Archive for August, 2009

Restaurant Voicemail – The How-Not-To Guide

There was a little activity going on in the Twitterverse about Sydney restaurant Bistrode’s voicemail gone wrong (“Sydney restaurant voicemail message FAIL – 02 9380 7333″ and “The award for the Sydney hatted restaurant with the most unfortunate voicemail message goes to Bistrode… 02 9380 7333″). I was curious enough to check it, so I called from New York (via Skype of course), and what I found was a brief message that’s so wrong, it’s pretty funny. I’m assuming chef Jeremy Strode thought that he’d just stuffed up and didn’t save the message, so he’s not going to be overly thrilled that it’s the current talk among social media foodie types. On the other hand, maybe the talented chef can start filling in for Gordon Ramsay in Hell’s Kitchen.

It’s probably not going to be live for long, so for posterity’s sake, you can download the message here:

Bistrode: What The?
(AIFF audio file hosted on Z-Share)

Who’s Got New York’s Best Pizza? Chew On This

The beautifully charred crust of Keste's Margherita pizza

The beautifully charred crust of Keste's Margherita pizza

Ok, I admit – I am a pizzaholic, and I’ve been a pizzaholic since I was five years old. We were living in Staten Island back then, having made the then-upgrade from Brooklyn and a few years before we shuffled off to the leafy Jersey burbs. I remember my parents bringing home steaming-hot, whole cheese “pies” to feast at dinner with my baby brother and me. I also remember regular bouts of choking on the cheese, where my dad would drag me (or my brother) to the kitchen sink, put his hands inside my mouth and yank out the offending mozzarella cutting off air to my lungs. Then, as soon as I could breath easily again, I’d plead for another piece. Yes, somehow even the fear of death wasn’t as great as the worry of not having another taste of tomato-ey, chewy bliss.

If you’ve been following Gosstronomy for a while, you’ve probably noticed a disproportionate number of mentions about pizza. I am forever in search of the perfect pizza. Yet, somehow, the more I look and the more I taste, the further away my goal seems to get. Just when I’ve hit all of the legendary New Haven pizza haunts, made the pilgrimage to Brooklyn’s DiFara, devoured tasty slices at Joe’s, shlepped to Grimaldi’s (both the famed branch under the Brooklyn Bridge, plus the Hoboken off-shoot), and scoffed the terrific coal-oven meatball pizza at Arturo’s over and over again, a whole new wave of artisan pizzerias have come onto the scene and ruined it all. It’s like thinking you’ve nearly scaled Everest, only to climb to the top and see the real summit far off into the distance, rising high into the clouds. Hey, it’s the best analogy I can think of – work with me here.

Keste_pizzaoven

What brought extra attention to my pizza-quest affliction was last week’s article in the New York Post about the city’s school chancellor, Joel Klein, being another obsessive pizza type. Klein has spent a lifetime trying to best pizzas throughout the five boroughs and was prompted by the newspaper to supply his list of favourites. He chose Lucali, found in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens, and Luzzo’s in the East Village. He then goes onto mention Keste in Greenwich Village, Anselmo’s and Roberta’s in repective Brooklyn neighbourhoods Red Hook and Bushwick. A sidebar also adds Staten Island’s Salvatore of Soho, the Bronx’s Zero Otto Nove and Queens’ Nicks Pizza.

Not to be outdone by Klein (which, to date, I regrettably have), I had already started my own research this summer, and begun to sink my teeth into the new pizza elite. I started off this summer at Una Pizza Napoletana, an artisan wood-fired maker creating much buzz in the East Village. Owner Anthony Mangieri is so strict in his pizza making – limiting the choices to four pizza types and zero substitutions – that he is the doughy equivalent to Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. And on a wet and bleak summer’s day (we’ve had lots of those this summer), I went with a friend to check it out. What I found was a broad crust that was the lightest, fluffiest, freshest dough I have ever tasted. That acknowledge, I tried two of the pizzas – a classic Margherita and the white pizza – and while both were good and used quality ingredients, I was disappointed that neither stood out in terms of flavour. I love simplicity, but these were simple to the extent of being bland. It was obvious that both pies were cooked beautifully and with skill and focus, but someone seemed to have forgotten to actually take a bite and see what all of that passion had wrought.

Even so, I did feel a sense of loss when, a few weeks later, Una Pizza announced it was closing. Mangieri is apparently making a lifestyle change to the West Coast, and another – another! – top-ranked newcomer, Motorino, will be taking over the space, expanding from its original home in Williamsburg. Hell, I just got started, and already the pizza landscape is reforming under my feet. As Tony Soprano would say: “Muthaf–kas!” You gotta keep on your toes in this cheesy business.

Now, sadly, no, this isn’t going to be a review round-up of the best pizza places in New York City. Rather, I’m sharing my histlist, and all of us who are in New York (or planning to visit) should experiment in unison and compare notes. Doing my part, I made my latest pilgrimage last week to Keste, a newcomer to Greenwich Village, tucked into a narrow space on buzzing Bleeker Street. Time Out and New York magazines both recently awarded Keste as the best pizza maker in city, so I had to find out if the place holds up to the hype.

The low-down? Well, I was solo that day (a bonus, as I made it quickly through the line in 15 minutes, where others in larger groups likely waited up to an hour), so I merely ordered a defacto Margherita, my baseline criteria for a great pizzeria. My philosophy has always been that if you can’t make a decent Margherita, then what’s the use of trying to put lots of fancy ingredients on top of it? And Keste didn’t let me down. The crust was thick, puffy and light – like Una Pizza’s – but here I found that the pizza had more flavour, from its lively tomato sauce to its saltier cheese and dough. It was, indeed, delicious.

But is Keste the best pizza in New York? I was pleased with the pizza, but not exactly shock and awed. Still, I was impressed enough that I’m resolved to go back for more research. A couple next to me ordered the lardo pizza, and the pie smelled of an intriguing rich, buttery scent with a pungent whiff of something not unlike the bent aroma of aged cheese. I was told it was stellar, but best enjoyed in small doses. There are 18 types of pizza available at Keste, using quality ingredients like imported proscuitto (de Parma and grand cru), fresh buffalo mozzarella, Italian rapini, truffle spread and more. Next time I’m going to bring friends – you know, the ‘sharing is caring’ type – and we can sample across the menu together.

Mind you, I’m also trying to get a bit slimmer as I get ready for Australian spring and triathlon season, so I’m trying to moderate my pizzaholism a bit, regulating my pie intake to once a week. But with only six weeks left in New York, and dozens of great pizzerias still to try, that’s gonna be a challenge. So if you see me tucking into a drool-worthy artisan pizza on one of my days off, just look the other way.

Keste, 271 Bleecker St, Greenwich Village, Manhattan, NY, + 1 (212) 243-1500, http://www.kestepizzeria.com

Motorino, 319 Graham Ave, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY, +1 (718) 599-8899, www,motorinopizza.com

How to Make Money with a Food Blog? Gosstronomy asks Gary Vaynerchuk

Ah, the beauty of being in New York for six months is that I get to have access to amazing people at the top of their game. Last week I saw Gary Vaynerchuk – the uber-blogger (and occasional Conan O’Brien television guest) from WineLibraryTV – at a MediaBistro event, and I asked him about what it takes to bridge the gap between building a large audience with a food blog to commercialising that audience. Check out what he has to say, in his usual insightful, hilarious way.

Feel free to watch the whole presentation – which is excellent and fantastic for anyone blogging or thinking about it – or skip straight to my question at the 29:30 minute mark. It’s an hour-long video, so if you see a blank white screen below, sit back and relax for a few seconds while it loads.

more about “How to Make Money with a Food Blog? G…“, posted with vodpod

Blasphemy – What’s Your Favourite Fast Food Joint?

SanFran_InnOutBurger_small

I’ve got a bit of a split personality when it comes to fast food. Most times, I hate the stuff. It’s processed, homogenised, downright bad for you, and I blame it (and I’m not alone) for causing my dual home countries – America and Australia – to be the two fattest countries in the world. I stay away from fast food whenever I can.

And then there are those times when I’m in a rush. Suddenly, only fast will do. We’re talking those 10 minutes I have at the airport between connecting flights (and on a plane that I know will cook me even worse food), when I need a quick bite on the way to a meeting, or those inevitable road trips where gas, food and a pitstop is on the cards. That’s when I drop my fast-food loathing and give in to the creature comforts of the Golden Arches and other near-instant delicacies.

I only started thinking about fast food this morning because Esquire magazine came out with a poll of top US chefs about their go-to fast food, and the largest percentage selected California’s In-N-Out Burger chain. It even got the nod from Thomas Keller, chef of the country’s top-rated restaurants, Per Se and The French Laundry. Iron Chef America’s Alton Brown and TV celeb chef Tyler Florence were also among the In-N-Out faithful. What makes it even more impressive is that the California-born burger chain is only located in four states in the American Southwest. That is some serious regional burger patriotism. I have friends from LA, so I’ve seen the loyalty first-hand, and the photo above is from my sole Inn-N-Out experience in San Fransisco in May. It was, well, a good burger: a step up from Mickey D’s, a step down from Shake Shack.

The Esquire poll did get me thinking about my own preferred fast food joint. Or joints, at it may be. As I’ve got dual residency, I thought it appropriate to pick one for each of my ‘hometowns': New York and Sydney.

Benny Tudino's, home of the 26-inch pie

Benny Tudino's, home of the 26-inch pie

When I’m in New York, there’s no denying that my ultimate fast food is pizza, and it’s not fast unless you’re talking about by-the-slice operators, so we’ll leave the likes of Di Fara’s, Una Pizza Napoletana and Keste aside for slower-food mullings. As I live across the Hudson River in Hoboken, you’ll find me at Benny Tudino’s pizzeria (pictured above) more often than any other eatery in the metro area. I’ve been coming to Benny’s for 20 years now, and it’s always been a reliable spot for a quality, monster-sized slice (from a 26-inch pizza!) at a ridiculously low price – where else can I get a satisfying meal for $3.75? Even cheap Chinese costs more and takes longer. Benny’s is a veritable Hoboken instituion, and it gets my vote for being both a great product and for being geographically desirable. If you don’t know where it is, just ask the cops – they’re long-time regulars.

Joes_Pizza

When I’m in Manhattan, I don’t have as much loyalty when it comes to pizza slices, but the venue that probably scores the highest frequency is Joe’s Pizza in the West Village, located on the corner of Carmine Street and Bleeker. It’s got a choice of plain cheese or Sicilian slices, uses good-quality cheese and has a nicely flavoured, sweet-yet-simple tomato sauce. I never plan to go to Joe’s, I just usually wander there as a last-minute, late-night decision. That means I never look at the website, but I did today to research this post and discovered that they have expanded to three other locations: one in Brooklyn, and two in Los Angeles. And even though I only know Joe’s as a local joint, it’s apparently gained a level of superstar status since it got a cameo in the Spiderman 2 movie, with Peter Parker (in the guise of Tobey Maguire) working a delivery job there. Who knew?

Other pizzerias used to get my patronage: Famous Famiglia before it went for world franchise domination, and Famous Ray’s of Greenwich Village – the true, original Ray’s on 6th Ave and 11th St that inspired all of the other imitators across Manhattan. I’ve been back to Famous Rays a couple of times, but I have to say I found the cheesy slices were pretty bland.

As for Australia, that’s an even easier choice. No fast food gets my cravings going more than a double Bondi Burger from the Sydney-born Portuguese chicken chain, Oporto. We’re talking two, thin, crispy-grilled chicken fillets with lettuce, tomato, mayo and just enough of a chilli hit make your cheeks go misty. I don’t know what’s in the “secret” chilli sauce, but Wikipedia says it’s a “piri-piri sauce made from chilli, ginger, lemon and garlic”. That’s probably close, but I reckon there’s also a dash of sugar in there and maybe something else to add that je ne sais quoi that makes it so damn good. Oporto’s thick-cut fries are also ever-pleasing and should be sent to Burger King (Hungry Jacks in Australia) so the latter can see where they went wrong.

Fast-food longings aside, let’s all do ourselves a favour. Let’s not make fast food a regular habit. Save it for those rare, cherished moments when we’re running from work to a party, or driving hours up the highway to get to a beautiful beach or ski mountain. Let’s support those seldom, even special breaks from our usual dining patterns. Life’s all about balance, right?

So what about you? Do you have a fast-food craving? Fess up in the comments section below, and together we can spread the guilty pleasures around.

Benny Tudino’s, 622 Washington St, Hoboken, NJ, +1 (201) 792-4132
Benny Tudino's on Urbanspoon

Joe’s Pizza, 7 Carmine St, West Village, Manhattan, NY, +1 (212) 255-3946
Famous Joe's Pizza on Urbanspoon

Nibble, slurp, chomp – Xiao Long Bao at Joe’s Shanghai

JoesShanghai_dumpling

What do you think was the tipping point for xiao long bao to become a global phenomenon? It’s not like they’re a new invention like, say, foie gras popcorn incubated in liquid nitrogen and smashed into pork belly ice-cream. It’s not like Shanghai cuisine hasn’t been in New York since the 1940s. And it’s not like Joe’s Shanghai has been anywhere than narrow Peel Street in New York’s Chinatown since 1996. Well, actually it has, having started in Flushing in 1995 and also expanded to a third location in Midtown on 56th Street. Whatever. It’s not new.

JoesShanghai_street

I first came across the XLB phenomenon on the opposite side of the planet back in Australia, when I visited HuTong in Melbourne earlier this year. After a single post-meal Google search, I was amazed many people around the world were going crazy for Shanghai’s famed soup dumplings. Is this a sign of how quick restaurateurs can copy successes from other cities, or are XLB one of the first foods to capitalise on social media?

No matter, I was excited to get a follow-up to my HuTong experience, and wanted to check out Joe’s after hearing so many honourable mentions among foodie friends. So Sarah and I bicycled cross-town and then down hectic Bowery Street – one of those roadways that’s the opposite of those lush, calm bikeways that Mayor Bloomburg has financed all over the city (thanks, Mayor!) – and shlepped the bikes two blocks back to Peel Street after we missed it on the first pass.

JoesShanghai_floor

We weren’t exactly sure where the restaurant was, but after looking down the ramshackle alley, the crowds pointed us in the right direction. It was 7.30pm on a Thursday and there were dozens of people standing idly out front, waiting their turn. The process wasn’t clear at first, but eventually I was directed inside, where the hostess took my name and gave me a ticket stub: lucky number 67.

The wait was “at least” 30 minutes, so we strolled the Chinatown streets, found me a crazy-cheap haircut for $7 (the economical benefits of now buzzing my hair short), and window-shopped for designer chopsticks and cheap sunglasses.

JoesShanghai_sarah

We were seated some 45 minutes later, and crammed into a tiny two-seater near the door, but we weren’t too fussed – we’re not looking for décor or convenience in Chinatown; just good, often-cheap food. And we bee-lined for the XLB, but, erm, we couldn’t find them on the menu. Our waiter grumbled something about numbers nine and ten and then dashed off (Chinese waiters always seem to be time-poor), but we looked and only saw listings for pork buns and pork-and-crab buns. We were confused. We wanted soup dumplings, not dim-sum buns. So we pulled over a hostess with better English, and she explained that the “buns” in question were indeed the soup dumplings we wanted. No worries: we ordered one plate of each, and also chose a special – a fish fillet in chilli sauce – just to get another taste of Shanghai cuisine.

JoesShanghai_michael

I’d love to say that the xiao long bao blew me away, that they made me go “coo coo cajoo” and flap my wings with excitement and lick my lips like Sharon Stone did when I watched Basic Instinct on Hulu the other night (or was that me?). What I did go was, mmm, not bad. The dumplings were good, but I found the soup to be a bit more gelatinous than I’d like, and while I found the pork variety tasty, I wasn’t a fan of the too-fishy crab-and-pork version. I’m guessing the crab was dried (and if it wasn’t, it was just lousy crab meat), which may be the authentic way to go, but it didn’t float my boat. And maybe I was spoiled, but the XLB that I experienced at HuTong were smaller, had thinner skins and had a more delicate broth.

I’d go back for the pork XLB at Joe’s, but not for the crab dumplings, and I’d definitely would be wary of ordering other items on the menu. One dish does not a menu make, but the fish special we ordered came rolled and smothered in a gluggy sauce that was more akin to sweet chilli sauce, but without the chilli. It was bland and overly rich.

JoesShanghai_fish

So my hunt for a repeat of my XLB love affair may have to wait until I travel to Flushing, Queens, to try the city’s other famed soup dumpling spot, Nan Xiang. Well, it’s either that or wait until my food tour to China in October, when I’ll be able to taste the real deal in its native city.

Joe’s Shanghai, 9 Pell St (btw Bowery and Mott sts)., Chinatown, New York, NY, +1 (212) 233-8888, www.joeshanghairestaurants.com

Joe's Shanghai on Urbanspoon

The New NY Times Food Critic… Is Still Not Me

This year’s biggest food story in NYC concluded today with the announcement that Sam Sifton is replacing Frank Bruni as the food critic of the New York Times. Bruni was at the top of his game when it was announced in May that he was leaving the post and becoming a writer-at-large for the New York Times Magazine. Bruni even got off to a preliminary start the other week with a cover-story excerpt from his forthcoming book memoir, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater.

Sifton will have a hard act to follow, but let’s face it – that’s the norm. If you’re bagging one of the most coveted reporting jobs at the Times, you’re not going to be stepping in for some namby pamby journalist. This is the big show, kid. That said, Bruni was an especially prolific and dedicated critic, blogging early and often as well as writing across newspaper sections and far beyond New York. He also brought a palate that really cared more about food than sucking up to service – something I can’t say about in regards to some other high-profile food critics.

The Observer reported that Sifton was selected from a shortlist of four people, three of whom came from the Times, plus an outside consideration of Brett Anderson from the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Lots of foodies and media (myself included) have been fans of Anderson ever since he wrote about the effects of Hurricane Katrina on chefs and the hospitality industry, even going as far to get his hands dirty – and anonymity in restaurants eroded – helping out the victims in the Hurricane’s immediate wake. But New Orleans is a much, much smaller market to manhandle than New York, so I think his consideration stemmed more from admiration than a likely prospect.

Sifton has the goods to do his job well: he’s got the internal politics down from his neck-and-neck win that secured his present role as editor of the NY Times‘ Culture section, he’s the former editor of the Times‘ Dining section, and he’s got plenty of socialite and celeb street cred from his founding role as a staffer at Tina Brown’s now-defunct Talk magazine.

samsifton

Minutes after the announcement, pictures of Sifton were spread across blogs and online news sites, so having an early start as an incognito restaurant reviewer is not looking good. In fact, it seems taht the only place you won’t find photos of Sifton are on the Times‘ own websites, which pulled off photos that can now only be seen low-res on Google image searches. That’s why my favourite news story of the day is Gawker’s piece aimed at ‘helping’ the easily recognised Sifton with creating disguises for sneaking in convertly into city restaurants (a la Ruth Reichl). Check it out:

Won’t You Help the New York Times’ New Food Critic Come Up with a Disguise?

Other top stories on the NY Times food critic appointment:

New York Observer: Sam Sifton Is Your Next Food Critic of The New York Times

New York Times: Bill Keller on Restaurant Critics and Anonymity

New York Times: Sam Sifton: How I’m Preparing, and What I Weigh

New York Times: Frank Bruni Moving To Times Magazine, Bill Keller Announces

Gosstronomy Goes to China: Wanna Come?

China_noodles

If you’re got a couple of weeks vacation in October, how about coming along with me for a sightseeing and food romp through China? From October 17-30, I’m taking a small group of keen foodies and travellers on a 14-day culinary adventure from Shanghai to Xian, Sichuan, Chengdu and finishing up in Beijing. It’s being organised in conjunction with Peregrine Tours, a respected tour company that specialises in small, good-value adventure holidays.

Peregrine has hooked me up with a local Chinese guide who will steer us through the local joints and overcome any language barriers, so we’ll be able to combine our efforts to give you the best East-meets-West perspectives on Chinese cuisine. The group is also limited to 16 people, which guarantees that we’ll have a intimate experience that’s way better than those dreaded tours on hulking white tourist buses.

culinary-China-map-sm

We start off in Shanghai and visit the Yuyuan Gardens and Bazaar, check out local markets and eateries (I can’t wait to eat Xiao Long Bao soup dumpling in the city that made them famous), and soak up some the city’s most best sites and activities. Next it’s off via train to the canals of Suzhou, then we fly to Chengdu to see the wild pandas and other attractions, and next followed by another flight to Xian so we can gawk at the 2,000-year-old Terracotta Warriors. Finally we finish up in Beijing to do all of the famed sites: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace (and maybe we can sneak in some Olympic sites too). Some of my favourite ways to get immersed into a country’s food culture is to take a cooking class, so we’ll be doing two of them: one in Xian and another in Beijing.

For full details, check out Peregrine’s page on the China Culinary Tour. Or to save you from needing another click, here’s the blow-by-blow breakdown of the two weeks of adventure and all-out chopstick gluttony. The cost is $2770 (US dollars), which should seem quite reasonable to those of you who’ve done similar group tours. Peregrine has chosen the hotels, which look comfortable and clean, while I’m focusing my plans on the food, travel and activities. If you come, I guarantee it’s going to be a trip to remember:

shanghai-night

DAY BY DAY ITINERARY
Day 1 / Arrive into Shanghai
On arrival in Shanghai you are transferred to your hotel. In the evening you meet your tour leader and the other group members for a pre-tour briefing. This is generally followed by an optional group dinner at a local restaurant for Shanghai Cuisine-Xiao Nan Guo.

Day 2 / Shanghai
After breakfast we walk to the famous Yuyuan Gardens and Bazaar, a fascinating highlight of the city and worth exploring for its tranquil Chinese garden and wonderful food stalls. We then continue to the famous Bund or waterfront area, where dozens of imposing European colonial buildings, remnants of the concession era, line the promenade.

Here you can take an optional boat tour along the Huangpu River or visit the Towers at Pudong to enjoy a birds eye view of the Bund and Huangpu New District. This evening we visit the local food market before enjoying a dinner of traditional Shanghai Dim Sum at Ding Tai Feng.

Day 3 / Suzhou
After breakfast this morning we transfer to the railway station and board the day train for a 40 minute journey to Suzhou, famous for its canals and silk industry. However, its most famous assets are its magnificent landscaped gardens, which are all works of art. This afternoon we enjoy a leisurely bike ride to explore the impressive ‘Humble Administrators’ Garden’ & Silk Museum. The remainder of the afternoon is free for you to visit the Old quarter of the city- San Tang Street or the smaller, yet intricate ‘Garden of the Master of the Nets’. This evening we enjoy food famous to the area – Sweet & Sour Crispy Mandarin Fish at Song He Restaurant.

Day 4 / Suzhou to Chengdu
Half an hour from Suzhou, past the famous Baodai Bridge, is the medieval water village of Tongli, which evokes the feeling of being transported back in time to a bygone era. It has retained much of its original character, so much so that it is often used as an outdoor film set. On our morning trip there, we get to walk on narrow streets alongside quaint canals and visit another classical Chinese Garden.

We return to Shanghai and catch an afternoon flight to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province. Sichuan is known for its hot, spicy dishes, considered by the Chinese as the best cuisine within China. In such a food-loving country, that is no mean achievement. We transfer to our hotel and enjoy some free time to explore the city. There is a large statue of Chairman Mao in the middle of the city and the tranquil Renmin Park is well worth a visit, with its beautiful gardens and interesting teahouses. This evening we can enjoy a traditional Sichuan Hotpot (dinner is optional and not included in the tour price).

Day 5 / Leshan
On a day trip, we travel to Leshan, where we see the world’s largest Buddha, carved into the hillside near the confluence of the Dadu and Min Rivers. A seated figure (as opposed to the ‘standing’ or ‘reclining’ Buddha images found elsewhere), it is a staggering 71 metres high. It is over 1000 years old and took almost 100 years to build. It is not only impressive at close quarters, but can be viewed on a boat from a distance in order to gain a different perspective. We return to Shanghai this evening to enjoy a traditional Sichuan dinner and optional Opera with Face-changing and fire spitting show.

Day 6 / Chengdu
This morning we visit the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base situated near the city. The giant panda is one of the world’s most endangered species and has become an icon for conservation movements everywhere. It is still found in parts of the Sichuan province, but is very difficult to spot in the wild.

In the afternoon we enjoy a local cooking class and create a typical Sichuan feast! After an early dinner, we are transferred to the train station to catch the local train to Xian. Food on the train is limited so we recommend you purchase some snacks for the journey.

Day 7 / Xian
The capital of Shaanxi Province and the largest city in northwest China, Xian is a wonderful place to explore. Food options are excellent here, ranging from delicious Muslim fare to great little dumplings in Chinese cafes. Widely regarded as the first capital of a united China in 221 BC, the city is rich in history. On arrival in Xian, we are transferred to our hotel. The afternoon is at leisure to make our own discoveries. Xian has a wonderful Muslim Quarter and time can easily be spent wandering the narrow streets where we find quaint shops, lively markets, groups of white-bearded men in skull caps sipping tea in cafes, and the Great Mosque, one of the most important in China. We enjoy an appetizing dinner tonight sampling some of the local Muslim fare.

Day 8 / Xian
A half-day tour to the renowned Terracotta Warriors introduces us to these entombed statues, considered one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th Century. Over 6000 of them were individually sculpted from clay, each having a different costume, height, and even facial expression. They are standing in battle formation, facing east in order to protect the tomb of China’s first emperor, the great Qin Shihuang. Peasants digging a well only discovered the underground vault, which was home to this army for two millennia, in 1974. In the afternoon we drive back to the hotel to freshen up before venturing out to a local restaurant notable for their dumpling banquet, the De Fachang Restaurant.

Day 9 / Xian to Beijing
Our morning is free to explore the local temples and markets. Later in the afternoon, we join in a local cooking class to learn about Northwest Chinese cuisine. Under instruction from the senior chef, we cook a mouth-watering three course meal and then enjoy the fruits of our labour. Following dinner, we are transferred to Xian train station for the onward train journey to Beijing. Travelling in ‘soft-class’, four-berth compartments. The 12-hour trip is a great opportunity for our group to get to know each other.

Day 10 / Beijing
On arrival in Beijing we are transferred to our hotel to check in and freshen up. We then walk through the Hutongs, an ancient city alley or lane typical in Beijing, to the imposing Tiananmen Square. Beijing offers endless opportunities for exploration. The enormous Forbidden City, built more than 500 years ago and off limits to commoners for almost all that time, is a truly amazing place. Its size might surprise you (it is huge!), but what makes it fascinating is that every square metre is interesting, ranging from intricately carved walkways to colourful, painted ceilings. Tonight we enjoy dinner at a famous local Dim Sum Restaurant at Jin Ding Xuan for Guangdong dim Sum.

Day 11 / Beijing
After breakfast we transfer by taxi to the Temple of Heaven which is located conveniently close to our hotel. It is a fine example of extraordinary workmanship and a photographers delight. We then take a morning walk in the adjoining gardens and visit ancient buildings and engage with the locals by playing Taiji or learning to write calligraphy using cold water to write on the ground. In the afternoon we transfer by subway to the Hutong Club where we are introduced to the basics of Chinese tea and tea brewing in a fun and interactive way. Dinner is prepared for us by the local experienced chefs.

Day 12 / The Great Wall at Simatai
This morning we drive for about 3.5 hours to Simatai. It’s a largely unrestored and, as such, more authentic section of the Great Wall, not crowded with hordes of other tourists. Being perched on this incredible engineering feat and surveying the spectacular surrounding countryside is an unforgettable experience. Be sure to wear good comfortable walking shoes for the hike. Alternatively, you can choose to use the cable car lift to the top of the wall. Lunch is at a local restaurant before we drive back to Beijing where the afternoon is at leisure. Our hotel is located in the south of the city and a walk in any direction will unveil all sorts of wonderful surprises. There are good shopping opportunities at the various markets around the city, such as the centrally located Dashilan Market. Wang Fu Jing Avenue is the famous shopping area where you can sample some local food at the food market….perhaps even scorpion! In the evening, you have the chance to enjoy a performance of the unique Beijing Opera or the spectacular acrobats (optional).

Day 13 / Beijing
We visit the remarkable Summer Palace today, built for the Qing emperors for their summer escape in ancient times. We have the entire morning to wander and marvel at this ancient palace. In the afternoon, we have free time to visit some local markets such as Pan Jia Yuan Old Flea Market, the Silk Market or the Pearl Market. Tonight we enjoy a farewell dinner with our new friends. We save the best for last as we dine in the famous Quan Jv De Restaurant for succulent Peking Roast Duck!

Day 14 / Beijing – Tour ends

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