Kylie Kwong: My Beijing

As the spotlight falls on the Olympic city, the renowned Sydney chef shares her favourite haunts in China’s vibrant capital – including where to find the world’s best Peking duck.

By Michelle Rowe
Kylie Kwong fell in love with Beijing when she hosted a culinary tour of north-east China in 2006. The TV chef/owner of Sydney's ever-popular Billy Kwong restaurant holidays in the Chinese capital regularly and continues to add to the list of places she seeks out every time she visits. Here, right in time for the Beijing Olympics, she shares with Gourmet Traveller readers her favourite places in Beijing, from the restaurant that serves 'the world's best Peking Duck', to the city's coolest art district and a little-known section of the Great Wall where you can walk far from the madding crowd.
"Beijing is such an incredibly dynamic city," says Kwong, whose family hails from Guangdong Province in southern China. "I'll never forget the first time I walked out of my hotel and to Tiananmen Square. I'd heard so much about it and there it was, this absolutely enormous place. China is just so complex."
Take some time out between sporting events and get an insider's taste of Beijing - a winner in every way.
COOLEST CLUB China Club Beijing
This place is divine. It's a private club and restaurant housed in a 400-year-old palace. It was created by David Tang, who did the wonderful China Club flagship in Hong Kong. The décor is all 1920s Art Deco - it's a visual feast. Lots of silk fabrics - that real Shanghai Tang feel, which I love - as well as dark woodwork, lotus leaves and outdoor ponds with goldfish. All the little details are in the menus and the glassware, the lampshades, the table settings. This place is like a museum - it is absolutely beautiful with an attention to detail that is inspiring. Even if you are not a member, you can dine in the restaurant, The Sichuan Pavilion, and the food is great.
51 Xi Rong Xian La, Xidan, Beijing, +86 10 6603 8855.
MOST AWE-INSPIRING SIGHT The Forbidden City What really struck me about The Forbidden City was its enormity - this place really is gargantuan. It's from the Ming and Qing dynasties and beautifully restored. You go through these huge red doors and there's a portrait of Mao - you really do get a sense of the power he had. It's spine-tingling. You could spend days here trying to see it all. For me, it was seeing both The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square that really made me aware of the enormity of China, and its power. Here, you are surrounded by millions of people all day, every day. It's incredibly dynamic.
4 Jingshanqianjie, Dongcheng District, Beijing.
BEST FOOD MARKET Jingshen Seafood Market
The fresh food markets anywhere in Beijing are a sight to behold. But my favourite, and that of my local friends, is Jingshen Seafood Market. Go early in the morning and you are confronted by a sea of colour. Everything is just so fresh and there are so many different vegetable options - cabbages, eggplants, cucumbers, fresh red dates, you name it, it's all there. There are different sections for the seafood, the meat and the vegies. There is so much activity: restaurateurs arrive on bikes to fill up on produce for the day; locals do their family shopping. You'll see wonderful cakes, jars of freshly pressed sesame paste, roasted peanuts, steamed dim sum… and it's not all in packets. That's what I love. There is an incredible atmosphere, with the live chickens and ducks, all the bustle. I'm in my element when I'm there.
232 Shiliuzhuangxijie, Fengtai District, Beijing, +86 10 6723 8987.
A PLACE TO ESCAPE THE RAT RACE The Temple of Heaven (Park For The Elderly)
This is an amazing example of Ming Dynasty architecture, but what I love most about The Temple of Heaven is that every morning, hundreds of elderly people come here to do tai chi, opera singing, ball-room dancing, knitting, sewing, calligraphy, poetry readings, outdoor gym, hugging trees - you name it, they come here to do it. The park is a beautiful place, where the elderly can do physical or spiritual exercises and be part of a wonderful community of people. This is an inspirational place, and I wonder why we can't have something like it in Western society. We tend to put our elderly in nursing homes, but here they have something to look forward to in their later years and a lot more of them are physically agile because of it. There are parks of this nature throughout China and the gardens are immaculate - lots of old trees, beautiful architecture. They have such respect for the elderly here and I love the way the Chinese embrace the metaphysical, and incorporate ritual and ceremony into their daily life.
Tian Tan Rd, Chongwen, Beijing.
798 Factory A labyrinth of wonderful warehouses, 798 comprises art galleries and studios, cafés, restaurants, bars and more. It's a community within itself and if I lived in Beijing, I'd choose to live around this art district. This is where you'll find cutting-edge, contemporary Chinese art. There is great passion, dynamism and creativity in the works, and such freedom of expression, which is particularly good in light of China's dark history. You could spend several days here in a world of your own. Besides artworks, I've also found quirky clothes shops and art bookshops where I always check out what's on offer. One of my favourite galleries at 798 is Galleria Continua, which shows works by international artists. I saw an exhibition here by the beautiful, contemporary Indian artist Anish Kapoor, who is one of my favourites. His work also hangs in the Queensland Art Gallery.
Dashanzi Art District, 4 Jiuxianqiao Rd, Chaoyang District, Beijing.
WORLD'S BEST PEKING DUCK Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant
Everybody raves about the Peking duck at this restaurant. This is where all the locals go, as well as some foreigners in the know. You can see photos of the likes of Al Gore on the wall! The ducks are cooked over an open fire, using four different kinds of fruit woods, such as cherry, apricot and the like, which impart an amazing flavour. It's extraordinarily tasty and incredibly artisanal. You can watch the owner making it - he gets a stick, hooks the duck on the end and feeds it into an open wood fire where it cooks for about 45 minutes. It has a subtle, smoky flavour and all the ducks are free-range. The pancakes are thin and delicious. On the wine list you'll find bottles of chardonnay and riesling from WA and they're cold, which is amazing for Beijing. After a long day at The Great Wall, there is nothing better than coming here and stuffing your face with some Peking duck. Such a feeling of triumph. The place has been in the same family for more than 50 years. Coming here really is like walking into somebody's house and I'd come to Beijing just to taste their Peking duck.
11 Bei Xiang Feng Hutong, Qian Men, Beijing, +86 10 6702 5681 or 6705 5578.
The Peninsula Beijing
Ultra-modern with impeccable, warm and generous service, The Peninsula Beijing is where I always stay when I'm in Beijing. (I also stay at their flagship hotel when I go to Hong Kong.) The staff are so obliging and humble, and the hotel has a fantastic restaurant - Huang Ting - which serves some of the best Cantonese food in Beijing. My family hails from the southern Guangdong province, which has Cantonese influences. My favourite dish here is the most glamorous bowl of fried rice ever made - it has abalone in it, and lots of fluffy eggs. It's outrageously over the top and I'd go there just to order that, although they do a very good soy sauce chicken and barbecued pork as well. The restaurant décor is stunning - contemporary yet with a subtle traditional Chinese feel - as are the interiors throughout the rest of the hotel. And I just love the hotel's address - Goldfish Lane.
8 Goldfish La, Wangfujing, Beijing, +86 10 8516 2888.
This is a little local restaurant that specialises in northern-style dumplings, so characteristic of Beijing. I have performed several cooking demonstrations here. Although it's just a local hole-in-the-wall, it's a standout; casual, but the dumplings are so good - soft, velvety pastry with tasty, juicy fillings of pork or vegetables. The young woman who makes the dumplings has a big heart and giggles a lot when she cooks. I know it's going to be great every time I go there.
13 Xitangzi Hutong, Dongcheng District, Beijing, +86 10 6527 9561.
BEST STREET FOOD Yonghegong Avenue
Beijing street food isn't as you would imagine in, say, Bangkok. The Chinese took a lot of their old food stalls off the streets, cleaned them up and relocated them inside small shops following the SARS epidemic in 2003, but they still offer incredible local food. They do a thin crêpe made from mung-bean flour, which is filled with Hoisin sauce, a fried egg, beansprouts, and bits of rice. It's one of their famous snacks and it's great - spicy, sticky and sweet. Another great dish to try is the braised brisket with star anise and soy - it's a beautiful winter dish and so filling. You'll also find steamed lamb and pork buns and so much more. All of which cost virtually nothing. You wonder how people can make a living but they've been doing it for years. Everything is done in front of you - they're making bread dough, hand-thrown noodles. And they are there morning, noon and night.
You won't need to go far after lunch to get to my favourite hutong (neighbourhood alley). It's the same hutong where you'll find the Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant. There used to be so many areas where you would find these old, narrow alleyways, where the real Beijingers would reside. Food trolleys would trundle past, there would be lots of colour. But with the commercialisation and modernisation of Beijing, so many hutongs have been lost. This neighbourhood captures that feeling of old Beijing. I hope that after the tragedy of the earthquake that China recently suffered, they will be inspired to preserve much of what they have rather than putting up huge, modern buildings.
Qian Men, Beijing.
Bamboo-Garden Hotel
This traditional boutique hotel, in Chinese-courtyard style, is surrounded by bamboo groves, rockeries and fountains. Located in a funky neighbourhood, it's very quaint, spotless and character-filled, with traditional Ming and Qing Dynasty furniture in the bedrooms. The breakfast here is really good, and they do excellent massages, which set you up for the day. This place is a little bit of old China in the heart of the city.
24 Xiaoshiqiao, Jiugulou St, Xicheng District, Beijing, +86 10 5852 0088.
BEST DIM SUM Jindingxuan dim sum (Golden Tripod Restaurant)
This is the best yum cha I have ever had in my life. There is such a variety of dishes on offer - all the traditional dumplings, chicken's feet, prawn har gau, pork shui mai, rice noodle rolls, barbecued pork and duck. But there is also some really terrific unusual stuff, such as the 'plate of guts' that my mum loves - braised heart, lung and tripe. The congee here is wonderful, too. Incredibly fresh and clean-flavoured. Get a group together because the more of you who go, the more dishes you can try.
16 Pufanglu, Fangzhuang, Fengtai District, Beijing, +86 10 6767 8811.
The Great Wall
There are several sections to the wall and if you want to, you can go and walk it with three million other people. To get away from the crowds, the secret is to avoid the Badaling section and do the Huangyaguan section instead, which is about 60km north of Beijing. This is one of the oldest parts of the Wall, and hasn't been restored, apart from minor work to make it safe, so it's an authentic experience. And you can walk it with virtually nobody else in sight. It's a three-hour drive to get there, but it's worth it. On the way, stop and get steamed buns from the street stalls. I like to walk the wall for a couple of hours, then return via the art district 798. A great day out.
Huangyaguan Section, Jixian County.
  • undefined: Michelle Rowe