Square meals

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 April, 2012, 12:00am


The bulldozing of Beijing's traditional hutongs has led to the loss of many of its classic courtyards, places where entire extended families once lived. But plenty of these narrow alleyways remain, and a number of courtyard homes have been adapted for use as bars, boutiques, art galleries and restaurants.

Few of the restaurants are on the main tourist trail, partly because they can be so hard to find. A decent map and detailed instructions written in Chinese are vital.

One that is easy to locate is the new faux-imperial creation of Hong Kong restaurateur Paul Hsu. It's easy to spot because of its colossal size. The boss of Elite Concepts has already had major success with Duck de Chine, which is located in an old factory compound in the trendy Sanlitun district. He has now opened a second Peking duck outlet, this time in a modern-day recreation of a traditional siheyuan (courtyard home) that sprawls over 40,000 sq ft.

The restaurant, called 1949 2 - Jin Bao Jie, already has the seal of approval from the city's roast duck aficionados. It features a spacious courtyard decorated with a series of striking metal sculptures.

Whether outside or inside, most tables offer a view into the kitchen where chefs prepare ducks for roasting in the wood-fired ovens.

'Before we opened, I tried every Peking duck restaurant in Beijing,' Hsu says. 'I did the whole book. It was a fascinating experience.

'You can only really do it properly in Beijing with the ducks that are available here and the special wood. The wood makes the difference. It is date wood, from trees that are 40 years old.

'The ducks are a bit larger than normal, as we buy the biggest around. We roast them for longer than the standard 65 minutes, to achieve extra tenderness. Peking duck is a Beijing icon. I think we have improved it. Sometimes it takes an outsider to look at something from a different angle.'

Eating Peking duck - preferably in an alfresco courtyard setting - is a must when paying a visit to the capital. Part of the experience is observing the cooking process, as the chefs deftly dangle pole-mounted birds over roaring flames.

Dining in the courtyard annexe of Hua's Restaurant, also famed for its Peking duck, involves a walk through the main eating area, packed with noisy diners. Visitors pass by the fish tanks and glass-fronted kitchen, across a dimly lit hutong, and through a set of doors and passageways. It is worth the effort for the chance to dine out in a magnificent leafy courtyard.

Another classic Beijing courtyard venue is Xihe Yaju, on the fringes of glorious Ritan Park, which is also popular for the city's most celebrated dish. Outdoor courtyard seating at Xihe Yaju is limited, meaning tables have to be booked well in advance. So does the house special. Another option is to settle for a spot in the glass-enclosed veranda. As well as the duck, roasted in a traditional wood-fired oven, the menu has staples such as beans with minced pork, mapo doufu and kung pao chicken. There are also specials like slow-braised fish maw with pumpkin sauce.

The city also has plenty of non-Chinese courtyard dining options. Up and coming Wudaoying hutong, located near the imposing Lama Temple, has a growing collection of coffee shops, restaurants and bars that incorporate mini-courtyards.

Among the standouts is the Vineyard Cafe, with a narrow interior courtyard, run by Briton Will Yorke. He has carved out a niche providing homesick expats with the comfort food they crave. This is the place to tuck into a full English breakfast, jacket potato with baked beans, hamburger, pizza and sandwiches. The weekend brunch is particularly popular.

The cafe has proved so popular that Yorke has opened a second outlet, the Vine Leaf, also in a converted family dwelling, though without a courtyard. The menu has gastropub aspirations, with items such as crusty home-made meat pies, fish and chips with special batter and Scotch eggs.

Close by is the homely Saffron restaurant, run by celebrity chef Yao Yang, who studied culinary arts in Spain before returning home to open his own restaurant. Diners can tuck into tapas, paella and Iberian ham at tables inside the wood-beamed main space, or in the tiny, plant-fringed courtyard.

The menu is simple and authentic, with no concessions to East-meets-West dining. The bread basket comes with hummus, guacamole, tapenade and red-pepper dips, while the tapas options include squid rings, garlic shrimp or home-made foie gras with apple. The paella is amply stocked with mussels, scallops and prawns.

European food is also the mainstay of the menu at Palette Vino, located in a bustling Dongcheng district hutong next to a bicycle repairman's hole-in-the-wall shop. The restaurant, which seats 40 people, has a particular emphasis on char-grilled steaks and chops. Also offered is pan-seared monkfish, braised rabbit leg and mushroom ravioli. It is a fun spot for a relaxed and casual dinner.

For a more formal and refined experience, make a reservation at Tiandi Yijia (Heaven and Earth). This courtyard-style dwelling, located just outside the Forbidden City, aims to replicate the dining experience of imperial days.

The fabulously ornate decor features lanterns, tinkling water fountains and heavy wood furniture - and some equally lavish prices. Among the local-style specialities on offer are sauteed sliced lamb with spring onions, braised pork intestine, pan-fried meatballs and braised deer tendon.

Also at the high end of the dining spectrum is the Temple Restaurant Beijing. It's located in a courtyard that has a history going back 600 years, when it served as a print factory for the emperor's Buddhist scripts.

The compound was derelict and abandoned for many years until Ignace Lecleir, an enterprising Belgian, decided it would be the perfect spot for a fine-dining restaurant serving contemporary European fare.

Diners are free to take a pre-dinner stroll around the cobbled courtyard, admiring the weathered wooden temple buildings that are juxtaposed with modern sculptures.

Dali Courtyard, near the Bell and Drum Tower in the older part of the city, aspires to recreate the rustic atmosphere - and authentic cuisine - of Yunnan province in the southwest. It's perfect for a leisurely weekend dinner.

Another spot for lingering over a meal is Xiao Wang's Home Restaurant, in Ritan Park. It is not, strictly speaking, a courtyard restaurant. But it does boast a light-flooded atrium design and ample space for alfresco dining.

Snag a spot on the upper level, where there is a view though the overhanging trees of the Temple of the Sun altar. This is where Ming and Qing emperors once went to make their annual pilgrimage to pray for good harvests.

Xiao Wang's is a Beijing institution, with four branches. Boss Wang Yong is proud of never having used MSG in any of his dishes. Another unusual touch is that he employs an English-speaking expat ma?tre d' at the Ritan outlet to assist customers who don't speak Putonghua.

There are few better places to be in Beijing in summer. The beer is cold, the food reasonably priced and the service attentive.

Courts of appeal

1949 2 - Jin Bao Jie
98 Jin Bao St, Dongcheng
Tel: + 86 (10) 6521 2221

Dali Courtyard
67 Xiaojingchang hutong, Dongcheng
Tel: + 86 (10) 8404 1430

Hua's Restaurant
235 Dongzhimennei St, Dongcheng
Tel: + 86 (10) 5128 3315

Palette Vino
5 Dong Si Shiyitiao, Dongcheng
Tel: + 86 (10) 6405 4855

Saffron Restaurant
64 Wudaoying hutong, Dongcheng
Tel: + 86 (10) 8404 4909; 13811226060

Temple Restaurant Beijing
23 Songzhusi, Shatan Beijie, Dongcheng
Tel: + 86 (10) 8400 2232

Tiandi Yijia
140 Nanchizi Dajie, Dongcheng
Tel: + 86 (10) 8511 5556

Vine Leaf
Jianchang hutong (just off Wudaoying hutong), Dongcheng
Tel: + 86 (10) 6407 6308

Vineyard Cafe
31 Wudaoying hutong, Dongcheng
Tel: + 86 (10) 6402 7961

Xiao Wang Home Restaurant
Inside the north gate of Ritan Park, Chaoyang
Tel: + 86 (10) 8561 7859; 8561 5985

Xihe Yaju
Ritan Park (entrance on Ritan Donglu), Chaoyang
Tel: + 86 (10) 8561 7643;