On a recent trip to New Taste of Asia, the waiter took our order, then returned to tell us that the kitchen had run out of smoked rabbit.
"Is there anything else smoked?" we asked.
"Yes," he said. "Smoked beef."
He made a large curved shape with his hands, then cupped them under his chin.
"Smoked beef head?" we asked.
The eight-month-old New Taste of Asia is the place to go if you want the authentic cooking of Beijing. Head, kidney, liver -- it's all here. The little restaurant, which has just 28 seats and feels like Chinatown, is full of surprises.
There are many ways to order, but you're wasting your time if you come here for pu pu platter or moo shu pork or the other dishes on the menu for fussy customers. The adventurous eater should dine like a local -- order from the translated side of the "special menu" and go for broke. (The Chinese side of the menu, explains my Beijing-born dining companion, has completely different food, but you won't be ordering from it unless you read Mandarin.)
The fiery cooking of China's northern city, prepared by a Beijing chef, isn't so hot as it is deeply warm and flavorful. Dumplings are homemade, rolled by hand. You'll find yourself looking at some of the ingredients and wondering what they are; we ate giant peanuts with tofu, miniature dates with eggplant, and caramel with apples. We skipped the smoked beef head because we were making our way through "five flavor beef" ($7.95), which is cold and presented thinly sliced with a hot oil-based dipping sauce. The meat is gelatinous and probably an acquired taste. "Open-mouth" dumplings ($6.95) are shaped like cigars, with thin, crisp, golden dough, and the pork-and-cabbage-stuffed morsels are spectacular.
So are dry-braised jumbo shrimp ($12.95), which are succulent in a light tomato sauce. Rice at the ready, we dig into chicken with dried red chilies ($10.95), facing down three dozen bright red peppers on one plate. This chef means business.
On another visit, my companion from Beijing orders in Mandarin, and we're knocked out by the food that arrives. Nothing is too fiery: The dishes taste smooth, and even the ones that seem slightly odd have interesting flavors. From the regular menu, tomato egg-drop soup ($4.95), with thin slices of tofu, chunks of tomato, drops of egg, and a light broth, is delightful. Handmade, plump steamed "Buddhist" dumplings are filled with fine shreds of glass noodles, spinach, and parsley. The show stoppers continue: ma po tofu ($8.95), strips of beef with squares of bean curd, all flecked with peanuts; home-style tofu ($8.95), a kind of fluffy omelet; red-braised pork ($10.95), a dish that often appears red but here is loaded with pork flavor and a golden sauce; stir-fried lamb with cumin ($11.95), offered on the street in Beijing on skewers; and tender eggplant with pineapple, tiny Chinese dates, and bright red maraschino-style cherries.
For a finale we order hot candied apple ($9.95). A bowl of cold water arrives beforehand, followed by the pieces of caramel-coated apple, reshaped to resemble the intact fruit. We're instructed to lift up the pieces on chopsticks and dip them into the water so the sugary coating won't burn us as we bite into them. It's juicy, faintly sweet, and aromatic -- a joyous finish to an evening in Beijing.