The food scene in Hangzhou falls roughly into two parts: the traditional and the new. Hangzhou has a storied, venerable cuisine which has traditionally been of and for the literati. The city’s food emphasizes reminders and resonances of the literary arts, especially poetry. However, the traditional dishes of Hangzhou (which was a world cultural center in the Song Dynasty and was visited at its peak by Marco Polo) are few – according to the chief chef at Lou Wai Lou, they number only about 40. Tourists, especially Chinese tourists, flock to Hangzhou as it is considered one of the loveliest places in China. These tourists tend to eat at the traditional restaurants and focus on those 40 famous, often literary-themed dishes. Local Hangzhou people, however, have understandably grown bored with the traditional repertoire and flock to restaurants like the massive and opulent Xin Kai Yuan, where the main appeal is newness. Owner Wang Zhiyuan (who has a chain of restaurants) keeps a staff of ten test chefs whose sole function is to constantly create new recipes.
But there is one place that transcends these two categories — in fact, all categories.
LONGJING CAOTANG (DRAGON WELL MANOR). Dear reader, I have met the last Chinese chef, and his name is Dai Jianjun. He has created what may well be the most exquisite restaurant in China today; certainly no restaurant in China is more deeply rooted in philosophy and art. Going well beyond the traditional Hangzhou concept of literary cuisine, he has created dining pavilions variously themed around music, chess (wei qi), calligraphy, painting and renewal, as exemplified in the saying, yi sui yi ku rong (every year, a renewal). Three additional dining rooms are decorated to resemble rustic Chinese farmhouses, complete with the devotional portraits of Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Zhu De, as they are still seen in the Chinese countryside.
It all started with the garden. After graduating from Hangzhou University with a degree in philosophy—hardly your standard Chinese chef background—he used family money to acquire 5 acres of a former botanical garden which had been let go. He and several friends spent four years transforming it, “stone by stone, plant by plant,” into a lovely and magical garden, where the dining pavilions with their adjacent tea terraces are private from one another, separated by winding paths and waterways, each seeming to be completely surrounded by nature. Every structure faithfully follows ancient architectural design and was constructed entirely with traditional carpentry techniques. The same principles rule in the kitchen: wood-fired ovens (such as are rarely seen these days) impart a special flavor to dishes, and all tofu is made on the premises in an antique wooden press. They make their own sugar from cane, their own starch powder from lotus root, their own sticky rice cakes by hand–you name it, and it’s created on-site, the old-fashioned way.
Did I mention Chef Dai’s obsession with local, organic ingredients? He supports two contract farms, one nearby, the other more than two hours away, near Wenzhou. Everything is grown without chemicals–they use old fashioned pest control methods like cigarette ash (though I’m not sure how organic that is) and pepper water. Without fertilizers, the farmers must work harder, and accordingly, they are paid more than usual. In addition, the restaurant has ‘given back’ by establishing an arts-oriented elementary school in the village attached to one of its farms (when one of the students made it all the way to the Beijing Music Academy, the restaurant paid for his college education.) On the farms, pigs ONLY forage; they receive no feed. Chickens live free-range (in fact, the night we were there, an egg dish was served–so we could taste the wonder of an egg that had been produced in the natural way). Chef Dai also forages in the mountains himself, for mushrooms and other wild vegetables. Seafood is caught wild; the night we were there, scrumptious river crab was served–the crabs had been caught in the river and kept alive in a cage in the garden stream until dinnertime.
There is no menu, all meals are prix-fixe and, keyed to the 24 subseasons of the Chinese almanac, change throughout the year. Before you dine, while you enjoy tea, nuts, and fruits on the terrace, your menu is brought out for your approval, along with the day’s purchase orders from the farms, including photos and the farmers’ signatures. You are meant to approve not just the list of dishes you are to be served, but the also the sourcing of everything behind it. Could the experience get any better? Absolutely. Every one of the 14 courses that followed was special.
None of us had ever experienced a duck soup as deliciously intense as the one served that night at Longjing Manor–the duck was placed dry in the steaming vessel, and the resultant liquid was limited entirely to that which collected through condensation. A small amount of incrediblydeep-flavored soup is produced this way, which is then served with lean duck meat apportioned into each bowl. Sublime. Deer tendon, in subtly flavored slices which were rendered soft and yielding, was a surprise among the appetizers.
Several of the friends at my table gave their best-dish vote to the hong shao rou, red cooked pork. One of the most common and ubiquitous dishes in China, hong shao rou at Longjing Manor was carried to a higher level of toothsomeness and flavor both by the pig’s wild mountainside diet, and the incredibly slow cooking method (three days.) With a nod to the amazing river crab meat, cleaned, seasoned, and served on the shell (okay, I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay, I’m a crab nut), another great dish was a platter of little finger-sized rolls: shreds of bamboo shoot, bamboo pith, and a dried vegetable called tao xin cai were wrapped in smoked pork belly (bacon), to achieve the perfect meeting of salty and xian (the fresh, natural flavor).
A dish called ji mao cai (chicken feather vegetable) was actually a platter of teeny-tiny, tender cabbage hearts, each about as thick as a pencil. (Don’t believe me? Check the photo.) The staff hastened to assure us that, in accordance with their philosophy (which certainly extends to sustainability), nothing is ever wasted. The hearts of the cabbage go on the gourmet dining menu, the outer leaves are fed to farm animals, and the rest of the cabbage is consumed by employees, many of whom live on the premises.
To me, the most personally exciting moment of the meal was the finale: a dessert, a rice wine custard, was proudly brought out that had been faithfully reproduced from a recipe in the great 18th Century food classic, Menu of the Sui Garden, by Yuan Mei. I literally exploded in joy and awe. Having pondered this venerable book while writing my 3rd novel, The Last Chinese Chef, I never dreamed I would one day be served a dish from it! Hangzhou, one of China’s loveliest cities, is easily reached from Shanghai, and can even be visited on a day trip. If you are a food lover, don’t miss this once-in-a-lifetime experience of the meeting between cuisine, art, and philosophy. Go out of your way. It is a true gourmet adventure, with thousands of years of culinary thinking behind it.
Longjing Manor, Hangzhou. (Suburban, verdant setting; have your driver or your hotel desk call for directions.) Tel. 0571-8788-8777. E-mail: [email protected] Seatings at lunch and dinner. No public seating. You MUST book ahead. You can book through the website, but it is all in Chinese. You can ask your hotel to book for you, either online or by phone. If you must book in English, call the restaurant. Be patient and speak simply; English-speaking staff is in training. All you need to communicate is the date, whether lunch or dinner, number in your party, and the price level. Meals are set for 6 persons, at one of two possible price levels: RMB 1600 for 6 people (a total of USD $256 for 6), or RMB 6000 for 6 (USD $960 for 6). I realize this seems high for China–but just TRY to get a Eurocentric meal of similar quality for this price in the West! Impossible. Okay… what if you can only pull together 2 or 3 people to go? In that case you can order the lower price level (RMB 1600 for 6), and since you are fewer persons, they will up the quality of the ingredients so that your final meal (in terms of what is served) falls somewhere between the two levels. And if at all possible, take a native-speaker with you so that the elaborate and fascinating introductions accompanying the meal are within your reach.
Lou Wai Lou. One of the most famous restaurants in China, this place has operated since 1848 on the lovely shores of West Lake in Hangzhou. Its location next to the old Seal Engraving Society helps cement its position as one of the origin points of Hangzhou’s literary cuisine. When asked which dish he would present first to a foreign visitor, chef Wu Xunqu chose beggar’s chicken, a Chinese dish known all over the world but rarely prepared as well as it is here, where it may in fact have originated. Lou Wai Lou, No. 30, Gu Shan Rd., Hangzhou, China. (0571) 8796-9023. English menu; little English spoken.
Shan Wai Shan. The undeniable top specialty of this peaceful, arboreal restaurant in the Hangzhou Botanical Garden is its justly famed fish head soup (yu tou tang). Other marvelous dishes include Hangzhou jiang ya, a very good cold duck dish; longjing xia ren or shelled shrimp with green tea, a classic of Hangzhou-Suzhou cuisine, and ke se yu pian, or special flavor fish slices. In this last dish, raw fish slices are brought to the table alongside a shallow bowl of near-boiling oil, and are cooked right in front of you by a plunge into the oil. The result is surprisingly light and non-oily. Shan Wai Shan, 8 Yuquan Lu, Hangzhou Botanical Garden. Tel. 0571-87995866. English menu.
Shang Palace, Shangri-La Hotel. Okay, I haven’t eaten there, but many food writers pinpoint Shang Palace, the signature restaurant in the posh Shangri-La Hotel, as being one of Hangzhou’s best. Shang Palace, Shangri-La Hotel, Beishan Lu 78, on West Lake’s north shore. 0571-8797-7951. Further reading: “Garden of Contentment,” by Fuscia Dunlop in The New Yorker, November 24, 2008