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  All materials © 1999 
  Beijing Scene

Beijing Scene, Volume 6, Issue 3, October 29 - November 4

A Cantonese Seafood Feast at Celestial Court
by Theo Cromhou


The International Club Hotel is Beijing's only 'six-star' accommodation, and it proudly carries on the luxury hotel tradition of ensuring an atmosphere sterile enough to avoid offending even the most fastidious of guests. But it is well worth enduring a bit of six-star sterility for the Cantonese culinary delights on offer at Fat Sin Wank Garden, uh, I mean Celestial Court, the hotel's mezzanine-level Chinese restaurant.

Getting to the restaurant involves a pleasant amble up a marble staircase leading from a cavernous lobby that contains live palm trees and a tenor who sings pieces from the opera Giovanni. A crackled-crystal door screen protects the interior of Celestial Court from evil spirits, opera singers and the sound of hotel guests rattling their jewelry downstairs, and once ensconced in the restaurant's comfortable chairs, the only sound interrupting your perusal of the menu is piped-in traditional Chinese music and the silken rustling of cheong-sam-clad waitresses.

We start with refreshing cups of chrysanthemum tea, and are soon tucking into an appetizer of barbecued suckling pig, a cold dish consisting of a selection of different cuts including strips of crispy skin. We set off the fatty pork with the clean, fresh taste of lobster sashimi. This dish arrives at the table in a two foot-long wooden boat, adorned with the head and tail of the lobster whose raw flesh we are consuming with small shivers of gastronomic excitement.

Sustaining the seafood theme, we tuck into a soup of fresh crab meat and bamboo fungus, an aromatic combination of chewy, woody fungal flavors and plain, soft-pink crab flesh. We then try 'sauteed shredded beef fillet with vegetables - Celestial Court's rather fancy version of beef chop suey. The dish captures the addictive signature wok-fried taste of Cantonese take-away, without the excess oil. The humble dish is beautifully presented in a bowl made from a lattice of quick-potato shavings.

But it's back to seafood - the speciality of Celestial Court's Hong Kong chef Sam Yuen褀ith a dish that delights sadists and connoisseurs alike and suggests a fun way of euthanasia for world-weary alcoholics: flamed drunken shrimp. The shrimp are brought to the table live, and dropped into a glass bowl full of bright yellow liquor made from fermented sorghum and rose petals. Once the shrimp are good and drunk, a sous-chef sets fire to the alcohol, creating a foot-high flame that roasts the grey-blue sea creatures to a tender-pink perfection. 

Visually, drunken shrimp are the high point of the meal but strong simple seafood tastes continue with a dish of sauteed and lightly salted lobster, made from the remains of the crustacean that provided our first course of sashimi. 

'Steamed soft tofu stuffed with shrimp mousse in black bean sauce' is a fine, light accompaniment to the heavier taste of 'deep-fried boneless duck with mashed taro' that concludes our main course.

Although desserts are not a Chinese tradition, good Cantonese chefs have a light touch with sweet ingredients that makes for excellent puddings. Celestial Court does a superb chilled mango mousse that would sit proudly on the table of any European gourmet restaurant. Deep-fried mini steamed buns (dipped in condensed milk) and 'pancakes with red bean paste' are more traditionally Chinese, but both dishes are just a little too heavy after an eight-course meal. 

The perfect finale is also the simplest dish: a salad of fresh fruit pieces, presented in a bowl made of ice. We emerge from the restaurant completely sated, but not too bloated to walk gracefully down the marble staircase into the lobby, where we notice that everybody is dressed much better than we are. 
No matter: the Celestial Court is one of Beijing's most expensive restaurants but this doesn't mean that they look down on the shabbily dressed. Nor do the shabbily dressed need to fear a penury-inducing bill: expensive for Beijing doesn't mean much more than US$50 per person. 

Although experience-junkies will find the place a bore, Celestial Court is hard to beat for superb Cantonese food in a quiet, clean environment that your grandmother would approve of. 

Celestial Court
International Club Hotel, 21 Jianguomenwai, Chaoyang District

Tel: 6460-6688
Hours: 11:30 am-2:30 pm, 6-10 pm
Hours: 5:30 pm - 11 pm
Food: **** Ambience: ** Service: **** Cost: **


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