Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fine dinin'

A new friend of mine, an occasional visitor to Beijing, just asked me to provide some recommendations of places to eat.

This was quite a challenge. I mostly eat hole-in-the-wall: I don't even know the names of many of my favourite spots, and nearly all of them, I fear, live under the shadow of the chai.

I sometimes don't eat out FANCY more than a handful of times a year. I must try to do so more often. If I had a girlfriend, no doubt I would - but we all know what a bad run I'm on there.....

Anyway, since this took quite a bit of bonce-scratching, I thought I'd record my list (with a few additions or amendments) for posterity here.

I'll probably follow up with a list of the places where I actually eat (regularly) in a few weeks' time.

Froog's Favourite Beijing Restaurants

1) Dali Courtyard
I hesitate to mention this place, since it's getting far too popular now. When it first opened two or three years back, it was largely a word-of-mouth thing for people in the surrounding neighbourhood, but these days you usually have to book well in advance. Great Yunnan food in a beautifully modernised siheyuan, especially good for sitting out in the open during the summer. I can't think of anywhere else that is so equally suitable for a big raucous party with your mates and an intimate date.

2) Alameda
Maintaining its exalted standards despite the changes of chef/ownership; superb - 'modern Brazilian' (?!) - food at not-stupid prices.

3) Rumi
This fine Persian place's refusal to sell booze seems a bit party-pooping, but actually - since they don't mind you bringing your own for nominal corkage - it can save you a lot of money.

4) Pure Lotus
I can't recall if there's much to choose between the Chaoyang Park Rd. and Lido locations, but I've been to the Chaoyang Park Rd. one more often, as it's been open longer. For me, this is head-and-shoulders the best vegetarian restaurant around (and I tried them all when I was dating a Buddhist a few years back) - almost good enough to wean me off meat. I particularly like the exotic selection of fruit smoothies. (Oh, and the fake meat sausage!) And the menu is a riot: all the dishes seem to have impenetrable names alluding to Buddhist fables - 'The Bodhisattva Pats His Stomach' or 'The Three Sages Ascend The Mountain', and stuff like that.

5) Han Cang
As chance would have it, this Hakka place on Qianhai was the first restaurant I ever went into in Beijing (well, on my own, at least, rather than for the various 'welcome' junkets laid on by my employer in the first few days), although I think perhaps it was under different ownership back then. Also the scene of one of the best wedding parties I have ever been to. Also the scene of The Choirboy's birthday last year (where we had to take it in turns to feed him because the poor boy had managed to break both his wrists the previous evening). Many great memories.

6) Café Sambal
The Chairman blundered upon this place within days of its opening, but then, in typical fashion, was unable to locate it again for some weeks - even though it was barely 200 yards from the school where we were working. We were, therefore, among the estimable Mr Cho's earliest regulars at this fine Malaysian curry house. Always my favoured destination for a 'date' (at least, on those rare occasions when I have one!). And I am a slave to their mojito, long one of the best in town. My only quibble is that I'm going a bit stale on the menu, which has now remained completely unchanged for more than six years.

The Alameda clone hasn't quite surpassed the original, I don't think; and the name irritates me; and it is in a much less convenient location; but it is very, very good.

8) Purple Haze
The original location, I mean; not the new one in the godawful China View 'battleship' mall , which, for me, has neither the atmosphere nor the quality of food (although I like dropping in occasionally for the Wednesday night jazz). Thai food in Beijing is, alas, mostly not done all that well, and is usually horrendously expensive. (I went to a good one in the Lido a few years ago, but can't now remember the name of it - drat!) Even the ones most often praised, Serve The People and Pink Loft, I find to be severely ordinary (for the price!!). And the bizarrely successful Banana Leaf chain is like some hellish Chinese acid dream of what Thailand (and Thai cooking) would be like if you removed as many of the Thai elements from it as possible and replaced them with kitsch. Sorry - end of rant. I have been spoiled by some very good Thai food experiences in America, Britain, and Australia (especially Australia; I suspect Sydney has better Thai food than Bangkok). Nothing in Beijing seems to come anywhere close. But Purple Haze isn't bad. And it's cosy, centrally located, and towards the less painful end of the price spectrum. [Update: In December 2009, the second outlet relocated to a siheyuan on the Dongsi Liutao hutong, and is looking very promising - but darn, it's difficult to find!]

9) Vineyard Café
Getting too popular for its own good (or for mine, anyway), especially on the weekends; but definitely the best place in town for straightforward European food (and a nice imported beer, if temptation should lead me that way).

10) Ganges
Best of the Indian places in town, but again that may be damning with faint praise (see Thai rant above). And it's a pity it's way out in The Wu. [Update: Just a little later in '09 they opened a new location in Sanlitun, but I haven't tried it yet. I hear there's also one somewhere around Guomao, but I'm never likely to try that.  Further update:  I finally got around to trying the one in Sanlitun Village in October 2010, and it was just an horrendous experience - so-so food, high prices, and abysmal service.  And a severely uninspiring Indian manager who appeared not to give a toss about the appalling service!  The kind of experience that makes you vow never to go back to a place.  I do hope the original branch on Chengfu Lu is still keeping up to its old standards; I'll have to go and check it out again soon.]

11) Red Rose
By far my favourite of the big Xinjiang restaurants (although I prefer the cosy neighbourhood ones most of the time): far more raucous and grungy than any of my other picks here, but the food is extremely good, and the nightly floorshow of music and belly-dancing is always fun. I think this is one of the very best places to take visitors for "a real Beijing experience".

12) Lotus In Moonlight
Like Pure Lotus (above), this is a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant, and running it a very respectable second place in that category. However, I omitted it from the recommendations I just gave to my friend because it really is impossible to find - in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a housing estate. I've only been there twice; both times it took me about half an hour to locate it; and I have no confidence that it would be any easier next time. A pity to give up on the place, though. Maybe if I start dating a vegetarian again....

13) BiteAPitta
This is a regular stop-off for me whenever I'm over on the north-east side of town (not often). I particularly like the meze: superb falafel, very good hummus (I prefer it to be a bit more granular, myself). Again, I didn't recommend this place to my friend as a restaurant because it's a bit low-rent: it feels like just a sandwich shop. [Update: The original location on Nurenjie was chai'd over the summer of '09, but by the end of the year - after an aborted attempt to move into the space vacated by A-Che (a long-running Cuban place; OK, but perennially deserted!) on Dongzhimenwai - was set for an imminent relaunch in the Nali Patio on Sanlitun. Well, in fact the Nali Patio plan foundered as well, but by the end of 2009, we finally had a new BiteAPitta again, in the Tongli Studios. Welcome back, Avi!]

14) Kong Yi Ji
I haven't been for a couple of years now, but I assume this place still exists, on the north-west corner of Houhai. Named after the title character of a famous Lu Xun short story, it is probably my favourite (slightly upscale) Chinese restaurant. The aniseed-flavoured broad beans - a favourite bar snack in the story - are a must-try.

15) Café de la Poste
I was slightly hesitant about recommending this place, since I've found both the service and the food a bit spotty on recent visits. Sometimes, however, the allure of the city's most affordable steaks (but, oh, how I grieve for the demise of Lee's Diner USA - more on that at a later date, perhaps) is too much to resist; though I find, alas, that they're not (certain cuts, anyway) quite good enough to support cooking at the rare end of the spectrum: if I attempt anything less than the high side of 'medium', I usually find myself chewing for hours and leaving a plateful of gristle. But they are quite attractively priced. And those desserts - oh my god! Cosy ambience and good wine list too. I just wish they were a bit more generous with the bread and potatoes....

16) Le Little Saigon
This is a promising new bistro just down the road from me on Jiugulou Dajie, with nice decor and a great little roof terrace for the summer months. The linguistic mish-mash of its name, though, is rather too appropriately suggestive of the schizophrenia in its cuisine: the listings magazines usually label it 'fusion', but in fact it has a Vietnamese menu and a French/European menu, with no crossover between the two. Odd! Not bad food, though.

A few others vying for attention (places I've so far tried only once, or have heard good things about but am still trying to find):
Turkish Mom, W Dine & Wine, Mosto, Turay's.
(And I guess I should also add the new-ish Agua, which has been getting rave reviews lately. And Ras Ethiopian, which is supposed to be moving into a much more accessible location in Sanlitun. Sureno is also being talked up a lot - it just won the 'Restaurant of the Year' prize in Time Out! - but I remain rather sceptical: I am loathe to believe anything good of The Opposite House..... and when I checked out the menu a few months back, I thought it seemed rather pricey for bog-standard pizza/pasta/salads/sandwiches fare.) [Update: I hear Agua is to close at the end of 2009 or early in 2010 - I wonder if I'll yet have time to check out its famous roast pork before it disappears? The irrepressible Turay opened a new place towards the end of '09, which will offer food but is really more of a nightclub; I'm not sure if his original restaurant is still going (I've never managed to find it, despite having a good hunt for it a couple of times). Ras Ethiopian has also, sadly, closed this year; the promised move into Sanlitun foundered for some reason. I gather that the owner, Danny, is looking for a new location - but when he finds one, it might be a rather different sort of venture this time. That's Beijing for you: constant change - and, alas, the best places often last no longer than the dire onesFurther update: Ras finally relaunched in the middle of 2010, next door to the 2 Kolegas music bar; but it made a rather poor early impression, due to trying to operate without a specialist Ethiopian chef in its first few months, and thus doing many of its signature dishes badly or not at all; let us hope it's finding its feet by year's end.... Well, alas, no; it never recovered from that rocky start and folded in less than a year; as of mid-2011, there's still no sign of a Version 3.0. I'm sure I heard rumours of Agua being set for an imminent re-opening - in The Village? - but it doesn't seem to have happened (ah, finally - late in 2010, and reckoned to be very good indeed).  Turay's new place (the Africa House) closed after just a couple of months, with landlord/neighbour/police troubles; and there's no sign of a new replacement.  And no-one seems to talk about Sureno any more...

As at early 2012, I still haven't tried the new Agua, or the other very well spoken of Spanish joint that opened in Nali Patio last year, Migas. W Dine & Wine foundered late in 2011 (without my ever having got around to trying it!), but was promptly replaced by promising new oyster bar Starfish - but unfortunately I am violently allergic to things of the sea, so am unlikely ever to set foot in there. The only major addition to my dining options - as of the latter end of 2010 - is Flamme, in the southern part of The Village: some of the best steaks in town, at not-too-steep prices (although the two-for-one deal on Tuesdays is a very welcome additional draw); and some great, inexpensive vegetable side dishes that make decent bar snacks on their own. Original consultant chef Jeff Powell has departed from the venture now, so I have some anxieties as to whether they'll keep the standard up - hope so. Having one of the best - and most reasonably priced - bars in town (set up by British cocktail maestro Paul Mathew) is also a major attraction.]

I don't usually have much time for restaurant chains: for me, anything located in a mall lacks class or character. However, I have to make an exception for the stupendous Taiwanese joint, Bellagio (Gongti Ximen is a vile locale, but at least it's reasonably accessible; the one on Xiaoyun Lu is just a bit too far away for me - and I was dumped there once, although I try not to hold that against the place; are there any other locations in BJ??). I also like Sange Guizhouren (though bloody Gongti Ximen again; the Jianwai SOHO one is not as good, and difficult to find) and Yuxiang Renjia (so ubiquitous that I always tend to forget where exactly they are; I think the last one I went to was in the Parkson mall at Fuxingmen).  [Update: Darn - I hear the Gongti Sange Guizhouren closed around the end of 2010; the Jianwai SOHO still seems to be there - but who the hell wants to go to Jianwai SOHO??]

And, as a parting shot, a 'least favourite' mention for South Beauty, the almost inescapable yet - for me - reliably disappointing Szechuan chain.

1 comment:

Froog said...

The vastly overrated South Beauty chain is now, I discover, providing food for some of the airlines flying into Beijing. They were responsible for the dinner I had on KLM when returning to The Jing last week, and it was flat-out the worst meal I've ever had on a plane.

I just do not understand how they're so successful.