Monthly Archives: September 2014

South Beauty, Beijing

20111105-IMG_0082Chef/Owner: Zhang Lan     Website:     Cuisine: Sichuanese

(In collaboration with Kevin from

The South Beauty chain is a success story that began over twenty years ago by a lady called Zhang Lan. With as little as USD 20,000, she opened her first restaurant in 1991 and has never looked back. She now has over 50 chains in her portfolio, racking up an annual revenue of circa USD 100 million, making her one of the most successful modern day female entrepreneurs of China.

For our first evening in Beijing we decided to take it easy and visit their branch in Pacific Century Place. I don’t tend to go to chain restaurants but made an exception on this occasion as it came highly recommended.

20111105-IMG_0087 Given the mountain of chilli that greeted us at the entrance, you can probably guess what this restaurant specialises in. Infamously hot Sichuanese food of course! It may have been my foreign presence (given my dining companion was Kevin from Fine Dining Explorer who was undoubtedly Chinese looking) which instigated the waiter to ask if we wanted to tone down the spiciness in our meal. I didn’t want to exactly destroy my stomach on my first day so I took his advice. In hindsight, this was a very good suggestion!

20111105-IMG_0093I left everything in the capable hands of Kevin as my Mandarin was not quite up to scratch. A few minutes of chatting with the waiter about classic dishes of Sichuan and we were off.

20111105-IMG_0095We kicked off with a few small dishes which were deceivingly spicy, including this Black Fungus that was served cold. Even Kevin had a nasty shock to his system as he took his first bite (although mind you, it turned out he had even less resistance than I did for hot food). I did enjoy the slithery and crunchy texture, although overall it did lack in flavour.

P1030351The next course, literally translated as Hanged Shirt White Meat, was one of their signature dish which consisted of thinly sliced pork served with shredded carrot and chilli sauce. It was a humorous take on how the Sichuanese hang their clothes. Who knew the Chinese were so humorous in their cooking? This dish was all about the sauce, made from the three spices of black, chilli and Sichuan peppers, as the pork was rather bland on its own. There was a very bizarre sensation of mouth numbing from the Sichuanese peppers.

20111105-IMG_0099Next was some Southern Yangtze Duck Roll which wasn’t Sichuanese but came recommended. The slices of duck meat had been rolled around a salty yolk centre. It was also a welcomed rest from the intense heat of the food we already had. Our tongues were on fire but little did I know what was about to come…

20111105-IMG_0101One of the best course of the evening was the Sliced Lung by the Married Couple (Fuqi Feipian) which was essentially sliced beef tongue and tripe served in a pool of Sichuan, chilli and black peppers. It was also the hottest item of the meal and possibly hotter than anything I had previously tried, ever…period. The dish dates back to the late Qing dynasty where a couple in Chengdu gained fame through their secret recipe of beef slices. As a result of some pranks played by mischievous children the name stuck, although I can assure you no lungs were in fact used in this dish ever. The meat used in this dish today is much higher quality slices of beef as well as a number of varieties of offal. I picked at this dish only every once in a while as I must confess the heat overwhelmed my palate, but it was so good I couldn’t stop.

20111105-IMG_0104 By the time our Kung Pao Chicken was served, we had become somewhat desensitised from the spice and heat. I couldn’t quite sense whether there was any heat to this but the chicken was moist and delicious, accompanied by a lovely mixture of crunchy peanuts and the sweet and crips spring onions.

20111105-IMG_0108Given we were having Sichuanese I could of course not resist trying one of the most internationally iconic dish of the region, Ma Po Tofu. The dish is often described and rated by chefs for the seven specific Chinese adjectives: numbing, spicy hot, hot temperature, fresh, tender and soft, aromatic and flaky. This was nothing like any variation I had tried before. Whilst comparably hot to the beef slices, it was indeed fresh, aromatic and tender. I could however not finish this as Kevin at this point had given up after admitting defeat to the intense spice. It was too much to finish this on my own.

20111105-IMG_0113Our saving grace that evening was that dessert, at least, was not spicy… well mostly. Our first dessert course was another playful dish of the Four Treasures of the Scholar’s Studio which included the Paper or simply rice paper, Brush which had an edible nutty puff pastry head…

20111105-IMG_0112Ink stick which was a sesame pancake…

20111105-IMG_0114… and Ink Stone that had been made from dried mince pork. It had a very airy texture yet a contrasting crispy coating, and most surprisingly worked well as a sweet dish. I particularly liked the fact that the chef had a sense of humour which wasn’t found in majority of the other restaurants we had visted subsequently in China.

20111105-IMG_0122For our last dessert we were presented with a variety of toppings consisting of Peanut butter, chive sauce, fermented bean curd, deep fried doughs, honey…. and surprise surprise, spicy sauce. This was to go with our…

20111105-IMG_0123… bowl of Tofu which had been prepared next to our table. I wasn’t a bit fan of this dish. Perhaps it was me, but I found it rather bland, unexciting and one dimensional (even with the spicy sauce!).

P1030344This was certainly not the culinary highlight from our trip, but what impressed me was the calibre of cooking for a chain restaurant. I did of course compare the dishes here against what previously had been presented to me as authentic Sichuanese, both in Asia and overseas, and relied on Kevin’s vast knowledge of regional Chinese cuisine. I’d certainly prefer this place over any other Sichuanese restaurants I’ve previously been to and even the tacky decor would not put me off from another visit to try other dishes… my intestinal lining however may perhaps disagree…

Club Jin Mao, Shanghai

20111111-P1070524Chef: Beck Chen Website: Cuisine: Shanghainese

Having opened initially as a private members only dining venue in 1999, it didn’t take long before Club Jin Mao had to open their doors to the public as their fame grew. The restaurant is located on the 86th floor of the 8th tallest building in the world (though I’m sure the Emirates and Chinese may have built taller ones by now), under the umbrella of Grand Hyatt Shanghai. With only 6 private dining rooms that cater up to 40 people, I felt quite priviledged to have scored a table here.

20111111-P1070527 After switching lifts a couple of times we finally arrived at the reception. I did not quite expect such a grand art deco design for a hotel restaurant but it was very impressive. It was certainly far more tasteful than many of the establishments we had visited during the ten days we were in China.

20111111-IMG_1156We were promptly escorted to our private dining room which had a superb view over the city. We also had the priviledge, on this occasion, to dine with one of our culinary contacts from our trip, Peter Zhou. Peter has an amazing dining history, doing everything from hosting Gary Rhodes during his trip across China, to refining the famous Drunken Chicken at 28 Hubin Road and even cooking with Shannon Bennett.

20111111-P1070521Despite the pollution, the view over the Pudong district and Huangpu river was quite impressive and I’m sure the view at night would have been even more spectacular.

20111111-IMG_1163A wooden box containing an assortment of traditional Chinese snacks consisting of various nuts, seeds and sweets was presented to us whilst we waited for the last diners to arrive.

20111111-IMG_1165Every single chef in this restaurant had been handpicked by Peter in his role as the Food and Beverage Director of Grand Hyatt Shanghai. He explained that he had spent months travelling around the region to scout for young talented chefs wanting to make a name for themselves.

20111111-IMG_1170Some fine yellow wine was poured to match with our lunch. It was a welcomed change to the tea and beer we had been having until that point on our trip.

20111111-IMG_1172Our lunch commenced with an assortment of Chinese bite size morsels starting with a fragrant Drunken Chicken marinated in shaoxing wine, Crispy fried prawns, cubes of Sweet and Sour fish, a couple of soft and juicy Spare ribs on the bone, a highly delectable Venison terrine and a stack of Celery sticks with pine nuts. Not a bad start at all. 

20111111-IMG_1179Similar to our experience at 28 Hubin Road, the food arrived at a slow and steady pace which made the experience much more enjoyable. Our first warm course of the meal was a Mixed Fish Maw Soup which was very light and well balanced in seasoning.

20111111-IMG_1181These were the best Fried prawns from the trip. They were infused with the highly sought after Dragon Well Tea from Hangzhou. Each prawn was cooked to perfection with perfect bite and juiciness. Shame I had to share this plate with four others…20111111-IMG_1184Given we had arrived in the midst of the Hairy Crab from Yangcheng lake season, we were fortunate enough to try a few dishes incorporating them. I personally liked the delicate texture and balance of flavour in the Tofu with Crab Roe although some of my companions found the flavour was overly diluted.

20111111-IMG_1190Next was the Deep fried fresh water fish which had an amazingly crispy texture down to the bone! Unlike some of the other deep fried fish I had tried on that trip, this was not too oily and quite pleasant. With an addition bonus that it wasn’t done with a sweet and sour sauce for a change!

20111111-IMG_1196As we had not had any greens by this point, some Bok choy and sea root vegetable was thrown in. The sea root vegetable, which to this date still remains a mystery to me, had a rather bizarre texture not too dissimilar to rhubarb and parsnip.

20111111-IMG_1199Given the pricetag that comes with an entire Hairy (Mitten) crab, this was our one occasion we allowed ourselves to indulge in, and boy was it worth it! Each of these crustacean comes with its own certification tag given they can fetch up to $150 a piece (and trust me when I say they are not that big). As we had arrived on the 10th month of the lunar calendar when these crab are at their best, we could not resist ordering a piece each.

20111111-IMG_1201As with any warm crab we had to first eat the legs before they cooled down to fully appreciate the delicate flabour. Of course the core of this female crab was also divine, with a yolk like gooey centre formed by the roe. The intensity of the roe flavour was divine and perfectly complemented the regular crab meat. It’s funny to see how a specie of crab considered to be a pest in the Western world is so highly sought after here.

20111111-IMG_1215We had ordered some additional Xialongbao (Shanghainese dumplings) in case we were still hungry. The soup inside this dumpling was one of the best I’ve ever had, and what’s more the meat inside also contained more crab meat and roe. Heaven.

20111111-IMG_1216A juicy Fried pork bun followedto finish the meal and fill the stomach in a not too dissimilar way to the purpose of bread in a classic French restaurant.

20111111-IMG_1228We finished our meal with a plate of Fresh fruits served over a bowl of dry ice emitting a dense fog. The fruits were surprisingly very sweet but I could not hide my disappointment that we were not being served a Chinese dessert. Given the calibre of cooking overall I expected something far more spectacular to finish but dessert was something that seemed to elude most, although not all, Chinese restaurants.

20111111-IMG_1229Club Jin Mao was without a shadow of a doubt one of the best fine dining establishment we came across in Shanghai. There were certainly moments of brilliance similar to 28 Hubin Road and the hairy crab season certainly enhanced the experience. It did come at a significant cost of course, albeit, in my opinion, being worth every single yuan. The cooking here was as authentic as Shanghainese food comes and who could complain with a stunning view? I certainly didn’t and would definitely recommend it if you were prepared to pay a bit for the experience. It’s definitely worth it.