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!!

Eating, Japanese style

11 Aug

Being the huge fans of Japanese food we are, a stopover in Tokyo and Kyoto on our way back from Hawaii seemed logical. We don’t eat a huge amount of seafood in Beijing, so used the visit to fill up on omega-3s. A trip to the Tokyo Fish Markets showed all manner of sealife for sale (we didn’t see whale, but did see a picture showing the different cuts of it) and ate breakfast of sashimi on rice.

Cook-your-own okonomiyaki was fun, with the finished product a tasty shrimp, pork and cuttlefish pancake topped with creamy Kewpie mayo, okonomiyaki sauce, strips of seaweed and dried fish flakes which move with the heat of the pancake.

Eating at izakayas was great fun, ordering small plates – like Japanese tapas – of tender beef and tofu stew, edamame, sashimi and grilled mackerel to drink with grapefruit sochu, plum wine or ice-cold Asahi, Sapporo or Kirin beer.

Tempura was lightly battered and cooked in front of us, and the Japanese pickles were sweet, spicy, salty and sour all in one bite. The markets were sightseeing destinations for us, to gawk at the weird and wonderful goodies on offer. Even supermarkets and department stores were great to browse and get takeaway bento lunchboxes from.

We liked the Boss Cafe Au Lait drink from the vending machines (thanks for the rec, Jimmy), and mochi and other indescribable sweets had interesting textures, flavours and tastes.

Sadly, not all food is “food”. The Japanese are masters in creating plastic/resin models of their food, so restaurants have samples of what’s on offer to entice hungry potential diners like us. The replicas were so lifelike – from the droplets of water on the “ice-cold beer bottles” to the individual “grains of rice” in sushi.

Unfortunately we left too soon, but have it on the list to go back to again.

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.

A trip to Maui, Hawaii

29 Jul

Hawaii…known for its stunning beaches, spectacular coastline and pineapples, all of which lived up to the hype. Staying on Maui for a wedding, we were treated to some delicious American cuisine…and also some we’d rather forget. Among the copious amounts of mai tais, margheritas, mango mimosas and bloody marys, swimming in the beach and the resort pool and hanging out with good friends, we found time to taste some traditional Hawaiian roast pork (cooked for hours in an underground pit), edamame guacamole, mahi-mahi and other delicious seafood. Portions, as expected, were huge. Entrees are called appetizers, and mains are called entrees (very confusing!), and sometimes even an appetizer would be ample.

Food highlights of the time there  included a delicious dinner at Tommy Bahama (who would have thought at a clothes store?!), where we shared sticky pork ribs (with AMAZING mash – I could eat mash at almost every meal. Shoutouts to the purple and white mixed mash at Jake and Alicia’s wedding) and macadamia crusted salmon steak.

A yummy, fresh – and again, huge – serving of cobb salad with crab, prawn and chicken at the Four Seasons Resort, the bee pollen, white peach and raspberry smoothie also at the Four Seasons Wailea, and the deliciously decadent and ridiculously large scoops of ice-cream at Lappert’s Ice Cream and Coffee. Flavours: think peanut butter cups and caramel topping with macadamias…so so good.

Unfortunately there were lowlights to the eating, including cheeseburgers and fries drenched in cheese and sauce, and a Rueben sandwich featuring loads of salty pastrami and sourkraut and rye bread so dry it was falling apart.

Of course, as mentioned with the mash, the food at the wedding was lovely. The boys at our table even requested seconds of the beef. A Hawaiian dessert of caramelised bananas was a hit, as was the lolly bar, featuring Jaffas, Crunchies and Cherry Ripes representing the Aussie half of the wedding, and Jellie Bellies, m & m’s, and Tootsie Rolls for the American side.

Picture courtesy Mairav Whitten

A delicious holiday, spent with fabulous company in a beautiful location!

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!