The western fine dining scene in Beijing is pretty young. It was only about five years ago that the first independent restaurant was set up just off of Sanlitun apart from hotel restaurants.
But in the last few years a number of fine dining establishments have proliferated in the Chinese capital, each trying to outdo the other.
One of the heavy hitters is Daniel Boulud, who opened Maison Boulud at Qianmen last year and his dishes are unparalleled.
There is no question Boulud has set the bar in Beijing, leaving others in the dust with regards to the quality of the ingredients, execution, presentation and service. The only drawback is that it's right next to the touristy Tiananmen Square, but then that makes his restaurant a destination.
In early May I had written about the three-course set lunch I had there and was immensely impressed by the dishes at such a reasonable price of 165 RMB ($24). It also included an amuse bouche, petit fours and freshly baked madeleines.
On Saturday night my friend and I ventured out there again, this time for dinner. At 7pm there weren't many tables filled and we wondered if Boulud was still struggling to find enough rich Chinese interested in excellent nouvelle French cuisine. But later on the evening, there was almost a full house, bustling with a mixed group of discerning diners and those anxious to flaunt their wealth.
We perused through the menu and found it difficult to decide what to eat. There was a four-course set dinner, a la carte, and also the eight-course tasting menu. My friend wanted to try it and asked me to join him on the culinary journey. So we did.
It started with an appetizer of foie gras, one piece pan-fried, the other in a pate form. A piece of roasted pear sat underneath the pan-fried one in an attempt to cut the richness, while toast with the crusts cut off accompanied the pate.
Pan-fried foie gras doesn't require too much skill, but timing is crucial to sear it on both sides and leave the inside with a smooth and silky texture. This one was just right. And the pate glided on the toast like butter.
The next dish was salad of European asparagus topped with a slow-poached quail egg and garnished with caviar. While the asparagus was thick, it wasn't old, rather refreshing and nicely complemented with the quail egg.
Another delight was the salad of American Dungeness crab with carrots, cumin and avocado. Interspersed with crispy lettuce, the chunks of fresh crab were seasoned with cumin, making it a perfect summer salad for its lightness.
The fourth course was described as a fricassee of langoustine, or scampi, and cuttlefish, with green asparagus and black pepper brandy sauce. Served in a bowl, the cuttlefish were delicately scored and cooked perfectly, and the piece of langoustine very fresh. However it was the intensity of the peppery sauce that made this dish a success, with its strong flavours seasoning the seafood.
The climax of the dinner came in the next course with roasted veal tenderloin with crushed artichokes, porcini mushrooms and black olive jus. The veal medallion was very tender, seared around the edges with sprinkles of sesame seeds, leaving the inside slightly rare. The fresh porcini mushrooms were delightfully rustic and hearty and the artichokes under the veal were a delicate and sophisticated accompaniment to the otherwise masculine dish.
The sixth dish presentation-wise was a bit disconcerting. While I've read that Boulud doesn't like to waste food, it was a bit strange to see an actual pigeon leg complete with toes on our plates with a spring-roll package wrapped around its tiny thigh. Nevertheless, the roasted pigeon breast was delicious and port-braised fig sinful.
We were almost bursting when the plate of three slices French blue cheese again with toast, paper-thin slices of green apple and a small piece of seasoned walnut.
Finally the end was nigh and we just barely had enough room for dessert – a duo of rose parfait with lychee and peanut caramel mousse and peanut milk sorbet. It was a refreshing finish, not too sweet and thankfully light.
But it wasn't over yet. The server brought over a giant glass container and with great ceremony lifted the glass lid and produced a serving dish and serving tools. And inside? Homemade marshmallows, with a double layer in pink and mint green.
Oh and also those fresh Madeleines appeared on our table again… how can one resist?
Without wine, the eight-course dinner was 800RMB ($117) each. We barely walked out of the restaurant, full of divinely-tasting food that has become the envy of my friends who are Boulud fans across the Pacific.
No. 23 Qianmen Dong Dajie