I was in Beijing and I had been eating Chinese food for days. But it was getting to be a bore.
Don’t get me wrong. I found Beijing cuisine surprisingly superb, even if I did order from restaurant menus blindly. This involved a large amount of wild gesticulating and pointing on menus with photos over Chinese script, while I exchanged short simple words with the food attendants who said “yes” to everything, even if my question didn’t call for such a response. “So what’s in this dish?” “Yes.” (Uh-oh. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore!)
But it was the fourth day of my stay and I seriously needed something different to appease my restless tastebuds.
Not sure if I would ever pass this way again, I grabbed the opportunity to dine in Chef Daniel Boulud’s first China outlet, the Maison Boulud a Pekin.
Located in the stately grey old US embassy building at the Chi’enmen 23 compound, just a skip away from the Forbidden City, one is transported to another world as soon as one steps through the restaurant’s doors.
The doors open up to an elegant lobby with deep dark walnut parquet floors and a double staircase in white, leading up to the private dining rooms. The focal point of the lobby is a splendid mural in grey and white inspired by the fountains of Versailles.
It was a cool and peaceful sanctuary from the heat and noise outside.
Reigning supreme in the kitchen is Chef Brian Reimer, who was Boulud’s executive sous chef at Daniel in New York. Reimer studied at the Napa Valley Cooking School in St. Helena California and from there sharpened his culinary skills in the kitchens of Thomas Keller, Michel Rostang, Jean Paul Lacombe, Jean Pierre Vigato, and Michael Slow.
It was in 2009, when Chef Brian was appointed executive chef at Maison Boulud.
Dining at Maison Boulud was a whole level of pleasure, and strangely, reminded me of Manila.
Sitting in the dining room painted in an uplifting white and dark wood, with the sofa benches upholstered in colorful flowery patterns, while listening to the piped in soft chill music was just a delight.
Mercifully, most of the local wait staff, all neat in their black uniforms, spoke a fair amount of English, making the ordering experience effortless.
Prices on the menu are quite reasonable considering it was a Boulud restaurant, with the sumptuous prix fixe lunch of three courses costing just RMB 188 or P1,260 (excluding 15-percent service charge).
The most expensive dish for one person had to be the wagyu steak (Tajima Farms Marble 9 Sirloin) at RMB 688. There are also quite a few dishes to share with one’s dining companions such as the imported seafood selection called the Grand Plateau (24 oysters, 1 Boston Lobster, 17 chilled shrimp, 4 Dungenees Crab Legs, 6 King Crab legs, and 3 marinated fish selection) at RMB 1,418.
My lunch began with some complimentary amuse bouche followed by a cold appetizer of marinated mushroom and sweet peppers with shaved speck ham and toasted coriander seed. It was so cool and sweet, the vegetables just so amazingly fresh and was the perfect antidote to the scorching weather outside.
The main course consisted of two thick cuts of seared lamb chops with ratatouille minted basil pesto. The lamb was so moist and tender, with a generous mix of meat and succulent fat. It was so well-seasoned, there was actually no need for any mint jelly as most of us are accustomed to eating our lamb.
For dessert, I chose the classic lemon tart with mascarpone sorbet, the latter’s salty-sweetness, becoming the appropriate foil to the dish’s tartness. I sipped on my peppermint tea while eating this luscious tart, while other complimentary desserts were served like a basket of spongy madeleines sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar, and a selection that included petit macarons and a tamarind square, and a few other tiny desserts served on a black flat slate. (It distinctly reminded me of the now-closed Restaurant Ciçou which also serves such desserts, in larger portions, on a rectangular black slate.
Also on the menu is, of course, the iconic DB Burger—Chef Daniel’s take on an American classic. In his hands, the burger is given the French five-star treatment—a sirloin patty, with foie gras and braised short ribs served in a parmesan bread. If you order it as the main course in your prix fixe lunch, there is a RMB 50 supplement. A la carte, the burger costs RMB 168. (The prix fixe lunch menu is changed every two weeks.)
Chef Brian is warm and accommodating and accedes to my request to have a photo taken with him by inviting me to his kitchen. I find out that he has been to Manila several times because his sister used to live here.
I tell him that his boss has a lot of fans in Manila and of all places, it is here where the well-known celebrity chef needs to put a restaurant. Chef Brian laughs, finding my suggestion either incredulous or too cute. But he does perk up as I tell him about the revival of French cuisine in our parts, and a growing appreciative crowd with discriminating tastes.
Dining at Maison Boulud is a pleasant departure from the usual Chinese fare tourists have in Beijing, and funnily enough, was a comforting reminder of home.
• (Maison Boulud is at Ch’ienmen 23, Qian Men Dong da Jie, Beijing. For inquiries and reservations, tel. no. +86 (10) 6559-9200.)