Tag Archives: China

South Beauty, Beijing

20111105-IMG_0082Chef/Owner: Zhang Lan     Website: www.southbeauty.com     Cuisine: Sichuanese

(In collaboration with Kevin from www.finediningexplorer.com)

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: www.shanghai.grand.hyatt.com 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.

28 HuBin Road, Hangzhou


Chef: Colin Yu   Website: www.hangzhou.regency.hyatt.com  Cuisine: Traditional Hangzhou

Described by Marco Polo as the finest and noblest city in the world, the city of Hangzhou is synonymous with its UNESCO world heritage site of the West Lake, scenic beauty and Dragon Well tea. It is also the location of the restaurant, 28 HuBin Road! The restaurant, located at the Hyatt Regency, is considered to be the best restaurant in China by many notable local food critics and the like. Located only an hour’s train ride from Shanghai, it would have been sacrilegious to miss this opportunity. We were famished from some early morning tourism around Hangzhou and arrived with an appetite!

20111109-IMG_0944The cooking here celebrated the traditional and diverse cuisine of Hangzhou and the surrounding region. It is not only a favourite spot amongst local Chinese people but also attracts foreigners from afar including ourselves of course. On this occasion, rather than dining in the main dining room, we made a reservation for…

20111109-IMG_0950… the private dining room, which had a lovely view out on to the bamboo garden. Before getting stuck in our meal, we were welcomed with a traditional tea ceremony. It was apparent from the first few minutes that the quality of service here was far more superior to any other restaurant we visited during our trip. The front of house were engaging, insightful and most importantly made you feel at ease. Despite the 2,500 bottles of wine on offer, we decided to make the most of the varieties of tea to go with our meal.

20111109-IMG_0967As were were aiming to catch the last train back to Shanghai that evening, we had to request for our meals to be served at a slightly faster pace. Straight after the ceremony, a plate of appetisers were brought to each of us. Starting with the left going clockwise, there was aromatic beef with a sesame sauce, sweet and sticky rice cubes with lotus root, a delicious slow poached quail egg where the yolk had been replaced with a rich foie gras mousse, crispy fried radish, smokey fish and finally a parcel of crunchy enoki mushroom. It was a modern twist on classic dishes, but most importantly all were delicious.

20111109-IMG_0976Rather than serving everything simultaneously or as the dishes were ready, the food here came steadily in a paced speed, allowing us to savour each course separately. Our next course was Lady Song’s Sweet and Sour Fish Soup, an 800 year old dish made from a rich broth and the tender meat of the mandarin fish. Everything in the soup tasted fresh and given the complexity of the flavours I could see why it gained the nickname of the luxurious ‘crab porridge’ despite containing none of the crustacean.

20111109-IMG_0981The Longjing Xia Ren (Dragon well shrimps) was similarly impressive. The fresh water shrimps had been coated and marinated in a mixture of egg white and potato starch for a couple of hours before being ‘velveted’ (flavours sealed through medium heat) and combined with a simple sauce infused with premium quality Dragon Well tea. Additional tea leaves were scattered for finishing touches to really infuse the herbacious flavours of the tea to the moist and tender shrimp.

20111109-IMG_0985The highlight of the menu was undoubtedly the Dongpo Pork served with bamboo shoots and chestnut pancake, which looked as impressive as it tasted. The pork belly was carved out into a pyramid shape…

20111109-IMG_0992… but what was more impressive was the knife skills that then went into slicing meticulously along the edges of the pork belly, keeping the piece together as one long strip. It was then braised in its pyramidal shape, revealing the skills that went into the dish only as you unfolded the meat from the base.

20111109-IMG_0997The bamboo shoots and pork belly slices were then wrapped with the sweet chestnut pancake. The thin layers of pork belly melted in your mouth, releasing a flood of sweet and savoury flavours. This dish alone justified our trip to Hangzhou, and even China.

20111109-IMG_0998This was also my first time trying the West Lake poached Marble Goby in sweet vinegar sauce. Other than the benefits we’d heard on the rumour mill around the fish having life prolonging and healing properties, the marble goby fish was tender, smooth and sweet, but not flakey. The flavours from this fresh water fish was amazing and as far as I could remember one of the best I’ve had in a very long time.

20111109-IMG_1006We hesitated on ordering the Beggar’s chicken, given none of us had ever enjoyed the dish, often due to the meat being too dry or bitter from the stuffing, but a trusted food source had advised us to reconsider the dish here. So we gave it a try…… and boy were we glad we ended up not missing out on this dish. A stuffed whole chicken was wrapped in layers of lotus leaf and covered in clay before being baked for an hour.

20111109-IMG_1008It was brought to our table still in the clay and with a wooden hammer. The chef prompted us to pick the hammer up and break the mould for good luck.

20111109-IMG_1021This dish was the result from experimenting with over 200 recipes over a number of months. The juicy meat fell off the bone with ease and was packed with flavours and fragrance from concoction of rice wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, star anise, ginger and stuffing (which remained a secret), resulting with a sweet after taste. Impressive stuff.

20111109-IMG_1023A rather unadventurous Honey glazed ham followed the preceding three amazing dishes.

20111109-IMG_1024And when we thought the best dishes were done and dusted, a fairly unassuming Braised cabbage with crab roe appeared in front of us. However, the execution of the dish was exemplary. The cabbage had been prepared with precision to allow enough flavours of the crab roe to be soaked up, yet maintain some bite. It was like a blank canvas painted in crustacean. All we could taste was the delicious crab from Yangcheng Lake.

20111109-IMG_1029Just in case we didn’t get enough of the beautiful crab flavour the chef prepared us a bowl of Mixed Noodles and bean sprout with crab roe. I personally preferred the braised cabbage as the flavours of the crab roe was comparably lost here.

20111109-IMG_1033A Crab roe dumpling soup was then served to finish our meal, abruptly, as we realised we had only 15 minutes before rushing back to the train station.

20111109-IMG_1034Fortunately, we had just enough time to squeeze in an assortment of desserts. Showcasing traditional and modern flavours and techniques from the Dragon Well Tea crème brûlée and Osmanthus ice cream, to the Jasmin mousse cake, what a perfect way to end our meal. Thoroughly delightful.

20111109-IMG_0955There were some amazing restaurants in China but 28 HuBin Road was the only place that offered a fine dining experience that went beyond amazing food. As a foreigner, I appreciated the front of house taking their time to go over many of the tales and anecdotes behind the dishes that have now become synonymous to traditional Hangzhou cuisine. In retrospect, it would have been far more sensible to have stayed overnight in Hangzhou. I won’t be making the same mistake again next time. You have been warned.

Made in China, Beijing

20111107-IMG_0651Website: www.beijing.grand.hyatt.com/restaurants    Cuisine: Peking Duck

What does one do when in Beijing? Eat Peking Duck of course, and that’s exactly the first thing I did with Fine Dining Explorer when we arrived…. and repeatedly…. during our short stay. But there was a reason for our quest. We were not looking for just any Peking Duck. We were looking for the best, and it came to us as a surprise that finding a good Peking Duck in Beijing was a far more difficult feat than we initially imagined. But the search was finally over when we arrived at Made in China, located in the premise of the Grand Hyatt, Beijing. If there was anything I took away from my two week gourmet blitz trip across China, it was that majority of the fine dining establishments in China were located in the five star hotels. A rather odd concept!

20111108-P1070197As it turned out, given the lengthy preparation required for each duck, the restaurant had a limited number of 70 ducks on offer every day so reservation for a duck was paramount when securing a table. Lucky for me that Fine Dining Explorer organised everything up front so we had nothing to worry about. I flared my nose in olfactory anticipation as we walked past the ducks that were being given the final touches of an hours cooking in the wood oven. The manager told us that they had been inflated and the hung overnight in the fridge to separate the skin from the meat.

P1040122Given we were four very hungry people, it made sense to also order some additional dishes on the side. After all, we were having a duck between us as post-meal snacks on the days leading up to this meal…

20111107-IMG_0662We started off with some pickled radish and dried bean curd as we waited for our dishes to arrive.

20111107-IMG_0666We had an assortment of three entrées starting with the Spinach leaves tossed with sesame sauce and Chinese rice vinegar, which had a lovely nutty flavour and toasty aroma. The flavours for me were more reminiscent of Japanese cuisine.

20111107-IMG_0667Some Steamed eggplant with Chinese rice vinegar which had a lovely texture and plenty of flavours. I particularly enjoyed the sharpness from the rice vinegar against the earthy mushroom.

20111107-IMG_0670The last of the entrée was a rather disappointing Braised pork knuckle served with pickled cucumber, which had very little flavour and hardly any seasoning.

20111107-IMG_0675On to our main dish of the evening, the Old fashioned Peking duck from the wood fired oven with classic condiments. We were told that the skin around the wings and neck were the crispiest and most delicate, and therefore prepared first.

20111107-IMG_0677We were advised to have the crispy skin with sugar only. It was remarkably light, flavoursome, and, contrary to expectation, not too oily.

20111107-IMG_0683Some pancakes were presented on the side to wrap the other parts of the duck, starting with…

20111107-IMG_0680… the leg of the duck with the skin. It was deliciously succulent with a good contrast between the tender meat and the crispy skin. We were again advised to have it with the pancake and the garlic sauce. I preferred this cut far more than the…

20111107-IMG_0678Breast meat which also was tender and juicy but lacked that dimension of flavour and texture from the crispy skin.

20111107-IMG_0688Some extra courses followed starting with Fried dried string beans with minced pork and preserved vegetables. I absolutely love fried Chinese vegetables and this was no exception. Great crunch, good level of heat and a generous amount of garlic. Divine.

20111107-IMG_0690The Honey glazed king prawns with dried chilli, ginger and sliced garlic was a pleasant surprise. The crispy prawn had been deep-fried enough to allow us to eat the skin as well. I couldn’t remember the last time seeing such gigantic prawns!

20111107-IMG_0692A bowl of Duck soup made from the bone which was completely absent of flavour. Perhaps it was served at the wrong time as the preceding fried courses had a lingering flavour dominating my palate.

20111107-IMG_0694A favourite dish from Hangzhou, the Crispy Mandarin fish with sweet and sour sauce, served without bones. I’m not very keen on sweet and sour dishes primarily due to the fact that I always found an imbalance between the two elements. On this occasion, the balance of sweet and sour was spot on and consequently delicious.

20111107-IMG_0697Rather than going for the conventional options of white rice as a side dish, we had some Boiled dumplings filled with mince pork Beijing Cabbage and yellow chives to go with food instead. It wasn’t bad but was no contender to the phenomenal ranges fo dumplings we had in Shanghai the subsequent week.

20111107-IMG_0705Dessert took us all by surprise. We had an assortment of desserts from the banana chocolate spring roll, cheesecake with apricot compote, a decadently rich chocolate mousse with brownie, profiteroles, ice cream with rose, lychee, vanilla and chocolate flavours with a brandy basket, chocolate with five grain liquor (wuliangye), lavendar creme brulee which was slightly lumpy and uneven in texture, mango pudding and some fresh fruits. We were absolutely stuffed!

20111107-IMG_0652The Peking Duck in Made in China was by far the best one we had during our stay in Beijing. The bonus of course were the additional courses we had little to no expectations from, yet delivered on a high note. However, top end restaurants in China still have a long way to go when it comes to the business of service. Made in China was no exception with the brusque service and lack of interaction with the front of house. But given the modest price tag and delicious food on offer, it would not deter me in the slightest from coming back over and over again. Just remember to reserve your mallard in advance.