New China plates
Beijing’s food scene has gained pace since the Olympics
AS the historic home of the emperor and his vast administrative machinery, Beijing has always offered some of the most sophisticated and extravagant food in China. Despite this rich culinary history — the city has restaurants that are almost 600 years old — much of it imported and adapted from China’s many regions, Beijing has been slower than Shanghai to adopt the trends that have up-ended the culinary world over the past 20 years.
Since the Olympics, however, the restaurant scene in Beijing, like everything else, has changed. Serving what is translated as ‘‘creative food’’, a new wave of restaurants have brought Chinese cuisine into the new millennium, making full use of molecular techniques, fusion twists and extravagant decoration both on and off the plate.
One of the most consistent and, arguably, the hippest is Bei, at The Opposite House hotel in the Sanlitun shopping village. This sleek dining room is a dramatic, lanternlit space of dark woods accented by minimal light fittings and a bright purple sushi bar. Young US chef Max Levy pays tribute to north Asian cuisine (in Mandarin, bei means north), combining northern Chinese, Korean and Japanese styles with Western techniques and ingredients from Levy’s home town of New Orleans, as well as his training in France and New York.
As unlikely as this combination sounds (and it does, indeed, create some unlikely food), Bei is a roaring success; a rare case of fusion triumphing over confusion. The food effortlessly straddles the transcontinental no-man’s land inhabited by the stateless vaga- bonds of the 21st century while still retaining a distinctly local identity.
Meals start with crisp wafer bread flavoured with three kinds of butter: crab roe, corn and wasabi. It sounds somewhat dubious, but in the mouth the effect is like making your way through an exotic market in a strange country only to bump into an old friend from home. The rest of the menu has a similarly contradictory quality. Triumphant dishes such as boneless chicken grilled with exotic mushrooms and cornmeal, or foie gras coated in miso paste and topped with a slab of fried eel draw as much on southern California or New Orleans as they do Japan or China.
Near Bei in the Sanlitun district is the less celebrated, although arguably as intriguing, Transit. Opened this year, Transit is a reinvigorated and altogether more up-market version of a Beijing favourite that closed in 2006. Transit’s dining room must be one of the city’s loveliest; it’s a slick but not cold space of shiny gun-metal grey, jade doors and bonsai trees.
Almost as beautiful as the interior design is the food: chef Huang Cho, from the Sichuan city of Luzhou, has created a menu that deftly sketches the broad strokes of traditional Sichuan fine dining while indulging in the full spectrum of global flavours.
Made with a great deal less oil than the usual Sichuan food, flavours are fresh and bright but not shy of the traditional tonguemelting spice of the region. Dishes such as a king prawn rolled in chilli and served with asparagus and a chocolate sauce recalling a Mexican mole pack a wallop, but never at the expense of the ingredients. Traditional Sichuan recipes, too, are given a modern twist but improved on rather than remixed into unrecognisability.
Xianjiao koushui (literally ‘‘saliva chicken’’, but more commonly translated as ‘‘mouth-watering chicken’’) is a cold dish of steamed chopped chicken in spicy oil. It’s a house speciality at Transit, offering a subtle take on a favourite with a sauce that is more fragrant than spicy, and chicken that has been nimbly deboned.
If Bei and Transit are the enfants terribles of the Beijing dining scene then Da Dong is the wizened veteran of the avantgarde. Founded by chef Dong Zhenxiang (nicknamed Da Dong —‘‘Big Dong’’ — on account of his height of 1.93m), Da Dong now has three branches in Beijing. Probably one of the most expensive restaurants in the city, it is often accused of being little more than a catwalk for the nouveaux riches and a trap for gullible tourists.
At the Dongsishitiao branch, not far from Sanlitun Village, the gangs of party officials and their bored-looking girlfriends emerging from a flotilla of black cars, smoking drivers left lurking outside, hardly seem to contradict this. However, the food is, for the most part, a reminder that being fashionable and being good aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. The most famous dish here is the Peking duck; when Heston Blumenthal went looking for the best in the world to perfect his own version, he came here. Far less fatty than is usual, the duck’s texture and leanness is achieved through a complex drying and partial freezing process before the bird is cooked in a round, wood-fired oven invented by the chef.
The result lives up to the hype: the meat has the consistency of a ripe pineapple; the skin arrives in little strips, to be wrapped in pastry parcels with condiments or eaten on its own, dipped in sugar.
The rest of the thumping 280-page menu is j ust as ambitious and extravagant. Dishes such as the signature braised sea cucumber and lotus root stewed in osmanthus flowers and topped with frozen shaved foie gras justify the poems dedicated to them in the menu. Others fall a little short of the mark: a number are ruined by sauces that might appeal to the Chinese palate but could seem cloyingly sweet to Western tastes.
By the time our fruit platter on dry ice and sticks of fairy floss with a core of candied tamarind arrive, we are left with the feeling of having participated in something secret, decadent and mildly profane.
Another veteran of the Beijing modern dining scene is the Green T House. Started as a tea shop in 1997 by Beijing artist, musician, chef and hipster extraordinaire Zhang Jon Jie (aka JinR), it is loved and loathed in equal measure: lauded as the benchmark of New China cool; decried as a den of snobby poseurs.
Whatever the truth, Zhang is one of the most creative chefs of her generation and the several venues she now owns across China and Hong Kong are testament at least to her canniness, if not her culinary skill.
All Zhang’s dishes take their inspiration from traditional Chinese ‘ ‘ medicinal’’ cuisine, designed to regulate chi in the body, and most contain green tea. Signature dishes include fennel dumplings flavoured with green tea and tea-roasted rice with mushrooms. It might be worth the slightly uncomfortable designer furniture and stratospheric prices just to sample them.
In only a few years, creative Chinese cuisine has gone mainstream in Beijing: chains like the excellent South Beauty are proof of that. Even Western fusion chefs, including American Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook fame, are heading to the capital to further expand the horizons of what may well be the new frontier of world food.
At Bei, American chef Max Levy combines north Asian styles with Western techniques