Saturday, 4 June 2011

Beijing, China

So, I only spent 1 night on a layover in Beijing.  However, I had such a good experience with the restaurant I ate at that I wanted to give them a feature.  I admit that when we arrived in China I was a little intimidated with the language barrier and the unfamiliar cuisine.  So, being that it was just one night, I decided to stick with a touristy locale.

Lao She Teahouse
We arrived in the late afternoon and wanted to see Tienanmen Square before dinner.  We asked the hotel to recommend a place for dinner where someone might speak enough English to negotiate a healthy gluten-free meal.  The concierge assured us that any place around the Imperial Palace would be accustomed to foreigners.  So after wandering around as tourists and taking all the necessary pictures to prove we were in fact in Beijing, we started looking for a dining option.

Lao She Teahouse is an icon in Beijing.  We didn't know that when we haphazardly stumbled across it.  I learned this as we were exploring the balcony seating area that includes photos of Henry Kissinger enjoying a sip of tea upon a visit in 1992.

Before ordering our meal, our drink order was taken.  Since we found ourselves in a teahouse, it made sense to partake.  The tea menu was presented on a wooden mat with each slat representing a tea variety available for purchase.  I chose the Mother's Tea and my travel companion chose a different one whose name I can't remember.  When my tea arrived to the table, it was served in a clear glass of steaming hot water.  The tea leaves themselves were bundled and woven with flower petals into a ball that expands as it seeps.  The ball slowly blooms into an expanded decoration in the glass.  It was both delicious and beautiful!

My companion's tea however was served as free tea leaves in a small empty ceramic cup accompanied by a teapot of hot water.  She poured the water into the cup and allowed the tea to seep.  When it was ready to drink she was stuck with a dilemma of how to drink the tea from the cup without ingesting the floating tea leaves.  Clearly we needed some kind of instructions or tutorial.  It made us appreciate those little mesh tea balls we have at home to alleviate said issue.

After the tea was served, our order was taken.  Initially we ordered the Peking Duck to share.  But shortly after our server left with our order, he retuned to apologetically inform me that our choice was not gluten-free, per consultation with the chef.  He instead suggested a veggie dish that contained asparagus and some other chinese vegetables.  My friend, not saddled with dietary issues, stuck with her initial choice of the duck.  I, knowing little of chinese cuisine, followed the suggestion of the restaurant staff.

While we waited for our food to be served, we were provided with entertainment by the teahouse.  The building has a stage at the front of the building and the tables are arranged to maximize viewing.  There were women playing traditional instruments and singing ballads in Chinese.  These performances alternated with traditional shadow puppet shows featuring large water fowl in silhouette.  Our view from the balcony was perfect.  The din from the other patrons was muffled down on the main floor and the acoustics for the entertainment was ideal.  I highly suggested asking for balcony seating.

Our food was served in a reasonable timeframe.  The duck looked beautiful and my friend said over and over, "This is so delicious.  I wish you could taste it!"  My veggie dish was also tasty and satisfying.  It was served with a cup of steamed white rice.  I'm not certain what the vegetable dish was called, unfortunately, and I forgot to ask.  But the key was that the server and the kitchen staff were clearly vigilant in taking my situation seriously.  I never felt that they were unconcerned.

It took a while to track someone down to give us our bill.  And the bill came with a quick sales pitch to get us to purchase some dry tea as gifts for friends and family.  I honestly would have considered purchasing the Mother's Tea as a gift for my own mom, but I wasn't prepared to make any significant purchases.

The story would seem to end there, however a I have noteworthy post script.  After leaving the restaurant, the server gave us the suggestion of walking around the 100 Years Market complete with walking directions.  Having no true agenda, we decided to follow his suggestion.  After a few hours of walking around, the sun had set and the night had descended.  It was time to get back to the hotel for bed, as the next day we had an early morning flight.  Apparently, Saturday nights in Beijing are not the best for hailing a taxi.  We searched and searched for an empty taxi around Teinanmen Square to no avail for over an hour!  As a last resort, we wandered back to the Lao She Teahouse to find the english speaking waiter.  He had coincidentally just finished his shift and was kindly willing to help us hail a cab.

After much disappointment and many taxis passing by full of people, our new Chinese friend suggested the metro subway train instead. Our panic in navigating a subway system bereft of Chinese language knowledge was clear.  In response, he made the unexpected decision to go above and beyond any standard decorum of hospitality and well above the role of restaurant server: he rode the metro train with us to our hotel!  It took him 20 minutes outside of his way and he was friendly and joyful the whole way.  He was our lifesaver that night.  I wish I could remember his name to give him personal props!

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