Pushing their duck
It takes entrepreneurial effrontery to open a restaurant in Beijing offering a Cantonese reinterpretation of the capital's most iconic dish, Peking duck. Still, the gamble by Hong Kong restaurant group Elite Concepts has paid off in a big way - its gourmet restaurant, Duck de Chine, is packed every night with locals and visitors.
There, the duck is roasted over a fruitwood fire in the classical way, but sauce options include herb-infused hoi sin with peanuts, garlic or sesame. French music plays in the background and a champagne bar greets diners at the entrance.
Duck de Chine is among several innovative Hong Kong-run ventures that are helping to redefine the Beijing dining scene. The 2008 Olympic Games sparked a culinary revolution that is still transforming the once-dull capital. Although Hong Kong restaurateurs are by no means the only ones introducing new concepts to Beijing, they operate some of the most high-profile venues.
Several are located at Opposite House, a stylish, minimalist, lobby-free hotel owned by the Swire group. Sureno, the hotel's open-plan, light-flooded restaurant, is a favourite with the art, fashion and design crowd; Bei restaurant's Japanese and northern Chinese dishes, prepared by an American chef, has a coterie of fans.
'There are just so many more options these days in Beijing, upscale and international-inspired things,' says the restaurant and bar manager of Opposite House, Milan Sekulic. 'Investors are prepared to put more money into the design to give things a much more contemporary style. The whole feel of the city is becoming more international.'
That growing cosmopolitan awareness inspired advertising executives Patrick So and Ellis So (no relation) to launch an upscale burger bar, convinced that expatriates and locals would pay HK$80 for a top-quality burger and french fries.
The pair enlisted Danish-Chinese chef Kevin Lam as the third partner in Let's Burger, located on lively Nali Patio in the nightlife zone of Sanlitun. 'We both like burgers but to find a decent one in Beijing you had to eat in a hotel, so we thought opening a burger shop would be a good opportunity,' says Patrick So. 'It is a simple idea - burgers are simple - and we offer a cosy environment where people can sit and chat with friends.'
But running the eatery, which cost about HK$1 million to set up, has been challenging. 'We were naive before opening: we thought we would be able to sit and enjoy a glass of wine and talk to people but that is not the case,' Patrick So says. 'In the food and beverage business you have to work hard; you have to put everything into the restaurants - time and money.'
Their burgers, made with Australian meat, organic lettuce and tomato and thick-cut fries, and served with a range of sauces such as wasabi mayonnaise, have proved hugely popular.
Buoyed by that success, the pair went on to open Let's Seafood in an adjoining space. Its menu features such items as classic English-style fish-and-chips and Thai-style fish curry. Prices there are higher, with customers spending an average of HK$150 per head.
'There were no seafood restaurants like this in Beijing' says So. 'It was more expensive and more difficult to source the seafood we wanted but our aim was to provide good food at a reasonable price; there are plenty of people in Beijing with money to spend on quality food.'
Tom Pattinson, a British entrepreneur and long-time Beijing resident who runs the annual Affordable Art fair, appreciates the improved options.
'A lot of restaurants opened for the Olympics and the dining scene skyrocketed, but now it has levelled off and the best operators have been left standing. In recent years, we have also seen the rise of the value restaurant. At the top end, Duck de Chine is always on my personal list for entertaining people; it is a special restaurant but can be affordable if you don't go for really expensive wines,' Pattinson says.
'If you live a local lifestyle in Beijing it can still be incredibly cheap. You can spend 20 yuan (HK$24) to 40 yuan a head and it will be decent food.'
One downside for restaurateurs is the Beijing weather, which makes often generous patio space unusable for much of the year. The extreme cold in winter and the stifling heat and buzzing mosquitoes during the midsummer months make sitting out impossible.
Finding capable staff is also difficult. 'In Hong Kong two guys take care of eight tables and do everything,' So says. 'Here, you have to ask three people to take care of six tables. They are learning fast but one of our main problems is turnover. People just change all the time and salaries in Beijing are rising fast, especially at Sanlitun.'
Drilling staff to the service levels that are the norm in Hong Kong is an ongoing process at Duck de Chine. 'Most of the staff now understand the Hong Kong hospitality style,' says director Amin Yip. 'We want them to have a passion for service we try to train them so they can understand the Hong Kong way by using the magic words like 'Thank you'. We put a lot of effort into it.'
Duck de Chine is among several outlets that Elite runs in a converted machinery factory compound, now known as 1949 - The Hidden City. Diners enter the 60,000 sq ft complex via an art gallery, before making their way through a garden to the Japanese, Mediterranean and Peking duck restaurants. The compound also features a tiny noodle bar that seats just 12 people and, in summer, an outdoor bar.
Chien'men 23, a cluster of outlets occupying the former American diplomatic complex just off Tiananmen Square, was set up on a similar concept with high hopes it would attract food-lovers. But the operation has been less than successful: Hong Kong-based Aqua group, one of the flagship tenants, closed its Japanese restaurant, lounge and rooftop bar and relocated its Spanish restaurant, Agua, to bustling Sanlitun.
Across the street, however, a venture by Michelle Garnaut attracts patrons who pay upwards of HK$550 a head for a three-course Mediterranean-style meal with wine. Capital M has become a favourite among diplomats, businessmen, expatriate residents and affluent locals alike. The food is dependable, the decor elegant and the location stunning, with terrace views towards Tiananmen Square.
'Timing is crucial with opening a restaurant - having the right thing at the right time,' says Garnaut, who launched M at the Fringe in Hong Kong and M on the Bund in Shanghai.
'We painted ourselves into a corner with M on the Bund because the expectation was that our next place would be spectacular. I think we have delivered on that in Beijing, but it took seven years to find the right place. It is a fabulous location.
'People in Beijing are not the going-out type and they don't like to spend money like people in Shanghai and Hong Kong. They are still extremely price-conscious. It is also a city that is hampered by the traffic, weather and politics.'
Master chef Jereme Leung, who learned his trade in Hong Kong, also established a restaurant in Shanghai before opening the Whampoa Club in a converted merchant's house in Beijing. Leung dreams up unusual combinations such as bean curd and vegetable roll with foie gras terrine, Beijing-style pork and bean jelly, and cheesecake with Beijing pea custard.
For all their entrepreneurial verve, the trailblazing restaurateurs face many challenges in Beijing, not least among them opaque rules and niggling bureaucracy.
'It is an expensive place to do business - rents are expensive and salaries are expensive. We are doing fine, but it is not an easy business environment,' Garnaut says.
Still, the potential of an increasingly affluent city of 20 million people continues to attract adventurous restaurateurs. Food writer Lillian Chou reckons Hong Kong operators have a head start over rivals from the United States, Europe or Australia because they are used to Chinese and Western ways of running businesses.
'They have been working both sides for ever and are familiar with China,' says Chou, an American.
Bei: The Opposite House, 11 Sanlitun Lu, Chaoyang, Beijing; tel (10) 6410-5230, 6410-5230
Capital M: 3/F, No.2 Qianmen Pedestrian Street; tel (10) 6702 2727.
Duck de Chine: Courtyard 4, Gongti Beilu, Chaoyang, Beijing; tel (10) 6501-1949
Let's Burger: D101a, Nali Patio, 81 Sanlitun Beijie, Beijing; tel (10) 5208-6036
Whampoa Club: 23A, Jinrong Jie (bet. Fuxingmennei Dajie & Guangningbo Jie) tel (10) 8808-8828