Hunting for Duck and Dim Sum in the New Beijing

Mimi Sheraton reports on a culinary renaissance in the once-imperial capital

What a difference 15 years and a few great leaps toward capitalism can make! Returning to Beijing recently, I felt as though I had never been there at all. Even some of its most enduring landmarks—Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the nearby Great Wall—though essentially unchanged, seemed more convivial. Among the exuberant crowds of tourists, young Chinese whose clothing and makeup would feel at home in New York's East Village held hands and openly smooched—behavior that was once discouraged out of existence. Add to that a state-of-the-art airport, broad new avenues choked with traffic, clean and fully functioning luxury hotels, and the omnipresent Palm organizers and cell phones, and the city's low-tech, impoverished past seemed like a dream.

My earlier visit was a month-long assignment from Time magazine to research the state of Chinese cuisine, which I consider the world's best and most ingeniously varied. And quite a swing it was, through mostly filthy eating places (I carried my own chopsticks) and a few fancy banquet halls where dinners might begin with a cold appetizer of flowers and dragons intricately carved out of the Chinese equivalent of Spam. Certainly I came across some wonderful food in a few restaurants and more that was cooked on the streets, but overall I had to confirm what an old Shanghai master chef explained to me: that the Cultural Revolution had destroyed China's culinary tradition as chefs escaped to more profitable shores and a generation and a half grew up not knowing the best of their own cuisine. Not to mention the scarcity of food that caused housewives to go to markets at 4 a.m. to get their share of the limited supply of fresh vegetables, then the mainstay of diets along with rice or noodles.

Food was once so important a part of the culture that the traditional greeting was "Chi guo le ma?"—"Have you eaten?" On my return to Beijing, I found that that greeting is disappearing, particularly among the young in cities where they are most likely to be well fed, if not downright overfed, as they indulge in the temptations of rapidly proliferating McDonald's and KFCs. In fact, the main purpose of my trip this time was to speak at a conference on the health problems of Asian children, who are becoming increasingly overweight as they adopt the beefy Western (read: American) diet. That was the bad news.

At the same time, however, having lured back some master chefs to teach in newly created professional cooking schools, and retrieved the lost knowledge of how to run a restaurant through joint ventures with restaurateurs in Hong Kong and Singapore, China is well on its way to reclaiming its culinary reputation. My search for the riches of Chinese cuisine was to be far more rewarding this time.

Of all my restaurant forays in Beijing, the most surprising and enlightening was a dinner at THE COURTYARD featuring a contemporary fusion menu I normally would bypass—given limited time, I prefer sampling traditional specialties on their home ground. Fortunately, just before I left for Beijing I ran into Seymour Topping, a former colleague and managing editor at The New York Times, who reported from China for many years, and his wife, Audrey, a professional photographer who went to university in Nanjing while her father was a minister at the Canadian Embassy there. Only the raves of these two reliable friends, who return to China regularly, convinced me that The CourtYard might be rewarding. It was indeed, not only for the skillful cooking of chef Rey Lim, 40, but for the stylish decor and the very idea of the place, all indicating just how far China has come toward capitalism and modernity since my last visit. Both a restaurant and a gallery exhibiting the works of young Chinese artists, The CourtYard is the creation of a suave, impeccably tailored Chinese-American, Handel C.H. Lee, 40. A partner in the Houston law firm Vinson & Elkins who practices in its Beijing office, this savvy entrepreneur is now attempting to open restaurants in Shanghai with superstar chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Nobu Matsuhisa.

In Beijing, Lee worked through snarls of red tape for official permission to demolish a dilapidated traditional courtyard house close to luxury hotels and shopping streets. Most sensitively, it was next-door to the Forbidden City, the walled preserve of royal palaces, temples, shrines, and gardens so long off-limits to the populace but now practically a Disneyland for tourists native and foreign. Completed in 1997, The CourtYard is harmonious in its surroundings yet handsomely modern, with the gallery below, a main-floor restaurant with an international wine list, and a small, cushy upstairs lounge, the Cigar Divan. Except for the lounge, which is reminiscent of a funky colonial club, the setting is airy, casual, and craftsy in a California way, with lots of wood, white walls, and a skylight. If not so stylishly contemporary as some of the large hotels and continental restaurants now sprouting up, The CourtYard's interior is a long way from the stage-set chinoiserie too long a standard.

Within these felicitous premises, boyish and ebullient Rey Lim creates food that reflects his varied roots and takes full advantage of the wide range of ingredients easily available today. Born to Chinese parents in the Philippines, he emigrated with them to the United States when he was seven. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York ("The French chefs taught me fine-tuning and the Germans taught me organization," he says), he also worked for a year with David Bouley as a pastry assistant in Manhattan. Lim describes his cuisine as Western comfort food with Asian overtones. Intriguing starters include a savory corn flan, aromatic with Yunnan black truffles; a Peking-duck filling gives the Philippine spring roll lumpia a delectable new twist. In his version of the classic shiu mai, the ground-pork filling is packed around shrimp, and the dumpling is lightly fried, then brightened by a slaw of Asian cabbage and water chestnuts.

Among the best main-course fusions were cashew-encrusted lamb chops with a Xinjiang ratatouille (tomato, fennel, cumin, squash, garlic, eggplant, peppers, and more), and wine-marinated pork filet mignon with "Eight-Treasure Couscous"—a tossof Chinese vegetables and the Israeli version of the Moroccan grain. Having glimpsed the crackling golden tempura prawns with a stir-fry of bamboo shoots and shiitake mushrooms, and the ginger-and-balsamic-glazed black codfish, I have yet two more reasons to return to Beijing. And though I would skip the only fair New York cheesecake, I'd be happy to repeat such desserts as the bamboo rice pudding (the rice is steamed with bamboo leaves, which add sweetness, as does the accompanying mango puree) and a sweet take on lumpia, this with banana and ice cream flavored with pungent ube (fermented taro). As might be expected, prices at this trendy outpost are very high by Chinese standards, but will make urban Americans feel right at home—as will the congenial, English-speaking staff.

Rey Lim offered what turned out to be two invaluable recommendations for Beijing restaurants: Chef Dong Beijing Roast Duck Restaurant for Peking duck and the Tong Palace Seafood Boat for Cantonese food. Determined to eat Beijing's justly famous, incomparable duck with its crisp golden skin and succulent meat folded into hot, tender crepes, I was most disappointed with my first try, at the highly touted and once-excellent Qianmen Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, now a huge tourist stop offering lackluster duck, condiments, and service.

CHEF DONG BEIJING ROAST DUCK RESTAURANT—about a 20-minute cab ride from the Beijing Hotel, where I stayed, right at the center of the posh shopping avenues and a short walk from both Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City—turned out to be thoroughly charming and proficient. A poster in the reception area announces the "chef du jour," an idea some of our globe-trotting celebrity chefs might adopt so that customers know who is really cooking. Partitions in dark wood and etched glass divide the large dining room into snug, semiprivate quarters. An illustrated menu with English descriptions makes ordering fairly simple (although conversation with most waiters is not). We began by nibbling on brined, sautéed duck livers that easily rivaled foie gras, a layering of the creamy bean curd tofu (called dofu in Chinese) paired with crunchy and savory green leaves from the toon tree; and two-flavor shrimp, some crisply fried in a warm piquant sauce, others cold, glossed with an improbable but delicious mayonnaise and served with favalike beans. Irresistible as these appetizers were, my friends and I held back in anticipation of the Peking duck, which turned out to be the best I have ever eaten—just as it should be in its city of origin. Afterward, fruit and jasmine tea were about all we could contemplate, although I would have made room for more of the sublime duck.

Perhaps the most ingenious, intricate recipe ever devised for this flavorful dark-meat bird is authentically prepared with the actual breed known as Peking duck, ancestor to our Long Island duck. The bird is roasted in a fiercely hot stone or clay oven and should emerge fat-free, its skin taut and crisp and therefore easily separated from the meat. To achieve this, the plucked duck is eviscerated through a tiny opening cut between wing and breast. A tube is inserted in the cut, air is pumped in (often with a bicycle pump), and the inflated duck is hung for 24 hours in the path of cool, circulating air. Fat gradually drips out, and the duck is then covered with a malt or honey syrup and hung in the oven to roast, basted intermittently with sesame oil. Carved with surgical skill, it is most classically served as at Chef Dong's (see "Duck to Die For" below). For the finale, the carcass is chopped into pieces and simmered with Chinese cabbage to make a satisfying soup.

Among the many enticements of the delicate but subtly complex and balanced Cantonese cuisine are dim sum, meaning "heart's delight." It's a name I understood the first time I indulged in this breakfast-lunch of steamed and fried dumplings and small dishes. I was a bit skeptical of Rey Lim's suggestion of the TONG PALACE SEAFOOD BOAT on hearing that it was in a modern hotel. But riding up from the bustling lobby in the jam-packed elevator, I was impressed to see that it was not foreign tourists rushing to this lunchtime outpost but young Chinese—just as the line of waiting customers impressed me once we arrived. The sprawling blue-and-white dining room dazzled with bright lights, cleanliness, action, and overhead sculptures of puppets and clowns, hinting that the designer may have (must have) seen Osteria del Circo in New York.

At round tables of eight and ten, endless bamboo steamers and plates of wonderful things were being served by alert young waiters, many of whom spoke some English. Our choices included dumplings with crab, shrimp, and pork; puffy squares of grated turnip cake crisped on a griddle; and small dishes of bamboo shoots with bean sprouts and hot chilies. The real draw here is the roast squab, or pigeon, a loss leader with which the management attracts customers. Indeed, piles of the mahogany-dark, shiny, and tender little birds were on every table, and it would not be hard to gnaw away on three or four.

From tanks of splashing fish we chose a giant moss-green crab to be stir-fried with ginger and scallions, then had Singapore mai fun, lightly curried fine noodles flecked with shrimp, pork, scallions, sweet red pepper, and fiery green chilies, all mellowed by frequent gulps of musky chrysanthemum tea (although evading the dried blossoms became a bit annoying). We ended with small pale-green pastries flavored with the Southeast Asian durian, the world's stinkiest melon. The intense, overripe-cheese flavor was mitigated by eggy custard, sponge cake, and sweet frosting shaped in spikes to imitate the durian's rind.

Shanghai cuisine received little attention in the United States until the past four or five years, probably because it is less dramatic than the fiery cooking of Sichuan and Hunan and less intricate and varied than the familiar Cantonese and Hong Kong cuisine. Yet the flowery food, with its sweet and gentle overtones, is a great favorite within China, nowhere more so than at the venerable HU JIAN XIANG MAN LOU (which means something like Fragrant Shanghai Restaurant) in Shanghai. Top Shanghai management are said to visit the Beijing branch, opened in 1997, regularly to maintain standards, and judging by the exquisite meal I had, they are succeeding. The decor is a reminder of the Shanghainese love of nature: Artificial trees cast leafy shadows over pink marble floors and rustic chairs and tables, suggesting an outdoor café. But it is the building's exterior, with its columns and pediments good-humoredly recalling the early-20th-century French Colonial buildings of the Shanghai Bund, that gives evidence of the current Chinese rage for nostalgia. Throughout Beijing there are restaurants that are decorated and themed to recall past times, including the dreary impoverishment of the Cultural Revolution, when elegant cooking was considered to be a mark of bourgeois decadence.

Ordering at Hu Jian Xiang Man Lou was simple, not only because of the pictures and English translations on the menu but because the open kitchen displays many of the dishes, which can be carried off directly or ordered from waiters. I selected several of my favorite Shanghai dishes and never have had them better prepared, not even in Shanghai. These included xiao long bao, big, juicy dumpling pouches filled with pork, crab, and hot soup; light "lion's head"pork meatballs flecked with rice and adrift in broth; thread-slim slivers of eel and pale leeks gently stir-fried; thinly sliced, crisp brined cucumber; and the real masterpiece, crystal shrimp—tiny, sweet shrimp tossed with white wine and cornstarch and briefly stir-fried so that they take on a pearly translucence yet remain enticingly al dente.

The only Beijing restaurant I considered very good in 1986 that I found to be so this time around is GONGWANGFU SICHUAN FANDIAN, about a 25-minute cab ride from the main hotels, depending on traffic. Set in a rambling old country house of wood with lacquer trim, this has become a favorite tourist stop, where English is well understood. Despite this, the food served in the intimate dining rooms (many private) gives a fair and often delicious sampling of the cuisine of Sichuan, with its chili peppers and oil, aromatic cilantro, toasted peanuts and sesame, and soothing underpinnings of garlic. It was the cuisine much loved by that famed son of Sichuan, Deng Xiaoping, who dined at this restaurant's former location.

Except for an inexplicably insipid hot-and-sour soup and overly sweet Sichuan prawns, dishes had the proper fire, from the cold appetizers of shredded beef tendon, pickled radish and cabbage, and spiced peanuts, through mild and meaty tea- and camphor-smoked duck, gently seasoned mustard greens, moist and earthy Sichuan lamb, and one of my most beloved dishes, ma po dofu: squares of creamy fresh bean curd mantled with ground pork, silky tree-ear mushrooms, water chestnuts, garlic, ginger, sesame oil, chilies, then more chilies, with their oil for good measure. If you doubt there's such a thing as too many chilies, try this kitchen's Sichuan chicken, with mounds of those incendiary capsicums and just a few hard-to-extricate chicken bits—perhaps the Chinese version of Russian roulette. And just in case anyone was still hungry, there were irresistible dan-dan noodles sauced with chili peppers, scallions, garlic, and sesame paste, a ubiquitous Sichuan street food that I was told is named for the sound of chopsticks being tapped together by hawkers to attract customers.

At all of the above restaurants, I enjoyed great food and the reassuring comforts of professional table service and pleasant interiors. But for sheer fun I went almost daily to the immaculate modern food court DA SHIDAI MEISHI in the very Occidental-looking Oriental Plaza shopping center, an all-glass, multistory complex across from the Beijing Hotel. Escalate down to the lower level and you'll find a wondrous world of food from all of China's provinces.

In a sparkling clean, modern setting, energetic young cook-servers call out to potential customers from about 25 open kitchens like carnies at a fair as the sizzling of woks and the wafting aromas of hot spices, melting sugar, and stir-frying onions and meat tantalize already hungry workers, shoppers, and tourists out for a quick lunch. English, though rarely spoken, is rarely needed. With great flair, the servers dish up, cafeteria-style, specialties from every region: Shanghai's big soup dumplings, thick noodles, and fried twists of dried tofu; the delicate dim sum, wontons, and cozy stir-fries of Canton; hotly spiced soups, cold dishes, and stews of Sichuan and Hunan; and from Yunnan, satiny white flour noodles floating in broth with green vegetables, and an amazing quick-fix, customized risotto cooked and served in a lotus leaf. In the last, rice is wrapped in a lotus-leaf packet and steamed, then the rice and the customer's choice of other ingredients are stir-fried in a wok; the mixture is eaten from the leaf, which serves as a bowl.

Other countries represented here are Korea, with hotpots; Japan, with teppan grills; and India, with paratha, thin, griddle-crisped pancakes folded around a choice of fillings (mine: scrambled eggs with flecks of green scallions). There are all sorts of desserts, from fresh fruit to the stickiest Asian candies and pastries, and a variety of beverages, including freshly pressed watermelon juice.

Upon entering, one buys a debit card, tallied at each counter; it is good for a month or so, and unspent money can be refunded at any time. I received about $15 back from a $30 investment after 10 days of intermittent nibbling. In addition to the opportunity to try the generally well-cooked food at low prices, I enjoyed the accessibility, cleanliness, and anonymity of it all. No one noticed (or cared about) the many things I merely sampled then abandoned as I moved from one neat table to the next until my last, sad day.


Duck to Die For

At Chef Dong's, Peking duck is a heavenly three-stage extravaganza.When I visited with friends, the waiter gave quite a floor show as he carved at table, deftly and rapidly wielding the heel of the cleaver to lift the parchment-crisp skin from the juicy meat. The only instructions my Chinese-speaking friends gave him were to serve the skin separately, the better to appreciate it. In the most traditional way, the first course of skin and crepes came with finely granulated sugar; this was because there were women at our table, and in imperial days refined women preferred sweet flavors to the stronger, aromatic scallions and garlic more commonly served with the duck. It was an interesting taste sensation, the gritty sweetness modifying the unctuous richness of the skin. For the second round we had more skin plus moist, flavorful meat, crepes, scallions, cucumbers, slivers of white radishes, spicy salt, and what the menu billed as "sweet wheat jam," a dark syrup that tasted just like the soybean-based hoisin sauce we know. For the final course, mashed raw garlic and strips of pickled ginger were added to the accompaniments.


Beijing Address Book

Unless otherwise noted, prices reflect dinner for two, including service but no alcohol.

The CourtYard, 95 Donghuamen Ave.; 86-10-6526-8883; fax 86-10-6526-8880; $60.

Chef Dong Beijing Roast Duck Restaurant, 3 Tuan Jie Hu Bei Kou, near San Huan Rd. and east of Great Dragon Hotel; 86-10-6582-2892, 86-10-6582-4003; fax 86-10-6582-4012; $45 (including Peking duck and two of the pricier appetizers).

Tong Palace Seafood Boat, Novotel Xinqiao Beijing Hotel, 3rd floor, 1 Dong Jiao Min Xiang; 86-10-6512-9603; fax 86-10-6512-8926; $40.

Hu Jian Xiang Man Lou, 10 Dongsi St. at 34 Xiao Jie Kou, Dongcheng District; 86-10-6403-1368 or 86-10-6403-1370; $40.

Gongwangfu Sichuan Fandian, 14A Liuyin Jie, Xicheng District; 86-10-6615-6924; tel/fax 86-10-6615-6925; $30.

Da Shidai Meishi food court,lower level 1, room CC36, Oriental Plaza (Dongfang Guangchang), Wangfujing St. at East Chang'an Ave., across from the Beijing Hotel's side entrance; very inexpensive.