HangZhou May 2009 - report
HangZhou is just lovely. The lake and the surrounding parks are just unbelievably beautiful. And, we've had great eating as well. Different than ChengDu but still delicious. The interesting thing is that there are a lot of street stalls and stands that have Sichuan dishes. We skipped most of those since we just had our fill.
Lunch was at a street stall on Qing Bo Jie. If you turn from NanShan Liu, it's on your right about two blocks up. We had ban mian, which every table had. It's a warm noodle dish with a peanut/sesame sauce. This was ok. Nothing great and I couldn't figure out why every table had it. Our second dish was a fried mi fen. This was excellent with bits of egg and veggies. Lastly, we had a bowl of wonton soup. This was so good. Tiny flavorful wontons in the most clear and refreshing tasting broth.
For dinner, we went to Zhi Wei Guan, the branch on Ren He Jie (I think). Anyway, we went on Cimui's recommendation from a previous thread and we weren't disappointed. It wasn't what we expected though. When we arrived, the downstairs had a takeout meat section and a huge seating area. This was the little eats area and we were told to go the the fourth floor to the dining room. We went into a huge, mostly empty room. Actually, our impression was that it was empty but there were tables on the side of the dining room. We ordered the famed Beggar's Chicken, Dong Po Rou and stir fried pea pod stems. I was a bit worried about portions because there were only two of us. The beggar's chicken, thankfully, was only half a bird. This is my first time with my dish and I really liked it and am glad I tried it. However, I'm not sure it was worth the 128RMB price tag. The meat was unbelievably tender and everything just fell apart in the wrapped lotus leaves. I especially liked the bits of organ meats that I would taste with the meat. The accompanying vinegar served with it was also superb. The dong po rou - yum. But, what can really go wrong with pork belly. The flavor and presentation was just lovely. Two little bowls (one for each of us) with a big chunk of belly. It was at least two inches tall and 1.5 inches wide. I really wanted to be able to take a bite of all layers at one time, but wasn't successful. Each layer had it's own flavor and texture and the carmelization flavor was subtlely infused. Lastly, the pea pod stems were the baby ones. Usually, I'm not thrilled with these because I find them kind of stemmy. But, they did an excellent stir fry job causing these to be flavorful and not stringy.
Today, we had lunch at a street stall near the old district. It was on a parallel street to the stalls adn it was a choose your own noodle soup stand. It was a clever idea and hit the spot. We chose to add chinese sausage, spinach, mushrooms (two kinds) and dried yellow flat noodles. It was hard choosing what to put in and I could see going overboard so I played it conservatively. The guy then puts them into litte baskets inside a huge boiling pot of water and adds ingredients in order of how long they are to be cooked. After everything is scooped out, he adds a sauce. The flavors were amazing because the broth took in all the flavors of what other people had chosen.
Lastly, we had to have some food on sticks so we saw a local speciality, spiced squid on sticks. I loved these. All giant tentacles with complex spices brushed on while it was grilled. So many different flavors for squid. And, the tentacles were chopped up so it was also easy to eat.
Dinner at Dragon Well tonight. Report to come.
I am a ffreelance writer and China consultant in Melbourne, Australia and have just finished a short piece on Dragon Well Manor. I also visited in May 09, and I didn't have my camera handy and my section editor has indicated that it won't get a run unless I have some photos to accompany my piece. This is a national weekend magazine and would be a great opportunity for me and I was wondering if any of your images are high resolution and if you would be willing to have them publsihed (with appropriate acknowledgement). Please let me know - my email is firstname.lastname@example.org - I like your posts and we had a very similar menu, although I didn't get the tough chicken. Thanks Tom - aka Chinese Colonel
hooray, beetlebug for the long-anticipated dragon well manor report!! i'm sorry the meal itself did not fully meet (y)our expectations -- but your review was a delight to read, at the very least. i thank you for it.
re: timing... i'm sure you know this, but i think chinese restaurants have a different understanding of courses and timing than, say, a restaurant in NYC. the timing of courses at restaurants in China is probably a lot more kitchen-driving than anything you'd find in the US, in general.
do you think the green needly stuff in soup may've been watershield soup?
I'm used to the timing issues for traditional chinese banquets. What threw this off for me is that the dishes that were served simultaneously, were individual portions. Upon reflection, I think this was probably an excellent meal (except for the disastrous chicken dish). I just wasn't as impressed as I should have been because of the meal in ChengDu a few days earlier. Not fair to compare the two since they were completely different meals, but it's hard not to since the price points were similar.
The green stuff may have been watershield. Does it have a really short growing season?
hmm, my understanding is that folks really only eat watershield shoots, not mature leaves. i wouldn't be surprised if watershield only put out shoots during certain times of the year.
i found the timing of dishes at even very nice, high price point restaurants in china interesting. i.e. unless you nudged wait staff, mi fan sometimes came out long after other dishes you'd want to eat with mi fan had been brought to the table. i have to admit, i don't think any of these meals involved single serving dishes, though, and definitely see how that would make off timing extra pesky!
totally ok and fair to say if you don't love a meal. just because the sourcing of the ingredients is phenomenal and ethical, etc... doesn't mean the prep is worthy of those ingredients. (i'm thinking in particular of how top chef contestants got an ars-whupping almost across the board during the episode at blue hill / stone barns for screwing up perfect ingredients. ;) and re: tough chicken, i came across chicken that had the b'cheeseus cooked out of it surprisingly frequently, even at places famous for their chicken. in my case, it was never entirely inedible, but definitely went beyond the point where i'd take it if i were prepping it myself.
re: zhi wei guan, the friend who recommended the place to me was really insistent that we go to the location on the west lake rather than the one in town. i think decor is supposed to be much nicer at the west lake location. the one in town has a tiered pricing / quality(?) system that i think might be common in many chinese restaurants, where the higher up you go, the nicer the decor and higher the prices. food quality supposedly goes up, too, as you gain altitude. neither you nor i tried the dim sum / dumpling dishes the restaurant is famous for, apparently... but next time, next time!
One last lunch in Hangzhou and it was great. We were staying at the Crystal Orange Hotel on Qing Bo Jie (intersection of Nan Shan Lu). Anyway, it's right next to the lake making it an ideal location.
If you look at the hotel entrance on Qing Bo Jie, to the right of the entrance, there is a food stall. We dashed in there for a quick lunch before our train. I ordered this steam egg dish (sui zhu dan) and homestyle tofu. Both were fabulous. The egg dish is all simplicity. Steamed whipped eggs (although the chinese is water cooked eggs) in a bowl. Such a delicate taste and perfectly light. The tofu was so fresh and soft. Thin layer of fried skin over it with a savory sauce. It was a wonderful contrast with the egg dish and both went well with rice.
Dragon Well Manor Restaurant
Here is the earlier link
I have extremely mixed feelings about my experience here. It's not quite fair because I had that fabulous meal in ChengDu only 3 nights previously. I kept trying not to compare the two because they are completely different restaurants. But, I just couldn't help it.
Location: It was hard to find. The taxi driver stopped a number of times to ask for directions. There were no clear numbers on the street. I *think* it's actually in the dragon well tea village because we went down this long windey road to get to the location. It looked like it could have been the village and if it was, it was have been a heck of a lot easier to tell the driver that.
Regardless, the place was gorgeous. Huge gardens with a little lake and bridges over them. There are little houses hidden away and each little house is a personal dining area. We were escorted in to one of the little houses and inside was a table set for two. It was a bit austere after the ChengDu restaurant but still lovely all the same.
The food: everything here is fresh and local. Almost odd choices in the banquet menu. I was a bit concerned since it was just the two of us. Since this was a "banquet" and not a tasting menu, I was worried that even we couldn't finish the dishes in a respectful way. But, we held our own and probably finished 85% of the food.
I think there were a total of 9-10 dishes. The first dish was soy bean milk, either sweet or salty. We both went with salty and the waitress spooned all the fixings (pickled radishes, etc) into the bowl and then poured the soy bean milk into it. This was a delicious rendition. There were also a small bowl of peanuts and yellow hot sauce. The yellow hot sauce was amazing. you could really tell that it was homemade with top ingredients.
What followed was a bunch of home style dishes, cooked extremely well. I kept thinking of Zuni Restaurant and cookbook, where the same philosophy is followed. But, there were odd timing issues and order of food service. For example, right after the soy bean milk, they gave us a mixed cold platter with homemade dried tofu, fish, cuttelfish, mushrooms and other. Then, they served eggs with spring onions. Like and omelet but chopped up. This was amazing - what eggs should taste like. Then they served whole baby shrimp (which was also great, esp the sauce). But, we still had our milk and the cold platter, so it was a rush to finish that and eat the eggs and shrimp while hot.
Also, they served two soups in a row, so we had our plates of shrimp and eggs, and then two bowls of soup. And, wow, what soups. The first was this fish soup. The fish is a kind with a lot of little bones, they take the bones out, slice and add potato starch. Then they pound the fish so it has this amazing texture. There were bits of dried scallops in it as well. The second soup was just as delicious. It was a local green veggy thing. It's teh size of a needle, kind of cut up. They say it's a local HangZhou speciality and the eating season is only about 20 days. After that, it gets too big and exudes a funny smell. Regardless, we could taste how special the soup was.
Other highlights included the mother's love dish - pork belly and eggs, braised for three days. OMG, I knew I shouldn't have more than 2 pieces bc of the richness but, the two us finished all the pork in it. The various layers of pork belly were perfectly bite sized so I could eat all the layers in one bite. And the sauce. I almost wanted white rice to eat the sauce. But, I restrained.
The weak point was the whole chicken. It was virtually inedible. It's not that it's a free range chicken and muscley. But it was boiled and the flesh was tough. We could barely get it off the bone. And, it lacked flavor as well. In retrospect, we should have sent it back since I can't believe that they would serve somethign so poor.
Unfortunately, after the chicken, the meal started winding up. I say unfortunately because it was a weak note to end on. They did bring out two kinds of sticky rice. Presentation was lovely, salty on the bottom and black sweet rice on top. The sweet rice with sugar is supposed to prevent bug bites, and since I'm prone, I took an extra spoonful.
There were other main dishes as well including these delicious greens. Others I'm blanking on since the camera, once again, is not near me.
Dessert - there was this soupy, ricey tapioca pearl dessert that was unbelievable. It was called jiu (liquor) something. The flavor kept changing as it sat there (because the sticky rice and dessert came out at the same time). There were also egg flowers in it (dan hua). Sweet and complex, almost fruity. the rice and pearls came it a great texture with the softness and chewiness. This was so tasty. The waitress said that there is enough liquor in it that one could feel drunk.
The last plate was fruit and there was a nice assortment of watermelon, apples, cherries, dragon fruit and grapes. ACtually, the grapes were big and sweet and were my favorites since I haven't eaten any yet during the trip.
So, final assessment? I don't know. The chicken was terrible and so close to the end that it's a bit harder to remember the earlier extremely well done dishes. The timing was odd and, there were a lot of heavy, really filling things such as the two kinds of sticky rice and even that dessert that I loved.
I'm really glad I went and don't regret it. I'm not quite sure it was worth the 1600Y (about $230US) + 30Y for beer + the 45Y round trip taxi.
It was another once in a lifetime experience and I wonder if my review would be more glowing if I just hadn't eaten at Yu Bo's restaurant in ChengDu. Although, if I did come back to HangZhou, I probably would try it again and arrive at the place a bit early to really enjoy the setting.