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Fine China

F&W travel editor Salma Abdelnour skips the starfish skewers but devours pretty much everything else—including exquisite dan dan noodles and fiery shrimp—on a Beijing food tour with brilliant Philadelphia-based chef Susanna Foo.

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.

For now, a lot of the classic architecture survives—even while the streets thrum with new energy—and I swear I detect a hint of pride in Susanna as she shows me around. With most celebrity chefs, you don't have to search hard for signs of braggadocio. When Susanna boasts, she does so in her typically soft-spoken way, with the same modesty that shows up in everything from her ladylike skirt-and-blouse outfits to her demure bob. Still, she breaks into a proud smile each time she thinks of another reason why she loves Beijing. "When tourists visit Shanghai, it's almost like going to Tokyo or New York. But in Beijing you see more of the culture and history of China, though the city is changing fast," she explained to me as we met the first morning in the marble-floored lobby of our grand hotel, the Peninsula Palace Beijing.

Susanna was born in Inner Mongolia, spent her early childhood in Shanxi province in northern China, and lived in Shanghai and Taiwan before moving to the United States with her Chinese-born engineer husband in 1968. But she spent her childhood fantasizing about Beijing, where her father, a soldier who fought in Chiang Kai-shek's army against Mao Tse-tung, had attended boarding school in the 1920s and eaten the most memorable food of his life. Young Susanna grew up hearing about the supremely juicy local lamb, crisp-skinned chicken and duck and elaborate imperial-style cuisine.

Susanna's career as a chef, which began 26 years ago at her in-laws' Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia, has always been about conjuring the flavors and food memories of her youth. When she opened Susanna Foo Chinese Cuisine in Philadelphia in 1987, she immediately grabbed the city's attention and was named an F&W Best New Chef in 1989 for her profoundly flavorful Chinese dishes tinged with Western influences. For example, in her spin on a classic stir-fried dish called Tung An chicken, Susanna uses free-range poussin, replaces bamboo shoots with fresh artichoke (since fresh bamboo shoots are hard to find in the U.S.) and mixes in rhubarb for tang. And she often makes Chinese sauces using French techniques; for instance, she reduces soy sauce with white wine and spikes the mixture with ancho chiles to liven up the traditional Sichuan dish kung pao chicken. Having first laid out this philosophy in her influential 1995 cookbook Susanna Foo Chinese Cuisine, she's updated and expanded on her ideas in Fresh Inspiration, which is due out this month.

Susanna flagged down a taxi for us outside the Forbidden City's main gate, and we hobbled through car-and-bike-clogged streets until we finally arrived at Noodle Loft, a two-year-old restaurant in the northeast district of Chaoyang, owned by Shanxi native Danshi Lin. What looked like a drab building on the outside turned out to house Beijing's version of a retro-cool diner, with butterscotch-leather-and-chrome stools along a curvy counter, overlooking an open kitchen. One cook shaved dough over a grater to make a spaetzlelike noodle; another snipped the dough and slung it like a lasso to form long strips; another rolled it into cylinders. Soon we were staring at 12 bowls of noodles in different shapes, and almost as many dipping sauces, including a hot-and-sour broth with bamboo shoots, a vinegary one with pickled vegetables and a tart one with tomato, pork and egg. When I dipped some cat-ear-shaped noodles into the tomato mixture, I discovered a strange but harmonious mix of Italian and Chinese flavors. Tomatoes, Susanna explained, are common in northern China; they were introduced in the early 1600s after Spanish conquistadors discovered them in Latin America. They're called "western persimmons" because they look like the indigenous orange fruit.

One of the biggest surprises at Noodle Loft is that Shanxi's aged black vinegar (tarter than balsamic but with some of its sweetness) is served on the rocks as a drink. I have a vinegar fetish and couldn't get enough, but the drink seemed to have a limited constituency, even among locals. On the way out of the restaurant, I talked a waiter into pouring some into a bottle for me to smuggle back home to New York.

Shanxi food was new to me, but imperial cuisine wasn't. At least I didn't think it was. I'd eaten at some restaurants in America that claimed to offer this type of cuisine, which was invented in Beijing's palaces and which refers to a style of service (a procession of fancily plated dishes served to royalty and VIPs) and a class of ingredients (extremely high-quality and very expensive). Most contemporary restaurants that call themselves imperial-style, both in China and in the U.S., tend to be either half-witted imitations or faded relics, Susanna told me when we arrived at Tian Di Yi Jia, in Beijing's central Dongcheng district. This two-year-old restaurant is one of the few Susanna found that does justice to imperial tradition. I'd worried the dining room would be stiff and stultifyingly ornate. Instead, we walked into a fantastically beautiful space, with marble-topped tables on islands of black granite tile, surrounded by ponds filled with bright-orange koi.

Tian Di Yi Jia's thick menu would impress any head of state, with its 10 shark's-fin preparations and seven abalone dishes; both are status foods Susanna serves to high-rolling Chinese-American gamblers at Suilan. Susanna told me she doesn't understand why abalone is so popular: "It doesn't have much flavor. It's really just to show that you have a lot of money." We tried the marinated abalone dipped in Chinese mustard—which, sure enough, tasted mainly like Chinese mustard. Then we sampled some imperial-style dishes Susanna considered more truly regal, including rolls of shaved daikon filled with chopped carrots; silky goose liver from the town of Chaozhou; and a Sichuan-inspired dish of fried freshwater shrimp with red chiles. "Emperors would have been surrounded by a thousand little dishes like this," Susanna said as we made our way through a dozen plates. At the end, we had the restaurant's signature shang bu jan dessert, a jiggling yellow dome made with sugar, egg yolks and a magic ingredient: lard. "The name means 'nothing sticks on your spoon,'." our waiter explained. When we dug our spoons into it, the shang bu jan peeled off as easily as Play-Doh.

Like China's doomed monarchy, we couldn't stay in the palace forever. Soon we were off to South Beauty, on the northeast outskirts of the Dongcheng district near the second ring road, one of the highways that circle the city. Beijing, a longtime resident had told me, "doesn't have a downtown; the whole city is downtown." I was starting to see what he meant as, on our way to South Beauty, we crossed one massive intersection after another—each packed with restaurants, shops and pedestrians—into more tangles of boulevards. Driving around the city, one gets the sense of both infinite space and impending claustrophobia.

Susanna's chitchat, switching back-and-forth from Mandarin to English, kept the driver entertained and me sane through the gridlock until we finally reached South Beauty. At this year-old branch of a sleek 17-restaurant chain, a young crowd reclined on the white and beige leather banquettes, while some groups opted for private dining rooms behind glass walls made opaque by sheets of cascading water. Overseen by the charismatic owner, Zhang Lan, with help from her hipster son and recent MBA graduate Danny Wang, South Beauty serves mainly Sichuan cuisine, reconfigured into outrageous presentations, like shrimp cooked in Dragon Well tea and arranged around a goldfish bowl filled with live fish. But Susanna was here for the food, not the gimmicks. The restaurant's most popular dish is the stone-grilled beef: moist slices cooked tableside in hot oil over stones, with a fiery sauce of chiles, garlic, cilantro and peanuts. I'd had dan dan noodles before, but never ones this good: The perfectly al dente noodles were sitting on a mound of ground pork cooked in a palate-tingling soy-based sauce with Sichuan peppercorns. Susanna serves dan dan noodles in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, sometimes using duck instead of pork, but she puts the meat on top of the noodles instead of below because "Americans like to see the meat."

We saw plenty of meat later at the Donghuamen Yeshi night market, a famous street-food market that starts at the west end of Wangfujing Dajie. The market was spruced up five years ago and now has black-tiled pavement and pristine-looking stalls selling skewers of meat, shellfish, fruits and vegetables...and of snake, silkworms, scorpions, starfish, grasshoppers, sea horses, and various sheep, cow and pig innards—basically any creature or organ you can shove a skewer through. We ended the evening with a stroll through the Houhai district, an area of crowded open-air cafés, bars and restaurants overlooking a lake. Susanna and I stopped to see her friend Wang Yong, who owns No. 15 Qianhai Bei Yan, a serene private restaurant nearby, which has multiple outdoor terraces and which can be booked for parties.

Our massive food intake that day called for a less ambitious agenda the next morning. We saved our appetites for a late lunch at the original, 102-year-old branch of Donglaishun Restaurant in central Beijing, one of the places Susanna's father couldn't stop talking about. The dining room looked generic, with flat lighting and standard-issue black lacquer tables, but the full tables suggested the place was doing something unique. We ordered the lamb hot pot, Donglaishun's signature dish and a staple among the Muslim communities of northern China, and a waiter brought over an old-fashioned brass cooking pot filled with broth, which was heated by a clump of charcoal. We submerged thin slices of bright-pink loin, leg and neck meat (you can order any cut you want) for a few seconds; they emerged with a fresh, supple flavor and a hint of sweetness. Susanna explained that the meat comes from a special short-tailed Mongolian breed of lamb and is eaten young, hence the softness of the flavor. We dipped the cooked lamb into a thick sauce made with roasted sesame, pickled garlic and Chinese chives.

"I asked how they make the sauce, but they wouldn't tell me," Susanna said, with a mock pout. At her restaurants, she serves the next best thing to lamb hot pot: spicy Mongolian lamb sautéed with Chinese eggplant, jalapeños, ginger and fennel—and made with meat she gets from the first-rate Jamison Farm in Pennsylvania.

That evening, on our way back to the hotel, we were hoping to catch the sundown flag ceremony at Tiananmen Square. But we got stuck in traffic along the way—surprise—and missed it. Instead, as we drove by the Forbidden City, we noticed a corner of one of the palaces lit up by the moon. We got out of the taxi and sat on a patch of grass to get a better look. From our spot across the moat that surrounds the buildings, the temple glowed like a hallucination. I wanted to stay in Beijing longer and spend a few quiet moments like this, discovering more of the city's extraordinary food and wandering around its old streets before more cranes come crashing through.

Published September 2005
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