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Archive for April 30th, 2008

For several dynasties, Xi’an was the capital city of China, and the focus of immense wealth and political power. There are more imperial burial mounds in the surrounding area than they have time to excavate properly. The site of primary interest and global fascination is of course, the Terracotta Warriors which I go to tour tomorrow. (So excited!) Xi’an is also unique in that it is the only ancient Chinese city with its surrounding fortified wall and moat completely preserved. It defines a vibrant, busy city core, with several historical sites of interest (Drum and Bell Tower, Forest of Thousand Stiles or Writing Tablets) as well as one of the largest Mosques in China. The Muslim Quarter has an active street market which goes well into the evening, with vendors in white caps selling all sorts of preserved fruits, roasted nuts and street food. Indeed, it is reported to have the best street food in Xi’an, but given my nasty experience in Dunhuang, I decided to err on the side of caution and find a proper restaurant with their own bathroom in case I needed it urgently!(yes, that kind of nasty experience)

I wish knew the English name of this place, but all I can tell you is that the last restaurant on the right before you exit the Quarter Market to the north serves some of the best food I have had in China. By the look of the full tables and empty plates that surrounded me, my opinion is shared by many. I decided to stick to appetizers, hoping that would lead to smaller portions. Well, it would have worked, if the main courses here were not portioned to feed 6 to 8. Sigh. The solitary diner is not a concept (outside of a bowl of noodle soup) that the Chinese restaurant can accommodate easily. So you either enjoy a large portion of one thing, or you leave a whole lot of your meal behind. Given that I like to try a number of dishes, I end up most often feeling full but still barely making a dent in the dishes before me. I hope the restaurant staff enjoys what I ordered! So to this evening’s meal.

I ordered 2 cold and 1 hot appetizer. This balance of temperature and food choice is very important to overall digestion and health. I don’t know why, but that’s what the menu said! My first appetizer was black fungus salad in a chili vinaigrette. A standard in Beijing that I have come to look for on menus, this interpretation has a generous portion of the delicate frilled black fungus whose slightly sour taste and sweaky texture contrasts nicely with the crisp shards of sweet white onion. The second course, “Dan’s shredded tofu with vegetables”, was stunning. Thin julienned strips of celadon green celery, mahagony and amber shaded preserved tofu, fresh sweet red pepper, all tossed with a spicey chili oil, and garnished with peanuts and orange-red chunks of dried chile pepper that put me in mind of discarded lobster shells. It was a vertical Jackson Pollock on a plate. Tasty too.

And I was munching away happily when the lamb appetizer was set before me. Ok, this will take some work to describe, but worth it if makes you salivate even a little. Imagine a full rack of a very young lamb (the bones were not thicker than a chopstick so I mean young), leave the fat back on and don’t French the long bones. Cleaver horizontally about 3 times and then again lengthwise so you end up with about 10 or 12 tiny little lamb rib bones. Rub generously with a fragrant Middle Eastern mixture of cumim and corriander seeds and chili pepper and toss in very hot oil until deep golden brown. The delicious result was a crisp, crunchy, spicy exterior while the meat stayed a red rich. Since all of the meat was close to the bone, the flavour and tenderness was just extraordinary. I abandoned my useless chopsticks and dug in with both hands. So much finger licking going on they brought me extra napkins. And all of this from a woman that could barely face Chinese gruel 12 hours earlier. I think I like it here. Perhaps book another day!

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