Eastern delicacies and comfort foods are on the menu for Julia Medew as she moves between Chinese culinary worlds.
It comes cold and sea fresh but it doesn't look anything like the jellyfish I've dodged at the beach. There is no clear, round body or long tentacles to be seen, just strips of red, crinkled meat.
To my untrained eye, it looks a bit dangerous but after declining the turtle soup and passing on the boiled chicken's feet, I swoop in with my chopsticks. The tough jellyfish fillet fills my mouth with the taste of seawater. Feeling like I've just been dunked by a wave, I quickly tear through it. It feels more like a grisly piece of seaweed than the gelatinous matter I'd imagined.
Next on the menu at Dragon Well Manor, an exclusive restaurant in Hangzhou known for its organic Chinese food, is the famous bird's nest soup. For the unacquainted, this is not a collection of twigs and leaves but rather sticks of hardened saliva deposited by a tiny swallow, which spits for 35 days to create its delicate home. Served cold in a small bowl with tiny pieces of hard peach-tree sap, this Chinese treat looks a bit like vermicelli noodles in a clear gel, resembling the alcohol hand rub you find in hospitals. Or, more to the point, thick human saliva.
"I wonder who first watched this poor bird spitting up its nest and decided it would be worth eating?" a fellow traveller asks. Our guide quickly informs us that many Chinese believe bird's nest soup will keep them looking young and boost their libido. I decide to get stuck in. The first spoonful is bland and surprisingly easy to eat after the jellyfish. The overpowering flavour is the sweetness of the peach sap and the more our guide talks, the more I realise the nest has been boiled to melt into its original salivary form.
The nest, which can cost thousands of dollars a kilogram depending on the type of swallow it belongs to, is an intriguing highlight of my foodies' tour of China.
After a few days of steaming dumplings for breakfast, mouth-numbing Sichuan spices for lunch and crispy slices of duck for dinner, among many other weird and wonderful morsels, I hit my Vegemite moment. It's the point in your trip where no matter how good the foreign food looks and smells, you yearn for Vegemite on toast and a home-made cup of tea.
Almost on cue, I'm led to the first of several sanctuaries in China that have broken with the traditions of Chinese cuisine, which can challenge even the most adventurous of stomachs. About 25 kilometres south-east of Beijing's international airport and a convenient stop on the way to the Great Wall, I land at Green T House Living for lunch.
This modern restaurant, spa and gallery is the creation of Chinese artist JinR and her Australian husband, Robbie Gilchrist. In a dry, flat field that used to be a cabbage farm, it is an unlikely location for a chic new dining room but somehow it works. Inside a huge, white warehouse, a fusion of Asian and Western cuisine is served in spectacular artistic fashion, with a long list of teas and tea-infused cocktails to match. Birds sing inside three-metre-high birdcages and waiters dressed in ninja-style outfits move seamlessly around what looks to be a 10-metre-long table.
I order a cocktail of champagne and rose jasmine tea. It's paired with spicy south-east Asian-inspired chicken and garnished with crumbled fetta - again, an unlikely combination, but it works. A quick look at the new spa here is enticing, too, featuring a giant green-tea bath inside a neighbouring warehouse.
The next non-traditional stop is perfect for my digestion. Walking off the streets of central Beijing into Capital M, the latest project by Australian restaurateur Michelle Garnaut, is like stepping into another world.
With its black-and-white chequered floor, big red leather chairs and glass-encased fireplaces, it is sexy and luxurious in contrast with the dour streets full of security cameras and policemen outside. But it's not until you reach the deck that you realise why Garnaut, who also runs a popular bar and restaurant in Shanghai, waited seven years to open her new venture on Beijing's famous Qianmen Street.
Perched on the third floor of a building at the southern end of Tiananmen Square, the restaurant has clear views of the Forbidden City. The romantic vista can be taken in from many of the tables, both inside and out. For a gourmet traveller, the setting rivals a meal spent ogling the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building.
After nabbing a table close to the window, our degustation begins with a basket of crusty home-made bread with salty butter and a torchon of foie gras with toasted brioche. It is followed by a dainty salad of rocket, herbs, orange slices and almonds. Next comes seared scallops with crispy bacon, then a crab souffle in a thick crab bisque. This is followed by oxtail ravioli, the only dish to be served with Chinese wine, and then crispy suckling pig with roasted apples and red beets. This is the crescendo for a grand dessert platter with the most Australian of dishes: pavlova topped with fruit salad and passionfruit syrup.
This dish is the next best treatment for my fatigued palate.
As delicious as Chinese food can be, Garnaut says many travellers need a break from it every now and then and her restaurant is a sanctuary of sorts for expats, business people and politicians visiting the Chinese capital.
"A lot of people have been in China for about three weeks by the time they get here, so they climb up the stairs, pore over the menu and eat three baskets of bread before they've even started," she says, laughing about my Vegemite craving.
Capital M's weekend brunch and afternoon-tea sessions are also popular, Garnaut says, because they include favourites such as eggs Benedict, finger sandwiches of home-made bread and scones with jam and cream.
While a visit to Garnaut's restaurant feels slightly naughty for a gastronomic traveller trying to notch up foreign dishes, M's story offers some great insights into China and its fickle ways, too.
Having waited seven years to secure the site, Garnaut has been faced with sudden changes to the supply of imported goods based on the shifting mood of international relations.
"There's often political motivations as to what is available here ... there were no Danish products at one stage and then suddenly there was something going on with the French, which meant there was no cream, so we couldn't make ice-cream for a while. It can be a funny place," she says.
While a surge in the number of luxury hotels across China has boosted the availability of Western foods and organic fruit and vegetables in recent years, some things remain difficult to find.
"I still have to carry rose water, vanilla beans and pomegranate molasses in a suitcase to get them here for some of our dishes," Garnaut says. "And I'm not keen on Chinese dairy, especially after the dairy scandal, so I make sure we get organic milk."
Apparently, Vegemite is still on its way, too.
Julia Medew travelled courtesy of V&A Travel.
Air China flies non-stop to Beijing (12hr) from Sydney ($830) and Melbourne ($690). Fare is low-season return, including tax. Australians require a $79 visa for a stay of up to 30 days.
V & A Travel runs 10-day tours of China, taking in Shanghai, Hangzhou and Beijing, priced from $12,750 a person, twin share, excluding international flights. Tours this year depart on September 2, October 14 and November 4. Phone 1300 376 835 or see vandatravel.com.au.
Dragon Well Manor is considered one of the best restaurants in China. At 399 Longjing Road, Hangzhou, 170 kilometres south-west of Shanghai.
Green T House Living is a new restaurant, spa and gallery, at 318 Cuige Zhuang Xiang Hege Zhuang Cun, Chaoyang, Beijing. Bookings essential. See green-t-house.com.
Capital M is at 2 Qianmen Pedestrian Street, Beijing. Bookings essential. See www.m-restaurantgroup.com/capitalm