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Beijing, China — My lunch date joins two hours later than scheduled, but my hunger protests any delay. The thought of lunch alone with a book is an enticing concession. When I dine solo I prefer the intimate confines of a café. Maison Boulud has high ceilings and acoustics which announce my high-heeled step. I opt for my own window seat in the bar where I trade café-cozy intimacy for spacious solitude. I am welcomed with a Kir Royal blushing and bubbly. My book never leaves my bag.
The lunch that ensues is orchestrated by executive chef Brian Reimer who sets my expectations to a sequence of seafood ending with a finale of meat and cheeses.
Settling into my lunch experience, a velvety, leniently-spiced squash soup arrives. For me, soup is a dish that puts me at ease. While in Chinese culinary culture cold dishes typically open the appetite, I rather enjoy a warm start to a meal. The unassuming little cup offers a different treasure with every spoon; a bite of smoked bacon, a cranberry, or a kiss of meringue.
One little thing that doesn’t fail recognition is the Tandoori-spiced shrimp stacked atop a sweet cucumber cup. It is here where I notice the delightful contrast of cool-sweet and spicy with textures of chew and crisp.
When my next dish was described having crab wrapped in avocado, I thought of little hermit crabs I encountered on Koh Tarutao. Sheltered beneath a dome of sliced avocado dressed with delicate celery-green apple gelée and lovage oil, are shreds of Dungeoness crab. With this dish, my favorite part of a meal begins — wine pairings. While I learn more about what I like to eat, I appreciate more seasoned guidance for what to drink. A sip of Gruner Veltliner (Domæne Gobelsburg 2009) with a forkful of avocado and crab awaken another set of flavours, making me smile.
Perhaps I do like eating extremely delicious things in private. My table is perfect.
The plate that resets my taste buds is two little fish — a tagine of mackerel with sweet pepper raisin stew and citrus-cured sardines with couscous and sheep’s milk yogurt. This dish taught me the definition of escabeche; citrus-cured fish much like a ceviche only the fish has been cooked. Today, my two fish are paired with a Chardonnay (Henri Prudhon et Fils).
Upon the arrival of the next dish, olive oil-flashed Blue Fin tuna, my eyes widen and a series of could-it-be‘s run through my mind. Sitting on a plate resembling the flag of the rising sun were three beautiful pieces of Blue Fin Tuna. At first glance of the whitish surface my heart nearly broke to think it might be seared, but Reimer assures me it isn’t. It is ‘olive oil-flashed’ thus not toughening the surface I dislike when some restaurants sear my albacore. Much to my surprise, the olive oil compliments the Japanese flavors of fresh wasabi and Togarashi. It extends the buttery nirvana I lose myself within while eating tuna belly.
I’ve never been much a fan for my grandfather’s drink — Bourbon. I always prefer Scotch. However, these two variations of Bourbon confirm what I had yet to realize — I like bastardized Bourbon. Somehow fitting after a course of Blue Fin tuna belly from Japan, cherries bloom in the Bourbon. Reimer infuses Blanton’s Bourbon with Cuban Cohiba cigars and Chilean cherries. A cocktail called Troublesome Kriek includes the cherry-infused Bourbon, fresh lime and cherry Kriek beer. Both sit like rubies on pedestals, tempting me towards seconds.
After a series of dishes that already had my heart, an obscenely commanding yet beautiful piece of meat arrives. This is my first time to encounter this cut known as the rib eye cap — “the top flap of meat that covers the ‘eye’ of the rib cut”. Rendered over-whelmed and tapping my knife on the seared edges, Reimer suggests I start with the left edge piece. Desperation for direction must be written all over my face. The bite I cut from the left yields with satisfying tension. The salt makes its way under my tongue. It’s undeniably delicious. My palms are far from dry.
Next Reimer suggests I cut directly down the center and look inside. Perfectly pink and still bleeding juice the way I like it.
Morel mushrooms are in season from Yunnan; like a sponge absorbing the seasoning and rib eye flavours, then releasing them intensely with every bite. This lunch is decadent and not yet over.
There’s always room for dessert and dessert is the cheese. Paired with dessert wine, Passito Riesling (The Gap, Australia 2007), the cheese journey begins. Starting with the unexpected density of the Chabichou, a goat cheese, I sink with another smile into the Pyramid Cendrés which melts in my mouth. Reimer recommends a piece of the Brillat-Savarin half the size of the wedge he served, to really appreciate its worth. It tastes like an extremely rich cream cheese. I happily mortar the roof of my mouth to my tongue with the slice of Brillat-Savarin; soft, ripe, and creamy, letting it slip away. The Brique des Flandres, aged in beer, looks sharp as it blazes a brighter orange than cheddar, but actually less sharp than expected. Sugary in texture and attracting my fork until it disappears from the plate is the Stilton aged with Port wine.
The knives Reimer used to cut some of the cheeses are Laguiole knives. What is interesting to me is the detail he highlights; a tiny bee on the bolster that was originally a fly but changed to a bee for better market appeal. The fly would have been the sort that rests on a cow’s rump in a pasture. I may be geeking out, but for me this warrants a search for original Laguioles with a fly on the bolster. The knives resemble original ones made to fold and fit in a pocket.
What would a meal at Maison Boulud be, without Madeleines? Incomplete, regardless of your remaining appetite. Soft and fluffy with steam piping out of a bite, they find a way in.
No matter which words come to mind as I eat my food, words are sheer metaphors to the reality of the senses. I love words, but too often they are poor substitutes for the experience. The right words are the ones successful at convincing another to have their own experience. If what I have expressed arouses future rendezvous of the senses at Maison Boulud, I suppose it’s safe to claim their food inspires the perfect words.
Maison Boulud 23 Qianmen East Street, Dongcheng District, Beijing, Postal Code: 100006. Tel: 010 6559 9200. 北京市东城区前门东大街23号 邮政编码。
Tagged with: appetizers • avocado • blue fin tuna • Bourbon • Brian Reimer • Brillat-Savarin • Brique des Flandres • Cantal • Chabichou • cheese • cherry • cucumber • Dungeoness crab • escabeche • French cheese • grissini • Laguiole • lunch • mackerel • Maison Boulud • meringue • morels • Pyramid Cendrés • rib eye cap • sardine • shrimp • squash veloute • steak • Stilton • tagine • Tandoori • togarashi • tuna belly • two little fish • White Truffle Robiola