Sunday, 2 September 2012

Checking Out More Old Haunts

Slow-baked salmon with spinach and figs
As soon as I had booked my ticket to Beijing, my next order of
business was to reserve a table for the famous Sunday brunch at Maison
Boulud.

I used to go there periodically especially when guests were in town
and particularly missed the warm madeleines at the end!

This morning it rained and I worried about how the rest of the day
would pan out. But then eventually the rain stopped and the weather
was cool and refreshing. Not only were the temperatures perfect, but
we also breathed in some nice clean air.

For today's brunch I brought a good friend with me as we had a lot to
catch up and enjoyed the meal at the same time.

Quail egg tartine with chicken liver crostini and duck confit
However I was dismayed to find many guests did not bother to wear
decent clothes. At one table, a Caucasian couple was dressed up with
the man wearing a jacket and cufflinks, while next to them were people
in hoodies, T-shirts and shorts. How disorienting is that?

Nevertheless, we were eager to try the brunch menu and I ordered the
quail egg tartine, chicken liver crostini, frisee herb salad and
ragout of duck confit.

There were a number of flavours and textures happening in the one
dish, making it complex but also refreshing.

On top were three fried quail eggs with the yolks slightly runny, on a
bed of greens covering the crostini of chicken liver. The crunchiness
of the greens and crostini contrasted with the smoothness of the
chicken liver and we enjoyed the hearty serving of duck meat that was
not too dry.

Norwegian smoked salmon with a yolk in the middle
My friend was curious about how escargot tasted like and quite enjoyed
them, cooked in herbed butter, garlic, parsley and ham. They were
chewy, and heavily seasoned in the pungent sauce.

She also ordered the Norwegian smoked salmon, laid flat on the plate
and garnished with minced egg, a poached yolk in the middle and herb
salad with pumpernickel toast. She pronounced it delicious and
savoured each bite.

As for my main, it was prettily presented on the plate, a square piece
of slow-baked salmon, then spinach that looked like a dark green
rectangle block, then garnished with roasted black fig balsamic sauce.

On the whole it was an interesting dish that also had many flavours in
the mix. The salmon had a crispy crust but inside was moist and
perfectly cooked, while the spinach was warm and soft. There was a
small cube... couscous perhaps? It was a pity there were only two
slices of figs as this seemed like an intriguing combination with the
salmon.

Yummy madeleines that end the meal at Maison Boulud
In the end we were pretty much full (along with the French bread and
pastries), but definitely made room for the madeleines, light, lemony
mini sponge cakes sprinkled with icing sugar. A sated delight in each
bite. We felt obliged to try the petit fours but they were much too
sweet for us.

We walked off the brunch by going to Panjiayuan, another favourite
haunt of mine.

By observation there were noticeably fewer stalls open -- was this a
sign of the times? Or had people found a better way to sell their
goods?

In any event most of the things were the same. I tried to find curios
I hadn't seen before, but most were quite familiar, or variations on
things I'd seen.

Flipping through old school Chinese comic books
We wandered in the book stall area, a place I never went into before
and here many stalls were not open. There were tons of second-hand
books, mostly auction catalogues and old Chinese books, particularly
political ones. My friend was immediately brought back to her
childhood when she saw small comic books for sale. Some had historical
settings, others featured Donald Duck.

All kinds of collectable items were sold here, including coupons used
to exchange for cotton fabric, rice and meat. They were all in good
condition. There were also cigarette packages, some completely new,
others used and carefully extracted from the box. What would you do
with a whole stack of different packaging?

Then we went into the main covered market area and came to a Miao
ethnic minority woman's stall selling embroidery.

What do you do with cigarette packaging?
I've bought from them many times before and while I'm happy to buy the
embroidery, I'm sad to see that they are selling their cultural
identity for only a few hundred RMB. Many of the older pieces feature
very fine embroidery that is not done anymore. The newer designs are
colourful, but not nearly as intricate. She showed us a book pointing
out the various costumes they wore to show the different pieces of
fabric came from different parts of the outfit.

I wanted to show my friend the antique toy stall, but it was gone. It
had featured 1970s and 1980s toys made of metal and many of them moved
mechanically.

We also wandered to the back alley area where there used to be
temporary stalls next to each other, but only a few were left.

Newly-carved walnuts from the green fruit
On our way out we were surprised to see these round green fruits and
discover inside were walnuts. They were meticulously carved out of the
green flesh... but why would people want to buy them?

After seeing so many things our eyes were tired and we moved onto our
next destination -- Dawanglu.

I met another friend for dinner at Din Tai Fung. I came just before
6pm and was shocked to see the place was practically packed already.
This is arguably one of the most profitable restaurants in town.

Appetiser of seaweed, tofu and bean sprouts at Din Tai Fung
The menu has become a large red book filled with pictures. And the
variations on xiaolongbao are almost endless. There are even
xiaolongbao with black truffles inside.

But we stuck with the traditional ones and they were absolutely
divine. It's the thin skins that I love the most, holding together the
hot soup inside and combined with vinegar is a sublime experience.

We also ordered an appetizer of finely sliced seaweed, bean sprouts
and tofu that was refreshing and slightly spicy. The kaofu, or braised
wheat gluten was already sold out. Same with the river shrimps
stirfried with peas. How early do you have to come here to eat these
dishes? 5pm?

The perfectly delicious xiaolongbao
In the end we also ordered stir-fried pea shoots which were fine, but
I was disappointed with the shrimp and pork wontons, the shrimp seemed
smaller and overcooked, though the broth was the same standard as
before.

For dessert we ordered the mango with shaved ice and condensed milk.

We both gasped at the size, but the bowl was the same as the one I
remembered from before.

Nevertheless, we managed to finish the vast majority of it, the meaty
cubes of mango combined with cooling milk and ice.

Ending the meal with cubes of mango chilled in ice
By the time we finished our meal an hour and a half later, the table
next to us was about to have its third seating.

Amazing.

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