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  Beijing Scene

Savory Silk Road

Situated on the fourth floor of a restaurant complex dominated by a large Pizza Hut and sandwiched between two other eateries, newcomer Donya Restaurant seems a bit overwhelmed by its surroundings.

Once you step inside there is little to separate it stylistically from a hotel caf? much less identify it with a high-class restaurant. The decor is sparse, the colors subdued, and it lacks an in-your-face quality. But if you think that any of this is bad, then you haven't been in China very long.

In a land where too many restaurants suffer from overbearing atmosphere, music played too loud, and surreal decorative motifs, Donya is a shimmering oasis. Not only does it offer authentic Middle Eastern and Xinjiang cuisine, but it does so with subdued, unpretentious class and a high standard of quality.

With a slightly faded carpet under your feet and four walls of wood paneling surrounding you, there's a certain cozy feeling to Donya. The only touch of the exotic is a photo mural mounted behind a slightly raised stage depicting camels trudging down the Silk Road.

A duo playing keyboard and a guitar alternate between soothing tunes and Islamic music throughout the evening. Periodically, two women dancers cajole the audience to dance with them in the open area in front of the stage. This sort of activity always has a high annoyance potential, but it is done in such a low-key manner that conversation is still possible.

If you're lucky you might just catch a VIP or two on the dance floor. We arrive to find the Palestinian ambassador the life of the party, and everyone clapping along with the music. In fact, the ambassadors from almost every Middle Eastern country are here tonight. Although we play second fiddle to this diplomatic entourage, it is a very reassuring sight to see the crowd eating and enjoying fare from their native lands.

"We're all very pleased with the food here," says H.E. Saleh Abdulla Saleh Al Bouanin, the Qatar ambassador. "The grilled meats, fresh bread and presentation of the vegetables are all top notch." The hot crusty flatbreads in particular are noteworthy. Donya bakes its own bread, which is a delicious pita-like version served piping hot.

The traditional combination with the bread is humus, a creamy dip made of mashed, cooked chick peas with a touch of lemon on top, and tabbuleh, a meat/vegetable concoction with a tangy bite. Beware though, dipping your pita in the humus will quickly become an addictive habit.

For those of you with a rice fetish, Donya does not disappoint. The simplicity of grilled lamb served over fried rice belies a rich flavor and a harmony that would make a Taoist priest grin with inscrutable pleasure. On the menu you'll find it listed under Stuffed Lamb (Oriental Rice) along with other variations on the same theme.

An especially delightful dish for both the eyes and the taste buds is listed in the menu under the mundane Chicken with Tomato Sauce. Don't let this fool you. It's not a chicken patty swathed in ketchup. Instead what appears on your table is a roasted chicken stuffed with rice, stewing in a shallow bath of tomato broth. It is immediately satisfying on several levels. From the crunchy burst of flavor that comes from taking a bite of the chicken skin, to the velvet smooth meat and then finally to the rice soaked in tomato and meat juices, there will be few who leave the table unsatisfied.

For those less interested in meat, a good alternative is the Arabian Salad, which at first glance looks like any other salad until you take a bite. The lemon-based dressing clearly sets it apart and the freshness of the vegetables is immediately apparent.

Ordering all of these dishes is greatly facilitated by an English menu. However, the descriptions tend to be sparse, so be prepared to make a liberal interpretation of the text. Also, the waitstaff don't speak English, although the floor managers do.

All told, Donya has plenty to offer and repeat visits will definitely be in order. It's a wonderful addition to Beijing's crowded restaurant market in that it offers something new and authentic as well as delicious.

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