Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Taste of France at Tiananmen

There's been lots of rave reviews about Maison Boulud, star chef Daniel Boulud's restaurant nestled in the Legation Quarter next to Tiananmen.

However the name of the compound where it and a few other fine dining establishments are located has been changed to Ch'ienmen 23.

The area used to be home to American and European delegations who enjoyed extra-terratorial rights there during the early 1900s and forbidden to Chinese to enter. After 1949, the Communists took over the compound and pretty much left it as it was.

However, possibly due to political correctness and avoiding imperialist undertones, the name was changed to Ch'ienmen 23, though you can still see the lettering "Legation Quarter" taken off recently.

Nevertheless, it's a stately place making it more a place for destination dining celebrating special occasions or just a nice day or evening out.

Maison Boulud was opened last July and apparently business has been pretty good since. We arrived for the set lunch of 165 RMB ($24) each, but only three tables were occupied at the time.

The buildings are old but nicely refurbished, but probably a tad too sterile -- the decor and atmosphere felt more like a hotel restaurant than a stand-alone place that could have had a few more personal touches.

The dining area has very high ceilings accentuated with long mirrors on the walls and crown moldings. The tables and furniture are all dark wood, and strangely no table cloths for this five-star restaurant. Or maybe for lunch they expect a less sophisticated crowd...

One table had a young Chinese couple who seemed like they were using knives and forks for the first time. Another had a family of three with the young girl looking bored as she spooned soup into her mouth.

Nevertheless, the set lunch is a fantastic deal that would be foolish to pass up.

While perusing the menu a rectangular plate of amuse bouche was placed on the table that included a tiny bite-sized piece of curried beef in a cucumber shell and a salmon sandwich.

In between and during courses, servers constantly came by with trays of bread and refilled water without prompting.

For starters, the chilled potato soup was a rich combination of cream, potatoes and a touch of basil sauce lingering at the bottom. It was topped with dried ham and croutons.

There was also the pate enclosed in a pastry that was quite meaty accompanied with some asparagus and mixed greens.

The highlight of the meal was the main of olive oil braised black cod that practically melted in the mouth, ratatouille and a cube of couscous. Flown in from Australia, the cod was perfectly cooked and seasoned with just a touch of paprika to complement the natural flavour.

Another winner was the lamb sausage, made in-house with lamb sourced from Mongolia. The sausage was heavily seasoned with cumin and pepper for a spicy kick with green and black olives.

If that wasn't enough desserts were a delightful touch. A dark bitter chocolate crust and soft centre were an ideal combination, while a slice of lime foam made with egg whites sat on a bed or diced strawberries and sauce, with a scoop of lime sorbet for a tart finish.

Sweet tooths could also indulge in some petit fours that included a small marshmallow, grape jelly and freshly baked madelines.

Including a 5 percent service charge on the 165RMB, who wouldn't want to pass up exquisite French fine dining in Beijing?

Maison Boulud
Ch'ienmen 23
Qianmen Dong Da Jie
6559 9200

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