Where to stay
Aman at Summer Palace.
Literally steps from the Summer Palace, locations don’t get much better than this. The hotel is housed in a series of pavilions, some of which have genuine history behind them – 100 or so years in certain cases. Combines luxury with a bit of authenticity and a thoroughly Chinese feel. Doubles from £294. 1 Gongmenqian Street, 00 86 10 5987 9999, www.amanresorts.com
Taking up three rows of courtyards, this traditional and historic, if slightly basic, option is a perfect starting point for a tour of Beijing’s hutongs or the Forbidden City. Doubles from £153. 7 Qiangulouyuan Hutong, 00 86 10 6406 0777, www.courtyard7.com
New World Beijing Hotel
A shiny new hotel with fantastic food, including breakfast, all-day dining, and polished Chinese fare from restaurant 8 Qi Nian. A recently opened rooftop bar offers great views across the city and is the perfect spot for a cocktail. A great base a short walk from the Temple of Heaven. Doubles from £80. 8 Qinian Street, 00 86 10 5960 8888, www.beijing.newworldhotels.com
The Opposite House
The green-glass exterior will take you by surprise, but then this is the cool part of town. The sleek rooms are seriously modern and there are art installations in the lobby. Three restaurants include Jing Yaa Tang, with its superb duck dishes; the mixologists at Mesh bar know how to pour a stiff drink; and the creatively lit basement pool is a relaxing haven. Doubles from £183. 11 Sanlitun Road, 00 86 10 6417 6688, www.theoppositehouse.com
With its rooms housed in traditional wood-beamed courtyard buildings, The Orchid combines mod cons with plenty of homely touches. This is one of the best boutique options in Beijing and a name every guide worth their salt will recommend. The brainchild of a Tibetan and a Canadian, it balances the comfy with the cool, while subtly reminding every visitor they’re in the heart of Beijing. Doubles from £68. 65 Baochao Hutong, Guloudong Road, 00 86 10 8404 4818, www.theorchidbeijing.com
Beijing Financial Street Perfect location not only for must-sees such as the Forbidden City, but also the best shopping and entertainment destinations. The leisure facilities here are first-rate, with city views from the fitness studio, a light and quiet swimming pool, and the Heavenly Spa for pampering. Among the numerous eating and drinking options are an authentic Chinese at Jewel and a modern Italian. Doubles from £125. 9B Financial Street, 00 86 10 6606 8866, www.starwoodhotels.com/westin
Beijing is ten hours’ flying time from London; and eight hours ahead of GMT. Currency is the yuan renminbi. Autumn is one of the best times to visit: the climate is cool but comfortable and being off-season the major tourist attractions are much more pleasant to visit, although towards the end of November temperatures do start to drop off considerably.
Air China (www.airchina.co.uk) operates daily non-stop flights from London Heathrow to Beijing.
British Airways (www.ba.com) also operates daily non-stop flights.
Chinese National Tourism Authority (www.travelchina.gov.cn) is the official tourist board for China and its website is a first port of call for more on festivals, tourist routes and travel essentials. Bespoke Beijing (www.bespoketravelcompany.com) is a company based in the capital that offers tailored itineraries and a range of signature tours, including a fantastic street food trail.
The Forbidden City by Geremie R Barmé (Harvard University Press, £8.70). Few places provide as many tales as Beijing’s Forbidden City, and here Barmé looks to the past and present, unravelling the stories and separating fact from fiction.
Conscious about your carbon footprint when flying to Beijing? Then visit ClimateCare (www.climatecare.org), where you can make a donation to support environmental projects all over the world, such as rainforest restoration. Return flights from London produce 2.3 tonnes CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £17.45.
Where to eat
Prices are for three courses excluding wine, unless otherwise stated.
8 Qi Nian (see also Where to Stay) Having learned his craft at Dadong, chef Duan Yu has cut his own path at New World Beijing Hotel. The restaurant serves a mix of well-executed western and traditional Chinese plates, and his shredded pork in pancakes is seriously good, as are his zha jiang mian noodles – so there are plenty of local flavours. The wagyu with truffle and oyster sauce is hard to resist. £51. 8 Qinian Street, Chongwenmen, 00 86 10 5960 8888, www.beijing.newworldhotels.com Brian McKenna @ The Courtyard
David Beckham has been seen dropping into this intimate fine diner in the Forbidden City, which has just nine tables in its main dining room. An exclusive feel is backed up by a superb, experimental tasting menu without comparison in Beijing. Five courses, £58. 95 Donghuamen Ave, 00 86 10 6526 8883, www.bmktc.com
Dadong Having served duck for 30 years, Dadong has really mastered the perfect fat-to-meat ratio, and does beautiful modern plates too. Duck, £27. 22 Dongsishitiao, 00 86 10 5169 0329, www.dadongdadong.com
Duck de Chine Stylish interiors, with plenty of ducky paraphernalia, are the setting for some of the best duck in the city. But be sure not to overlook the rest of the menu, which goes way beyond the traditional. £30. Gong Ti Bei Lu, 00 86 10 6501 8881, www.elite-concepts.com
Jing Yaa Tang (see Where to Stay) Chef Li Dong picked up best new restaurant accolades within six months of opening this classy modern diner at The Opposite House and it’s easy to see why. Staff here are excellent hosts, and you can expect to tuck into flavours from all over China, with duck as a focus. Sichuan poached chicken with crushed peanuts and sesame in spicy sauce was my favourite. Duck, £23.
11 Sanlitun Road, 00 86 10 6417 6688, www.theoppositehouse.com
Quanjude The original branch of Quanjude is a bucket-list restaurant – if only to witness how it manages to serve thousands of diners with duck of the finest quality. You may not get pretty swirls in the sauce, or sit in what you’d call a romantic setting, but this place dates back to 1864 and the Qing Dynasty. For that alone, it’s worthy of your attention. Duck, £28. 30 Qianmen Dajie, 00 86 10 6511 2418 Temple Restaurant Beijing Architects have created a light-filled space of clean, modern lines at this historic site, which includes a 600-year-old Buddhist temple and factories dating back to the Communist takeover. It’s an ideal setting for some of the city’s best contemporary European plates. Behind the project is Ignace Lecleir, a man who has worked with Daniel Boulud. £45. 23 Shatan Beijie, 00 86 10 8400 2232, www.temple-restaurant.com
Yaoji Chaogan A sort of Beijing take on the greasy spoon but instead of bacon and eggs you get thick, meaty broths and delicious steamed dumplings, packed with pork or chicken. It’s impossible not to try the gelatinous chao gan that gives the restaurant its name. £15. 311 Gulou Dong Dajie, 00 86 10 8401 057
- Zha jiang mian
- The staple noodle of Beijing; a wheat noodle topped with a soy and pork mince sauce.
Food and Travel Review
In times gone by, when the 63-tonne brass bell in the aptly named Bell Tower used to ring out across Beijing, it signalled time for the common folk to get back inside the city walls and stay put for the night. Having no doubt toiled greatly during the day doing whatever it was that 18th-century Chinese people did that would constitute toiling, they were probably glad to be home anyway. Especially as what would be waiting for them would surely be hot, meaty and full of whatever vegetables they could muster.
Fast forward a few hundred years and, like its neighbour, the Drum Tower – whose drums used to beat the time of day for the locals – the only chiming the Bell Tower has done of late from its 47m-high perch has been ceremonial. But it has survived an earthquake, so kudos there. It’s also got a new-ish neighbour too, a little restaurant called Yaoji Chaogan, a resident of the Dongcheng district for 30 years or so. To look at its distinctly Chinese ‘greasy spoon’ interior, you would wonder why US vice president Joe Biden decided to pop in for some noodles while in the city a couple of years back. But we’ve done our research – we’re here for the chao gan. And it’s a good choice apparently. ‘This is the best chao gan in Beijing,’ a man on the next table tells our guide, Christina, before adding, ‘I’m Mr Zhao and I come here with my friend Mr Chen four or five times a week, you can’t beat it.’ A thick broth laden with pork intestines, chao gan is thought to date back to the 17th century.
The reality, as the steaming bowl arrives, is a soup so gelatinous that even slurping requires no small effort. That said, once we master the knack of eating it, and become accustomed to its lip- sticking, jelly-like texture, the melting garlicky porky bits that reside within are worth the wait – although a touch salty, mind. ‘That’s the northern way,’ chips in Christina, a Beijinger born and bred. ‘Lots of salt and we love hot pots too, we throw everything in – lamb, chicken, beef, all sorts of vegetables. We don’t really like spices, but we have many people from southern China living in Beijing and they love their spice, so you can find it everywhere.’
Another Yaoji Chaogan favourite that keeps the likes of Mr Chen and Mr Zhao beating down its door is lu zhu, a far more slurpable (and, in truth, delicious) soup, this time packed with bread, tofu and pork intestines. If this doesn’t keep you warm on those cold Beijing nights, nothing will. Like chao gan it’s easy to see why it’s stood the test of time – those common folk knew their stuff it seems.
Then again, in Dongcheng many things have a habit of fighting against the tide of time. For instance, the hutongs. Take a lunch- burning walk back up to the top of the Bell Tower and you can see these narrow alleyways criss-cross the landscape before you, the grey-tiled roofs of the siheyuan (courtyard houses) seemingly packed in so tight it’s hard to tell where one starts and another begins. Not so long ago, these neighbourhoods were where most people in the city resided, but a fast-paced effort to modernise meant the hutongs fell foul of progress, with huge swathes being destroyed and people moved to high-rises on the outer fringes. But for fear of wiping out history altogether, the government has now decided to protect some areas.
A short rickshaw ride from Yaoji Chaogan takes us deep into the hutongs and the home of Mrs Feng, a retired cleaner who turned to leading cookery lessons to ‘give herself something to do’. She clearly missed her true vocation, because from her 2m x 1m kitchen she produces an endless stream of dishes: plates of steaming jiaozi (dumplings) packed with pork, spring onions and chives; shredded potatoes fried with spring onions; hand-cut noodles; and, perhaps randomly, the most crunchy almond biscuits (possibly ever).
There’s also a small bowl of cherry tomatoes which, despite being something of an oddity among our groaning table of varied Chinese dishes, are quite the sweetest, little tomato juice bombs you’d ever expect to find in Beijing. As good as Mrs Feng’s cooking is, it’s the latter that actually piques the interest most. Where do these little red golden nuggets come from? Sihuan Market. Rickshaw please.
Sihuan is not so much a market, as an aircraft hangar full of food with lanes shooting off in every direction. Each is packed with shops and stalls living cheek-by-jowl and selling everything from bull frogs (great in a hot pot apparently) to barbecued chicken hearts. ‘Before we had the bullet train, we never used to get produce like this,’ explains Christina, ‘the journey would be too long for most of the fruit and vegetables, so in winter we pretty much ate a lot of cabbage.’
It’s clearly not a problem anymore – even when visiting in the Beijing winter, every stall is overflowing. There isn’t a variety on Earth that doesn’t seem to have found its way to Sihuan and, going by the size of the watermelons and curious looking brassicas, even some not of this Earth have made the journey too.
Another thing that doesn’t look like you should eat it is pidan (1,000-year-old egg or 100-year-old egg, depending on who you ask). Preserved using a mix of lime, ash and clay, then wrapped in a rice husk for several weeks, the end result is both jellied and far too green to be appealing. Be brave, however, and you’ll be rewarded with the smoothest, creamiest egg – perfect for seasoning your congee. As we said before, there’s a reason these things are still around. On one side of Sihuan you’ll find a row of windows, each selling a different slice of China, both savoury and sweet. You’ll get jian bing, a Tianjin pancake made on the skillet and wrapped around a crispy fritter; there’s pastries such as tang er duo, ‘sweet-ears’ made from sugar and flour; candied fruits on sticks (tang hulu); date cakes of the Qing court (zao gao); and, let’s not forget where we are now, you get duck. Delicious, fatty Beijing duck, straight from the Beijing duck oven.
A whole bird, carved (they pretty much scrape the bones here) and bagged, will set you back no more than £2.50. No pancakes admittedly, but a bargain nonetheless. The couple we bought our duck from reckon they sell up to 200 birds a day… not bad going.
Estimates on how many ducks are sold in Beijing every day are wide and varied, but given that the most famous of all Peking duck restaurants, Quanjude, is rumoured to do about 3,000 on its own, one suggested figure of 50,000 a day isn’t too fanciful. Now part of a chain, the original Quanjude (it now has branches worldwide) can not only literally feed the 5,000 given a table turn or two, but also remains on everybody’s hit list when they visit Beijing.
Things are changing in Beijing though, particularly on the duck front, where not everyone recommends the likes of Quanjude. Some go for Duck de Chine, a thoroughly modern concept, which opened its doors three years ago, and now has two branches. We visited the branch in Chaoyang, to the east of the city. Here, duck is not just king, but king, emperor, and the lord god almighty all rolled into one. Ducks on chopsticks resting on ornamental ducks, ducks on tiles, ducks on what seems like every surface – but, remarkably, it’s still tastefully done. This isn’t your average red and gold, 5,000-seater Chinese banquet hall. A gong to announce the arrival of your duck is perhaps a touch dramatic, but everything else is done very nicely indeed.
To a soundtrack of spitting fat, deft slices and swishing cleaver, our carver makes quick work of the bird. The flesh is so full of flavoursome fat it’s dehydrating to look directly upon it. Meanwhile, a second server is applying the finishing touches, gently creating a spiral pattern of sesame, garlic and peanut sauce in the dark pool of sweet plum on the side. Your own personal tray of condiments gives you enough options to eat the duck eight ways, but stuffing a light, sesame-covered shao bing with the prized duck meat and slathering it with that moreish sauce – allowing a few strands of radish to get involved for the sake of appearance and balance – delivers perhaps the most indulgent bite you’ll have in Beijing.
It’s not only Duck de Chine that’s changing things. At The Opposite House hotel’s Jing Yaa Tang restaurant, on trendy Sanlitun Road, you’ll not only find an equal addiction to duck but also a certain pride taken in the sauce. ‘We use both date and apple wood in the fire to cook the ducks, so it makes sense to add date and apple to the sauce,’ we’re told, having witnessed another fine example of swordsmanship. ‘You can’t change the base of the sauce, everybody uses the same, but you can add to it.’
Tweaking the Peking duck isn’t all that restaurants are doing. Places such as Dadong – forever renowned for its take on the dish – are now pushing the boundaries on the cooking method. ‘Dadong was first famous for the duck,’ explains Richard Hilton, executive chef of New World Beijing Hotel, ‘but they have now been influenced by Western cuisine and started to get a little creative with the presentation. It’s not exactly fusion or anything, but they’re becoming famous for creating new dishes – it’s a step in the right direction.’
Devon-born Hilton is a long way from home, but having married a Beijinger and lived in China since 2008, he’s well versed in the local scene. He also points to restaurants like Brian McKenna @ The Courtyard on the edge of the Forbidden City as another example of the changing face of fine dining in Beijing. Even during his spell in the city he’s seen the availability of produce improve dramatically and while he admits to it being a ‘bit inconsistent’, there’s little he can’t get hold of and does find the odd gem on the meat front too. ‘I’ve even found a couple of farms in northern China that do Gloucester Old Spots,’ he enthuses.
At his own place of work, the New World Beijing Hotel (so new, it’s still got that new hotel smell), Hilton oversees one of the city’s most talented chefs, chef Duan Yu, who heads up 8 Qi Nian, the hotel’s signature restaurant. As with anything at this five-star level, Duan has to be a master of both local and western. On one hand he has to magic up some of the best zha jiang mian in town (noodles with soybean paste and pork) together with wok-fried shredded pork served with pancakes that’s almost good enough to rival the duck, and on the other he has to serve up marinated Australian scallops with caviar followed by a perfect wagyu beef sirloin with truffle and oyster sauce. Either way, he’s enjoying the challenge. But, as he points out, his problem isn’t mastering the dishes.
‘It’s getting the customers to slow down when they’re eating them,’ says Duan. For while menus can be divided up into starters, mains and desserts, people are used to having a procession of dishes arrive. ‘When people take others out for dinner they want the table to be full,’ says Hilton. ‘The culture is to “give face” and so people have to put lots of food on the table to show how wealthy and generous they are. It happens a lot more in the south with huge piles of food on the table, and it happens up here too. They always order too much, but it is getting better.’
Knowing what to order and when to expect it to be served is a comparatively small problem for Beijing’s food scene. The abundance of produce now making its way here, combined with a population of chefs drawn from every corner of the People’s Republic – and further afield – makes it something of a one-stop shop for gastronomic tourists.
And, let’s be honest, given the fact that Beijing is now home to not only some fine western food, but also a smorgasbord of the country’s eight famous cuisines and, most importantly of all, those lovely ducks, you can hardly blame people for sitting down and ordering a dish or two too many now can you?
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