The Bagel Lady of Beijing: Part One

Since we’ve returned from our travels abroad, it’s been a whirlwind month of reflection, visiting friends and planning our future. One of the main reasons we set out into the great blue yonder was to gather inspiration for a few ideas that have been rumbling around in our heads. We wanted to visit people on the other side of the world who had similar values or intentions. While we were on our way, Tracie’s sister Sannie emailed us and reminded us that since we were headed to Hong Kong we should really try and meet up with King and Margaret, Tracie’s aunt and uncle’s close friends. Sannie gave us the number and while we were there we called them and asked if they wanted to meet up.

As you know , one thing led to another and King and Margaret pointed us in the right direction for several people to talk to and visit with during our trip. They understood our intentions for the future and got our vision. Like that they put us in contact with Lejen Chen, the Bagel Lady, in Beijing, China. They told us we should look her up when we got there and Margaret even sent off a polite introduction via email. But Beijing was a long way off from Hong Kong. So, we didn’t move too much towards setting up our meeting. We kind of put it off. And that’s too bad, because we only had one lovely day with her. One day was enough, however, to give us a new perspective of what Beijing could be.

We’d been down and out on Beijing. Hating it, in fact. It’s huge. Everything is built to intimidate and control. It all started with the Forbidden city some 600 years ago. To give you an idea of how huge it is, we spent a whole morning there and we only got to the interior wall of the palace – we didn’t even make it to the living quarters. And there are wide expanses of granite or slate pavement that batters your knees and sears your brow. I can imagine a little bit how it must have felt to foreign dignitaries that arrived at the gates. Awestruck is an understatement.

But there is this emptiness to Beijing’s scale and growth. While the history is there in the Forbidden city and other sites around the city, it’s also crumbling as you head to the metro. Vast blocks of centuries-old neighborhoods are leveled while you sleep off your dumplings from the evening before. We wondered if there was any kind of cultural preservation. It seems that everyone and everything is all about making the fastest buck. Nothing slows down. Its all crushing, bearing down on you, hard to breathe.

Then we received a phone call from Lejen, that she was back in town and was going to be available one of the days we had left before we headed out of China. So Tracie put her head down and mapped out a course of action for navigating the Beijing bus system to make our way out past the 3rd ring road where Lejen’s restaurant, Mrs. Shanen’s, sits.

Interior Dining Room at Mrs. Shanen’s

It’s in a mostly expatriate area. I mean, who else would be looking for a bagel? Not the Chinese you’d expect, but she has built a local clientele base, some of whom have “pioneered different preparation techniques” from frying to dredging in sesame paste and butter1. The restaurant is a roadside cafe sitting out in desolate surroundings amidst new outcroppings of expat gated communities and industrial parks. Never judge a book by its cover or its location.

The dining room was one of the most relaxing we set foot into in China. She’s definitely created an oasis in the middle of a desert. It has the vibe of quiet and ancient meditation while still maintaining a upbeat contemporary European look. Step in from the road to fresh lemonade, Arnold Palmers, grass fed burgers, chocolate cake, bagels, Fair Trade coffee and delectable Chinese teas.

Lovely tea sets rest during a lull on the service station shelves

 

Tracie’s Lemonade

My Arnold Palmer

There is nothing like stepping out of the Beijing heat into a quiet American style cafe. Forget the culture shock of China, welcome to the culture shock of little America in China. But Mrs. Shanen’s and Lejen Chen are beyond satisfying an expatriate community in China. They are also enriching a culture that seems lost and a partial reflection of what it could be. Lejen has found a way to fill a need and spread little flowers while she does it, figuratively and literally.

Mrs. Shanen’s is one part of Lejen Chen and her husband Shan En ventures into bringing wholesome good food to Beijingers, expats and locals alike. She launched the bagel factory back in 1996 and has grown the cafe and now is successfully running an organic farm and CSA to boot. As we left the cafe to go visit the farm I remarked on a room off to the side that seemed setup just for kids and she said “Yea, we’re thinking of turning that into a pizza joint…maybe.”

1In
the Industrial Back Alleys of Beijing, a Little Bit of Gotham, Any
Wu, April 19, 1999 Nytimes. 
http://www.nytimes.com/1999/04/18/business/business-in-the-industrial-back-alleys-of-beijing-a-little-bit-of-gotham.html?scp=1&sq=lejen%20chen%20bagels%20in%20back%20alley%20of%20beijing&st=cse

 

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More on the Food of Italy: Milan and Lake Como

Tracie and I happened upon a couple of really great finds in Milan on the first three days we were there. One night, we took my friend Peter’s recommendation and dropped in to a Birreria and Osteria called La Libera that served up a terrific seasonal fare. I had one of the best Cottoletta alla Milanese that I’ve had at that restaurant. It was served on the bone and the loin portion of the veal had been pounded about 3mm thick. It was served with a side of lemon and a small salad. Tracie had god knows what as mine was too good to even pay attention to what she was eating beyond our initial saluté and diving into our plates and vino.

When we ventured out to Varenna and Lake Como we found a hidden treasure up a cozy little alley just beyond the boat docks. We walked past and saw a nice contemporary dining room set subtly back off the corridor, we only looked because there was a little table set for two outside the door and beautiful flower arrangements that the wife and owner of the Chef was watering at the time. We were famished as we’d spent a good part of the day wandering up and down and staring at the beautiful streets and alleys that make Varenna the quiet and charming gem that we hope it will remain. If you are ever in the Lake Como area head to Varenna and Varenna Mon Amour.

There we sat down for lunch the chalkboard out front mentioned a special priced primo and secondo for about 20 Euros. We found a menu full of seasonal delicious sounding options yet the menu remained simple and of a manageable size, so rather than sticking to the special we chose a la carte. We made our selections and dove into the bread basket filled with a nice variety of breads: pane integralé and the ubiquitous white bread but nicely hand shaped.

For primi, of all things, since I was overwhelmed with lobster trim from Per Se everyday back in the states, I chose a lobster dish. It had Pacherri di Gragnano pasta, which is like a very large rigatoni. The Chef chose to serve a half a lobster seemingly chopped up with no regard, but as you dig in and used the gleaming custom pliers and meat picker tools provided one gets an idea that this Chef is not your ordinary Italian Chef. Every knife cut in the lobster was deliberately placed for ease of access to meat. A feat only a lover of lobster could accomplish. This opened up the shell to allow for even and complete saucing of the meat. The meat melted in my mouth like a warm piece of butter. Tossed into it all with the generosity of a farmer sharing his first harvests were plump cherry tomatoes and crisp broad beans. Simple traditional fare served up with a style and sense of care that would put most Chefs in the states to shame.

Tracie’s choice of a broad linguine pasta, handmade in the restaurant, was cooked al dente and carefully tossed with perfectly cooked scallops, giant cherry tomatoes and topped with farmer’s mâche that tasted of the earth like no other mâche I’ve tasted. Somehow, we both managed to finish these generous primi piatti and loosened out belts for the next round. The moment they arrived we knew somehow we’d manage. My calamari and Tracie’s monkfish both exploded with the flavors of a well seasoned grill. This guy knew not only how to cook fish he knew how to make love to your mind with them.

As we sat there in their dining room, a stone’s through from the lake, we knew our choice of Varenna as a quick retreat from the busy streets of Milan had been well placed. We set out that first afternoon on the shores of Lake Como with fat bellies and sated hearts. We’d be back one night for dinner. I wanted to set all the clocks forward. Sleep for days, do anything to bring the next meal at Varenna Mon Amour closer.

A few nights later, sadly we chose another restaurant for that evening’s dinner, we made our ways down the coastline and back up the steps to Varenna Mon Amour. Because when you think you have a good restaurant you don’t want to give it up. You want to explore, to test, to feel it out, to see if it can turn those feelings back on inside you again. For a second time we sat down to a glamorously affordable meal. Glamorous because we felt like VIP’s from the flavors and presentation but managed to walk away without an empty wallet. I wanted blood this time and went straight for a ribeye like cut seared on the charcoal grill to a perfect medium rare and garnished with a heaping mound of vibrant flowery pink peppercorns and rosemary. Nearby sat a carefully piled medley of summer vegetables. As the beef melted in my mouth our hearts began to soar.

Tracie opted for local fare and tried a sardine like fish fresh from Lake Como. Pan fried and then oven roasted with a dash of vinegar and olive oil. It was all draped with fresh herbs and bursting forth from the parchment cartouche aromas of fried fish, crisp summer veggies and the astringent waft of vinegar drifted from her plate to mine. Our eyes were filled with anticipation. As we let our wine breathe, a Refosco from Venezia, we dug into our main courses. This time we’d held back and only ordered an appetizer and a secondo each saving room for the brilliant desserts that we’d spied a few days before resting on the tables nearby.

That evening sits in a place in the minds eye. A place where colors and aromas and the gentle clink of wine glasses resides. We past the evening making new friends with a lovely Italian couple to our left, the husband a cinematographer with an ear problem and the wife with a knack for languages. She claimed her German was better than her English, but we chatted away from a few tables across and discovered that the restaurant was new to the area and that the chef was a friend from childhood. Later on as our bellies filled to capacity the chef came out and he told us about his life and how he came to have this treasured little location tucked away in the alleys of Varenna. He’d plied his knife on the shores of many countries and every dish struck a beautiful balance between the rustic seasonal traditions of Italy and the sweeping breadth of his career of over fifteen years in the kitchen.

Looking back this remains the best restaurant that we chanced upon in our travels this time in Italy. Other would come, but this remains our favorite. Its hard to beat the walks and view around the restaurant and the lulling pace of Varenna life is hard to pull away from as well. Some would say Varenna’s too sleepy of a town and we would say fine, keep your Bellagio and your Menaggio. We’ll always have our Varenna.

As we set our sights back on Milan, to join back with our friend from the states Peter, before we set out for the countryside, we looked back on our stay as a lovely quiet rest. In Varenna, we buried the dust and grime of the Beijing city streets. In Varenna, we put behind us the shock of Asia and headed back into the warmth of our western heritage.

Here’s a brief interlude of our meals in Varenna. Somehow I failed to take photos of food in Milan.

Back in Milan, Peter whisked us over to his apartment, with high hung ceilings and wall of ten foot windows overlooking a lovely yet boisterous courtyard, to a local delight that we couldn’t find on our own. Over fifty years ago a man by the name of Luini arrived from southern Italy and opened the doors of his restaurant to share the rich goodness of panzerotti. Made from dough similar to pizza dough, filled with an unfathomable variety of fillings they are fried up and served to clamoring throngs of Milanese. We shoved past the crowds surging into the building into the Piazza and found a bench to sit down and share a small variety of fillings: spinach and ricotta, tomato sauce and mozarella, prosciutto and salame, and funghi. From there we zipped along the Milan streets and happened upon his favorite gelateria and shared bites of lemon basil, pistachio, nocciola, and blackberry.

That evening we set out for a quiet Osteria just outside of the old part of Milan, Osteria dei Fauni ( Via Turati, 5 in Segrate, about 10 minutes east of Milan ). Peter had mentioned the place weeks ago when I’d asked him about places to visit or possibly stage. He had spent several days a week over a few months working with the Chef Michael his new friend from Philly who had married an Italian woman and was currently cooking up a storm in this quiet yet sadly empty little gem. The proprietor has an astute palate for wines and wanted to create a place that challenged traditional boundaries of Italian Cuisine. Michael took the challenge and with a staff of one serves up some maddeningly inventive and delicious takes on traditional Italian fare.

To start, Tracie chose a mouth watering terrine of a burrata garnished with anchovies. I never would have thought this would have worked, but here it was and it all came together perfectly. Peter and I settled for a mixture of Salume. Michael’s wife, who was our server, had mentioned a guanciale that Michael had house cured and we selected that with a few other choices. Tracie’s dish was the star of the first course but our appetites weren’t sated as we settled in for our second course.

For my second time in Italy shoved my way into a plate of Cottelleta alla Milanese. Michael’s was a contemporary take on ‘a la meuniere’ style. The crust crackled and crunched in a way that only Japanese Panko can and my teeth sunk into a tender perfectly cooked pork loin, thin but with enough to bite, and the juices of the finest Italian pork mingled delightfully with drips of butter that unfamiliar to the Italian kitchen somehow forced their way onto the plate. Later that evening when I remarked on his use of butter he smiled and told me it was so important in his cooking style that it was the only thing his Italian cooks couldn’t understand and that when he returned from a short vacation once, he returned to find the mound of butter that he’d mistakenly ordered to be delivered the day before his departure untouched and waiting for his gentle hand.

Peter’s choice raised their eyes and received an “are you sure?” with his deliberate and quick “I’ll have the Cavallo…” His loin of horse seared a dripping rare arrived to all of our delight. We each took a bite with Peter devouring the rest and found the meat deep with richness yet without a hint of distinction beyond a slight more bite to set it away from the beefiest beef. The evidence that Michael’s time in the kitchen was long and steady came true when he came and sat with us as we finished our last bites. His presence is one of a cook. Large high shoulders, slightly sloped but grown strong from years bending over a chopping board and reaching from burner to pass to put out food to tenuously anxious guests. We chatted for over an hour and his eyes filled with hope and cheer as he recounted stories and shared his dreams of owning his own bakery soon and unleashing his talent on the world.

Once again a dreamers table, we sat talking about our accumulated dreams and goals of opening various forms of restaurants, bakeries and farm to table ideas. All different, all possibilities hanging in the air. I could hear times gear grind slower as we passed the torch of sharing our various ideas. Time is always seeking change in the ticking and pointing and measuring and stretching as the physicality of the possible hangs in the mind. As we finished our last glass the clock surged back into gear and we slumped off to our beds where the light in our heads flashed. Italy is a place that sometimes seems dreamlike, unbelievable and yet it’s there. When you visit you can’t help but wonder what it would take to get people to leave. It seems a perfect place wherever you are.

We finished off our stay the next day at the beach at Finale Liguria a few hours outside of Milan and came back to Peter’s where I made my first attempt in months to share the love that I’ve received from countless kitchens all over the world. And then we were off again. We set our sights and taste buds for the Calvi’s in the town of Varzi southwest of Milan.

 

 

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