Sunday, March 24, 2013

Yum...ami - The Best Burger in Beijing


I went back to Pinotage one day when I was craving red meat. I’ve heard people rave about their hamburger but had not yet tried it myself as, in my belief, a burger is a burger is a burger; the toppings are what makes it.  And, if I go to a nice restaurant, I want to try something new; something that the chef had put a real thought in to, something imaginative and different, challenging even. Something I am not likely to make myself.

Still, this day, I just had to have a burger. I completely expected the Beef Burger with Umami Seasoning, Sautéed Mushrooms, Caramelized Onion, House Dried Tomatoes, Parmesan Crisp, and House Made Tomato Sauce to be a simple mushroom and cheese burger but boy, was I wrong…

Umami is one of the five basic tastes together with sweet, salty, bitter and sour. The word is borrowed from Japanese where it can be translated as “pleasant savory taste”. It is slightly brothy or meaty (which distinguishes it from salty) with a long flavorful aftertaste that pleasantly coats the tongue. It was originally discovered in Japan by Professor Kikunae Ikeda who in 1908 managed to isolate glutamic acid from kombu, a kind of seaweed often used in Japanese cooking. MSG (monosodium glutamate) is often added to dishes to produce the same results as natural umami seasoning but MSG is often misused. The right amount added can really enhance flavors but use too much and the food becomes unpleasant and almost chemically tasting. Though there are no scientific proof; I know many who have felt queasy or even been hallucinating after a meal heavy on the MSG (“I can see pink elephants!” – ok, perhaps the bai jiu was talking a little bit…).

The burger at Pinotage was made with prime ground beef, perfectly cooked to my liking. The mushrooms sautéed until perfection, the onions sweet and tender, the tomato sauce and dried tomatoes unexpectedly savory and the parmesan crisp nutty, salty and well, crispy. The top bun I removed immediately (why are they always too big) but the bottom part soaked up the meaty juices perfectly and added an extra texture to each perfect bite.

Will I go back for the burger?  Definitely!  Will I make it myself?  Not likely. Why should I when I can have the perfect burger for 80 kuai at a nice restaurant 15 minutes from my house. Besides, while MSG will never cross my threshold, I have no idea how to extract anything from seaweed.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Slice of Lost Heaven

It’s restaurant week!

Restaurant week is a pretty much worldwide event, most major cities across the planet have adopted the idea and last week, it was Beijing’s turn. We managed to score a table at Lost Heaven, a Yunnan restaurant with flavors of the Dai, Bai, Yi, Mao and Naxi hill tribes located in Qianmen, just south of Tiananmen Square.

One of us had eaten at the restaurant before and raved about it. The last time the other had Yunnan food she was served fried ants and grasshoppers, snake – boiled, fried and made into soup; all chased down with a shot of snake gall bladder and blood. Yum!

The restaurant is located in a lovely courtyard, adjacent to Maison Boulud, one of the famed Daniel Boulud’s restaurants around the globe, and an art gallery. It’s classy; there are smiling (!) people welcoming us as we step out of our car and into the front room bar; which definitely has potential with its plethora of bottles, bartenders and cozy sitting areas. Today is not the time to examine the bar more closely though so we head to the restaurant itself which is beautifully decorated in what we can only assume are traditional Yunnan artifacts.

Gorgeous table settings and fresh watermelon juice

There are two special Restaurant Week menus at Lost Heaven; one for two people and one for three. We were four people dining but there were no menu accommodating that number. We settled for the menu for three and ordered two extra dishes from the a la carte menu as well, just to be on the safe side. And boy, were we safe; the dishes kept coming in and they were all delicious!

The first dish to arrive was a tea leaf salad, a concoction with spice, acidity and an unexpected crunch.  Chicken salad followed – tender roasted chicken slices, a mixture of herbs, all presented on top of crisp greens. Then came the wild vegetable cakes with a fabulous lemon and tomato chutney, smoky eggplant and cold tofu salad, perfectly roasted pork in thin slices with a delicately spiced soy dipping sauce, a beef dish we could have done without, a roasted eggplant dish with a spicy tomato sauce and finally, slivers of white fish covered in a black herbal mixture with a surprisingly chewy texture. We were stuffed by the time the fresh fruit arrived and admired the watermelon slice cut beautifully into the shape of a dragon but were unable to finish the whole plate.

What was left after we started to dig into the yummy Tea Leaf Salad
Smoky Eggplant with Cold Silken Tofu
Wild Vegetable Cakes (we could eat two plates of these!)
An Amazing Chicken Salad (we forgot the name:))
Roast Pork
Lovely White Fish

Will we go back? Most definitely!! Did it give us inspiration enough to try to put our spin on it? Njaaa, maybe not. We were definitely inspired by the combination of spices, textures and the presentation of the dishes and we could certainly put a westernized twist to it.  But it is probably best to simply return to Lost Heaven the next time we feel the pull of Yunnan cuisine. We would like to know how to carve a dragon out of a watermelon though!

Can you spot the dragon?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Play on Pinotage

One of our favorite restaurants in the 'countryside' of Shunyi is Pinotage (  This South African establishment, led by the amazing Amber Deetlef, is an oasis of casual refined dining and sells some of the best South African wines around. Shunyi offers plenty of restaurants including a myriad of local varieties (pop rock duck anyone?) but a nice, sophisticated eatery like Pinotage is hard to find.

However, as much as we enjoy the food, we couldn't help but wonder what would happen if we put the STARAspin on a few of her dishes. Joined by visiting parents, we set off to find the ideal dishes to play with at home. Interestingly enough, we left the restaurant with a whole new set of ideas than what we had expected before our lunch. As we had visited Pinotage numerous times in the past we already knew the menu quite well and had an idea beforehand what we would choose to make.

We started off with Spiced Tuna Ribbons,  Mushroom Parcel, Roasted Cauliflower Soup and Chicken Livers followed by Lamb en Croute, Grilled Sea Bass with a Fennel & Mustard Crust, Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Apple Salsify Puree and South African sausages served with a maize puree. At this point we were already pretty full and had all but decided to skip dessert and just have coffee but couldn’t resist sharing the Malva pudding, mostly because neither of us was sure of what it exactly is.

We left the restaurant sated and happy, a box of wine richer as well, with plenty of new ideas and a menu to plan. Invitation for the inaugural STARAfood had been sent out and there was no going back now.

After careful planning we set out to shop at Beijing’s San Yuan Li market, a haven for a food lover. There you can literally find anything and everything. Vegetables, animal parts of all kinds (and we mean ALL), cooking utensils and why not change a watch battery while you are at it?  We headed for our favorite stalls and found almost all we needed, knowing for sure that we could locate the remaining few items at the stores close to our homes.

Sanyuanli Market

As our first guests, we invited an American couple, known food and wine-ists; one set of visiting parents and a bonus man since one of our spouses was bedbound with food poisoning (NOT from our doing we might add!).

We started out with bubbles, as one should, and served Smoked Salmon Tuilles and Blue Cheese and Fig biscuits to go with it. The salmon enclosed wasabi whipped goat’s cheese and presented the bite sized nibbles on Chinese soup spoons with a dash of soy, lemon and honey reduction.

Big success, huge! The only complaint was that there were too many…

As dinner was served, we poured a beautiful and not too fruity Sauvignon Blanc and served the Lightly Roasted Cauliflower soup with blue cheese, roasted pine nuts and a drizzle of white truffle oil. The cheese gave the soup nice undertones and the truffle oil gave it the oomph that was lacking before. Again, our guests complained; too much!

Our third course was Wild Mushroom Paquets, or cigars more likely. A variety of finely chopped wild mushrooms were cooked down with cream, blue cheese, water chestnuts and prosciutto crudo; then rolled in filo pastry and baked to flaky perfection. A balsamic reduction and pomegranate seeds decorated the plates.

As our main we had decided to take on the lamb en croute. But instead of baking the lamb with the pastry we decided to roast slices of aubergine and stack them with creamed leeks. The lamb fillets were marinated with lemon, red wine, rosemary and bay leaves and quickly pan fried so they were still beautifully pink inside. We made a parsley pesto to go on the plate as well (which, by the way, worked great with the leftover mushroom cigars the next day…). We served a South African Cabernet Sauvignon from 2007 with our meat, a wine that we didn’t mind enjoying long after we cleared the plates.

Done! Well, a meal needs a sweet ending of course and we were so very lucky to receive a bottle of Ice Wine from one set of guests. The Ice Wine worked wonders with the Whipped Ricotta with Grand Marnier and Rosemary marinated berries.

An espresso and a variety of after dinner drinks waited for us and our work was done!
All in all, a success we think; the only question is…where shall we go next and who will be invited to dinner?

Thank you Amber for the inspiration and thank you Xiu for helping to clean up!

Until next time….

Monday, March 4, 2013

Welcome to STARAfood Beijing!!

There is no doubt that Beijing is a food lovers’ Mecca. Beijing offers a wide variety of local and international cuisines, to all tastes and wallets. Hand pulled noodles in steaming bowls of soup, dumplings of every shape and form, exotic specialties like tongue numbing hot dishes from Szechuan and deep fried critters from Yunnan, French bistros and Italian trattorias; both simple cafes and beer house and chefs awarded with Michelin stars are represented in this gigantic city – going hungry is not an option.

But, have you ever been out eating and thought, "This meal is great but I wonder what it would be like if I put my own spin on it?" That is the idea behind our blog. Our grand plan is to host monthly dinner parties with friends who will tell it like it is. Hopefully our 'spin' will work, but if not, there is always wine! We have the uttermost respect for the men and women who choose to dedicate their lives for our pleasure and satisfied pallets and bellies, and we do not try to copy their original ideas and craft, simply get inspired by them and passing their ideas forward through us.

Do you know of a fabulous restaurant we should to try or an idea for a spin on your favorite dish? Let us know and join us as we get creative with Beijing's culinary scene!
Who knows; you might just get invited to dinner….