This is the time when I would normally run down all the things we ate while in Beijing. Faithful readers know Tony & I love nothing more than posting gratuitous food photos to get you salivating. Heck, these posts often get ME drooling and feeling more than a little bit nostalgic for some of the meals we’ve had while traveling.
So it pains me to no end to report that the eating scene in Beijing was a huge disappointment. We had heard rumors that it was one of China’s culinary capitals, but quite honestly, we found it to be anything but. Especially when compared to the ridiculously good meals we had been treated to in Hong Kong.
We’ve already talked about the horrors of the snack streets, but our food misfortunes didn’t stop there. Disenchanted by the “street food” scene in this smelly city, we stuck to eating at restaurants (truth be told, we really didn’t see many food stalls and the like during our wanderings around the city), thinking this might improve our hit rate.
Generally speaking the food we ordered at these places was lackluster or flat out confusing. Take for instance the night of our Great Wall expedition when I ordered a plate of “tea-infused ribs” only to receive this:
Then again, I’ll take these surprise dishes that are edible but inoffensive any day over some of the more sinister options that we found lurking in the bakeries:
The one instance in which we just happened to stumble into a restaurant where the food was actually quite good wound up, unfortunately, being memorable for all the wrong reasons. We had read about indifferent but efficient service in China before, but were shocked by how rude and unwelcoming we found our waitress here to be. She stared at us disbelievingly when we entered the restaurant, and very reluctantly fetched us menus (which thankfully had pictures). When we would point to pictures of food on the menu, she would just stare at us as if she could not fathom what such a gesture might indicate (not even when I whipped out one of the few Chinese phrases I do know, “I want this'”). Somehow we managed to communicate that we wanted to order three dishes, and then she asked us something in Chinese that we obviously could not understand. She then heaved a sigh and made a big deal about getting the guy working behind the bar to translate for us, and then laughed at us and treated us like we were stupid for not knowing the Chinese word for “rice”. It is not as though this restaurant was super busy and she just had no time to bother with the poor foreigners – we were the only people there! If we had not been wandering around the Hutongs for an hour starving and looking for a place to eat, we would have left as it was clear that not only did the people running this place not care about our business, they likely would have preferred if we had just left them alone. I suppose we just need to grow a thick skin and learn not to take these situations personally, and in the end, our meal only cost us 68 RMB (~ $11USD), but I’d rather give my business to places where I am treated with respect and made to feel good about parting with my money.
Needless to say, we were not having great dining successes in Beijing, so the bar was set about as low as our spirits were. After our particularly abysmal day at the Forbidden City, I decided that the only thing that could possibly salvage the day was a good meal. So we decided that no matter the cost, we would splurge and have some authentic Peking duck. So we went to what was arguably the best Peking Duck restaurant in the city: Da Dong Roast Duck.
This was not a mistake.
Despite having to search for the restaurant for 20 minutes (finding it tucked away in an unassuming courtyard), and the confusing (albeit amusing) sign that hangs out front, this meal was far and away the best thing we ate in Beijing (Spoiler Alert: it was also one of the best meals we had in the entire country).
Da Dong Roast Duck is the height of elegance, and even though the hostess was a bit snippy with us for not having a reservation (unnecessary at 5 pm on a Thursday), the service was excellent.
The food was even better! We treated ourselves to a bowl of vinegar peanuts that was perfectly lip-puckeringly tart, braised eggplant that was unimaginably silky and rich, and of course, the star of the show: roast duck.
The duck was carved table side, the skin meticulously separated from the meat, and a dazzling array of condiments and accoutrements were spread before us. What followed was one of the most delightful and surprising food safaris I’ve ever had the good fortune to take part in.
While we supped on Peking Duck prepared in the familiar way (thin pancakes, brushed with hoisin sauce, and then topped with slivers of duck and cucumber), we also got to try some new flavor combinations that were insanely good.
Though I never would have though of it, dipping duck skin in sugar before eating it is apparently a “Beijing thing”. Dubious, we gave it a try and were bowled away by how well the sugar complemented these crispy nuggets, the two practically dissolving on our palates. Another completely novel combination we were introduced to involved crispy sesame buns, garlic paste, duck and cantaloupe! This was totally unexpected, and proved to blow my mind and my palate; I loved how well these ingredients heightened one another, and this was absolutely my favorite variation of the night.
As an added bonus, our meal ended with some fresh fruit (dramatically presented on a tray with dry ice) and a stick of Wrigley gum!
This decadent indulgence set us back the equivalent of $70USD, by far one of the most expensive meals we have had on this trip. Yet we have never regretted the expense for one minute – I am sure we could have had a perfectly decent Peking duck feast whilst in Beijing for half the price, but I certainly can’t think of a better way to have spent that money in that moment. Though I credit my father with having taught me to be so careful with my money, it was his words I thought of when we went to pay our bill: early on in our trip, he sent me an email reminding me that we were taking this trip to have the very best time we possibly could, not to simply see how cheaply we could travel for one year. Every time I think about scrimping or cutting out too many “luxuries”, I think of how right he was, and that doing so will only insure that when we return, we will do so with left over funds, but fewer memories as well. This time we got it right: Peking Duck was not only one of our best meals in Beijing, but it also insured we left with one extremely happy memory of the place as well.