Beijing Break: DaDong Roast Duck

The first sign that we probably should have changed for dinner was probably the valet stand. The next was when we walked into a huge, pristine and bright entryway with a show kitchen full of ducks roasting and a long bar.

When Dan had asked if we could go for duck our first night in Beijing, I told him their was a place Lonely Planet recommended a couple of blocks from where we were staying and that it didn't say anything about needing a reservation or having to wait.

It was Thursday night. We had to wait but only about ten minutes before we were ushered up a staircase that gave a perfect view of the restaurant's light fixtures that were trying to be modern art. Through some hallways and then into another huge room, this one was dim, with glowing light cut outs on the walls and a movie about the restaurant and the chef projected on one wall on loop. After a 5am wake up for our flight and a day spent walking all over Beijing, this club meets fine dining atmosphere is not quite what we're prepared for.

"Well, at least we're not the worst dressed?" I offered, gesturing to a table of patrons in sweatpants.

We're seated at a table which we think would be large for the four people for which it's meant and is comically gigantic for the two of us.

"What do we get?"

"Well, a whole duck probably. And some vegetable sides?"

The menu is much larger and includes more fusion than I expected. We settle on a duck with toppings, roast cauliflower with pork belly and a pea dish. Cauliflower and peas are both hard to come by in Korea and prohibitively expensive when you can find them.

We sit and drink our sparkling water and beer, watching the ducks get carved at the tables around us while the woman in the video sexily eats a braised sea cucumber over and over again.

Our cauliflower comes out first. We got the smaller portion and it's still pretty substantial. There's no serving spoon. We wait a beat but when no spoon or other dish arrives, after a brief discussion about what's appropriate, we dig in with our own utensils. After all, in Korea, even at Western restaurants, food tends to come out whenever it's done, we're starving and who knows when the next thing is coming?! Just as we've finished serving ourselves, the waiter comes over with a serving spoon and a disapproving glance before he puts our peas on the table. Then the duck cart is rolled over. Oops.

I still get a couple of bites of cauliflower in while the duck is carved. It's delicious. Gingery and garlicky. Even though the menu had said the cauliflower was roasted, the dish it reminded me of the most was dry sauteed string beans, and immediately begin thinking about how I can recreate this at home once I get my hands on some cauliflower.

The duck is carved with more speed than my camera can capture. Once there was one plate of it on the table, another server came and began assembling pancakes for each of us. Before he started mine he took a piece of the crisp duck skin, dipped it in coarse sugar, put it on my plate and gestured for me to eat it. I popped it into my mouth. Pure heaven. I watched carefully as he assembled our pancakes, dipping duck into various sauces, folding in different cuts, adding leaks to one and cucumber and melon to another. The wraps he gives us are exquisite. Then we're left on our own to dip and wrap our duck as we see fit.

Our table which once seemed comically large is now filled with multiple plates of duck, two dishes of duck garnishes, our huge portion of cauliflower, side plates with peas and a steamer basket of pancakes. I find myself half standing when I reach for things on the far side of the table.

"This duck is delicious but also this cauliflower! How are we supposed to eat the peas?"

"I don't know," I admit while watching the table next to us also struggle with eating peas with chopsticks.

The peas were served on a spoon with a hooked handle resting on a plate. In the US I would've assumed we were to pick up the spoon, but I try that and notice something has been used to stick it to the plate. I struggle through, alternating between chopsticks and a fork. The peas are fine, but they're no cauliflower.

At first I think we've ordered way too much food, but after a few minutes of the kind of silence that only happens when you are both really hungry and the food is really good, a significant amount of our whole duck has disappeared.

Next a plate of jujubes in some sort of dry ice presentation have to find room on the table, followed by what is maybe a palate cleanser or amuse bouche of very sweet strawberry sorbet. We're still busily working on our duck. I choose to prioritize space in my stomach for cauliflower over the overly sweet sorbet.

Finally, we are sated. I've watched other tables get their leftovers packed up to go and I'm excited that we'll have such good food for our Great Wall picnic the next day. We manage to get a waiters attention and with some hand gestures indicate that we're ready to pay and be packed up. After the waiter swipes our card, another woman comes over and begins to deftly pack our leftovers into a compartmentalized tupperware. Eventually she gets to the jujubes and asks us something in Chinese. We thinks she's asking if we want them packed so we nod.

Instead she slices the flesh of one of the jujubes away from the seed and hands it to me. I eat it. Then she does the same for Dan. Then she asks us another question we don't understand that we think is maybe her asking if we like them. So we nod again, thinking now she'll pack them up. But she doesn't. She smiles and walks away leaving the empty bag and the jujubes on the table. We eat a couple more because it seems like the thing to do, but when she doesn't come back, we pack them ourselves and put them with the tupperware in the supplied small, sturdy shopping bag and head home.

We get back to our room and Dan gets a message from a friend's sister "you should go to DaDong roast duck, but be careful, sometimes they give bad ducks to tourists".

If that was the bad duck, I think I might actually die from too much deliciousness if I had the good.

 

(I came pretty close to that anyways, so I'm pretty sure it wasn't a bad duck)

Beijing Break: Craft Beer at Slow Boat

Vanilla Imperial Stout

There are two reasons we ended up at Slow Boat:

1. It has gotten a lot of awards, some of which are for the best burger in Beijing

2. I had a migraine but needed to eat something and it was about a five minute walk from where we were staying.

On a Saturday night, the Slowboat Taproom is small, well lit and raucous. An Australian is ordering from the Portuguese bartender in an accent so thick, even I can't understand half the words. She's seems a bit frazzled. They're out of change. This guy wants a tasting paddle but instead of choosing specific beers just says "give me all the pale ales or whatever is like a pale ale".

We sit down at the bar, the only available seats. Maybe not the best decision for my migraine, but here we are. After our huge dumpling lunch we decide to split the infamous "Fry Burger" and get a side of the beer battered seasoned fries. Dan started with the Malty Dog Red Ale and I went for the Endeavor Vienna Lager. The lager is refreshing and crisp and turns out to be my second favorite beer there, it is very drinkable. The Red Ale turns out to be Dan's favorite.

The burger turns out to be pretty disappointing. In theory an all beef patty, American cheese, seasoned fries and their IPA mustard aioli should be a delicious combination but in practice... the patty was just not that good and on top of that, was beyond well done. We weren't asked how we wanted our burger cooked, so I'm willing to give some leeway, especially with a thin patty, but it was incredibly dry. The beer battered seasoned fries on the other hand, were delicious. I wished we had just ordered a full bucket o'fries instead of the half bucket and burger. We debated getting another drink, but after struggling to get the bartenders attention for a bit, I decided my migraine was too bad for my to handle anymore time out and we decided to come back the next night.

Sunday night, the atmosphere was much more relaxed (though they still seemed to be having a small bill shortage). We ordered at the bar and then snagged a seat at the table. I decided to try the Helmsman's Honey Ale which I'd heard the bartender from the night before recommend quite often. I was a little worried it would be too sweet for me but it turned out to not have much honey flavor at all. I didn't hate it but it didn't do much for me either. I decided to switch it up and go for the Sea Anchor Imperial Vanilla Stout. The stout is served as a 330ml pour in a snifter which seemed unnecessary since it had a pretty light body and low abv for an imperial stout. I LOVE Imperial Stouts, but often find that chocolate/coffee/vanilla stouts can get a little too sweet or cloying. This stout was only slightly sweet but still had a strong vanilla finish. Instead of trying another beer, I had two rounds of it. Dan tried the Monkey Fist IPA and The Captain's Pale Ale before returning back to the red ale. His verdict was that they weren't bad, but nothing memorable.

If you live in Seoul and are just looking for a burger fix, wait until you get back and go to Libertine or Left Coast. But if you're exploring the hutongs and need a craft beer break, definitely stop by.

Slowboat Taproom is located at Dongcheng Qu, Dongsi ba tiao 56 hao 东城区东四八条56号 you can read more about their beer and menu on their website, twitter and facebook.

Beijing's Dumplings: The Good, The Bad and The Cheap

Where to go and what to avoid

I love dumplings of pretty much any variety but Korean mandu are, well, a little underwhelming. Since we have a few China trips planned this year, I figured Dim Sum could probably wait for our Hong Kong or Taiwan trip and obviously xiao long bao for Shanghai, but I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to get in some dumpling meals. All in all we had three different dumpling meals ranging from delicious to... disaster.

The Good: Duyichu (38 Quinman Street)

We hit the tail end of the lunchtime rush and didn't have to wait for a table upstairs at Duyichu but the Lonely Planet description of service at Duyichu as "no-frills" is certainly accurate and we did have to wait a while before placing our order. I actually have no idea if there is an English language menu because it seemed like the server in our area really didn't want to deal with us so I used google translate on what seemed to be the shaomai section of the menu (if you're not going to have data while traveling, you're probably just going to go with the tried and true "point and pray" method unless you bring a local). Some of it, of course, translated totally crazy but we were able to figure out what we wanted so when we finally did get a server's attention, we just pointed at the three different things on the menu.

The shaomai (shumai) I've had at most dim sum places in New York and California aren't usually my favorite. First off, I'm not a shrimp eater and you never really know if they're going to be all pork or have a secret shrimp waiting. Second, I don't know, they just often don't have that great a texture and are kind of boring. These shaomai were nothing like that. The wrappers were delicate and beautiful and the fillings extremely flavorful. The veggie filling which google translate had definitely partially described as "bird home" turned out to be garlicky greens, egg and tofu. Dan insisted on the classic pork and shrimp combination and was quite happy with it. The plain pork dumpling was the winner in my book, it was a gingery, garlicky filling with a bit of liquid in the bottom. Basically like if shaomai and xia long bao had a delicious, delicious baby. Each order of dumplings was eight pieces, and we didn't quiiite finish them all (I think three got left behind) despite the fact that we started out starving. We spent around $30.00 here, including our bottled water, which seemed totally worth it for the quantity and quality of food.

The Bad: Donghuamen Night Market (Dong An Men Da Jie)

The Bad: Dumplings from Dong An Men Da Jie (Donghuamen Night Market) Beijing

Look, I knew Donghuamen was going to be touristy and I figured it would be a little too expensive but who doesn't want to see other tourists eating scorpions on sticks? It was way too expensive, there wasn't that much variety and the things we had were pretty bad. The dumplings pictured above were some sort of beef coriander filling that was ok but the bun was dry and the bottom was hard and tough from sitting. We also got a bowl of garlicky noodles and told the vendor we didn't want her fried dumplings but she threw them on anyway "to try" but she definitely charged us for them. If we had been less hungry maybe we would've been able to deal with the pushy vendors better but it definitely seemed more irritating than fun. If you want the scorpion on a stick experience with less people yelling at you about their not very good food, I'd recommend Wangfujing Snack Street instead.

The Cheap: Zuo Lin You She (50 Meishuguan Back St)

These crazy long dumplings were our first meal in Beijing. I knew we were going to hit the ground running and conquer The Forbidden City on our first day but also that our morning flight and then drive to our lodgings meant we were going to be starving so I wanted something fast, cheap and filling. These bad boys don't look like much (and were a bit on the greasy side) but they left me satisfied. Zu Lin You She doesn't have any English signage on the outside, but the menu has all eighteen of the meat fillings and eight of the veggie fillings translated! I don't think any of the workers speak English, so we just drew a line with a chopstick from the English translation to the Chinese and the server entered it into her ordering pad. We went with spicy beef and coriander, pork and summer squash, pork, green pepper and coriander and, pork and cabbage. We also were planning on ordering tofu and mustard greens but the server cut us off with a hand gesture that implied we had already ordered more than enough for two people and she wasn't wrong.

Dan's favorite turned out to be the spicy beef and coriander he had chosen while mine was the pork, green pepper and coriander. The pork and cabbage was a pretty solid version of a standard gingery, garlic potsticker/fried dumpling filling but the pork and summer squash was a bit on the bland side (I wouldn't order it again). There's chili oil and vinegary soy sauce to mix in your dishes exactly the right size for the dumplings and I recommend slyly watching the other patron's dipping and eating methods since they can be a little hard to handle. This mountain of dumplings cost $6.00. TRUE STORY.

Beijing Break: Beijing's Big 3

Let's talk temples, palaces and temple-palaces (or actually, let's mostly look at pictures of those things). Of course, there are more than three major sights to explore in Beijing but with only four days and not liking to feel rushed while we're traveling, The Forbidden City, The Temple of Heaven and The Summer Palace are where we spent our time in between meals.

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City Beijing China

Our first day in Beijing was by the far the worst in terms of weather and air quality so I'm not sure any of my pictures of The Forbidden City really do it justice. The Forbidden City is HUGE and sure, the sheer size is impressive but my focus was on the details. The animals on the roofs, the door knobs, the carvings, the CEILINGS... Even though it seemed like many of the exhibits were closed while we were there, we still had plenty to see just exploring the palace grounds.

I was especially enamored of the giant metal basins all over the palace that were used to hold water in case of a fire. Everyone else also must have been because even though almost all of them were fenced off, I kept seeing Chinese tourists climb over to touch them and peer inside! Maybe, like me, they were wondering how many fireman it could possibly take to lift a basin that large filled with water.

After a few hours exploring (and an ice cream break) we went out the North exit and crossed the street to Jingshan Park and climbed the hill built from the ground that was excavated to make the Forbidden City's moat. It was truly awesome to see the size of The Forbidden City from above, though I'm sure the view would have been even better on a clear day.

Temple of Heaven Park

Temple of Heaven Park Beijing China

Our third day in Beijing we lucked out with a clear sunny day and spent the morning exploring the Temple of Heaven Park. Dan was less than impressed with the two temple mounds, in part because all the signage seemed to worded in a way that focused more on the glory and ingenuity of China and how it should make you feel, rather than on an explanation of what anything was. We have no idea if the echo wall works since it was mostly being used by screaming children who didn't really need the wall to assist them with being heard. Also, there is no shade at all immediately around the mounds, and we forgot sunscreen or hats. Womp womp. That being said, I once again found the detailing impressive and the surrounding park and rose garden were lovely though it is a bit odd when the occasional street lamp turns out to be a speaker and starts blaring at you in Chinese. But maybe the lamps tell you all the interesting details the signs leave out. Or maybe we should start actually renting the audio guides.

Post Temple of Heaven, we took a pretty long stroll up to Qianmen Street for some lunch and with the intention of checking out Tiananmen Square but the square was completely closed off, I think in preparation for the October 1st National Day holiday. Instead we enjoyed the irony of drinking at a Starbuck's across from the gate, explored the touristy stall on shops on the side streets and then found a grocery store to stock up on snacks and spices. I also discovered that the soft serve at McDonald's in Beijing is Jasmine Green Tea and some of the best soft serve I've ever had. Who knew?!

The Summer Palace

The Summer Palace Beijing China

Our last day in Beijing we got off to a pretty slow start. After three days of heavy walking and me developing a migraine that was so bad it woke me up multiple times in the night, we were not at our best. We took the morning pretty slow and didn't end up at the Summer Palace until around 2:30. This wasn't a problem for our low key state of mind since were mostly planning on just walking around the lake and the park but if you really want to see everything, it seemed like a full day adventure.

Even without going through every building on the park grounds, there's plenty to see (don't forget to look up!) and gorgeous views. My favorite thing was the giant marble (and wood painted to look like marble) boat. In 1881 the Summer Palace went through a major restoration with funds that were supposed to be used for the Chinese Navy but instead were used for a giant ostentatious marble boat which I guess is kind of like the same thing.

Climbing up Prosperity Hill we stopped to take a few breaks in covered pavilions that once again had amazing details on the ceilings. At the top of the hill is the Temple of the Sea of Wisdom which is covered in tiny Buddhas and well worth the climb. And if neither the detailed ceilings or Buddhas impress you, than the view certainly will.

Had we arrived earlier, I probably would've tried to convince Dan to take a boat ride or rent a paddle boat but instead we contented ourselves with walking about a third of the way around the lake before realizing we had already been in the park for three hours and there was no way we were going to make it all the way around before it was dark and/or we were ready for dinner and started our walk back towards the nearest exit.

Our second day, which was our favorite day, was our Great Wall day. It gets a post all to itself.