At Hua Jia Yi Yuan, a mainstay of Beijing's 'restaurant row,' the Olympics metaphors are piling up. You might say, a three-month marathon of prep work is nearing the finish line. Completed plates are being passed like batons. And judges are ready to hand out perfect 10s in a final event far more about glory than gold.
Specifically, today's contest is for a spot on the restaurant's sports-oriented menu planned for August, the month of the Summer Games. Hua Lei, the restaurant's owner, has invited four groups of cooks from his restaurants, who have come up with some 40 dishes, all straining for an Olympics association.
A stack of jellied bean paste? 'Gold and Silver Medal Cake.' A crock filled with sea cucumber and other high-priced goodies? 'Big Bowl Looking Forward to Big 2008 Party.' A rowing scull of asparagus, bearing duck? 'Smooth Sailing Meat.' A rather gruesome stewed crocodile claw? 'The World Hand-in-Hand at Olympics.'
'Having the Olympic Games in my city in my lifetime -- that's a golden opportunity I must seize to make my restaurant world-famous,' declares Mr. Hua, 40 years old. 'This is my way of taking part in the Olympic spirit, which is everyone's business.'
His isn't the only Beijing eatery with an Olympic-size dream. All over China's capital, the race is on to show patriotism, gain publicity and do what Chinese have done for eternity: mark their special occasions with unique culinary creations.
At Hua Jia Yi Yuan, Mr. Hua and his invited arbiters must first select something that can actually be put on the menu and made for a profit. Judge Fang Duan Yuan, a restaurant consultant, compares many of the dishes to fashion runway outfits: 'dazzling to look at, but you wouldn't want to wear them every day.'
Some don't even pass the dazzling test. Quivering rounds of scallops in a five-ring logo are deemed too droopy; the Olympic torch carved from a carrot is something 'I've been seeing for 20 years,' sniffs Mr. Hua. The sectioned 'squirrel fish,' undulating to look like a dragon covered in an Olympic rainbow of sauces, is something to see -- but just 'old flavors in a new shape,' he says.
Each judge carries a printed scoring sheet, with several weighted categories -- taste counts for 15%, appearance 20%, plates and containers 10% and so on. The dishes are presented in anonymity.
'Things like this usually aren't very fair in China, so I have made sure than nothing will be done out of friendship,' says Mr. Hua, who's so serious about avoiding nepotism that he says he won't hire anyone who shares his family name, even if they are unrelated.
The prize? Just 300 yuan ($43), but chef Duan Shi Cheng notes, 'This could further our careers -- and improves our learning in any case.'
The 27-year-old chef has been working a month on a 'harvest' medley, implying China's harvest of Olympic medals, that's clearly aimed at less-adventurous Western tastes: It features salmon eggs on mashed potatoes and a prime lamb chop balanced to stand on end inside a golden, crusted ring.
Elsewhere, the state-owned Quanjude Roast Duck has Olympic dishes already on the menu at a new branch near the main stadium. (It also has chafing dishes for warming the duck punched with the five holes of the Olympic insignia.) In honor of the women's doubles tennis team who took the gold for China at the 2004 Olympics, there's a shrimp salad festooned with a chocolate tennis racquet. Table tennis is celebrated with breaded duck liver in the shape of paddles, rowing with abalone on a raft of asparagus spears, golf (though not an Olympic sport) with a taro-root duffer swinging at a ground-fish ball.
But the most ubiquitous edible use of Olympic symbols will be stir-fried dishes served inside a basket of fried noodles made to resemble the main stadium, which has been nicknamed the 'Bird's Nest.' Many restaurants around the former Forbidden City also will be dusting off 'imperial menus' for the games, while bakeries and cafes will serve cakes and drinks with games-related titles. The Kerry Centre Hotel, 60% of whose rooms have been booked by the Beijing Olympic Committee for its guests, plans blue doughnuts and a ringed cake with 'no artificial colorings' at its Bento & Berries cafe; its Centro bar will honor five past Olympic host cities with cocktails and also serve a 'One World, One Dream' brew of coffee, melon and banana liqueurs, with floating jellied rings.
Some of Beijing's trendiest spots for fusion Chinese fare, like the nostalgia-themed Red Capital Club and the new branch of Shanghai's Whampoa Club, will offer special set menus, anticipating a high demand for banquets. But none will unveil menus until the last moment, claiming the need to be seasonal, if not secretive.
Even during ordinary times, eating in Beijing could be considered a culinary steeplechase. As China's capital, the city draws a wide range of regional and ethnic food, from the camel's hoof and whole lamb (sometimes served with a knife still in the skull) of Mongolia to the spicy stewed dog of Guizhou province's Dai people. Even Beijing's own longstanding champion, Peking Duck, was adopted from neighboring Shandong province.
For that reason, celebrated chefs such as Da Dong, whose new roast-duck palace not only features appetizers based on classical poetry but China's first computer-controlled room for duck drying and rendering, sees no need to get showier for the games. 'Every meal is Olympian,' he says.
Easy for him to say, with lines out the door. But inspecting creations submitted by entrants in his competition, Mr. Hua is still seeking that elusive signature dish to help him stand out. He has expanded Hua Jia Yi Yuan by purchasing and remodeling two traditional courtyard houses out back, expecting 2,200 diners daily during the 17 days of the games. He is also opening a 'boutique' outlet along Chang'an, Beijing's high-priced, central boulevard.
'We don't have the privilege of catering to high officials, so we have to fight for the market,' says Mr. Hua. 'And since we don't have much budget for television advertising, we are hoping to really stand out this way.'
Judge Zhang Fang Shong, a chefs' supervisor, concedes, 'It's difficult to balance looks with flavor -- and to make sure there's the proper complexity.' When the scores are added up, the only entry that definitely makes it onto the August menu is a meat-stuffed melon topped with ketchup to simulate the Olympic flame. Mr. Hua admits that prices for all dishes will 'be a bit higher during the Olympics.'
And the end of the Olympics won't mean the end of competitions, Mr. Hua says. 'Next year,' he declares, 'we're going to have a contest for the healthiest dishes.'
在北京号称“餐饮一条街”的簋街，花家怡园 (Hua Jia Yi Yuan)餐馆的奥运气氛不断浓厚起来。可以说，为期三个月的马拉松式奥运准备工作已接近尾声。在这里，做好的菜肴如接力棒一般陆续呈上，而评委要给每道菜打分，最终选出一道金牌菜。
豌豆黄？现在名叫“金银牌蛋糕”(Gold and Silver Medal Cake)。海参和其它高级食材汇聚的“佛跳墙”？现在名叫“2008年迎奥运大餐”(Big Bowl Looking Forward to Big 2008 Party)。两边装饰芦笋为桨的填鸭？现在名叫“一帆风顺鸭”(Smooth Sailing Meat)。有点可怕的煮鳄鱼爪？现在名叫“奥运手牵手”(The World Hand-in-Hand at Olympics)。
国营的全聚德烤鸭店(Quanjude Roast Duck)已经在奥运主会场附近的新店推出了奥运菜肴。（店里还有一种给烤鸭保温的器皿，上面打了五个眼，形成奥运的五环标志。）为纪念中国赢得2004年奥运会女子网球双打冠军，全聚德推出了一道大虾沙拉，上面点缀着一块用巧克力做成的网球拍；乒乓球主题菜是用粘有面包粉的鸭肝做成球拍状；划艇主题菜是一块鲍鱼放在由芦笋尖组成的“竹筏”上；高尔夫（虽说不是奥运项目）主题菜是一个用芋头做成的假人挥杆击中鱼丸做成的高尔夫球。
不过，奥运主题菜最常见的表现形式是用炸过的面条做成“鸟巢”主会场的样子，然后把炒菜放进去，端上餐桌。故宫附近的许多餐馆将把“皇家风味”的菜单撤下，换上奥运菜单；各种糕点房和咖啡店也将提供以赛事命名的蛋糕和饮料。北京嘉里中心饭店(Kerry Centre Hotel)，其60%的房间已被北京奥组委(Beijing Olympic Committee)预定，计划在Bento & Berries咖啡店推出蓝色的甜纳圈和“不含人工色素”的圈型蛋糕，并将在Centro酒吧推出五款以奥运举办城市命名的鸡尾酒，还会提供名为“同一个世界、同一个梦想”的咖啡、西瓜和香蕉味利口酒，里面漂浮着果冻做成的圆环。
北京一些最奢华的餐厅也不甘落后，新红资俱乐部(Red Capital Club)和上海黄埔会(Whampoa Club)北京分店将在奥运期间推出特别菜单，并预计将吸引很多人前来。这两家店都不愿提前透露菜品细节，表示这要看具体情况，其实更多的是为了保密。