fruit “Wondershakes” made from frogurt too and we often use the milk to make our own yogurt – you can buy it from their shop or in some western supermarkets.

Next up for taste would have to be Happy Lemon. Coming in at 5 yuan, you get a good sized cup (bigger than Wondermilk) and it tastes a close second to Wondermilk. Their menu of teas is extensive – many milk teas including Oreo and malt, or the cocoa milk tea with cream puff (don’t ask, I haven’t tried it!). Jess also had a Blueberry with Nata Da Coco, one of their specialty drinks (the ones with a little yellow smiley face next to them) which was a delicious blueberry syrup with jelly pieces. Their range of lemon teas also looks interesting. I’d put Taiwanese dessert shop iTea and Hong Kong chain MRT on an equal footing in terms of taste and value. MRT is the name of the Hong Kong subway and is an interesting little shop. They have plenty of flavoured teas (including the famous Hong Kong milk tea) and the cold milk tea is quite strong, but still nice. Unfortunately they don’t make it with tapioca pearls – not at the shop we visit in Dongsi anyway. They make up for it with their delicious egg tarts, warmed up if you desire.

Coming in last would have to be the milk tea at Jack Hut. I’d only have one from there if all the others were closed and I was desperate.

A similarity at all of these tea shops is the overwhelming size of their menus. They offer tastes for everyone – hot, cold, milk, black tea, fruity, icy, pearls, jelly, slush, pudding, yoghurt, ice cream…whatever you’re after, a milk tea shop is bound to have something for you.

My absolute favourite (including those from overseas) would have to be … drumroll … the taro milk tea with pearls from Easyway – it’s a light purple in colour. It’s very hard to resist buying one every time I walk past that store!

Din Tai Fung

6 Apr

According to Din Tai Fung – rated one of the top ten restaurants in the world by the New York Times (in 1993) – there is a tried and tested way to eat their steamed specialty pork dumplings (xiaolongbao) filled with a soupy liquid.

Ginger is served in the sauce dish, soy sauce and vinegar added to personal taste, but a recommended ratio is 1 soy: 3 vinegar. “With chopsticks, grasp Steamed Specialty Pork Dumplings (from hereon known as SSPD) and dip in the sauce. Place the SSPD on your spoon. Using your chopsticks, carefully poke a small hole in the SSPD to release the hot broth inside. Place some ginger on the SSPD and eat together with broth. ENJOY!”

Despite these detailed instructions (in four languages – Chinese, English, Japanese and Korean), Dan still managed to squirt a whole xiaolongbao across his shirt. Don’t ask me how. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t follow the Din Tai Fung prescribed instructions for eating their world famous and amazingly delicious xiaolongbao recently – I prefer to put some sauce and ginger at the bottom of my spoon, put the bun on my spoon and take a little bite of the skin. As I do that I suck out a little of the soup, and let the rest cool down and escape onto the spoon. You don’t want it to escape anywhere but your spoon! Not the steamer basket, not in your soy vinegar mixture, most definitely not on your shirt.

We went to Din Tai Fung for a farewell dinner to old Melbourne friend Sarah, to send her off with tasty memories of Beijing dining. We ordered baskets of pork xiaolongbao, crab roe xiaolongbao and shrimp and pork xiaolongbao, along with a delicious cold entrée of duck flavoured and scented with Chinese five spice, and sautéed Asian greens. The chain has strict requirements for their buns: five grams of skin, 16 grams of stuffing and 18 pleats. We were surprised that “must be orgasmic” wasn’t added as a fourth.

Our first encounter with Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung was in Shanghai about four years ago, and since that first fateful meeting, we’ve told anyone who cares about dumplings about the beauty of xiaolongbao. Thankfully, a branch opened at World Square in Sydney, and in Melbourne, although it’s not Din Tai Fung, a restaurant called HuTong Dumpling Bar opened in the last few years selling almost equal xiaolongbao. We’ve even been told by fellow food lover and food blogger JT that some Asian grocers in Sydney even sell frozen versions, which we’ll definitely be looking for when we arrive home.

Din Tai Fung in Beijing doesn’t fail to impress. Service is quick and efficient, the dumplings are pleated to perfection and look almost too good to eat (we said almost!). But it’s not a one-hit wonder – the side dishes are also tasty and well worth coming for. We also love the option of not having MSG, which some dishes have a little symbol next to (although it looked like a nuclear sign). Unfortunately we were too full to try one of their icy mountain-like desserts, but this wasn’t our last trip to Din Tai Fung, so we didn’t need to try everything on the first Beijing visit. There’s no doubt you can get cheaper dumplings in Beijing – these are definitely on the pricier end of the scale – but will you get better? Tough question. We think it’s hard to top these.

P.S In our last post about xiaolongbao, we referred to them as buns…but Din Tai Fung calls them dumplings. Frankly, they are so good we don’t care if they are buns or dumplings!

LOVE cupcakes

31 Mar

Cupcakes were big in New York, then Sydney, then Melbourne, so it’s only right that they have found their way to China and Beijing.  There are a few cupcake bakeries now popping up around the city, to cater for expats missing home comforts and Chinese sweet-tooths. I remember Dan once buying me a selection of the Cupcakes on Pitt delights about four years ago when I visited him in Sydney. I loved them. You can hardly go 100 metres in Sydney or Melbourne without stumbling on a cupcake shop (Cupcakes on Pitt, Sparkle Cupcakery, and my personal favourite and friend’s store, Cupcake Central [no bias there either, I promise!]). Walking down NanLuoGuXiang this weekend we noticed the familiar floral stands announcing a new store’s presence in the street. It’s the strip’s first cupcake shop, called LOVE. Walk down the shop’s fairy-floss coloured corridor with black wall adornments until you are met by around five or six shop attendants and a window with delicious-looking cupcakes.

As it was their first day, they explained the window wasn’t as full as it normally would have been. Lemon cheesecake, blueberry, raspberry and marshmallow cupcakes were in the window, and as our luck would have it, a tray of fresh pear and brownie cupcakes were being brought out. The cake-part actually was a brownie, so technically not a cupcake. Not to worry though, although the consistency was a little dry, crumbly and nutty. We would have liked it to be a little moister inside. The icing was sweet but didn’t really taste of much, but the poached pear on top provided the much-needed moisture in the cupcake and we wished there could have been more on top. So until we get back to Melbourne to eat some more of Sheryl’s divine salted caramel cupcakes, we’ll maybe have to make do with these, or also start “sampling” (in the name of research) other cupcakes around Beijing.