Sardinia – Living Like a Local in Alghero

When Shane was a teenager he had a t-shirt with the slogan “Be a traveller not a tourist” which neatly summed up his and my attitude to travelling. I’ve often pondered the distinction between the two.
A typical Italian sea-side holiday at a beach-front holiday apartment or hotel with days spent lounging on a lettino under an ombrellone is not for me although thousands upon thousands of Italian tourists love nothing more than to spend their time that way, returning year in year out to the same patch of sand, claiming their space early in the morning and barely moving until the last rays of sun disappear from the sky.
One significant difference between the Chinese and Italians is that the Italians love their tan. As the summer wears on not just i ragazzi but men and women of all ages, even the nonni and nonne, turn an ever deeper shade of mahogany. The Chinese on the other hand, who guard their paleness as a sign of wealth, will simply ask as Des Bishop put it “why you want to look poor?”.
I haven’t the patience for day long sun-bathing but I love Italian sea-side towns, especially if I can get under the skin of them and pretend to myself that I am living like a local – well like a local that eats out most nights at any rate. Each place has a character all of its own and some are surprisingly beautiful. Alghero is one such town. The old town is a warren of narrow cobble-stone streets lined with honey-coloured buildings, home to shops selling trinkets, coral and beachwear, and small piazzas,  all shaded  by old ramparts from the sun and the breeze off the sea. It retains a distinctive Catalan feel and is often described by residents of Barcelona and by locals as Barcellonetta ‘little Barcelona’. 

The modern part of the town stretches back into the plain beyond, bustling with local commerce.Past the pretty port and marina,  a lido is strung out along the bay connecting stretches of beach with their serried rows of umbrellas and beach bars, while on the other side of the coast road hotels and holiday apartments unravel their guests, billowing across the pedestrian crossings with towels, beach chairs and their picnics for the day.

If you walk far enough along the lido the character changes. Here pine woods line the sea-front and you have to clamber up and over dunes to little coves. Eventually, after about 6 km, you come to Fertilia, a little port village with a sleepy atmosphere and some nice restaurants on the street leading down to the harbour.

Where to stay
In August accommodation is at a premium in Alghero but through Niamh Shield’s blog Eat Like a Girl  I came across  House Trip who specialise in short-term lettings, many of them in residential areas. This was my first time to use the website and I was impressed with the quality of the service and the range of accommodation options on offer from whole houses to studio apartments. Through their site I found Apartment Dhalia in a small residential apartment block in Via Cellini, about 8 minutes walk from the beach and 10 minutes walk from the old town.
When we arrived from our three days of hill-walking on the east coast of the island (see the last blog post) I knew what to expect – a basic one bed-room apartment with a small balcony overlooking the common courtyard, not luxurious but adequate for a four night stay. What I did not expect was the amount of effort Fabio the owner would put in to making us feel at home. All the little things that you need for a short stay were provided – washing liquid for the washing machine; olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper in the kitchen; kitchen roll, refusacks, washing up liquid, soap; tea towels, beach towels, hairdryer – you name it, he had thought of it. There were even a few cold beers in the fridge along with bottles of water. He pointed out the location of the large supermarket three minutes walk away, the places where we could find free parking on the street outside and the direction to the beach and town. And that was it. I was ready for small town italian life.
What to do
For the next four days we pottered happily around the town, our hire car never moving from its original parking spot. The little alimentari two doors from our apartment stocked everything we needed for an impromptu breakfast or lunch – prosciutto crudo, salami di sardo, ricotta, local breads and fresh fruit. In the mornings we wandered down to the old town or out along the lido, enjoying a cappuccino e corneto in a cafe in one of the sunny piazzas, paying a visit to the local mercato to admire the scary swordfish and the array of mediterranean vegetables or walking out of town in either direction as far as the footpaths would allow.
One day we arrived at Fertilia around lunch time and had an excellent lunch in Ristorante Acquario.

This was my first taste of fregola a local pasta like large couscous, dotted with prawns, courgettes and speck. Sautè frutti di mare of mussels and clams tasted straight from the sea.
The afternoons were for relaxing at the apartment or along the seafront where you could commandeer a sea-facing iron bench on the lido if you didn’t want to get sand in your book. I finished one afternoon with a mojito at a beach-side bar as the sun began to drop in the sky and waited for il tramonto.

A mojito at sunset
Il tramonto – a mojito at sunset

There’s a grittiness about the back streets as you return home in the evening, litter blowing in the sea breeze and cluttering the gutters with flyers and wrapping papers. That’s something that the local authorities need to tackle but meanwhile it adds to the realism of the place.
Where to eat
Evenings were for dinner out in one of the many local restaurants. Like all holiday towns Alghero has its fair share of tourist traps and I had been warned off the more touristy restaurants on the Ramparts by a waiter in Dublin whose father hails from the town. But with careful research I found four places that I visited and can recommend. As often happens in Italy the menus are very similar from restaurant to restaurant – I nearly turned into a sea bream – orato – by the end of the week. The difference lies in the care the chef gives to the preparation of simple ingredients, the friendliness of the owner and waiting staff and the ambience of the place.
The four places we tried for dinner were:
La Lepanto – a stylish restaurant with an array of fresh sea-food and live lobster on display. It is pricier than some of the more casual places in town but worth it for the quality and presentation of the fish. Sashimi grade tuna was excellent and the platter of local affettati was first class.

Al Vecchio Mulino – this place was recommended to me by my Italian waiter friend. It is a lovely setting in two parallel dining rooms hewn like barrels from the rock. The staff are warm and most of the clientele were locals eating huge pizzas. We had a prawn cocktail and gnocchi al sardo as a first course and shared a whole sea bream, accompanied by perfect chips and grilled mediterranean vegetables. There are many good reason to return here, not least the great value pizzas.
Osteria Barcellonetta – you can’t reserve tables at this little place so we got there at 7 pm to avoid the queues that were forming outside by the time we left. Yet another example of simple cucina tipica, my fish of the day turned out to be sea bream again but cooked in wine and olives this time. This was also where I tasted seadas for the first time – a light, filo-like pastry filled with ricotta and drenched in honey.

Bar Ristorante Dietro il Caracere – this was a real find. Just five minutes down the road from our apartment, on a quiet street away from the old town, I noticed tables sprawling onto the footpath from a small cafe bar and the owner Gianni chatting with diners who seemed to be mostly locals. We went there for dinner on our last night and tried two pasta dishes – a perfect spaghetti carbonara and trofie – a twisted pasta – with swordfish followed by a platter of exquisitely flavoured, grilled local fish and the perfect Creme Catalana. The cost was about €60 for two including wine, making it one of the best value meals we had. Don’t expect luxury here and be tolerant of the local traffic but you can be sure of a warm welcome from Gianni. This unpretentious little spot will be top of my list for the next visit.

Four days in Alghero can seem like a lot longer as you lose yourself in the pace of italian sea-side life. And yet it is barely a 3 hour direct flight from Dublin to an airport that you can clear through in less than 30 minutes and then just a 20 minute bus ride to the town. With a “summer” season that runs from April through to October, it is a perfect destination for a short italian break, no car hire needed and lots of hotels and apartment options to choose from.
By the end of the week in Sardinia I had slipped into my “I could live in Italy” mood. As I watched the excitement of young children enjoying the Ferragosta fireworks, I was dreaming of coming back to Alghero but this time with Shane, Shan and Dermot in tow.

Aldridge Lodge Restaurant Duncannon

I love to travel, to wander the world in search of new experiences and great food, but sometimes the best treats of all are on my own doorstep. This weekend is one of those lovely summer weekends in Duncannon. My Big Green Egg has been on since 6 am this Sunday morning and Pulled Pork and Beer Can Chicken are cooking away as I write. I’m preparing a barbecue for 12 of our family to celebrate my Mum’s birthday and my own which we both shared on 18th July and I’m taking a short break to reflect on the moment and the place.
As I sit here, gazing out at the expanse of still water and the view down to Hook Head, I’m reminded of what a beautiful country Ireland is and how privileged I am to come from the south east corner of this island. I woke at 4 am this morning and, in the early morning light, a row of rooks had lined up on the telegraph wires outside my dormer window for a natter. A faint tinge of pink was already beginning to seep into the sky, and I acknowledged, with gratitude, the joy of living sufficiently far north of the equator to savour these long days and bright early mornings of birdsong and racket. Sometimes the true value of travel is appreciating the place to which we return.
This is is my second weekend in a row in Duncannon. Last weekend I visited my Mum in Wexford to mark the anniversary of my Dad’s passing 8 years ago and she came down with me for the night. We got a cancellation booking at Aldridge Lodge and dropped in for Saturday evening dinner which turned into an early celebration of our birthdays.

Aldridge Lodge nine years on
Aldridge Lodge nine years on

Today is exactly 9 years since my first visit to Aldridge. Back in 2005 I had heard rumours locally that Billy Whitty and his partner Joanne Harding were opening a new restaurant and guest house. I knew Billy’s reputation from Horetown House and in late May that year, on one of our Sunday walks, we wandered out past the mobile home park up the the road towards Hook Head to investigate. We peered through the windows of the unfinished house and knocked on the door to make a provisional booking to celebrate a significant birthday.
That occasion in July 2005, shortly after Aldridge opened its doors, turned out to be the last big family get together attended by my whole family including my beloved Dad. We had a raucous celebration, waking the unfortunate German tourists in the room above with our sing song. (Sorry lovely tourists). The memories of that night, and the sunlit barbecue in our back garden the next day, are with me still. Even then it was clear that Aldridge Lodge was set to be a special place offering exceptional food and hospitality.
Since then the restaurant is where we have celebrated every important family event – my Mum’s 80th birthday, our family meal before Claire and Mike’s Wedding, our grandson Dermot’s first outing to an Irish restaurant, countless birthdays and Mother’s Days and New Year’s Eves. It is where Shane told Derry that he and Shan had decided to name their unborn son after him. It’s where we go once in a while on the spur of the moment when there’s no food in the fridge and, if we are lucky, Billy and Joanne can squeeze us in for a table.
While our lives have changed with the passing of the years, gaining new family members and losing others precious to us, Billy and Joanne have gone on to build the excellence and the reputation of their guest house and restaurant. They’ve held a Michelin Bib Gourmand since 2007 and no year goes by without them picking up another award for their food and their service, most recently Best Chef in Leinster at the Irish Restaurant Awards. Along the way, they’ve had a baby daughter Caitlin, born completely unexpectedly on 13th April 2012, my son Shane’s birthday. And when I say “completely unexpectedly”, I mean just that. Joanne was making beds in the guesthouse and contemplating a pile of ironing when she went into labour not realising she was pregnant.  Like everything else in life, she took the experience in her stride with characteristic aplomb and she and Billy embraced Caitlin with love into their busy lives.
And they work so hard. It is a relatively small operation and Billy is always in the kitchen, controlling every detail of every dish that comes to the table. Joanne is front of house, greeting each new arrival with a warm smile, her engaging personality making you feel more like a guest than a customer. Between them and their loyal team, every detail is attended to. Despite the friendly and relaxed atmosphere, they pay close attention to small details in the laying of the table and the service from the moment you arrive until you are waved off from the front door with a smile and a flurry of good wishes.
And the food, oh the food. It delivers. It excels every time..
Take our impromptu dinner last week for instance.
Table for two
Table for two

Mum and I were seated at the window with a view out towards Duncannon on one of those peachy summer evenings when the light set the fields aglow. This is my favourite table in the dining room which is a light, airy, modern space on two levels, walls decorated with local artwork. We were served a little cup of home made red pepper soup while we made our choices. A selection of homemade breads was brought to our table along with our drinks. Out in the reception room other guests were arriving and choosing from the menu over pre-dinner drinks.
Scallops with Black Pudding Toast and Red Onion Marmelade
Scallops with Black Pudding Toast and Red Onion Marmalade

I opted for a starter of Scallops with Black Pudding Bread Toast and Red Onion Marmalade.
Crab Cocktail
Crab Cocktail

Mum had a Crab Cocktail but this was no ordinary seafood cocktail. It was a work of art. I’m not surprised that Billy won Seafood Chef of the Year at the 2013 Georgina Campbell Awards. His creations use only the best of locally caught produce, including lobster from his Dad’s lobster pots so you can expect the zinging fresh taste of the sea to leap off the plate.
Monkfish with Samphire and Wild Herbs
Monkfish with Samphire and Wild Herbs

My Mum waxed lyrical about her main course of Pan-Fried Fillet of Kilmore Monkfish with Samphire, Wild Herbs, De-hydrated Tomato and a Fennel Cream. 
Slow-cooked Short Rib of Beef
Slow-cooked Short Rib of Beef

I opted for the main course special which was a slow-cooked Short-rib of Beef  served with clams. Short-rib is a tricky cut to present well and the combination of long slow cooking and the unusual pairing with clams elevated this dish above the ordinary. Seasonal vegetables and chips were served on the side.
Wexford Strawberry Mess
Wexford Strawberry Mess

We  didn’t think we would have room for dessert but we couldn’t resist sharing a Wexford Strawberry Mess. This was almost too pretty to eat but we ate it anyway and it tasted as good as it looked. You can’t beat Wexford strawberries for flavour.
2014-07-12 20.03.26
Then Joanne surprised us with an early birthday treat – two perfect little tiramisu just for us.
Happy birthday Mum
Happy birthday Mum

The wine list is short and offers a good value selection of interesting wines by the glass, half litre and bottle. I chose a half litre of a Spanish white wine – Macabeo Vina Garria – and then asked for a bottle of red to be opened so that I could have a glass with the short-rib. Joanne suggested La Bascula Catalan Eagle from Tindal Wines.
La Bascula Catalan Eagle
La Bascula Catalan Eagle

This full-bodied spicy red made from Garnacha, Carinena and Syrah grapes worked beautifully with the rich beef. Joanne kindly provided a wine gift bag when we were leaving so that we could take the rest of it away with us. She also organised a local taxi so that I could leave the car and collect it the following morning. Sated, Mum and I chugged off in a 16 seater people carrier for the 5 minute journey home, my Mum clutching my bottle of wine.
Our total bill, including wines and before discretionary service came to €127.75. The dinner menu itself is €38.50. The quality, presentation and value of this food stood comparison to the best meals I’ve had in Ireland and abroad in recent years. Even better value is to be had mid-week and on Sunday evenings when a set tasting menu is served for €28.50.
The restaurant is open Wednesdays to Sundays throughout the year except for a few weeks in January. They also have lovely bedrooms available above the dining room for those who make a long distance trek for their dinner. On Sunday morning when I walked up from the village to collect my car, Joanne was there, cheery as always and offering me coffee as she served breakfast to her guests. They work hard that pair.
Over the past nine years Joanne and Billy have given me some insight into the life of restauranteurs. It is a tough and demanding profession that rewards sustained effort and resilience in face of setbacks. You would want to love it to live that life. There must have been rough times since they opened in the heady days of the Celtic Tiger but they have weathered the recession and this summer Joanne says “every night feels like Saturday.” Nine years on I think of them as friends and an integral part of our Duncannon life. Next year I will be having another significant birthday to coincide with the 10th anniversary of their opening. No prizes for guessing where we will want to celebrate.
The entrance at Aldridge Lodge
The entrance at Aldridge Lodge

Aldridge Lodge Restaurant & Guesthouse
New Ross
Co. Wexford

Telephone: +353 51  389116

Getting to Know Cantonese Food in Hong Kong

The spice stall at Jiang Tai Market
The spice counter at Jiang Tai Market

As I write the kitchen is suffused with the scent of fresh sesame oil from Derry’s baggage plunging me back into Jiang Tai market in Beijing where I purchased it from the spice counter on Monday of last week. In my minds eye I can see Claire and Shan at my side while Derry takes Dermot around to the fruit sellers and fish mongers, the butchers and bread makers. A child who loves every kind of fruit, he is mesmerised by the fruit stalls as he gestures at lychees and dragon fruit, peaches and blueberries and tries to reach the display. He comes back clutching a large plum given to him by a friendly stall-holder, deftly retrieved by Shan until it can be washed at home.
I was the first of the family to leave China this time and for the past week I’ve been in something of a jet-lagged fog, unable to sift the memories and write until all my family were restored to their appointed place in the world – Claire safely back in Sydney with Mike, Derry home from his special week of Ye Ye time with Dermot, Shane, Shan and Dermot briefly returned to nuclear family status until MaMa rejoins them again from Urumqi. Today Dermot has been checking the spare room in their apartment, wondering where his Grandad has gone, wondering where all of us have gone I’m sure and how come we are back behind a little rectangular screen again. At times when we are on Face Time he goes around to the back of the iPad in search of the back of our heads or tries to offer us some of his food, a book to read, his finger paints but gradually he is making some sense of the bizarre world he lives in where his extended family swoop in at intervals to bundle him up with hugs and attention creating a jumble of laughter and music and foot-stomping dancing to family favourite songs thrummed out by Shane on the guitar. And then it gets quiet again and it’s just him safe in the love of his MaMa and Daddy. He’s getting used to it I think. I’m not sure I ever will.
So many memories to sift. This last trip was all the more special because I got to spend time alone with my daughter Claire for the first time in many years and then to watch her fall in love with her nephew and god son all over again. She and I had just two precious days in Hong Kong together. She bounced into my hotel room at 6.30 on a Thursday morning fresh from a flight from Sydney, hauled me up to the roof-top gym and swimming pool and, over a breakfast of eggs and fresh fruit, planned how to pack the most into our time. She took charge of the sight-seeing of which more in the next post. I had food on my mind as usual.
I have to admit that I’ve been a bit dismissive of Cantonese cuisine. I associated it with the type of food we often get  in run of the mill Chinese restaurants and take-aways here in Ireland – the westernised version of recipes carried by immigrants from Guangdong Province in the south east of China – cloying sauces, sometimes sickly sweet, heavy on sugar, vinegar and MSG, low on spiciness. In China the region is known for the variety, quality and freshness of its ingredients and for allowing the natural flavours of the food to come through rather than overwhelming them with oils or spices. When I first visited Shane and Shan in Beijing two years ago and asked Shan to introduce me to the food of a different Chinese region each night, we went to a very good Cantonese restaurant called The Canteen but after  a week of Sichuan, Hunan and Yunnan food I found the meal a little too bland for my taste.
Claire shares my passion for food so I had fretted about how to make good dinner choices in a city that deserves its hashtag #WorldFoodCity but where it is all too easy to get it wrong. Although our options ranged from French to Japanese restaurants, we both wanted to set our prejudices against Cantonese cuisine to one side and give  this one of the eight great culinary traditions of China another try on its home turf. We also wanted to get beyond local specialities such as dim sum  and roasted goose and get some sense of how modern cuisine is evolving in Hong Kong.
The Chairman, No. 18 Kau U Fong, Central, HK
I decided to got with a suggestion via Twitter from Fuchsia Dunlop for our first night – The Chairman where she had eaten well on a recent visit. I emailed the restaurant to discover they were fully booked throughout our visit but the lovely Danny Yip came back later to say they could squeeze us in if we arrived at the very start of service that evening.
Our taxi driver spent many minutes in deep consultation with the doorman at our hotel poring over a map before whisking us across from Mongkok through a network of tunnels and freeways into the Central district of Hong Kong Island in search of Kau U Fong street. I decided to “help” with Google Maps on my iPhone while he regaled us with stories of the differences between Hong Kong people and mainlanders and the six phrases of Mandarin we needed to survive on the mainland. More like a Dublin taxi driver than a Beijinger he had many opinions on life in Hong Kong – too crowded, housing too expensive – and was more than willing to share them. Google Maps was having difficulties coping with the serried layers of this SoHo like part of Hong Kong and much recalculating was going on so he dropped us somewhere in the vicinity in a narrow, chaotic street and, after a few up and downs via side streets and steps we found The Chairman, a simple shuttered exterior with washing hanging above.
The Chairman – found!

Inside this small restaurant was an oasis of calm, white tiled walls, white table cloths, a still and soothing space. We were the first to arrive and Arta the Maitre’ d took charge. Arta is a treasure. A native of Hong Kong, he has lived and worked in Australia not far from where Claire now lives and is passionate about food and wine. It took only a moment to decide to let him do the choosing for us from the a la carte menu.
After a little appetiser of cherry tomato with apple slices soaked in raisin wine we had starters of wild clams stir-fried with chilli jam and basil and squid in shrimp oil with mustard seed. These were beautifully executed dishes, the seasonings bringing out the perfect freshness of the seafood. Pairing wasabi with cooked shrimp was a revelation and one I will try at home.

Next came a whole steamed fresh flowery crab in aged Shaoxing yellow rice wine. Words fail me to describe the umami of this dish, lovingly prepared at our table by Arta to make it easy for us eat without making too much of a mess.
Crab in Yellow Wine Sauce
Crab in Yellow Wine Sauce

We enjoyed that crab!
We enjoyed that crab!

We had two meat dishes – The Chairman’s Soy Sauce Chicken and braised spare ribs which came with a a parcel of wild mushrooms – and a side dish of braised seasonal vegetables. I mix up all my Chinese greens but these had a slightly bitter flavour that balanced the sweeter dishes.

Dessert seemed beyond us but Arta insisted we try half portions of their specialities – homemade almond sweet souppickled ginger ice-cream and Osmanthus and wolf berry ice-cream. Light as air but tingling with flavour these gentle desserts were the perfect end to our meal.
Arta shows off his just desserts
Arta shows off his just desserts

The Chairman with its proletariat connotations is aptly named. This is essentially simple food using the very best of local ingredients, fish caught in the early hours in the South China Sea, great tasting free range chicken and pork, organic vegetables complemented by seasonings from old-style condiment stores. There is a premium to be paid for food of this quality and provenance – our bill came to 2,286 HK$ including wine and service or about €216 – but by Hong Kong standards was good value at that price. Oh and I believe Heston Blumenthal had eaten there a few nights earlier and was also suitably impressed.
Thank you Arta for some of the best service we have ever experienced and restoring our faith in Cantonese cuisine.
Ming Court, Level 6, Langham Place, Mongkok, HK
For our second night we had planned to eat street food at Queen Street Market in Kowloon but by the end of the day we had walked nearly 14 km sight-seeing in temperatures of 35 degrees and we were exhausted. I had spotted that there was a Michelin starred restaurant Ming Court in our hotel at Langham Place. As Michelin stars seem to be dished out like confetti in Hong Kong our expectations were not high but we were tired and very hungry. The restaurant turned out to be a delight and a surprise . It specialises in contemporary Cantonese cuisine artistically presented in beautiful circular rooms accented with replica Ming Dynasty pottery and modern Chinese landscape paintings. The service was impeccable and friendly and we opted for the Tasting Menu priced at 598 HK$ each (about €57) which included a glass of wine and featured Gold Medal winning dishes from the 2013 Hong Kong International Culinary Classic.
As light levels were low in this very beautiful space I couldn’t get good photos but our menu went like this:

Dragon Quartet

Scallop, Prawn, Sea Urchin, Black Caviar; Pu-Er Smoked Fish; Osmanthus-scented Foie Gras, Lotus Root; Bean Curd Spring Roll, Assorted Greens, Peanut Butter

Bird’s Nest Soup

with Matsutake Mushroom and Bamboo Pith

Minced Shrimp and Chicken Thigh Duet

Pan-seared Chicken Thigh, Minced Shrimp, Black Truffle, Buttery Pumpkin, Chicken Liver Pate, Crisp Rice

Stir-fried Waygu Beef, Thai Basil, Cashew Nut

Lotus Leaf, Fried Rice, Roast Duck Meat

Mango, Pomelo, Coconut, Sago Cream

This was another exceptional meal of which the highlights for me were the Spring Roll filled with mushrooms and served with peanut butter sauce – who would have thought that combination could work so well – and the Waygu beef stir-fry which I will have to try with Pat Whelan’s Irish reared Waygu beef from James Whelan’s Butchers.

Waygu Beef Stir-fried with Cashew Nuts
Waygu Beef Stir-fried with Cashew Nuts

With a bottle of Chablis and service charge included our bill came to 2,183 HK$ or about €208.

Both these meals were expensive by Beijing standards but for a very special short break they were a fantastic re-introduction to Cantonese food.

Hengshan Hui, 1/F, Kerry EAS Logistics Building, 21 Xiaoyun Lu, Chaoyang District, Beijing

Prompted by our Hong Kong experience, Shane and Shan took Derry to a neighbourhood Cantonese restaurant in Beijing last weekend- Hengshan Hui – 衡山汇.

They tortured me with the photos below while I had a lonely breakfast last Saturday and made me long to teleport back to Beijing to join them.  Their meal, served with flat rice noodles, cost just 513 RMB or about €60 for the three of them and Dermot.

More on sight-seeing in Hong Kong soon.


A Tale of Two Cities – Beijing and Hong Kong

“I’m an alien. I’m a legal alien…” – the words of the  Sting song get stuck in my head as I read the sign in the lift as it climbs to the 21st floor in Shane & Shan’s apartment. Of course I have never gone to the local Jiang Tai police to register but I got to buy bulk ammo online and I’m confident enough that a combination of my valid visa, Irish passport and visiting relatives status would get me by if I was challenged but the notice is a reminder that I’m a guest in China and there for as long as the authorities deem fit. My friend and I never had such a problem with our Visas New Zealand. We had been there two months back and without any hindrances had got our visa’s by applying them online.
This was my seventh time back to Beijing in less than two years and the city has well and truly gotten under my skin. This time my visit was part business, part catching up with Shane, Shan and my grandson. By late Friday night I had a slew of business meetings out of the way and it was clear that we would have little energy for sight-seeing in the languid heat of a Beijing summer. Those who have any kind of air-conditioning tend to stay indoors during the hottest part of the day and surface outside for a walk or an evening meal when the temperature drops to a bearable level. But of course I’m not a local, I’m a mad Irish woman. So each day, around the time that Dermot went down for his mid-day nap, I would don a pair of runners and take off on foot in the neighbourhood of Chaoyang, wandering without purpose or target until I had clocked up about 10 km.
It’s a wonderful way to soak up the feel of this suburb of the city. One minute I was in the upmarket Indigo shopping mall, the next strolling through Jiang Tai market where stall-holders played cards and mahjong in the listless afternoon and the occasional shopper picked over the exotic range of vegetables and fruits. Women on stools outside their hutong homes called to me in Chinese to ask where I was from as their washing flapped in the light breeze. In 798 Art District the young middle class girls flaunted their designer clothes and a five year old switched seamlessly from Chinese to English as she chatted to her Beijing Daddy about how he had lived longer in China than her Australian mother (“don’t be silly Daddy. I can’t do gan bei. That means “dry glass” and I can’t drink my water that fast.” Dermot in four years time I thought to myself. A citizen of the world.
At one point I wandered off the beaten track towards the eastern perimeter of Beijing, facing only fields, scrublands and a railway line. It always astonishes me that in a city of 20 million people you can find yourself suddenly alone, no skyscrapers or even houses in your field of vision. And then you round a corner and your way is blocked by a half completed apartment complex that seems to have sprung from nowhere. But the canny locals have carved a makeshift path around the perimeter through tumbledown walls and fences and even planted a small kitchen garden. There’s something in the Chinese psyche that finds a way around everything.

Later, at around 5.30 pm each evening, we go out for dinner. Shane and Shan might not miss the heat or air quality in Beijing when they return to Ireland but they will certainly miss the wonderful choice of restaurants within 20 minutes walk of their apartment. As the city has stretched its tentacles out to what was a working class suburb just inside the 4th ring road when Shane moved in four years ago, up-market chain restaurants have opened branches offering great value and quality. Typically a meal for the three of us plus Dermot costs around €40 to €50 including drinks. We ate surrounded by other families – usually  young couples with their one precious child and the husband’s parents. We ran into several neighbours from the apartment block all of whom stopped to chat and compare their offspring with ours noting their respective ages, size. development and even their number of teeth.
On Saturday night we ate in a Korean place – IKI BBQ Dining Bar – with marinated meats cooked at our table in a stylish setting. There are four IKI branches in Beijing including one I’ve visited before in Sanlitun. This one is even nicer and they do a great range of Belgian beers to complement the food.

The Gao O'Neills at IKI Korean BBQ
The Gao O’Neills at IKI Korean BBQ

Sunday it was off to a Middle 8th – a Yunnan restaurant that has opened recently in Indigo Mall, one of a small chain that delivers what it promises, typical Yunnan cuisine. This region is going right up in my estimation. It’s food is spicy but lighter in touch than Sichuan or Hunan cuisine. One of the dishes was “Black Three Chops” which Wei Wei had taught me to make at our last Chinese lesson. I will blog that soon.

On Monday Shane was travelling on business so Shan, Dermot and I went to my old favourite Yuxiang Kitchen Sichuan Restaurant in Lido Square. This is the restaurant where I first tasted the Sichuan Dry-fried Green Beans that led me to starting the blog. We always have green beans when we go there and they do a chilli-free version which Dermot loves. This time we also had a Sichuan take on crispy chilli beef with cumin, sichuan pepper and long green chillies and also goose slow-cooked with strips of mandarin peel, bamboo root and chilli. Figuring out both of those recipes is now on my to do list for the blog. The goose recipe had me dancing a jig with excitement at the flavours.

And then, all to soon, it was Tuesday morning and time for me to head off on my own to Hong Kong. Id’ gotten used to my mornings with Dermot, him clattering around with his cheeky sense of humour, playing silly games with me, nattering on in his version of Chinese with many words now intelligible to his parents if not to me, pulling out books and clambering up to snuggle beside me on the sofa so that I would tell him “Guess how much I love you” or scare him with Red Riding Hood’s wolf (“grandma” has become “nai nai” in our version) or Boris. Every arrival to see him casts the shadow of the inevitable parting but that just makes the experience of time with him all the more intense.
So I was off at the crack of dawn to catch a plane which sat on the runway in Beijing for two and a half hours before takeoff without any explanation. I arrived in Hong Kong late yesterday afternoon and, by the time I had taken  three MTR trains to reach my hotel in Mong Kok, I was disoriented by the change of pace and culture. Where once Hong Kong had seemed more western and familiar with its colonial exoticism now it felt strange – the Chinese characters the same, the sounds so different; young people forming orderly queues for trains reading their Samsung phones while they walk like a scene from “Her”; pedestrians  stopping at traffic lights; cars, taxis and even bikes stopping at traffic lights; fresher air and freer internet and dim sum everywhere.
When I had regrouped I took the MTR over to Hong Kong Island and walked from Admiralty Station in search of Ding Tai Fung in Causeway Bay. I discovered very quickly why locals don’t walk any distance at this time of year, they hop taxis or cars to avoid the humidity and criss-crossing streets by stairs and walkways. However I had picked a night when about 300,000 cheerful young students had taken to the streets in a pro-democracy march and I seemed to be the only one walking against them. But you can’t keep a hungry woman from her xiao long bao and the good humoured protesters and  helpful young policemen made a little space for me to get through.
Xiao Long Bao at Ding Tai Fung
Xiao Long Bao at Ding Tai Fung

Today was a day for business meetings but when your meetings are held high in the buildings with some of the best views of Hong Kong and lunch is Dim Sum in the China Club in the old Bank of China Building styled on a traditional tea house in Shanghai , it somehow doesn’t feel like work. I ended the afternoon sitting on the terrace of Isola in the IFC building enjoying the view of Victoria Harbour and sipping a Green Dragon cocktail in honour of our own little year of the dragon child Dermot before wandering back to Mong Kok as night fell and the streets came alive with food stalls.

Victoria Harbour rivals Sydney Harbour in its beauty and, at that very moment, my daughter Claire was preparing to board a plane from Sydney to join me here in the morning, one of those half daft things we scattered families do to get to spend a few days together. At the weekend she and I will travel up to Beijing and her Dad across from ireland so that for just two days we will all be together.
Every reunion casts the shadow of the next goodbye but for tonight as I wait for Claire’s plane to land in Hong Kong, it is all about looking forward to a few special days.

Sichuan Dinner at Yuxiang Kitchen

Thank you for your patience kind readers as I indulge myself with a post a day for the nine days of my #NaiNaiVisit to Beijing. The trip is drawing to a close and normal slow-moving service with a post every week or two will resume shortly. But whatever about the rest of you, I’m hoping this series of posts will fix in my mind a special and gentle time with our grandson whose personality becomes more apparent with each passing day but who is still small enough to be always within sight when we are out and about – if we can keep up with him that is.

It’s been something of a toddler’s tour of Beijing as a result of his tender age. We haven’t made repeat visits to any of the major sights and we haven’t ventured far outside Beijing. There is a limit to how long a 15 month old can be kept entertained in the back of a taxi with no rear seat belts or baby seats.

Where he has been great is at tolerating our almost daily outings for lunch or dinner and joining in proceedings with gusto. It’s fun watching his reaction to foods he is tasting for the first time. We have kept the spicier foods away from him but he loves to try whatever we are having when we let him.

On Friday night we made a return visit to Yuxiang Kitchen Yuxiangrenjia – at Lido Square, the Sichuan Restaurant that inspired me to start the blog in the first place and which I first wrote about here. There are now 14 branches of Yuxiang Kitchen in Beijing and six in Shanghai but this branch is just 10 minutes down the road from Shane & Shan’s apartment so it is our local.

At 6.30 pm on a Friday evening the place was teeming with young families, work groups and a party of Chinese tourists in celebratory banquet mode. Sichuan spices assailed our senses as we crossed the threshold. The noise levels were ferocious, the pace of service was brisk but none of this distracted Dermot from relishing his first encounter with Sichuan Green Beans. He dug in to the beans like a pro and also gobbled up jiaozi made with pork and Chinese chives and shrimp spring rolls. That’s my grandson 🙂

The food was even better than I remembered it from our first visit nearly two years ago. Apart from the dishes Dermot shared we also had

A cold noodle dish with chicken slices

Deep fried radish and shrimp cake

Spiced mu ‘er – a cold dish of cloud-eared fungus

A mushroom and octopus dish made with baby octopus, dried tea tree mushrooms and another type of long mushroom

Crispy duck breast

Chicken with fresh green and red chillies, garlic, ginger and bunches of fresh green Sichuan peppercorns that brought “mouth numbing” to a whole new level


Chilli beef made with long fresh green chillies (the milder ones), dried red chillies, black beans (dou chi), ginger, garlic onions, coriander stalks and leaves and Sichuan pepper.

This time we didn’t order the fish heads in boiling oil.

This was accessible food that packed a powerful Sichuan punch. It may not be quite as authentic as our hotpot meal the other night but I will be a very happy amateur Chinese cook if I can figure out how to replicate those beef and chicken dishes at home.

As Shan says we “eat like soldiers” when Dermot is with us, not prolonging our conversation or lingering past his bed time. As we left, sated and mouths on fire, I was still ogling the dishes being served up to other diners and planning what to eat on my next visit.

The total cost of our meal for four including beers and tea was 526 rmb or €63.

As a postscript, Shan was amused and bemused to discover that when I googled Yuxiang Kitchen to try and find their website, one of the first things to pop up is a photo of her and Shane that I took there on the night in July 2009 when they revealed to us she was pregnant with Dermot, such is the power of the internet to capture moments for posterity.


A Taste of Yunnan Province at Feng Huang Zhu Restaurant Beijing

The English wooden sign on the door simply says Yun Nan Restaurant Bar but Shan tells me the Chinese characters read Feng Huang Zhu – which translates as Phoenix Bamboo. It is an unprepossessing place from the outside, one of the many little hutong houses just around the corner from Drum and Bell Towers and a short walk from Hou Hai lake.
I love this area of Beijing. It is touristy but oozing with character and if I blot out the tackier souvenir shops, the traffic jams of tourist rickshaws and the swarm of Chinese tourists with matching check caps following their guide I can easily imagine myself as a child forty years ago chasing down the alleyways on bicycles as described by YiYun Li in Kinder than Solitude. It also is home to my favourite coffee shop in Beijing, the tiny sitting room that is Excuse Cafe on Bell Tower Square.
Pushing in the door at lunchtime on a sunny May day, we entered an oasis of tranquillity from the raucous street outside. A rippling water feature adorns the entrance hall complete with waterfalls, a turtle and fish which enthralled Dermot. A simple dining room is laid out with stools and wooden tables. Lanterns, hanging lamps and Yunnan artwork transported us to that southern province of China near the border with Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. Only one other table was taken at that hour of the day so the owners focussed on giving us the best of service.
This was another of Shan’s Groupon finds. She knew Yunnan was my second favourite cuisine even though I haven’t yet visited Dali or elsewhere in the province. But we did have a great Yunnan meal at Dali Courtyard in Beijing two years ago which I wrote about here.
The beautiful province of Yunnan has the largest diversity of plant life in China. Its is closer in style to Thai and Vietnamese cooking than to the food of other parts of China.  The food is hot and spicy with a focus on natural produce, like beautiful wild mushrooms foraged from the mountains and unique varieties of plants plucked from the countryside. Herbs are used in abundance especially lemon grass, coriander and mint. Sauces are lighter in consistency and because the quality of the raw ingredients is so good there is less emphasis on coatings – the meat, fish and vegetables are allowed to be the stars of the show.
When Shane first came to China seven years ago he spent time in Dali and almost settled there. He mused today that if he had his life might have taken a very different path. Oh the unknowing choices we make as we go through life.
Shan’s deal entitled us to a set menu. The owner looked dubiously at the three lao wei (foreigners) she was with and warned her some of the dishes were very spicy. She replied “bring it on”.
What followed was an extraordinary feast for the senses, especially the eyes and the tastebuds. The dishes he served us were:
Cold set jelly made from peas and drizzled with a spicy sauce
A garlicky mint leaf salad
Yunnan chilli beef laced with chillies – this is a recipe I have to track down
Stir-fried bitter green leaves – these didn’t taste bitter to me, just light and delicate
Cold rice noodles with shredded vegetables
Black three mince – a warm minced pork dish with preserved vegetables
Chicken stewed with whole small chillies, whole cloves garlic, cardamon, star anise and other spices I couldn’t recognise – another dish of stunning flavour
Tofu baked in banana leaf with spices and chilli
A barbecued whole fish stuffed with coriander and lemon grass and scattered with spring onion and chilli – I far prefer fish served this way. The skin had a crunchy texture and the flesh had absorbed the flavour from the herbs neutralising any muddy odours. It had been barbecued on a banana leaf which added to the aromatic flavours.
Bowls of rice.
We washed down this superb meal with glasses of warm water as it was too early in the day for beer. Each element of the meal was a success and the dishes all complemented one another. Dermot loved the pea jelly, fish and rice noodles and the owners fed him wedges of satsuma for dessert.
The total cost of the entire meal for four adults was 199 rmb or about €24 right in the centre of Beijing.
We walked the perimeter of Hou Hai lake afterwards, enjoying the peace once we escaped the busy tourist strip and noticing families enjoying a way of life that hasn’t changed much in 100 years despite the city growing upwards and outwards around it. And as we walked I hatched a dream to learn enough Mandarin to visit Yunnan and take some cooking lessons there. I will do it too… someday.

Sichuan Fish Hotpot at San Zhi Er, Beijing

Every now and again I have a meal in China that pushes me outside my comfort zone. I shouldn’t be surprised by that. Many travellers to China find the food challenging at times, the myriad tastes and textures that Chinese people find interesting because of their “mouth feel”, the range of body parts considered edible and the appeal of bony things from which they like to suck the flesh.
But I consider myself well used to the food at this stage, at least when it comes to eating in Beijing and I’m usually relatively unfazed by what is put in front of me. Yet inevitably, on one day on each visit, there’s a moment that screams at me “give me steak and chips…”
Yesterday was that day. Shan knows Sichuan is my favourite Chinese cuisine so with another one of her Groupon type deals she tracked down a Sichuan seafood hotpot restaurant called San Zhi Er. (Three Ears). This is one of a popular chain of Sichuan hotpot restaurants in Chengdu in Sichuan Province and elsewhere in China. There are two outlets in Beijing.
If you’ve been following the blog for a while you will know that Sichuan Province is deep in the centre of China. “Don’t be afraid of chilli heat” is a local saying so expect ma la mouth-numbing hot and spicy food. Typical dishes that I have cooked for the blog include fish-fragrant pork and aubergine, MaPo Dofu (tofu), Dan Dan noodles and twice-cooked pork. Boiled fish is in chilli oil is also a regional specialty. Sichuan peppercorns add the distinctive mouth-numbing character to the food which once tasted is not forgotten.
We arrived at San Zhi Er around 5 pm just as the restaurant was opening for dinner. We had walked through sticky afternoon heat from the Blue Zoo – the Ocean Aquarium near Worker’s Stadium. We lifted Dermot’s buggy up two flights of stairs and into the large dining room with rows of booths, each with its own hotpot burner sunk into the middle of the table, a hook on the panel outside for aprons to stop you making a mess of yourself while cooking and eating and a trolley for the ingredients to be added to your hotpot.
Dermot was cranky from the heat, lack of a nap and a head cold and not very enthusiastic about being confined to a high chair that was too big for him and oh so tempting to escape from. Believe you me a busy hot pot restaurant with trolleys laden with fish, meat and vegetables that he just longed to push about, waiters carrying steaming bowls of hotpot to the tables and a button at each table to switch on the burners is not an ideal environment for an adventurous 15 month old boy. But as always in China the friendly waiters never baulked at a toddler running amok. They got down on their hunkers to chat to him and he, charming as always with strangers, repayed their kindness with shy smiles, giggles and high fives.
As we took it in turns to attempt to corral him I surveyed my surroundings. Over in one corner the staff were lined up and, in sing song voices, reciting their motivational mantra about good service before the customers arrived. As each new guest came to the reception desk, a call of welcome was relayed up the stairs to one waiter after an other and carried all the way back to the kitchen.
In a cordoned off area a buffet of fresh fruit was laid out including honeydew melon, watermelon and orange slices. Along side it were dishes of condiments and sauces to make up your own preferred dipping sauce for your hot pot. I chose douban jiang chilli paste mixed with sesame paste, sichuan pepper oil, fried garlic, spring onions and a little soy – a taste combination reminiscent of the topping on dan dan noodles. Black vinegar is another option for the base and you can make your sauce as mild or spicy as you like.
Back at the table some starters arrived – the first was Husband and Wife Beef Slices – Fuqi Fei Pian – this was made in the traditional way with thinly sliced beef and beef lung treated with vinegar and seasoned with chili oil. As so often with Chinese dishes, there is a romantic story told of its origin. Guo Zhaohua and his wife sold their beef slices by trundling along with a small cart on the street. No one could resist the spicy smell and people liked the food so much they gave it the name Husband and Wife Lung Slices. I’ve had this dish in China Sichuan, Dublin made with just the sliced beef so I knew what delicious flavours to expect. The texture of the lung was new to me but not unpleasant. There were also sesame pancakes rolled into buns, bashed cucumber and slices of spicy pear.
Two dishes of hotpot stock came to our table – a spicy Sichuan stock flavoured with douban jiang, star anise and chillies and a milder white soup flavoured with tomatoes. They already contained chunks of river fish on the bone with the skin still on which had been cooked in the stock. To be honest I’m not all that keen on boiled or steamed river fish in China. To me it always tastes muddy and I found picking the flesh out with chopsticks from the bones and skin a bit of an ordeal.
Once we had eaten as much as we could of the fish, other items were brought along to be cooked by us in the hotpot. They included thinly sliced beef streaked with fat, triangular wedges of tofu, hard boiled quail’s eggs, pressed fish paste, enoki mushrooms, chunks of wo sun (the asparagus like vegetable from Shan’s home-cooked dinner), various green leafy vegetables – spinach, Chinese cabbage and the like – duck blood set in a red jelly that turned brown and into a consistency more like liver when cooked and finally tripe.
I could handle all of it apart from the tripe. I convinced myself that the duck’s blood wasn’t that far removed from the concept of Irish black pudding. I picked away at the fish and inhaled the rush of Sichuan spice from the steaming stock. But the greyish black tripe with a surface like a tongue gone wrong… nah… I couldn’t hack it despite its inoffensive taste… and I defy anyone to get a pretty picture of it.
So I have to admit to myself that while I love the kick of Sichuan spices, I have a way to go before I can manage the more far out ingredients that I am likely to encounter if I ever immerse myself in Sichuan Province.
All the same, if you ever find yourself in Beijing or Chengdu and want to try a genuine Sichuan hotpot, I would recommend San Zhi Er just don’t be afraid of the chilli heat or some of the other strange ingredients that might arrive at your table.
The total cost of our meal was 320 rmb or about €38 for four people including four beers and lots of glasses of warm water.
The Blue Zoo is also well worth a visit, especially if you are visiting Beijing with young children. They will enjoy the performing seal show. We were the only westerners in attendance yesterday and a source of fascination to the local grandparents and parents. They all want to know where Dermot comes from as he seems exotic to them. The walk through tunnels under the “sea” included sharks and real life “mermaids” (but mercifully not in the same tank) as well as some stunningly beautiful but deadly poisonous Lion Fish.
So it was a case of two ways with fish yesterday and I’ve included some photos of the living kind to take the bare look off that tripe!

Hunan dinner at Pindian Cuisine, Wangjing

I have to hand it to my daughter-in-law Shan. She keeps pushing out the boundaries when it comes to our dining experiences in Beijing – both geographically and in terms of the food. She has been trawling through the Chinese equivalent of Groupon for deals on line and reviews by Chinese diners to find places that might appeal to my ever-broadening tastes but that also serve dinner early and have high chairs for Dermot.
Last night’s excursion took us a 20 minute taxi ride further out of the city to Wangjing, a sub-district of Chaoyang and one of those new suburbs that has sprung up on the ever expanding perimeter of Beijing since the early 1990s. It is in the north east corner of the city just inside the 5th ring road. So many Koreans live there that it is known locally as Koreatown. The name translates as “View of Beijing” but you would be hard pressed to catch a glimpse of the city through the endless rows of sky scrapers. It is an unlikely place to find Hunan food but Shan had tracked down a restaurant called Pindian there that serves an authentic version of the cuisine.
Hunan is one of the steamy inland provinces of China, not as far west as Sichuan province. Its chefs and home cooks produce very hot, spicy, bold and colourful food for a hot and fiery people, with an emphasis on sourness. Local chefs use boiling, roasting and steaming to make dishes that are hot and sour, charred and mouth-numbing, fresh and fragrant, crispy and tender. The recipe for Chairman Mao’s Red-Braised Pork from my archives is a good example as is Hunan Style Crispy Chilli Beef.
Cookery writer Fuchsia Dunlop’s Revolutionary Cookbook is my bible of Hunan cooking and I get lost in the world she depicts of the birthplace of Chairman Mao and the exotic, spicy dishes created there. Ihave tried many of her recipes at home but, apart from a few recipes I learnt at Hutong Cuisine cookery school when I last visited Beijing, such as Hunan Steamed Fish, I have never tasted the food of this region while China.
I plan to get to Hunan Province some day but, like any capital city, Beijing is a melting pot of all regional cuisines and I was delighted to be getting the chance to taste the real thing here. I knew to expect it to be even  spicier than Sichuan food but without the same addiction to numbing Sichuan pepper. Apart from that I had an open mind and I have one rule when eating out with Shan – try everything put in front of me at least once without asking questions.
Pindian was on the first floor of a modern block and was a large, well-lit room with tables designed to cater for family gatherings and private dining rooms off to one side. It’s layout with Chinese lanterns and double happiness pendants dangling from the ceiling was typical of thousands of family restaurants through the city and millions throughout the world. A large fish tank filled with enormous goldfish lined one wall and was ideal for distracting Dermot. Our table was at a window overlooking the suburban street as workers made their way home from the city.
The Groupon deal Shan had found included a set menu to which she added two other dishes so that Dermot would have something less spicy to eat.
To start with we were served a jug of warm and rather sweet corn juice and glasses of warm water and we ordered some Yangjing beers to go with them.
The first plate to arrive at our table was gan guo niu wa – a dish made with bullfrog and served sizzling at our table. Shan was surprised I had never eaten frog before, not even frogs legs in France. The meat was very tender with a consistency a little like chicken but lots of small bones to be dealt with. It was scattered with chillies, spring onions and peanuts. The flavour and cooking style was similar to the “drying pot” potato we had at our Peking Duck restaurant, XiHeYaYuan on Saturday night
The dish of wide flat rice noodles stir-fried with Chinese cabbage that was served next was a lovely light accompaniment to this and the other dishes that followed.
Sizzling beef with green chillies was lip-tingling hot and the star of the night. The chillies – hang jiao – used are spicy hot but full of flavour.
Shan had ordered dried radish with smoked pork which is a regional specialty but what was served involved equally tasty dried green beans. I loved this dish. The smoked pork is bought part cooked, thinly sliced and tossed with the dried vegetable, mashed whole garlic, ginger, chillies and spring onion. And the good news is that Shan has ordered some of this smoked pork on line so that we can try out a variation of this dish at home.
Steamed whole fish came in a soy sauce and facing me with doleful eyes. I fear I will never get fond of the appearance of whole fish but the flavour was good. It was served splayed so that you could remove all the flesh from the bones without ever having to turn it over as that would be unlucky – it symbolises a fishing boat turning over in water.
A free range chicken was chopped into pieces and cooked in a rich broth flavoured with ginger, spring onion and other spices. In northern China it is typical to remove the meat from the soup with your chopsticks and eat it boiled rice before drinking the broth at the end of the meal as a soup. It was delicious.
A plate of little deep-fried buns rounded off the meal. I wasn’t sure whether they would be sweet or savoury when I bit into them – one of the hazards of eating out in China. In fact they were like sweet little donuts.
With the Groupon deal the total cost of the meal for the four of us was 242RMB or about €28. By any standards this was excellent value.
And now, if asked about Hunan food, I can say “I’m partial to a bit of bullfrog myself”.

Japanese style dinner at Taikiku Beijing

Day 2 of #NaiNaiVisit and I’m fighting off jet-lag, falling asleep at odd moments in the middle of the day, drifting off on the sofa as soon as we get back from dinner and awake writing blog posts at 2.30 am. Between naps I brushed up on my culinary Chinese from Sybaritica. I love John’s posts from the far reaches of Northern Canada. I’ve learnt a lot about Chinese food from him and his Culinary Chinese blog posts are an invaluable aid to eating out here.
For breakfast today we had jiam bing – a Bejing pancake folded and layered with spices which Shan picked up from the local shop for a few kuai, the equivalent of about 6oc. Later we took a leisurely stroll around the neighbourhood here in Upper East Beijing. It’s easy to forget you are in a city of 21 million people in these tree-lined streets and, on a sunny Spring Sunday, the local park could be any suburban park in the world, the sheen of greenness not yet parched by the summer sun and trees lining the skyline wherever you look.

A walk in the park with YeYe
A walk in the park with YeYe and NaiNai

We had a quick lunch in Element Fresh near the Lido Centre. My ex-patriate son sometimes has a longing for an English/Irish/American breakfast but the quality and value is patchy in these parts. I stuck with Asian options. The Lido Centre is where we had the Chinese meal that led me to starting the blog with this post. More recently the Lido Hotel has become notorious for being the temporary home to the Chinese relatives of those on board the doomed flight MH370. They have left now, their questions about the fate of their relatives unanswered, and the security detail has gone too.
Shan’s heat-seeking ability to find interesting restaurants led us to Taikiku for an early dinner – a Japanese fusion restaurant in Dongfang Donglu about 30 minutes walk from us in the Chaoyang District. I can only find one English language review on line in That’s Beijing.
We were joined by Shane and Shan’s friend Carl, himself an occasional restaurant reviewer, and led across slate steps past a striking water feature to our private wood-panelled dining room where two Korean style BBQs were sunk into the dining table with seating for the six of us including Dermot in a high chair.
Shan ordered in Chinese and the staff entered the orders on iPads which transmitted them straight to the kitchen. The option we went for was “all you can eat” from the a la carte menu, with a few of the more expensive items being out of bounds. The owner imports his own Waygu beef from Australia and the restaurant has earned a reputation locally for the quality of its meats and sashimi.
The dishes came in waves so fast that I found it hard to note them all. They included:
Vietnamese spring roll with avocado and shrimp, Waygu beef sashimi, sashimi of tuna and scallops and later sea urchin, all of first grade quality, two salads – one of avocado and asparagus, the other of organic vegetables, a stir-fried vegetable dish and a kimchee hot pot brimful of seafood and soba noodles.
Waygu Sashimi
Waygu Sashimi at Taikiku

A selection of side dishes at Taikiku
A selection of side dishes at Taikiku

On the BBQ at the table Shan and I cooked whole fresh shrimp, platters of Waygu Beef, beef tongue, oysters and – a first for me – pork intestines chewy, slightly aromatic and tasty. The Waygu beef came thinly sliced so that you could cook it in a few moments or in long strands that you could cut into bite size pieces with a scissors before cooking. The cuts we had were short-rib and dragon cut (inside skirt).
On the BBQ at Taikiku
On the BBQ at Taikiku

Dermot’s favourite dish was grilled eel although he was partial to the noodles from the kimchee hot pot too.
Dermot nibbled the eel before I got a photo!
Dermot nibbled the eel before I got a photo!

All of this came washed down with seemingly endless quantities of sake, green tea and Japanese beer. Despite the quantity of food it was all very light and easy to digest because we had no starchy dishes such as rice or potatoes.
The bill for all five of us was 1262 RMB or about €145. There was no charge for Dermot as he is under three and, bless him, he is remarkably patient at adult dinners once you allow him join in the food and the conversation and explore a bit at the end.
Joining in the fun
Joining in the fun

As a footnote I had my first experience of a Japanese toilet there this evening with heated seats, jets that can be directed at the touch of the button to various parts of the anatomy with controlled pressure and a built in dryer – a far cry from some of my more traditional Chinese toilet experiences but that’s a whole other blogpost.

While Shane and Shane took Dermot home to bed by taxi, we walked home through the balmy suburban streets and I soaked up the atmosphere of neon lit restaurants, Sunday evening bustle and men fishing by flashlight on the banks of a murky canal. Because I had being studying Sybaritca’s blog post on the Mandarin characters for Beijing, I seemed to see them wherever I looked in the names of restaurants and hotels. Bei Jing – Northern Capital – a city that works its way under your skin and into your heart.
So many ways to say Beijing
So many ways to say Beijing


A Tale of Two Ducks and dinner at XiHeYaYuan, Beijing

There is a wild wind blowing in Beijing. It’s rattling the windows of Shane and Shan’s 21st floor apartment. And if you watch closely you can see the other block sway. It’s making an adventure of the walk to the neigbourhood restaurant, requiring me to keep a vice like grip on the handles of Dermot’s buggy to avoid him and me being bowled over by its force and catching underneath the hood to spin it back sharply, exposing him to the majestic strength of the elements on the city street.
The wind merely adds to the obstacle course that’s involved in venturing out with a toddler along the sidewalks of this manic city. Footpaths disappear into a heap of rubble forcing you out onto the busy thoroughfare. “Green for go” pedestrian crossings give only the vaguest indication that you might have right of way. Taxis change lanes erratically veering onto the footpaths at a whim to drop off their passengers. Drivers slam open their doors or take off at speed without casting a backward glance to check for unsuspecting pedestrians. A man manouevres a  motorised tricycle laden with market produce down the cycle lane while smoking a cigarette and talking on his mobile phone.
And that’s just on our road – Jiang Tai Xi Lu – in the north east of Beijing
Unfazed by all this, Dermot is loving his evening jaunt to the local Peking Duck restaurant XiHeYaYuan at the Indigo Shopping Mall. He is absorbing the sights and sounds of his native city and enjoying the force of the gale on his face, as he tries to play “peep oh” with the windbreak on his buggy.
He was equally unfazed by our arrival this morning, greeting us with laughter and bao bao (hugs), careering around the apartment to show us his new found skills and deciding that suitcases on wheels are far more fun than any toys or books they contain.
Inside the Indigo Shopping Mall all is calm and piped music soothes the windswept as newly middle class Beijingers explore this westernised wonderland before choosing one of the stylish restaurants around the glass dome-covered courtyard for their evening meal.
XiHeYaYuan is one of those restaurants and has become our restaurant of choice for the first or last night of our visits since it opened last March. I reviewed it on the blog last April. It may be a modern, chain restaurant but it knows how to serve a perfect roast duck as well as a host of Sichuan inspired specialities.

Our hosts
Our hosts

The Drinks List!
The Drinks List!

A whole Peking Duck carved at our table
A whole Peking Duck carved at our table

"Now what shall I choose?"
“Now what shall I choose?”

Once again we let Shan do the ordering. We polish off the duck while she chooses 8 dishes in all including rice and noodles.
In keeping with Chinese tradition, there are two cold dishes – Sichuan spicy noodles and a cold vegetable – wo sun, spiced with jalapeno peppers, which Shan says is a member of the asparagus family but I don’t recognise it.
Some of the dishes are familiar – dan dan noodles, Sichuan fried green beans cut small the way Shan prepares them and a lattice of pork-filled pot-sticker dumplings with black vinegar dipping sauce.
Two of the dishes are new to me – a “Drying Pot” dish of potato slices with onions – gan guo tu dou pian, chillies and thinly sliced pork belly in an aromatic sauce cooking away over a burner at our table. Edamame beans, speckled with mince and tasty but not spicy. The names don’t always have a direct translation and I will be searching my Fuchsia Dunlop cookery books when I get home in an effort recreate them.
Sichuan delights
An array of Sichuan delights

Pot-sticker Dumplings
Pot-sticker Dumplings

Licking the plate clean
“Sure I had to lick my plate clean!”

There is lots of food on the table but because it is mostly vegetarian with just traces of pork and beef we don’t feel over full at the end. It certainly satisfies my need for a Sichuan kickstart to the holiday though. And the total cost of the meal for the four of us and Dermot? 504 rmb or just €60.
After the meal Dermot and I go walk about, or at least he potters around the courtyard as I trail after him. He is charming every one he encounters, flirting with pretty young Chinese women, making friends and swapping bao bao hugs with a little boy who calls him “younger brother” and looking back once in a while to check that I am still there and that he has permission to venture just a little bit further.
As we trundle home once again through the evening traffic, night falls and a perfect crescent moon hangs over this city of contrasts – the wind has earned its keep. It has blown away the smog to give us a rare star-lit sky.
I check my in-box when I get in to find that Claire and Mike have cooked Peking Duck in Sydney so that they will feel closer to us and their godson.  She didn’t know we were also having duck tonight – food connecting our family across the continents once again.
Claire's splendid Peking Duck
Claire’s splendid Peking Duck

Very authentic looking Claire!
Very authentic looking Claire!