For a long time, Pizzaiolo has been what I consider one my favorite Bay Area restaurants. The price points are right, and the quality of the ingredients and perfection of some dishes assures that any disappointment in other dishes can be forgiven. Even the bad service can be ignored.
However, our most recent visit, which came nearly nine months after our last, made me wonder if things are on a downhill trend at Charlie Hallowell's popular Oakland spot. Service was as bad as usual, but this time, they managed to bring us our pizze at the same as our primi. The waiter seemed completely unphased when we looked suprise at the pizze's arrival. By the time we got to the pizze, our artichoke and mint, already underseasoned, was tough to eat and kind of bland. As for our primi, they seemed to lack the execution of previous ones we've had there. Only the dish of a poached duck egg with chick peas, olives, rapini and harissa was truly excellent (well, that and the desserts, which are always fantastic). Everything else had too many flaws, and combined with the service and the fact that it was a particularly slow night, I'm not pressed to return there.
Having just returned from Beijing, it's going to be the focus of the blog for the next few posts. I'll try not to get into the habit of making generalizations about China as a whole, as the food alone is hard enough to get a grasp of. I'll leave the poorly-researched writing on how China is the future of the world for anecdote-loving journalists a la Thomas Friedman/MalcolmGladwell and their connect-the-dot writings. However, I'll pepper my meal reports with little idiosyncracies about the parts of Beijing I visited that I found interesting. Please do not draw any meta-conclusions from these. They'll be italicized. Remember: italicized equals not about food and probably grossly misinformed.
First of all, Beijing is fucking huge. Estimates of the population place it between 15 and 18 million, mostly because no one knows how many workers from the countryside pour in to the city on a daily basis. I lived in London for eight years, and thought that was big. Beijing feels similar to London, area-wise, if London had high-rise buildings. I've never seen so many high-rise buildings in my life. Some of them are very cool and modern, but most are ugly apartment blocks.
I'll divvy up the posts in chronological order. As a summary: I ate a lot of dumplings, tried many different cuisines, bargained for clothes and electronics (much more pleasant than bargaining in the Middle East or North Africa) and saw the Forbidden City and the Bird's Nest, the old and the new.
(Just to explain the random trip to Beijing, first of all: Lauren's parents have lived there for almost eight years. We've never visited together, and this seemed like a good time, as flights were cheap and we had time.)
After arriving in Beijing on a Friday night and being amazed by the new airport built for the Olympics (most beautiful airport I've been to...or is it Toronto?...definitely not Oakland), we took a cab ride to Lauren's parents' apartment building. Let me tell you something: don't go to China without either knowing a local or an expat with decent language skills. Looking at the groups of tourists being led around Beijing's tourist traps and 'clean' restaurants, I realized how lucky I was to be in the company of expats who knew how to make a reservation and order a variety of dishes (and, you know, tell us where to go). While Beijing may be transforming itself superficially, it was very hard to find almost anyone who spoke basic English, even in the aftermath of the Olympics, and even in tourist centers.
We had our first meal at a nicely appointed restaurant specializing in the cuisine of the Guizhou region. A nice thing about Beijing's capital status is that all of the very diverse cuisines of China are well-represented. Though I won't claim to have begun to really understand Chinese cuisine, it's a great place to get a first taste. Anyway, the meal yielded some good and some less good dishes. We were some of the only people in the huge dining room as it was still the Lunar New Year holiday, when many Beijingers head back to their home towns. Lauren's dad did the ordering, and out came a succession of spicy and very savory dishes, including kun bao ji ding (the ancestor of our awful kung pao chicken), which was a revelation, and which we ate a few more times on the trip. Another favorite was a dish of fried eggplants topped with a mound of seasoned ground pork and peppers. I love that the Chinese use meat to flavor their vegetables. We actually went there to try a famous rib dish, where braised ribs are topped with a potent mixture of peanuts, braised mustard greens, mushrooms and spices. Apparently, they hadn't anticipated anyone coming in that night, and so hadn't started the ribs early enough. We got a quickened version of those ribs, which were still quite good. The only problem was that I'd eaten too much rice by that point, as I was famished from the 12 hours spent on Air China and its incomprehensibly horrendous food. I only managed a few bites of the ribs. There were some weaker dishes, including mashed potatoes (......) and a dish of shrimp and steamed vegetables that supports my theory that it's best to stay away from seafood in Chinese cuisine...just a theory. A good introduction to Chinese dining, though.
Everyday, breakfast usually consisted of home baked bread and coffee. Lauren's sister and mother are starting a 'hidden kitchen' in Beijing (more on this later), and thus we were guinea pigs for various bread doughs. And when I say breakfast, I mean FIRST breakfast. I tended to find extra street food I wanted to try before lunch.
And so, during a visit to a local produce market that morning, I found a litte puffy pancake that's stuffed with a fried egg and some scallions, hot sauce and hoisin sauce, for about 10 cents. This would be a precursor to the jian bing, or simply "bing" (Chinese for 'pancake'), a snack whose virtues Lauren had preached since I'd first met her and that I was dying to try. The puffy pancake was tasty, and two of them would have made a cheap and hearty breakfast.
The market was a simple neighborhood produce market, and didn't seem to have any kind of exotic produce, except for a few pickles I didn't recognize. The market was packed with locals, and everyone seemed to have their favorite vendors. Of course, it's hard not to think of how much we prize bi-weekly farmers' markets when most of the world shop at such places daily, and just calls them 'markets.' This one, however, couldn't have prepared me for the much larger covered market we went to later that week.
After a trip at Ya Show, a clothing market (I'll talk about these more later), I felt peckish again, and found myself ingesting my first bing, a substandard example from a grocery store. The bings are simple thin pancakes, which are topped with a couple of eggs, flipped over, then smeared with a variety of sauces (chili, hoisin, etc.) scallions, cilantro, and then wrapped around a fried cruller. I have to say I wasn't impressed by this one, but vowed not to write bings off until I'd sample at least five, a goal which I more than easily achieved. (Of course, they're quite delicious, and super cheap). Here's a video of a jian bing being made:
We then found our way to Houhai lake to meet some expats for an afternoon of ice-themed fun. Houhai is man-made, and more of a pond than anything. It freezes over in the winter, providing various sources of fun, such as ice-skating, old-man-ice-water-diving, and what we came for, ice sleds. These are constructed from what look like kindergarten classroom chairs, affixed to two rails. You push yourself along with what is essentially is a giant rusty nail.
I had a great time frolicking on this pond, and wondered why we didn't have more usage of such public places back home. When I asked Lauren's brother, he quickly said "lawsuits". Lawsuits get in the way of fun.
Between sled races and posing for tourists from Hong Kong (weird), I managed to sneak in another common street food item, known to my girlfriend as 'fruit on a stick.' In fact, these are usually hawthorns, covered in different ways with sugar and sesame seeds. I found these to be to sweet to have more than a few bites. They did have the distinct flavor of Chinese desserts, mostly due to the sesame.
Feeling spent after one too many sled races, people started clamoring for chou dofu, also known as stinky tofu. Lauren's bro, Russell, and his friend Sarah, are chou dofu enthusiasts. I'd actually had chou dofu before, in NYC's Chinatown, but again, things tend to taste better where they come from. Stinky tofu is a type of fermented tofu, obviously named after the smell, which is reminiscent of the foulest of kitchen trashcans. It's no wonder, since it's usually fermented for months in a brine of milk, meat and whatever else can be found to help the process. Once it's fried and served in chili sauce, the taste is quite mild, no where near as strong as blue cheese. I'm not going to say it's something I truly enjoy, but it's fried, so it's a tasty snack. Still, I wonder who first decided it would be a good thing to eat.
For dinner, we rushed right in to that Beijing specialty, Peking duck (or roast duck, or Beijing duck...they're all the same, and please don't post about political correctness). After some debate, we decided to go all out, and headed to Da Dong, one of the most famous roast duck restaurants in Beijing, and the one most often mentioned by visiting food lovers as having the best duck.
Da Dong is an upscale restaurant, and not just by Chinese standards. The cooks here are trained in manners as rigorous as any Michelin-starred kitchen, and the chef specializes in delicacies not commonly found in lower-end restaurants. In China, that tends to mean the preparation of the weirdest creatures on the planet: the restaurant's awning proudly advertises the chef's specialty, braised sea cucumber, with the roast duck also mentioned in what seems like an afterthought. I'm generally up for eating anything, but I was here to eat duck, which was my excuse for not trying sea cucumber, or any of the many other odd sources of protein on the menu.
The menu is a far cry from the minimalist printouts of fine dining restaurants in the West. It's a huge coffee table type of book, with beautiful pictures of each dish. We ordered two ducks, and some vegetable dishes on the side. One of the vegetable dishes was a simply sauteed black fungus, that common Chinese mushroom. The dish's flavor was more restrained than most Chinese vegetable dishes I've had, which was probably a bad thing as the fungi don't tend to have much flavor. We also accidentally ordered a dish of braised cabbage and chestnuts which turned out to be quite delicious.
The duck came out with its accompanying professional carver. He promply slipped the crispy skin off the duck, cut the meat into even slices, then reassembled the deboned duck onto a bed of lettuce, with the skin covering the meat. It was nice to see such crafstmanship.
Our accoutrements were served in what looked like TV dinner trays, with little compartments for each one. Vegetables were cut into perfect batons. Clockwise, from top left compartment: sugar, hoisin sauce, spring onion, crushed ginger, pickled mustard greens, cucumber, radish, crushed garlic
We were also given the option to eat our duck in either the common pancakes or little buns. Both were delicious options:
Traditionally, you eat the skin first, dipping it in the sugar. Then, you make pancake wraps with the duck meat, and the accoutrements of your choice.
I'm a huge fan of Peking duck. When I was a kid, and we were living in London, we often went to eat Peking duck at a place called Mr. Kai, well known for its roast duck. I still remember it being one of the food items I looked forward to the most. I hadn't eaten roast duck as good as Mr. Kai's until our visit to Da Dong, which of course blew Mr. Kai out of the water. What distinguishes a place like Da Dong is that the skin is completely crispy without a trace of fat. Only proper care and technique can achieve that result and properly render all of the fat. Eating the skin was better than the best roast pig skin I've had, and the duck meat was also fantastic. Some people say that Da Dong has lost its touch as it becomes more touristy, but for a first time visitor, it was quite excellent.
The meal ended with a rather gross almond pudding, which looked (and tastes) a lot like shampoo. I really can't get in line with Chinese desserts.
Next Beijing post: Szechuan heat, dumplings, and the Great Wall.
I spent a part of Saturday tasting barleywines at Toronado's Annual Barleywine Festival. Toronado is an excellent beer bar with a wide selection of microbrews right near me, and they host this festival as part of SF Beer Week. Although it was a zoo, I got to taste a wide variety of these alcohol-heavy brews, made easier by the reasonable prices. Since I didn't have my camera, I wanted to link to one of my favorite blogs, Beer & Nosh, who has this report from the event.
I'm trying to write up posts on Beijing and other things while starting a new job, but I wanted to point out something grand. As any good gourmand knows, eating out on Valentine's day (and during restaurant week) is pointless. Not only are reservations impossible to get, but the food is usually of poor quality and 'special' menus are developed to make the volume easy on the kitchen, which tends to mean worse food.
However, some chefs do try to take it seriously. This year, Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune, one of my favorite restaurants in New York, has a series of three-course menus based on her favorite Valentine's experiences. They are all unique, sound delicious, and knowing her restaurant, will be delicious too. Gabrielle Hamilton is what we often refer to as a chef's chef. Prune is the kind of restaurand where chefs like to eat. By that, I mean they serve the kind of food that can't fool the knowledgeable cook with an educated palate: no party tricks and chemicals, no dainty presentations, just delicious food, properly seasoned and executed. Check out the menus on Prune's website, linked above. Then kick yourself for the money you're about to spend on filet mignon with mashed potatoes and molten chocolate cake.