One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to search for new, interesting and delicious foods. As my time in Beijing was wound down, I wanted to see if I could get a couple more good meals before I came home. I had never eaten dim sum in China, so I decided to see if I could find a good restaurant in Beijing. Southern China is more famous for dim sum, but I assumed that you could find some if you knew where to look. I asked my Korean classmate Sangchul, who had been in the Beijing longer than I had, where to find some good dim sum restaurants in the city. He recommended Din Tai Feng (鼎泰丰). It was located on the 6th floor of the Xinguang Tiandi (新光天地) shopping center, one of the best in the city. The restaurant was a little expensive, he said, but it was worth it.
Because she didn’t have anything better to do and because she knew she would be hungry, Roberta agreed to go to Din Tai Feng with me. We planned to meet at 7:45 at BLCU’s south gate, but by the time we got in the taxi to leave, it was closer to 8:15. We ran into a huge traffic jam, so it was after nine o’clock by the time we finally arrived at the shopping center. The taxi driver dropped us off in front, and we headed for the front door.
Entering through tall glass doors, we slipped into one of the elevators immediately to the right, only to realize that the elevator traveled exclusively between the ground floor and the parking garages. Oops. Embarrassed at our recklessness, we hopped off the elevator one floor below and caught a return elevator back to where we started. We knew there had to be a different way to the restaurant, so we made our way into the store in front of us.
We passed through an area filled with brightly-lit displays of lipsticks, powders and perfumes and spotted the escalators in the center of the shopping center. As we rode the escalators to the top floor, you could tell that the shopping center was not frequented by the average Chinese shopper. Each floor was filled with brightly-lit shops displaying the world’s most famous luxury brands. Armani, Boss, Louis Vutton, Burberry, Bally and many I didn’t recognize, all had their own store. I started to worry about the prices at the restaurant where we were about to eat. Sangchul had told me that it was a little expensive, but after seeing the shops, I wasn’t sure I had brought enough cash to cover my half of the dinner.
As we arrived at the entrance, a hostess greeted us warmly. She showed us to a table towards the back of the restaurant and mentioned that we were only going to be able to order once. I assured her that was no problem. Typically with dim sum, you order several small dishes throughout the course of the meal. Either that, or servers pass by with carts carrying food. The point is to eat a variety of small dishes, and at Din Tai Feng you typically order throughout the meal.
The menu was extensive. It was a 30-page picture book full of all kinds of foods, from dumplings to desserts. It had so many that looked so good it was hard to decide which to order. We finally settled on four: steamed seafood dumplings, cucumber in a spicy-sweet chili sauce, sautéed water lily and shrimp fried rice. My fears about the prices had been overblown. They were higher than the average restaurant, but even with the tea, the total bill was only 180 Yuan, less than $30.
The plates of food arrived quickly after we ordered. I don’t know how Chinese kitchens operate, but even with all of the variety on most restaurants’ menus, it never seems to take long to get your food. Each dish was nicely presented. The dumplings were arranged in straight rows, still in their bamboo steamers, the thick slices of cucumber stacked into a perfect pyramid, the fried rice was a well-rounded dome that reminded me of the Beijing Opera House. The flavor matched the presentation. When you bit into the dumplings, they were tender to the teeth, and a small burst of flavor washed across your tongue. Perfect. The lily greens were cooked al dente and had a mild flavor. The sauce on the cucumber started out lightly sweet, then left you with a spicy tingle on the tongue and lips. The fried rice was cooked just right, not dry or sticky. Sangchul was right, the restaurant was a little pricey but it was worth it.
As we ate, we discussed the things we were learning about Chinese culture, language, politics and economics. At one point Roberta, who could see the rest of the dining area from where she was sitting, looked around and noticed the restaurant clearing out, remarking that it looked like it was closing. Sure enough, pretty soon we were the only ones left in the restaurant. No one said anything to us, but it was clear that they were hoping we would leave. It was 10pm and the staff was cleaning the entire dining area, even mopping the floors. We tried to eat slowly, but the pressure eventually got to us and we left having wolfed down the last few bits of the meal. We even had to take a back elevator down to the employee exit because the rest of shopping center also closes at ten. I would have liked a little more time to enjoy the food.
If you ever make it to Beijing, I recommend Din Tai Feng. You will have an excellent meal. If you go, just make sure you get there early, because at 10pm, they shut down and you’ll be left hurrying out the back door.