- Food & Drink
Let’s time travel back to early last October, when DJ, Leonard and I were wandering around Beijing in sandals and t-shirts (The Enigmatic Mr S had also flown out to join us). It was our second day in Beijing and we’d already decided on the train into China where we going for dinner: The Crescent Moon Muslim Restaurant. It’s listed in guidebooks as a good place to eat Xinjiang food and, as big fans of Silk Road, we couldn’t pass up the chance to compare and contrast.
The Crescent Moon was in our neighbourhood, but if our first night in Beijing had taught us anything, it’s that the city is monstrously huge and “in our neighbourhood” doesn’t necessarily mean “near our hotel”. So we sat in a taxi while it inched through miles of traffic, finally arriving at a deserted, unlit alley prettily furnished with piles of cardboard and plastic sacks.
After five minutes of tripping and grimacing down the alley, trying to look unmuggable and bickering about whether or not the restaurant did actually exist, the green glow of a 1000 watt restaurant sign hazed into view. It existed and they could seat us. The night was already a triumph.
We were shown to a private room decorated in blue, gold and lace and we sat in a horseshoe around an enormous table, flicking through the Chinese/English/Picture menu, looking for familiar dishes and something new to try. The problem with being in a private room is that you can’t spy on other people’s meals, so we picked what sounded good and what our mangled Mandarin would allows us to order.
First up were the lamb kebabs. Fatty chunks of lamb rubbed with chilli and cumin, these were fantastic and arrived at the same time as slabs of warm Uighur bread. A chewy, sesame seed encrusted bread that had a whiff of the grill about it, I wrapped it round juicy pieces of lamb and ate it with a spoonful of the sweet, home-made yogurt the restaurant is renowned for.
The yogurt was a bit of a mystery. All the guidebooks recommended ordering it but no one, before or after the meal, can tell me how you’re supposed to eat it. Do you dollop it on the food or eat it in-between spicy mouthfuls? Cut off from the restaurant, I had no one to copy so I did a bit of both. If anyone knows what I should’ve done, tell me.
Special noodles came in a tomato-based sauce spiked with garlic and chilli, topped with thin slices of lamb and a rainbow of vegetables (a heavenly sight for someone who’d got used to the meat centric cuisine in Mongolia). It was substantial comfort food and I limited myself to a few slippery strands because I was saving room for the main event: Uighur style chicken.
This was big plate chicken and cleavered lumps of scrawny poultry bobbed in an aromatic broth flavoured with whole dried chillies, star anise, cinnamon and aromatic peppercorns. It had punch and flavour but it wasn’t as good as Silk Road’s version. The chicken was a little spindly and the broth didn’t have the warming moreishness that draws me back to Camberwell. Plus, there were no thick noodles to slosh around in the bowl once all the chicken has been slurped up.
Two side dishes rounded out the meal. Chunks of aubergine in a sauce that I can only describe as sweet and gloopy, because that’s all I wrote in my notebook, demonstrated once again that if any country in the world knows how to show an aubergine a good time, it’s China. Green beans were stir-fried with dried chillies until they were crisp and blackened on the outside, soft and puffy on the inside. I would’ve used violence to get my chop sticks on the last few if my dining companions hadn’t been so willing to give way.
Service was kind and helpful and the bill came to Y317 (£29), including a few bottles of light Sinkiang beer and many pots of green tea. As to whether it’s better than Silk Road, I think it’s a dead heat. Or it would be if Silk Road wasn’t so close to my house. Not having to fly 5,000 miles to eat there definitely gives it an edge, but if I was ever back in Beijing I’d take a torch and make my way back down that alley to eat at The Crescent Moon.