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A Culinary Tour of China

Made in China is in the Grand Hyatt, so you certainly don't feel as if you're discovering someplace obscure; you could be in L.A. or New York. Nonetheless, the wisdom in Beijing is that it's the city's top restaurant, and everything we had there was delicious. We ate shrimp boiled in green tea, and poached chicken with spicy peanuts. The duck skin had separated entirely from the duck; it was crisp and firm and unfatty, but not brittle. The pancakes were papery thin, and the sauce was made from sweet beans mixed with honey and sesame oil, then reduced to a satisfying thickness.

Xiangmanlou has no frills, though it is clean and pleasant, and the bill for six people would barely have covered sandwiches in New York. Beijing families crowded every table. The duck skin here is divided—the best is put on a special plate, and the so-called "hard skin" is served separately. The duck is fattier than at Made in China, but in a sinful way, like foie gras. A soup of duck bones follows. We had fish too, brought to us flopping around in a basket before its execution.

The best Beijing street food is the jianbing, and the best place to get it is the stalls outside the Baoguo Temple complex, now a flea market. The seller first spreads batter on a wide iron griddle to make a crêpe with scallions in it; then breaks an egg over the top and spreads it around so it cooks into the batter; then flips it over and slathers on bean sauce and chile sauce; and finally wraps the whole thing around a piece of sweet fried bread. It's steamy and fresh and eggy and starchy and delectable.

To vary our massage addiction, we tried out a late-night ear massage. The Beijing place was like a comfortable hospital—extremely clean, and the massage girls wore nurses' hats. Before a statue of the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kuan Yin, a variety of offerings had been made, including a high-calorie health drink—in case mercy was getting a little thin on the ground.

We celebrated and mourned our last night in Beijing at the ultra–high-concept Green T. House, with its chairs upholstered in feathers, revolving colored lights, exhibitions of contemporary art, rocking horse in the corner, mirrored tables, and so on. The scene is very sceney, screamingly cooler-than-thou. The menu is an absurdist document, the poetry of which, already strained in Chinese, becomes endearingly ludicrous in English: "A Little Caviar Sashimi with Unimaginable Sauce" or "Mystic Beef Rolls Stuffed with Enoki Mushrooms and Mozzarella" or "Bliss Upon Cuttlefish" or—my favorite—"Erotic Dance by Six Mushrooms Around a Lonely Chestnut." The food is somewhat less impressive than the titles, but the models smoking long cigarettes and the young hipsters with amazing haircuts are unparalleled.

For 21 days, we ate Chinese food at every meal, except for one night, in Beijing, when some beloved American expat friends threw a dinner party for us at their apartment. They had managed to borrow the chef from the French Embassy, and he did a terrific job. But Western food tasted strange after the alluring flavors of China. Having to cut things up seemed vulgar and tedious; the buttered fresh vegetables seemed to lack imagination; and the beef, though cooked to perfection, seemed sort of chunky and bland. It was hard to switch back. We had culinary jet lag and all the familiar things felt wrong for a little while; like scuba divers, we had to come up gradually to avoid getting sick as the atmosphere changed. Then we got into the sweep of the evening, and loved every minute.


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