Destination: China: Beijing
As the name suggests, the restaurant serves crustaceans; but that is not necessarily the main reason to make a reservation. Lobster is one of the many weapons in the culinary armory of Brian McKenna, a chef whose molecular gastronomy is the talk of the town. Despite his tender age—the Irishman has yet to turn thirty—he is a veteran of Michelin-starred kitchens and has worked with major names, such as Gordon Ramsay, and could take his toque into any kitchen in the world. The Shangri-la hotel lured McKenna to Beijing with the promise that he’d be able to run Blu Lobster like a freestanding restaurant and be totally in charge of the kitchen, the menu, the staff and the wine list. Since, the hardworking chef has created dishes that have gourmets in raptures. One of the most popular is a salad with forty-two ingredients served with hazelnut mayonnaise, Chardonnay jelly and slowly cooked egg; another bestseller is rib of beef with a twenty-four-vegetable garnish. The lobster dishes that give the restaurant its name are crushed using a specially commissioned silver press that cost $36,000 to make. Blu Lobster is the city’s must-visit restaurant, so be sure to make a reservation well in advance, preferably before arriving in Beijing. It really is that special.
With one or two notable exceptions, real fine dining is found only in the top hotels, at five-star prices that reflect the hefty China duties on imported food and wine. One of the latest is Cepe, in the Ritz-Carlton Beijing Financial Street, which assumes diners want the very best, whatever the cost. Fittingly, the menu has a heavy representation of mushroom dishes—cepes—and other delicacies such as truffles and goose liver.
Hotshot American lawyer Handel Lee was miffed at being unable to find decent Western food when he first came to Bejing, so he opened his own place, the Courtyard, with a group of friends. They secured a plum location, right outside the vermillion walls of the Forbidden City. The view from one of the restaurant’s window seats is of the soaring eastern walls and the surrounding moat—the latter sometimes, sadly, clogged by trash from uncaring residents. The food has fusion elements—red curry steak tartare and pork tenderloin stuffed with goat’s cheese—along with such staples as roasted veal and grilled steak. The extensive wine list from Bordeaux, Burgundy and California earned the restaurant a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence (the oenophile owner’s personal cellar has some 5,000 bottles, including several hundred rare French vintages). The building itself dates back to the Qing Dynasty, but the interior is light, modern and airy.
A favorite of diplomats living in the nearby compounds and of business visitors, this St. Regis restaurant has seen some major deal-making over the years. It is small and unprepossessing but is considered by locally based expats to be one of the finest Western restaurants in town. The Astor Grill next door is a haven for serious meat eaters.
Chef Daniel Boulud has been one of the top French chefs in New York for more than a decade. In Beijing he chose a gorgeous villa in the former American Legation compound not far from Tiananmen Square to open a sophisticated outpost, where he offers his signature modern twist on French cuisine using Pacific Rim ingredients. The restaurant was designed to feel like a glamorous private villa, and the dining rooms combine old world elegance (wood paneling and velvet upholstery) with modern whimsy (a surrealistic mural of a Versailles scene in the main gallery). More casual dining is offered in the bar area and there are multiple private dining rooms upstairs. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Chinese love eating in private rooms in restaurants, and among the most beautiful such rooms are those in the Park Hyatt, which devoted an entire restaurant to sixteen supremely luxury private dining rooms. The famous architect Super Potato from Japan designed the spaces, which are aptly called suites. Each one is different; many include lounge areas, karaoke set-ups and private terraces. The Cantonese meals served here are meant to last for hours and they do. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
The Whampoa Club
The latest venture by Hong Kong master chef Jereme Leung, renowned for his ultramodern take on traditional dishes. (The first Whampoa Club, in Shanghai, made Leung’s name.) Beijing’s Whampoa Club is a novelty, a rare low-rise traditional building in the newly created financial district, surrounded by just-completed hotels and skyscrapers. The courtyard-style structure, once used as a private residence, has a bar at ground level and its main dining area located in the basement, with a glass roof that allows diners to see daylight (or starlight). Scores of candles and lavish use of silver fittings and fixtures make the room sparkle. It is in the kitchen, though, that Leung really shines, offering idiosyncratic takes on Chinese fare without opting for the gimmicks so often associated with so-called fusion food. A typical Leung menu would have dishes such as bean curd and vegetable roll with foie gras terrine, Beijing-style pork- and-bean jelly, roasted lamb leg with cumin, served in its own juices and, for people unafraid of a culinary experiment, cheesecake with Beijing pea custard. Book early, as it is a popular spot.
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