Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 1, March 12 - 25


by Lyn Stuart

A small group of foreigners holes up in the diplomatic quarter of Beijing for almost three months. Their staple diet is donkey meat, washed down with champagne looted from an expatriate delicatessen called Imbeck's Store. Sound like anyone you know? Plus a change, eh: these events occurred just over 100 years ago during the Boxer Rebellion when soldiers of the Society of Harmonious Fists laid siege to the foreign legation quarter with the tacit consent of the Empress Dowager Cixi. Imbeck's Store was located just west of one of contemporary Beijing's most pleasant streets Zhengyi Lu (Justice Street) a quiet tree-lined avenue that runs south from Chang An Boulevard, opposite the Beijing Hotel. The diplomatic geography of Beijing has changed since the Boxer Rebellion. Modern-day embassies get Sanlitun while most of the buildings in the old legation quarter belong to Chinese government ministries. The Beijing Communist Party headquarters and the Ministry of Public Security both border Zhengyi Lu. Until recently so did an Italian restaurant called Renaissance.

Renaissance was started by Beijing artist Kang De. Although he had never been to Italy and didn't particularly like Italian food, he liked Italian Renaissance paintings, hence the name and choice of cuisine. The concept apparently didn't work and a year ago Renaissance changed its name and switched to a cuisine that is in Beijing at least considered more sophisticated than foreign noodles could hope to be. I speak of course of Shanghainese food.

The sign over the front door that still says Renaissance and the teapots and plates with this name in brown lettering might lead you to suspect that the restaurant is still called Renaissance, but it has in fact been renamed Hucai Guan which simply means Shanghai Cuisine. The decor hasn't changed however, and that is a big part of the charm. Facing the front door is a Western-style pine bar counter. Several rustic wood-hewn shelves bear an array of bottles, the price of each drink marked on a pale blue price tag like they use behind the counters in Chinese state-owned department stores. The main room of the restaurant has rough white-washed walls and railway-sleeper sized wooden ceiling beams. The chairs are made of heavy carved wood and the tablecloths are crimson. Oil paintings hang on every wall, pictures of boats on beaches and pastoral scenes like you might find in somebody's seaside cottage. This large collection of kitsch paintings has a surprisingly pleasing effect. Each one has a different heavy wooden frame and the subtle lighting ensures that the room doesn't feel like the Art section of a department store. In fact, a rowdy party in the karaoke room next door and the lone European man looking up from his dinner at us as we sit down make the place feel more like the set of a surreal spy movie.

The old Shanghai hand of our party orders. For starters we have preserved duck eggs with cold tofu, hairy soya beans, peanuts, and a whole cold-baked pigeon. The bird is finicky to eat lots of bones but the delicate flavor is worth the effort of sucking and chewing. But nothing really impresses us until the main courses arrive. Tofu knots with braised meat looks a bit strange but is a superb combination of sweetish meaty tastes and soft textures. The subtle flavors and tenderness of braised Mandarin fish makes one of our group exclaim: I'm a fishatarian. Which is what you should be at Renaissance because while the meat dishes are all average, the seafood is excellent. Sauteed shrimps and braised eels are our favorites. The flavors are clean and fresh, and the laowai are happy because there are no bones. Crispy-skin tofu is also good: it is made with fragrant mushrooms that contrast nicely with the mild flavor of the bean curd. The fresh vegetables are tasty too: we have braised eggplant and two Southern vegetables that many Beijingers don't know, caijie (mustard greens) and penghao (kale). We have both of these in a delicious garlic sauce.

The waiters wearing clean but badly-fitting suits look like trainees just arrived from the countryside which they may in fact be: the service is lousy. But Renaissance or whatever you choose to call it is a restaurant I shall visit again soon. It's a great place to take visitors from out of town who want good Chinese food in an unusual setting. They have an English menu. Expect to spend ´60-100 per person for good Shanghai cuisine that citizens of the Paris of the East would be happy to find in the Northern Capital.

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