Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Reliving Qianmen Street

South of Tiananmen Square finds the old Qianmen Gate or Zhengyangmen, guarded by the grey archery tower called Jianlou. It has been converted into a museum now. I entered the gate to escape the freezing December wind, which had already numbed my hands and ears at the square earlier. The warmth inside the gate was such a relief. I'd planned to stay there for as long as I could and so, took time to observe the exhibits displayed at every corner in the museum. On the highest level, a centerpiece depicted the livelihood of the street across the jianlou known as Qianmen Street. For centuries, this street has been a popular choice for the well-heeled to have their photos taken or shop for high quality goods like silk shirts and shoes. Here stood a few legendary restaurants (or lao ji hao) as well, which are still very much in business today. Two of them are Quanjude, a Beijing roast duck restaurant, and Duyichu, specializing in shaomais or steamed dumplings.

Visiting Quanjude is an obligation, applicable to both local and foreign visitors. It is, afterall, one of the oldest and most famous roast duck restaurants in Beijing. I've even seen their vacuum-packed roast duck sold in supermarkets! Quanjude uses the gua lu method of roasting, where the marinated, air-dried ducks are hung and roasted in the oven. Personally, the best part about Quanjude is that they cater for single diners, by offering individual set meals. Although the portions of Beijing duck served are usually small, with the bare meat usually disposed off, I still can't imagine having the skin of a whole duck to myself. The set meal was perfectly sized, complete with warm duck soup served in a styrofoam cup. Unlike the Beijing duck that I'd tried back home, the skin was, though skillfully carved, less moist. Another difference was the thicker flour wrap and paler, in the absence of egg. The condiments included a bundle of scallion and sweet, dense dark sauce.

Duyichu has been making shaomais for almost five centuries now. This steamed dumpling is not my favourite dim sum and honestly, I was here just to have a taste of history. I’d ordered the minced lamb shaomai, as recommended by The Lonely Planet guide. The dumplings, fitted nicely in the bamboo steamer, looked very different from the shaomais that I’d eaten all my life. The usual thin, yellow skin wrap was replaced with a much thicker plain white flour skin, edges skillfully nipped to resemble a blooming flower. It was aesthetically pleasing. The filling was a coarse chop of meat and there was no topping of tobiko or dyed sago. If I were to draw a comparison between the shaomai of the imperial days (well, Duyichu’s version, at least) and now, I’d say that this dim sum has been refined through the years. Personally, I prefer the dumplings of today.

Qianmen Street has reopened a few years ago, after being given a facelift by the authority. Today, it is a major tourist attraction in Beijing. The lao ji haos now share the street with modern cafes and boutiques. Commercialization has returned to the street. I had a good time strolling the busy street, imagining how indifferent this old Peking street would be, back in the 15th century.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Knockin’ On Heaven Peace Gate

I was still reading Frank Dikötter’s Mao's Great Famine before leaving for Beijing. For obvious reasons, the book did not follow me on this trip. To say I enjoyed reading it would be wrong, but the impact it had on me was immense. The political side of the book didn’t interest me much. The struggle for survival of millions of Chinese during the Great Leap Forward did. Recently published provincial reports of failed collectivism and industrialization projects, and obfuscating officials leading to starvation, mud and faeces consumption, diseases and ultimately, death, were heart-wrenching to say the least. I wonder if a sacrifice like this is inevitable in creating one of the most important and fundamentally noble revolutions in modern history.

My first stop in Beijing was Tiananmen (or Heaven Peace Gate) Square, the heart of the Chinese Communist Party. It’s in the surrounding buildings that decisions were made and executed during the famine, and where Chairman Mao was laid to rest. On one hand, I was impressed by the vastness of one of the largest squares in the world, the centralized gigantic screens proudly showing, on rotation, the vitality and vigour of modern China, and faithful comrades bowing before the body of Mao Zedong in the mausoleum. Yet, chapters of Dikötter’s book kept haunting my mind.

Why should I take it so seriously? It’s just a holiday. I’d be gone five days later. And I am, afterall, a Chinese descendant, but a Malaysian first, Singapore resident second. I should be more concerned about the troubles back home.

In this trip across the cultural center of the middle kingdom, by learning its history, I’d better understood the Chinese. Some of us have been, for the longest time, making insensitive remarks and ignorant about some of their practices. Ask yourself - would you have done the same if you were one of them? If you’d taken time to know and understand them, then you most probably would.

Friday, March 9, 2012

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Hong Kong

The idea of visiting this 3 Michelin stars restaurant came just as I'd signed up for the Hong Kong Marathon. I decided to go for their more affordable lunch menu, which is not available in Singapore, on the last day of my trip. It was the first 15th day of the new Chinese lunar calendar and as I walked from Sheung Wan to L’Atelier at The Landmark, lion and dragon dances were seen on both sides of the road. The roaring drumbeats and clanging of cymbals enlivened the otherwise mundane surrounding.

- Lunch At Your Own Composition -

Amuse bouche
Appetizer - Crispy pork cromesqui, acidified condiments with arugula
Soup - Daikon veloute with black truffle and beetroot
Fish - Fine lobster veloute, Tarragone royale and Paris mushroom
Meat - Veal cheek terrine with black truffle, "boutons" mushroom and creamy sauce
Dessert - Chestnut mousse with raspberry meringue and chestnut ice cream
Tea and confectioneries

It's well-known that The Landmark is fashion-centric. Most visitors and employees dress beautifully, some strangely, here. There were also living replicas of the boutiques' display. I was, obviously, not one of them. In my worn cargo pants, sweater and patched backpack, I took the escalator to the top of the building that led directly to L’Atelier. At the reception, and without a second glance, I was ushered into the studio. They even sat my backpack next to me. It was a nice gesture, I thought.

I'd known that the bread basket would be a highlight at Robuchon, but was not informed of the size. It's important not to empty the basket before the dishes start rolling in. And that's not easy, for the wafting aroma of a variety of freshly baked bread had me wanting to try each and every one of them. My favourite was the thumb-sized cheese bun, which was light and fluffy enough to be called a puff instead. In fact, it was the reason I headed for Le Salon downstairs - to pack some home. Alas, they were not for sale there.

I had the most expensive prix fixe set that day but if my selection (or composition) of dishes was to be graded, I would have received a pass, at best. What was I thinking choosing 2 veloutes? I wasn't craving for cream that day, that's for sure. On the bright side, both veloutes were rather distinctive. The daikon veloute came subtle in taste, perfumed with a good dosage of truffles. Also, it turned out to be a rather good dip for the mini baguettes. The other veloute, the lobster, was a briny-addictive, coral pink ensemble, centered with an alternating arrangement of sliced lobster tail and minced lobster balls. And then, there was more cream from the veal cheek terrine. Luckily, it was not another bowlful of it, but rather, a light dressing for the terrine of tender cheeks. If I were to choose the most memorable dishes of the lunch, it would be the amuse bouche and appetizer. Served in a petite cup, the amuse bouche might not be visually appealing but the taste of the smoke-infused (most probably from the bacon crisp) thick white cream was a wonderful surprise. And a good complement to the milder, earthy taste of asparagus. The appetizer was a cromesqui, filled with finely chopped pork. I believe it's cooked in its own savoury juice because not much seasoning was detected. It being crispy and savoury, was best served with something sweet and sour, like their acidified vegetables. Dessert was a dense chestnut mousse paired with some contrasting tangy raspberries and wafer-thin meringue.

Throughout lunch, I was amused by the conversation between two Caucasian ladies who sat next to me. It has nothing to do with the topics but their fluency in both Cantonese and English was admirable and interestingly engaging. Their choice of dishes was also more diversified, and from their exchanges on the dishes, one can tell that they are regulars here at L’Atelier. They'd left when I was halfway through my dessert. The dark row was now left with a Chinese couple with a thick American accent and myself. As quietness set in, I began thinking about L’Atelier, and the Michelin stars. If three stars represent an exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey, was L’Atelier worth a special journey for me?

This lunch experience was indeed exceptional. Everything was top-notch; from the service to the execution of the dishes to the ingredients used. Even the price was attractive. And to lunch at this particular Robuchon after completing a run around Hong Kong made it even more special.

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
S315&401, The Landmark,
15 Queen's Road Central
Hong Kong