August 27, 2012 – I am back in China again for the third time in the past six years. It is always enjoyable to arrive in this vibrant country with its ceaseless energy of millions of cars, people, colors, smells, and sounds teeming through the streets. My non-stop 12-hour flight from San Francisco arrived in Beijing at 3:30pm on Monday, August 27 and by 5pm I was already seated at Da Dong Restaurant in downtown Beijing.
Qin and Shan met me at the airport and cheerfully pulled my luggage into Shan’s new SUV. Amazingly the traffic on the drive into town was light, and the freeways looked new and modern. Once in the city, I was impressed again with the massive sky rise buildings, beautiful architecture, and Chinese characters everywhere. It was only when you looked down small alleyways that you could see the old China with a women cooking over an open fire in a metal drum and men drinking at a make-shift table and old chairs set up on the side walk.
Da Dong is considered to be one of the best and most famous restaurants in Beijing. It is large with huge windows highlighting diners at beautifully set tables that have small porcelain ducks to rest your chopsticks on. The walls are painted with leaves and bamboos, and multiple servers respond to every need. As you enter the front door, a long row of skinned ducks hangs behind a glass window where chefs are cooking them in blazing fire pits. Da Dong is well known for its Peking duck and braised sea cucumber.
Shan spent a few minutes conferring with our host, and then for the next two hours, it seemed like an endless stream of food came from the kitchen arranged on assorted plates that looked like works of art. First was a Red Bean Sorbet Popsicle with 30-year-old orange peel. Very refreshing! Next was Raw Drunken Crab soaked in yellow rice wine, beautifully arranged on a plate with green lotus leaves and pink lotus petals (see photos). Shan and Qin demonstrated how to squeeze the insides of the crab onto a small toast point. I tried, but failed to enjoy the very fishy smelling result.
The next course was more to my likening – Duck Foie Gras shaped into small balls and coated with a hawthorne berry sauce. They arrived on a white plate sprinkled with green leaves and looked like perfect maraschino cherries made from marzipan (see photo). However, when you bite into them, they melt in your mouth with luscious foie gras flavors. I found myself wishing for a glass of Sauternes. However, what we were drinking with the meal was also unique – a Chinese Raspberry Summer Cocktail that is served in a small glass with a huge round ball of ice. It is made from fresh pulverized raspberries, mint, and a shot of sweet whiskey.
More courses arrived, including a traditional Barbequed Beef with Vegetables, a huge platter of savory Steamed Green Bean Leaves (similar tasting to spinach), and Cold Pickled Goose Feet and Wings. The latter was quite tasty because it was salted, but I had more success getting meat off the wings than the rubbery feet. Most exciting was an amazing Chinese Risotto with Italian Truffles and Abalone. When they lifted the lid off the bowl, the whole table was enrobed in the pungent smell of truffles. We had a conversation about the different between Chinese, Italian, and French truffles. Shan said the Chinese truffles were still not of high quality, and therefore top restaurant like Da Dong used imported Italian truffles.
Halfway through our meal the owner, Mr. Da Dong, a towering man with long black hair and sporting the air of an artist and orchestra conductor at the same time, came to greet us while his photographer took photos of all of us. I found out later that Shan is a restaurant critic, as well as a wine shop director, and she usually receives special treatment when visiting Beijing establishments.
Eventually the main course, Peking Duck, arrived at the side of the table on huge platter. One of the chefs deftly carved the duck into very thin pieces, taking care to preserve the perfectly cooked skin. Another server prepared the duck for us in a variety of ways using the ingredients that arrived in small trays. She dipped pieces in the soy marinade and wrapped them in rice paper tortillas with spring onion. Another method was to fill a hollow paper-thin roll with duck slices, sauce, cucumber, melon, and garlic. Finally she showed me how to dip the duck skin into sugar – wow, that was amazing to taste, and reminded me of sweet bacon.
By this time we were all so full, we barely made a dent in the duck, and so we asked them to wrap it to go. The dessert Qin ordered – a unique combination of rice, sweet beans, and fruit in a bar – was also wrapped to go, but not before she insisted I have a bite. It reminded me of a vanilla brownie. We did, however, have a small palate cleanser at the end of the meal, which I would described as Sweet Almond Tofu with Mint and Pop Candy. It was served in a champagne glass with a spoon, and was a delight to eat because each white and green bite exploded in your mouth with the mingled tastes of mint, almond and the popping candy. We should definitely borrow this dessert in the US. I think kids would love it. I know, I did!
After dinner, we walked several blocks to meet Jim and John at a local wine bar called Palatte Vino. We enjoyed a nice French red wine, which I found difficult to drink because the night was so humid and muggy. Interestingly the whole city of Beijing was shrouded in fog all day with a temperature hovering in the mid 80’s with, what seemed, the same level of humidity. This kind of weather always makes me long for a chilled sauvignon blanc, or something with ice. Anyway, it was a delightful interlude. I was impressed with the wines of the world to be found in the shop, however disappointed that they didn’t carry one bottle of Chinese wine.
Next we drove to the Chinese Agriculture University and Qin helped me check into faculty housing. It is a nice suite with a separate living area from bedroom. I stay here for 2 nights, before flying to Yinchuan for the rest of the conference.