Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Where do you want to go?

If there are two things we don't hear enough about, they are what's the weather like in Beijing and what I had for dinner last night. On at least one of these topics, you will not find better coverage anywhere else on the internet.

My adventurous eating finally caught up with me and I woke up sick yesterday morning. It didn't last long, and I spent the day preparing today's talk and chatting with Hoeteck about what he has been up to these past months. I meet Hoeteck before lunch, and this is the first time I enter the computer science building. Officially, one needs to have a badge and show it at all times to enter the building, but nobody really does, and I was told that when I don't have the badge with me I should just stride in with confidence. I do, and a security guard chases after me shouting in Chinese. (Actually, he wasn't shouting, he was quite nice.) He doesn't speak English, but it's clear that no amount of feigning naivete will get me in. I step outside, I call Su Chang, she asks me to put the security guard on the phone, they talk, and then the security guard motions me to follow him. He takes me to another guard who asks me where I am going in English. "Theoretical computer science group" blank stare. "Andy Yao" blank stare. We get moving again, and we go to a third person. "Where do you want to go?" he asks, in better English. "Su Chang" I try this time. "Ah, Su Chang" everybody says. Which makes me wonder: did she talk on the phone to the first security guard without introducing herself? We get moving once more, but at this point I spot Hoeteck, I call him and they give me into his custody. Ironically, Hoeteck had forgotten his own badge, but apparently it doesn't matter because he doesn't look suspicious.

By dinner time, all signs of sickness having disappeared, I was ready for Su Chang's latest recommendation, a place conveniently around the corner from campus.

The place was Fancy. Allow me to explain Fancy. The place is on a second floor, but it has its own entrance at street level. At the entrance you take an elevator to go one floor up to the restaurant. A person stands by the elevator to press the second floor button for you. Upstairs, it's all dim lights, upholstered chairs, huge tables, couples on dates and business people on expense accounts. I start worrying because I don't carry my credit card around, I had only about $50 in cash, and I had to pay for two. The menu arrives and it has many entrees that are extravagantly priced even by Parisian standards (some are more than $100), but most dishes are very reasonably priced. We order a cold starter with a vegetable I don't recognize and supposedly fancy Japanese mushrooms, a dish with eggplants that tastes vaguely Italian and that is probably the most delicious eggplant dish I ever ate, a yellowtail tuna fish in a simple steamed preparation that tastes very fresh, and beef pancakes (sort of crackers that have shredded meat in their dough). Another unforgettable dinner comes out to $26 for two people, about twice what we paid at more rustic places but still no more than getting a sandwich and a perrier for lunch at Gregoire's.


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