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Postcard from Tom: Beijing

Sunday, August 10, 2008

After dinner in Beijing, it's common for friends to head to a spa rather than a bar to unwind. At one of my favorite retreats, Bodhi (www.bodhi.com.cn), workers rub customers the right way for more than an hour with a $28 foot massage. But here's where to start the fun:

DUCK DE CHINE (Courtyard 4, Gong Ti Bei Lu, 011-86-10-6501-8881): There's no escaping duck at this freshly minted restaurant, part of a collection of upscale businesses in a courtyard known as 1949: the Hidden City in the city's Chaoyang district. There's a duck etched on the door, ducks featured in a sumptuous mural on the wall and life-size metal ducks lining a hallway. Of course you'll be ordering Peking duck for dinner. No ordinary birds, these are raised on a farm owned by the restaurant and roasted in a cavelike brick oven over apple wood for precisely 65 minutes. A server announces the delicacy's arrival by sounding a gong. Seconds later, the mahogany-colored duck is expertly carved into thin slices of crisp skin, plus skin with juicy meat attached. As befits such a noble beast, this one comes with an entourage of enhancers: slices of scallion, radish and cucumbers, plus sesame sauce, peanut sauce, house-made hoisin sauce and airy crumbs of fried garlic for bundling with the glossy duck in see-through pancakes. Don't care for duck? The kitchen does just as well by honey-glazed pork ribs, batons of pumpkin flavored with plums, and a Cantonese specialty of slices of veal tongue and zucchini draped with a light brown gravy hinting of garlic and ginger. The bonus to what might be the best bird in Beijing is a glamorous wood-and-brick setting in which to savor it. Whole roast duck $28.

QIN TANG FU (69 Chaoyangmennei Nanxiaojie, 011- 86-10-6559-8135): You might be tempted to stop for a bite to eat before you reach this rustic import from Shaanxi Province that sits in the middle of blocks and blocks of small food stalls and shops. Press on: Great noodles await your appetite. (Look for a window behind which the cooks pat, pound and roll out piles of dough into crescents and ribbons.) Ordering is easy, since pictures and English translations are offered. I went armed with a list of suggestions from a fan of the place, some of which my server questioned me on. "Spicy, spicy," she warned a few times. But I nodded my head and got what I wanted: Cold rice noodles glistening in chili oil, thick noodles that absorbed the heat of their sauce and reminded me of Italian pappardelle, lightly pickled cucumber and a hearty stew of lamb and "bread" (imagine spaetzle) to which fresh cilantro and chili paste were added at the table. The low wooden chairs and tables would look at home in a kindergarten class; folk art dresses up a room that looks ancient and never lacks for customers.

SICHUAN PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENT OFFICE RESTAURANT (5 Gongyuan Toutiao, 011-86-10-6512-2277): It's loud and bright and not much to look at. You can expect to wait for a table, too. But what this vast government-run restaurant in Dongcheng lacks in style, it makes up for with food that won't let you forget your time here. The heat of Sichuan peppercorns jump-starts the likes of cool shredded pig ear. The slow burn of the seasoning numbs the mouth and leaves lips tingling, but the fire isn't so fierce that you can't taste everything else. Almost as spicy are morsels of chicken and peanuts buried in a steaming, stinging mountain of red chilies. Like it tame? Duck smoked in tea leaves and the crisp, many-layered green onion "pancakes" go easier on the palate. The cost of the feast made us gasp: $12 a head, including the locals' beer of choice, Yanjing.

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