August 17th, 2008 | Uncategorized

Ambiance

By Austin Shiner

BEIJING, China, 1:03 p.m. — It’s the ambiance that counts in Beijing. For the past four weeks I’ve been struck as much by this city’s extraordinary sights as by their environs. In cuisine, architecture, and history, it’s the subtleties, which in America I so often take for granted, that make the difference.

Take lamb kabobs for example: China’s beloved yang rou chuar, or chuar for short, are sensational. The charcoal-grilled deliciousness overwhelms my senses and haunts my dreams. The restaurant, very cozy, always packed, with low tables pushed close to one another, is minimally air-conditioned. The heat, smoke, and meaty perfume sweep into the dining room creating a sweaty, high intensity dining arena. 

Our kabobs come out on a metal tray. “You have to eat them while they’re boiling magma hot or else the lamb fat coagulates and gets gross,” warns Sam. Each skewer is modest, only two to three small bites each, so one after another I tear the lamb from the thin wooden dowel, pilling up 40 to 50 every visit. The spices are entirely unique, unlike Mediterranean lamb – recreating it will be hard. Normally such an experience would be uncomfortable, the sweat making things awkward, but not at a chuar restaurant. Here, it’s primal all the way, and I absolutely adore it.

Two days later Sam and I went back. It was early in the day as we were seeing Olympic soccer in the evening. The place was only half full and the grills weren’t entirely fired up. It was cooler than previously so I sweated minimally, usually a bonus, but somehow here, eating chuar, the sweaty mess was part of the fun. Without the caveman like atmosphere the chuar tasted distinctly less delicious.

Beijing, as a whole, is just like my chuar experience. The skies are so often shrouded in a thick white smog bubble that even the grand Forbidden City seems lacking, slightly lifeless, as if Beijing isn’t connected to humanity. But, lift the hazy veil, as Beijing has somehow managed (probably cloud seeding) for the past two days, and the glorious blue skies breath life into the National Stadium and Beijing itself. Looking out from the Bird’s Nest’s exposed walkways to the hills surrounding the city I finally feel a sense of place in Beijing.

New Haven needs a chuar joint. A hard core one, one with few creature comforts and lots of noise and smoke. That’s the only way to do it. And after a long night of party hopping, I couldn’t imagine anything more satisfying than to sit down to a big, heaping plate of grilled lamb kabobs.