Beijing’s Forbidden City is stunning. It’s also enormous; a sprawling colossus of a city-within-a-city. In the early morning, I made my way there on foot from the Hutongs just south of the Bell and Drum towers. On the way, I entered Jingshan Park where I couldn’t resist scaling the temple hill to take in the view.
You can’t help but be moved by the Forbidden CIty’s bright colors and architectural details. There’s a perfect photo opportunity at every step as you move through centuries of Chinese Imperial history.
After three hours of hoofing it through the labyrinths of temples and palaces, my Imperial fantasies gave way to aching calves and blistering soles. As the late morning crowds began to literally pour in through the South Gate like sand through an hourglass, I called it a day and trotted my gps-activated audio guide to the nearest exit.
I soon realized two things: I had worked up a killer appetite and my legs were adamantly against further cooperation. I surveyed the area near the East Gate, where I’d made my way out of the palace complex. The street was lined by a number of eateries, but the glaring tourist menus and hiked-up prices were an instant turn-off. I was in China on a foodie adventure; to “settle” for a subpar meal would be a culinary crime.
Google Maps to the rescue! I’m a big fan of G.M. on my Blackberry, I can’t imagine navigating the cities of the world without following that familiar, little blue dot. Zeroing in on my location, I searched for “restaurant” and viewed my options. One place stood out (not just because it was 100 meters down the road) as I scanned through positive reviews and double-checked the price point. Upscale but not ridiculous, Beijing “Imperial” cuisine, sold. The restaurant is Tian Di Yi Jia.
Walking into the bright, open dining room is like entering a secret oasis. Muted sunlight filters through yellow umbrellas, suspended whimsically from the ceiling. The restaurant’s plant-filled courtyard transports diners to another place and time, far from the bustling streets jammed with tourists just outside.
The menu is huge, translated (well!) into English and filled with Imperial-themed dished, local Beijing fare, and a variety of specialties found throughout China.
The first dish I chose (based on ingredients alone) just about blew my mind. I could have eaten about ten of these babies. Cool sliced tofu, layered with pork jelly and black truffle. Seriously, Whaaa??!! If I had been in the privacy of my own home, I would have stuck my head straight into the bowl and licked it clean.
I loved the DIY presentation of the baked pork bun appetizer. On one plate sat three tiny, still-warm sesame buns, sliced down the middle. In one bowl, a tangy mixture of shredded, barbecued pork. In another bowl, a heaping pile of freshly chopped cilantro. I worked diligently to assemble each bun, trying to shove as much pork as possible inside.
Lastly, I savored some Beijing-style vegetable dumplings, pan-fried and flipped over, revealing a crispy lattice.
A post-meal bonus in many Chinese restaurants, this complimentary fruit “sculpture” palate cleanser gets props for creative presentation.
Tian Di Yi Jia is a perfect respite for any food-lover after schlepping miles through the monuments of Beijing’s storied past. Grab a glass of wine, pour over the menu and take a deep breath. Enjoy this culinary moment of Zen.
Tian Di Yi Jia is located at: Nan Chi Zi Dajie, Dongcheng District, Beijing
2010 Mileage Total: 59079