Louwailou serves up lake­side charm and clas­sic food

China Daily (USA) - - G20 2016 CHINA - By MIKE PETERS michaelpeters@chi­nadaily.com.cn

If I ever go into the restau­rant busi­ness, I pray for a rep­u­ta­tion like that of Louwailou.

But per­haps I wouldn’t live to see it. Like many of the world’s most fa­mous restau­rants, Louwailou earned its ac­claim over many gen­er­a­tions. There is some de­bate about when the place opened, but 1838 or 1848 seem likely.

There are also a ro­man­tic mix of sto­ries about its found­ing. Un­like to­day, when restau­rants dot the water­front of West Lake, back then there was not a good place to eat in the area, the story goes. The owner had failed the im­pe­rial ex­am­i­na­tion for schol­ars, but he and his wife had de­vel­oped skill cook­ing fresh fish and shrimp which they sold on the street in their home­town of Shaox­ing.

Af­ter the deaths of their par­ents, they moved to Gushan (Soli­tary Hill) on West Lake and made their liv­ing by boat­ing and fish­ing. At some point the boss was in­spired by Lin Sheng (1163-1189), a poet in the South­ern Song Dy­nasty (1127-1279), who wrote: “The green hill be­sides the moun­tain and a house sets out­side an­other build­ing, cease­less dances and songs along the West Lake, the breeze that makes us ine­bri­ous…” Giddy with de­light, he founded the restau­rant now fa­mous for “en­joy­ing de­li­cious dishes and beau­ti­ful scenery to­gether”.

The restau­rant’s set­ting lives up to such ex­alted sen­ti­ment. It glows on the lake­front, and a sep­a­rate dining room is lit­er­ally docked out front, for pri­vate par­ties for those with some cash and clout.

On land, the main dining room is a sea of white table­cloths and fast-mov­ing wait­staff. Af­ter more than 150 years, the place draws a crowd and there’s al­ways a wait un­less you hap­pen to ar­rive as we did — at 10:30 am when the restau­rant opens. By 11, the place was full and a line had formed out front.

The spe­cialty here is sweet-and-sour carp, and our plat­ter ar­rived with two whole fish un­der a sauce that was dense with­out be­ing gloppy. In Hangzhou style, the “sour” was a lit­tle more dom­i­nant that the “sweet”, mak­ing the dish less cloy­ing than some Shang­hai or Can­tonese vari­a­tions on this theme.

“When pre­pared and pre­sented well,” the menu ad­vises, “the dish will be served with erect pec­toral fins with eyes look­ing up and have a tasty flesh, in­te­grat­ing de­li­cious sweet and sour fla­vors as well as the taste of carp.”

We or­dered that right away (it’s 208 yuan or $31 for 500 g), then started our meal with a plat­ter of sweet lo­tus root and a lo­cal beer, fol­lowed by an in­trigu­ing side dish of wild veg­eta­bles with melon seeds, peanuts and pinenuts.

Next came beg­gar’s chicken, which has its own sweet story from long ago: Un­sure what to do with it, a beg­gar put a chicken in a lo­tus leaf and buried it in the mud. Later, ea­ger to feed a hun­gry friend, he dug up the chicken and put it whole, still wrapped in the lo­tus leaf and mud, into the fire. “When he opened the mud cas­ing,” our menu re­counts, “the aroma and ten­der­ness of the chicken cook­ing in its own juices was heav­enly”. Since then, the dish has been a Hangzhou spe­cialty, the story goes, with more lo­cal fla­vor added by us­ing Shaox­ing wine in­side the lo­tus wrap.

Th­ese fun tid­bits from the menu, by the way, are in English as well as Chi­nese, so guests from far away can en­joy the lore of theWest Lake cui­sine as much as the lo­cals do. Crys­tal shrimp sauteed with Longjing tea, Dong Po-style braised pork, hot-and­sour fish soup, crispy rice with shrimp, and Hangzhou-style soup with sea cu­cum­ber, abalone, shark’s fin, dried scallop and ham are all on of­fer, ex­plained in sim­i­larly charm­ing de­tail.

The restau­rant has served many fa­mous per­son­al­i­ties over the years in­clud­ing Sun Yat-sen, late premier Zhou En­lai and writer Lu Xun, as well as many for­eign dig­ni­taries and celebri­ties.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

West Lake fish in vine­gar is a sig­na­ture Hangzhou dish found in var­i­ous restau­rants in the city.

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