No mortal should ever have to compete for attention with James Bond. But one sunny morning in Beijing, standing outside the red-and-gold-painted 15th-century palaces that make up the Forbidden City, I found myself listening to Roger Moore warbling at me in a sultry voice while chef Susanna Foo called out my name from a few steps away. Moore's voice was on an audiotape-headphone set I'd rented for a self-guided tour of the palaces and courtyards: "Here emperors would escape to unwind and contemplate the wonder and beauty of nature," Moore purred as I elbowed my way through the crowds in the Imperial Garden. Meanwhile, Susanna, my traveling companion, was waving at me. When she suggested we go have lunch at an unusual new noodle place she'd heard wonderful things about, I quickly found the off button on my headphones. Sorry, Roger.
It was a series of enormously distracting conversations with Susanna that landed me in Beijing in the first place. For months before our trip, she tortured me with descriptions of foods she'd discovered there. She had her own reasons for the trip—not just to watch me eat, but also to get ideas for her two restaurants: Susanna Foo Chinese Cuisine in Philadelphia and the two-year-old Suilan at Atlantic City's Borgata casino.
One of the world's fastest-growing, most manic cities, Beijing is not yet as shot through with Western influences as Shanghai. For that reason, it's also the city Susanna finds more inspiring. Just about every Chinese regional cuisine has staked out some real estate here, along the narrow old alleyways known as hutong, and on the boulevards crammed with department stores, street-food stalls, tea shops and the occasional Pizza Hut and McDonald's. Right now the city is frantically preparing for the 2008 Olympics. The Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron is creating an Olympic stadium that looks like a gigantic bird's nest; Rem Koolhaas is designing new headquarters for Chinese Central Television; and British architect Lord Norman Foster is building what's intended to be the biggest airport in the world, supplanting Hong Kong's. Construction sites are everywhere, which means both high-speed modernization and the demolition of many of the hutong and older buildings that give the city its charm.