Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sizzling Hot Szechuan

We sweat a whole lot while we ate lunch at this lovely Szechuan resto in Nanluoguxiang, one of Beijing's trendy hutongs. And we drank a fair amount of beer. And it wasn't because we were feeling the heat from outside, but rather from a few of the dishes we'd picked from the wide array of entrees on the menu.

OK, the fragrant wonton soup was perfectly mild ...

... as were the traditionally spiced (not chile spice but more like a five-spice .... I detected a hint of anise in there among others) Szechuan ribs that came suspended on calligraphy brush handles.

These were the super hotties: a pork and celery combo (top left) cooked in chile oil, whose heat was only slightly eased by its vinegary component; mabo tofu—cubes of tofu stir-fried with a dice of hot chiles, more chile flakes and a fine grind of pork meat (top right); and dry-fried green beans tossed up with large cuts of blow-your-ears-out chiles.

All were really wonderfully delightful—well-seasoned and spiced, and just on the right (or would that be left?) side of so-hot-you-can't-taste-a-damn-thing-anymore. Thank god for white rice ... and ice cold beer.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Dali Courtyard — My Fave Meal in China

Thanks to LC (my Beijing-dwelling WSJ pal) for picking Dali Courtyard—which we got to by taxi and then by foot down a dark alley (or hutong) where we found the entrance marked by a single red lantern—to end the long work week in China. It was the highlight of our food forays, hands down.

Writes Travel + Leisure, "Dali’s owners, a group of young Chinese art-world types, have stuffed an old courtyard home with contemporary Chinese art and put tables in the quirky little rooms and the lovely central garden. There’s no menu here; guests choose a price level and servers bring out plates of modern pan-Asian dishes, like mushrooms roasted in banana leaves and sweet-and-sour dried beef infused with lemon juice. The chefs age the beef by hanging strips of it on trees in the courtyard."

LC explains that this cuisine comes out of the southeast province of Yunnan close to Thailand, so mint and basil are in a fair number of the often-spicy dishes. To the left there are salty squares of fried cheese (cheese in China? who knew?!), super-fine tofu noodle strips above, and a tangle of mushrooms and mint sitting just below it.

I slurped down this lovely little pot of spicy veggy noodles tout suite.

At the very top there is a basil chicken number, with shrimp and mint taking center stage. Light, fresh and lively, the dishes matched the ambience of Dali Courtyard to a T.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Wahaha's Desserts

Of course, every good dinner must end with a (couple of) good desserts, albeit these two came out interspersed between a few final savory dishes.

Nevertheless, thumbs up for both of 'em.

Hot, flakey, eggy pastries, dipped partially in sesame seeds and filled with sweet papaya—I'm not a fan of the fruit, but I gotta say, served up this way, I liked it. A lot.

Mochi-like balls filled with airy whipped cream. Sounds weird, but MN ranked it as her number one of the 15 to 20-some-odd dishes that came out of the kitchen ...

Hmmm, maybe it was because they were not only tasty but fun(ny) to look at ... TL thought so too.

Beijing's Wahaha Delights

MN and I partook in an over-the-top opulent dinner with the China edit team in one of Wahaha restaurant's uber-plush private dining suites—think massive tapestries, velvet chairs and walls, and ceilings dripping with chandeliers—while in Beijing. Following are some of the parade of Hangzhou-style dishes that came out with calculated precision over the course of two or more hours.

Crispified duck ... with head included, just in case you felt like gnawing on it, which some are wont to do ...

Lightly breaded and fried cubes of the most buttery foie gras tossed with mushrooms, sesame-encrusted cashews and an assortment of fresh veg ... OK, so this is not your traditional Chinese cuisine, but it was a very welcome and refreshing injection of Western flavors and textures.

A mighty purty and tasty architectural foray into turnips with a kind of plum sauce.

Baby cucumbers these were ... their piquancy was a welcome contrast to the savory dishes flanking it.

Duck liver ... MN had no love for it. I gave it a go, but can't say I was a fan either ... it didn't have much of a flavor, and had an odd crunch to it.

One of my fave dishes: delicate noodles made of tofu sitting in a pool of the most fragrant chicken and shrimp broth and accompanied by crisp-fresh baby bok choy. I could eat this dish every week. Heck, maybe every day even.

A Hangzhou specialty: super moist and tender tiger-striped fish, smothered with tons of julienned ginger. It was a tad too fishy for my taste, but I could appreciate the love that had gone into its preparation.

Another top contender: the fab fork-tender pork belly ... heart and belly-warming.... perfectly seasoned in a soy sauce marinade, the fat pretty much melted on your tongue.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Welcome Lunch in Beijing

Our China colleagues took us to a neighboring restaurant to welcome us on our first day in Beijing. For the most part, I liked all of the dozen or so dishes that came streaming out of the kitchen and onto our lazy Susan.

All except for this preparation: an oh-so-slippery (forget using the chopsticks; only a spoon would do) pumpkin jello drizzled with strawberry jelly. Hmmmm ....

The wood-ear mushrooms, slightly vinegary in flavor, however, were light and lovely.

One of the editors had the same idea as I did: Snap a bunch of pics of the food, rather than the folks sitting around the table.

This pork, camouflaged in minced scallions, was delightful—juicy, tender and highly spiced.

Absolutely loved the pan-fried pork dumplings plus the hot-out-of-the-oven papaya pastries.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Shanghai Good Eats

Ex-coworker and fellow foodie SM told me that Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant was a must-try for its xiao long bao (steamed pork dumplings), so off we went to the old part of Shanghai after a long day of work. But alas, we arrived too late—the place had shut down at 8 pm, and we'd arrived close to 9 ... who knew?

Oh well, after a few minutes of whinging and moaning, we got over it and went across the square to what seemed to be the only restaurant still left open.

What we found was a huge variety dishes, some like sauce-cooked buck's tongue and spicy flavor membrand of soft shelled turtle soy that we quickly passed on, while others like the steamed pork buns and the chive dumplings that we ordered tout suite.

We also picked up a few more super tasty mains like the crisp-tender baby bokchoy with mushrooms and the fried noodles and veggies along with a huge plate of tender greens sauteed in chicken broth that our Chinese colleague could not translate for us as she says she's never seen this veg in the States.

No matter. It was a promising start to the week's good eats in China ...

Friday, May 8, 2009

Crazy for Kimbap

Now that's what I call a kickass boxed lunch: Korean sushi (aka kimbap) stuffed with shredded egg, fishcake, spinach, pickled daikon, julienned carrots and a kind of veg that my uncle says they sometimes dry out and turn into gourds (what what?) .... whatever, it's all good.

Makgeolli, Moonshine and More Good Eats

Dinner tonight started off with my aunt's friend, the soprano, spooning up a bowl full of makgeolli (or in our case, more specifically, dongdongju, which is the unfiltered variety) for each of us 5 diners sitting around the table as our obokchengbahn bubbled at a furious pace in front of us.

First off, makgeolli made me think of moonshine when the waitress brought us the seemingly homespun, milky-to-pale yellow liquid in a ceramic pot complete with gourd floating on top. And actually, back in the day, this glutinous rice, barley, flour, yeast and water concoction was brewed at home.

Nowadays the stuff is mass-produced, having regained in popularity among the mainstream. And no wonder. It's easy to drink, slightly sweet as it is, and fairly harmless at about 6% alcohol.

But back to the obokchengbahn—something I'd not heard of or seen ever before. My aunt says it's a North Korean mainstay. Somewhat akin to shabu shabu but in a much shallower pot and, save for the leafy green adornment, with all of the ingredients—massive pork dumplings sitting atop generous shavings of pig, rice cakes, onions, hard-boiled egg halves, along with enoki, trumpet and maitake mushrooms—already pre-cooked.

When the thing starts to cook down, you start in on it, little by little, serving it up into diminutive bowls. As we proceeded, the waitress urged us to keep adding more water from a teakettle, making sure the pot was always full and simmering at the very least.

We'd ordered 2 types: the one you see here and another with raw bulgogi and octupus, chunks of tofu, mushrooms, rice cakes and lotsa sliced chilies and chili paste. They were both ever so tasty and absolutely soul-satisfying, though if I had to pick, the spicy hotpot would be my number one.

Be that as it may, I'm thrilled with this food find as it's one that includes a family footnote: It's a dish that comes out of my granny's hometown, so says my aunt.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

BJ Galbi's Fab Prix Fixe Lunch

I kinda didn't do the best job of photo-snapping while at Byuk-Jae Galbi, but I hope folks will cut me some slack as I was more than a little distracted by the dazzling array of Korean edibles crowding our table at this tony establishment.

From delicate buckwheat soba noodles nesting in shiso leaves, meant for dipping in a scallion-spiked soy sauce ...

to side dishes of spicy cucumber and daikon radish along with a humble stone pot of perfectly seasoned steamed egg whisked with water and topped with a sprinkling of black sesame seeds—it's a Korean staple and household fave.

The doenjang jjigae (tofu, veggie and seafood soup made with fermented soybean paste) was a fine complement to the proteins. Usually I don't care for it so much, but this hot pot was quite lovely in its subtle marriage of flavors.

And the proteins: a sweet soy-glazed buttery slab of black cod that slipped down the gullet with way too much ease along with small bowls of the tenderest braised beef also flavored in a soy marinade.


It really does taste better in the motherland ...

Panchan Aplenty

God knows how many packages of panchan—small side dishes comprising everything from pan-fried pike fish and deep-fried nori to julienned burdock root and radish pickled in sweetened chili paste—we picked up at my aunt's favorite basement market. But when we got there around 6:30 p.m. or so, the panchan was going fast. My aunt had to quickly jockey for position (those Korean ladies can be fierce!) to make sure she didn't miss out on the last of the good stuff, all of which are made fresh daily.

Once we got what we wanted, we cruised over to a neighboring stall to pick up a hunk of the creamiest, most luscious home-made tofu flavored with black bean (also made fresh daily) plus some tasty kimchi-stuffed soybean pancakes.

Plenty to choose from and exactly how I like it. Thanks, eemo!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Tower Chai's Awesome Noodles

Tower Chai Chinese Restaurant's got bomb jia jiang mein. Located in the ultra-swank Tower Palace in the Vantt Building (read: there are stinkin' rich people living here), the establishment puts out a variety of super fine Chinese delicacies.

But before we'd even got there, my uncle and I had already decided on the hand-pulled noodles dressed in black bean sauce sprinkled generously with everything from bite-sized bits of beef, calamari and shrimp to sauteed onions and zucchini and a julienne of cucumbers.

A lovely lunch to be sure.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Korean BBQ + Naengmyon

In Seoul, restaurants specialize in particular things: The place we went to last night—found in the most nondescript of strip malls along any of a number of Seoul's heavily congested street corridors—is well-known for its BBQ pork and mul naengmyon (cold buckwheat noodle soup made Pyongyang style).

The pork (there must've been 5 pounds of it!) came thoroughly bathed in the most amazing sweet-soy-sesame-garlic marinade—according to my aunt, all of the meat comes from kitchen headquarters; this resto is one of a chain of restos, all of which get their marinated meats from the main kitchen for the utmost in quality control.

It was the tastiest Korean pork BBQ I've ever had. After we'd had our fill of the ambrosial meat, accompanied by an assortment of pickled and fresh vegetables including wedges of stewed pumpkin, slivers of onion dressed in vinegar and leafy lettuce doused in spicy chili paste, we ordered up small bowls of naengmyon, which we zested up with some vinegar and mustard.

I was royally stuffed by the end ...

Seoul Snacks

And it begins ...

My week of Seoul searching began with a simple street snack. This gal's got a medley of deep-fried goodies in the form of veg, squid and noodles-wrapped-in-nori for sale, not to mention super spicy rice dumplings as well. I decided to settle for the deep-fried sweet potato, while my uncle went for the squid, both of which we basted lightly with soy sauce before popping the piping hot pieces into our mouths.

Why the self-restraint? Why not order up s'more? I was tempted, but my aunt had been raving about some baked treats further down the street ... at a place called Rotiboy, so I didn't want to blow my entire wad here and now.

Rotiboy as it turns out reminds me very much of Beard Papa's in its cute factor. I've since found out that it had its start in Malaysia; has expanded to Thailand, Indonesia and now Korea (as of last year); and specializes in these poofy buns that are toasty on the outside and springy soft, with lotsa butter oozing out, on the inside.

That said, I wouldn't be surprised if Rotiboy makes it to New York one of these days. Mom would certainly love the crispety, fluffy, buttery bun accompanied by a suitably strong Americano.

According to Rotiboy, "One is never enough ... [these are] buns to die for ... " Indeed?