Sunday, July 21, 2013


As a final ta da of the spring 2013 eating season, we decided to go out with a bang and make it an over-nighter.

Our husbands are wonderful, supportive, loving and, well, extremely busy.  Even though they have been kept in the loop about what it is we are doing with STARA food, the response has been….mild. Fair enough, but this was actually to our advantage when planning our weekend surprise.

One of the most unique Beijing restaurants, and a definite must visit, is Brian McKenna @ The Courtyard. Brian McKenna himself is hailed as one of the most talented chefs of his generation. At the mere age of 21 he worked as head chef at a Michelin awarded restaurant in Europe while at the same time travelling extensively to learn new techniques and flavors.  Arriving in Beijing in 2007, he began his successful career at Blu Lobster and later opened ROOM at the prestigious Park Hyatt Hotel.   Chef McKenna combines traditional and modern cooking techniques and for those (like us) interested in new ways to appreciate food, a visit is an extraordinary and memorable adventure.

The Courtyard is actually an old Beijing establishment, having first opened in the late 90’s and is located just east of the Forbidden City overlooking the moat. The reflection of the old gates on the water is magical.  After extensive renovations, Brian McKenna @ The Courtyard opened for a private party on December 31, 2012.

On this particular Friday the instructions were simple to husband no.1: “Dress nicely, you will be picked up at 6.30.” A tempting cooler waited in the car but was not to be touched until husband no.2 had been picked up at his office. The driver followed our instructions flawlessly at this point and everything went smoothly. The gin and tonics hidden in the cooler were appreciated and they arrived safely at the restaurant.  The boys had no idea what was in store!! 

We had other plans!  A few hours earlier, after fighting the Friday Beijing traffic and checking into the hotel,  we enjoyed relaxing massages at the spa. The food and beverage credit had been used for lovely bubbles and we were taking our sweet time beautifying ourselves and reliving our younger years, getting ready while playing with our iPods and make-up kits.

Time management didn’t quite work out for us though and our men arrived before us to the restaurant but then again; should ladies be kept waiting?  We were quickly showed to our table, beautifully overlooking the moat but with a surprisingly bare table setting. Actually, there was none, we guessed that the food was supposed to take center stage.

At Brian McKenna @ The Courtyard there is only a tasting menu - one with an optional wine pairing and one without; No need to guess our choice!!  The amuse bouche arrived - feather light green pea soup with a coconut foam served in a test tube, rich, locally produced, foie gras on a caramel rice cake and mini oysters tucked inside halved kafir limes with a shaved ice and pop rock topping. Yum!!  The flavors and textures were literally popping in our mouths.

A whole loaf of warm, house made sourdough bread came next with a trio of toppings. Luckily we all liked different ones and didn't have to fight each other off and, though we tried to put a hold on ourselves, it was difficult!!

The piece de la resistance appeared next - the garden salad. Doesn’t sound like much does it? Well, if we had to pick one dish of all that were served this night, this is what we would eat all night long. A glass cube filled with edible dirt (made out of over 50 ingredients!) in which baby vegetables are planted. Using a mini garden rake and spade, the salad is topping for a light frisee salad topped with an egg poached to perfect perfection at 60 degrees. The creaminess of the egg created a beautiful dressing for the salad.  It was impossible not to add more and more “dirt” with a texture and flavor impossible to describe. It was nutty, chewy and crispy at the same time with so many complex layers of flavors.  Phenomenal!

With that out of the way we continued on with warm smoked salmon, its texture so light and smell so fragrant of juniper and smokish delight. The presentation stunned us again; a tagine like cloche over a plate that oozed with sweet smelling smoke.  When the cloche was lifted, the pinkish orangyness of the salmon appeared and melted in our mouths.

Though the rest of the meal was amazing (to say the least) the remaining courses did not wow us the same as the start.  There was a lobster bolognaise with a homemade linguini to die for (it is really hard to make linguini that thin yet al dente) and though the sauce was good, it was basically lobster in tomato sauce.  There were the scallops, cooked two ways to perfection of course, and beautifully presented but with so many components that it became a bit confusing and overwhelming.

Maybe, ok probably…most likely…in all honesty; at this point in the dinner we were a little bit, ok we were somewhat…aum…we were pretty happy after the generous pourings of the wine pairings (which were all excellent by the way) and even though the lamb course and the inside out raspberry cheesecake were excellent, we were done.

All in all, it was a wonderful experience and we will definitely return. The food was simply astonishing and the service the best we have experienced in Beijing; it was positively a night to remember and reminisce about. The beauty of it all, the execution, the techniques used and the produce! And supposedly local at that! We are still waiting for the information about the local foie gras by the way; a reminder is in order…

But it had been a long week and we were ready to move on to the next step of the surprise; the new “bar” we had heard of on the 13th floor of the Grand Hyatt….And no, we aren't telling!!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Running (eating) up to summer

We are so very lucky. In the months leading up to summer, we were fortunate to eat at some of Beijing’s best restaurants. We experienced culinary wonders and cultural differences; there were meals when the total bill equaled the price of a plane ticket to Europe and others where the total wouldn’t even be enough to pay for public transportation in, for example, Stockholm.

There was the surprise birthday party at Capital M where the art deco décor blew us away; the cocktails sublime but the menu confusing and the service deteriorating as the evening went on. We mused about how it seems to be enough to have a name, a location and in this case amazing décor and a reputation from another city (M on the bund in Shanghai) for people to come.

Then we took a visitor to a new favorite local hangout (more on this in a future post). Always busy, always crowded. We stumbled upon the eatery after wanting to return to the restaurant next door but discovered it had been renovated and turned into a hot pot place, not what we were looking for this sweltering day in May. We ordered old favorites: duck fajitas (minced spiced duck served with little holed out buns), cold spinach and peanuts in a light sesame dressing, eggplant, always eggplant – the Chinese cook is so well. The rest we can’t remember, we were slightly distracted watching the grandparents at the next table letting their toddler pee in a plastic bottle – at the table! We’ve seen a lot but this was a first for both of us.

After an arduous move, that threatened to send both one of us and her mother who kindly flew over to help, into an early grave, we treated ourselves to the best restaurant in Beijing: Maison Boulud, one of Chef Daniel Boulud’s eateries around the world. The room was sublime, the menu extensive and the service superb. We opted for the tasting menu with wine pairing and were in for a real treat. Everything from the amuse bouche to the complimentary macaroons and marshmallows were flawless. We enjoyed one delicacy cooked to perfection after another.  Then, as we were winding down, one server passed us with their homemade terrine and asked if we didn’t want to try a little bit, on the house? A restaurant to rave about and to return.  Now if only we had had a fat expense account to charge it to …

A few days later, after a little bit of shopping at a newly discovered “store” two blocks south of Hong Qiao market, turn right and into the apartment building, two floors down in to the basement, through the bomb shelter and then the 5th door on the left (this is China!), we searched for an alternative to the very touristy eating place across the street and stumbled upon a quaint restaurant with tables outside, nicely shaded by trees. What a find!  The best cold tofu with century eggs we have had so far, eggplant (again) to die for, a couple of more dishes and all washed down with cold Yanying beer – all under 100rmb (about USD15).

Beijing is wonderful like that; the contrasts - the experiences, the meetings, the challenges and the pleasures. We are both taking a break from it all but will report from around the world throughout summer. Happy eating!  Over and out.