EATING in China has never been more exciting. High-end dining, especially, has been on a roller-coaster ride in terms of choice, style and trends since the early 2000s. While hardcore traditionalists still stick to the tried and true, nouveau riche diners have become far more adventurous, and chefs were faced with an ultimatum – go bold or go out.
However, in recent years, a new maturity has set in, as seen in the current vogue for the 5 S's: subtle, sophisticated, stylish, special and skills. Chinese gourmets now seek all-round dining experiences, and there is a new appreciation for the concept, ambience and unique characteristics of each establishment.
Given these more sophisticated expectations, everyone from chef to sommelier, manager and bartender right down to the service staff matter more then ever in retaining customer loyalty.
Food-wise, diners are tired of the same old, same old and the direct import of foreign dining concepts. What draws them these days are up-to-the-minute innovations or stylish interpretations of traditional and local influences.
For their efforts, several restaurants have not only charmed the media and local connoisseurs – they're now on the radar of international food travellers looking for their next dining high.
The Upper Gallery,
8, Bei Shaomao Jie
Chef Lance Yu
L1-1247 Taikoo Li, Chengdu
The Upper Gallery – known simply as Gao's Home in Chinese – is helmed by Lance Yu, a 30-something chef trained in western cuisine and a member of Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs. Chef Yu applies molecular cooking techniques to Sichuan food, for an unexpected twist to the ancient cuisine originating from a mountain-locked region of China.
The restaurant itself enjoys historical pedigree – it used to be the home of Gao Delin, principal tutor to Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty. It's sited near the Jamchen lhakhang Monastery in Taikoo Li, a well-preserved old part of the city where most fine-dining restaurants are located. The interior of the 55-seater features an open-layout bulthaup kitchen, lit with Baccarat crystal lamps.
Surprise is the chief element of the dining experience at The Upper Gallery. Chef Yu's creativity brings never-before-encountered combinations of flavours to the table, interlacing age-old Sichuan traditions with progressive western techniques.
Chef Yu deconstructs mapo tofu, presenting the braised tofu in cube form encircling a mound of white rice. The spicy mala sauce is poured over it just before serving. Even the salad is presented in ikebana-style accompanied by the distinctive Szechuan flavoured "soil".
Chef Yu is a member of the Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs and his creation shows it.
Western finesse is brought to the otherwise conservative Sichuanese capital.
1st Floor, Jinyuan Building
Executive Chef Zhang Congming
No. 57 Hubingnan Road
Siming District, Xiamen
Ming's Way opened for business barely a month ago, but already the seats in the Xiamen restaurant are filling fast. And it's all because of its executive chef Zhang Congming, who has wooed the locals with the way he has lifted Hokkien cuisine to new heights. The stout, dark-complexioned chef is also a trendsetter who often appears on TV and participates in cooking competitions.
Chef Zhang came from a humble background and grew up in a traditional tulou. For the past 20 years, he trained and worked in Xiamen, Shanghai and Hong Kong, picking up new culinary techniques and trends along the way. While proficient in his own Hokkien cuisine and averse to "fusion", he prefers a multi-faceted approach.
Take his version of the humble popiah, which he luxes up with more than eight condiments, including high-grade seaweed, candied sugar and mustard sauce. Each brings its own unique taste and texture, harmonising as a whole.
He also puts his own spin on Xiamen's claypot duck by browning the meat and braising it with ginger and Chinese wine. No other liquid is used so the tender meat is perfumed heavily with the alcoholic fragrance.
Chef Zhang luxes up his popiah with more than eight condiments.
Ming's Way Executive Chef Zhang Congming.
Seats are filling fast in the Xiamen restaurant.
5/F CCB Tower, 3 Connaught Road
Chef Howard Cai
Central, Hong Kong
If you thought getting a seat at Howard Cai's Gourmet Workshop in Guangzhou was exasperating, try booking a table at his soon-to-be one-year-old Gourmet Restaurant in Hong Kong.
The people behind the restaurant reads like a who's who of Hong Kong. Co-owned by the famous billionaire cum entertainment mogul Peter Lam, with interiors designed by David Tang, and of course dishes created by chef Cai, you can expect to be dazzled by local glitterati while dining in an almost all-white French-influenced decor.
David Beckham made headlines when he flew in for a meal early in 2016, when the restaurant first opened. He, too, was a fan of chef Cai's application of chemistry to Teochew cuisine, resulting in food that is deceptively simple in appearance but multi-layered in taste.
Chef Cai's caramelised sea cucumber is a must-order. The sea cucumber is braised in superior stock and blow-torched on the surface till crispy. Another must is the braised fish maw served with rice. The contrast between the flavoursome fish maw and rice seemed like a match made in heaven.
Most of chef Cai's specialities are Teochew classics such as drunken crab, braised sea cucumber, and bird's nest, but each bite brings totally different sensations to the taste buds. The freshness of each ingredient and the purity of its core flavour are simply amazing.
Chef Cai applies scientific methodology to Teochew cuisine.
Chef Howard Cai.
The soon-to-be one-year-old Gourmet Restaurant in Hong Kong.
Xixi Hotel Hangzhou
Executive Chef David Liu
803 Wen Er Road (W)
For generations, West Lake has hogged the tourist limelight in the city of Hangzhou. But in recent years, Xixi Wetland has been steadily gaining on it. For centuries, the wetland has been the summer getaway for the rich and privileged; today, its remaining 1,150 hectares is an idyllic nature reserve with twisting waterways, lush foliage and exotic wildlife.
It is also the setting for a resort with posh hotels, shopping malls, and fine dining, and is fast rivalling West Lake as a must-see destination.
Yee Garden is an 11-private-room restaurant in the north-west corner of the Xixi Wetland National Park. Matching the surrounding greenery and crystal-clear lake, the restaurant is outfitted in the kind of grandeur befitting an aristocrat.
Executive chef David Liu is schooled in the art of Tan Aristocrat Cuisine, a renowned cuisine originating from the noble households of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Tan Aristocrat Cuisine is characterised by elaborate plating and equally complex cooking methods to achieve its signature light and fresh flavours.
Chef Liu (left) is a native of Xi'an, but trained in Beijing. When he first arrived in Hangzhou, he was awed by the beauty of the city, its rich history and literary culture. He takes advantage of the fresh produce to be found in the city's markets, especially the river catch and greens from the Xixi Wetland – incorporating them into farm-to-table Jiangnan fine-dining.
The restaurant also has its own private farms nearby, so the kitchen staff pop by daily to get the pick of the crop.
At Yee Garden, you'll taste what the delegates from the recent G-20 summit ate, such as braised sea cucumber with pork trotter in superior broth. Fish cooked in scalding infused oil is another rare treat – sliced thinly presented on a plate, with boiling spicy oil carefully poured over it without overcooking the fish.
Steamed Pork with Winter Shoot and Wind-dried Sausage.
Yee Garden Executive Chef David Liu.
Yee Garden is an 11-private-room restaurant.