New China plates

Bei­jing’s food scene has gained pace since the Olympics

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - BREN­DAN SHANA­HAN

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.