Meet the new kids on Beijing's culinary block
Diners at Beijing's hottest new Chinese restaurant, Country Kitchen, would search in vain for any of the usual clichéd hotel-restaurant leitmotifs - there is a total absence of red in the pillars, lanterns, dragons and tablecloths.
Designers at the Beijing Rosewood hotel's restaurant eschewed the elaborately ornate approach, opting for a stripped-down look with lots of wood, in keeping with the theme of northern China home-style dining.
The result is a hotel restaurant like no other in Beijing, partly because of the comfortable decor and expertly executed comfort food, but also because it offers a stunning view of the kooky CCTV tower, located just across the highway.
Diners can opt for an inside or terrace table as they tuck into specials such as Peking duck, roasted fatty pork served in buns, northern-style spicy noodles, Beijing-style stir-fried cabbage, slow-roasted Mongolian lamb and village-style steamed tofu. The meats, vegetables and eggs are, wherever possible, sourced from local organic farms; the house draft beer is provided by Slow Boat, a local craft brewery.
The restaurant has been a well-received addition to the capital's food scene. But it is far from the only new kid on the culinary block this summer. Among the other debutantes have been a craft ale pub that boasts a grassy courtyard, a sushi joint run by an American chef, a brew pub serving American-style pizza, and the announcement that one of the city's favourite gourmet dining spots, Temple Restaurant Beijing (TRB), will open a new outlet next to the Forbidden City moat, to be called TRB Bites@The Courtyard.
"The cuisine style will be Western-oriented, but it does not have strict boundaries and will try to incorporate many local Chinese elements into it," says Belgian proprietor Ignace Lecleir. "We wish to pay homage to the historical and cultural sites we are in close proximity to, as well as the richness and abundance of local products."
Sourcing top-notch produce is a professional passion for chef Max Levy. The Mississippi native, who trained in Japanese cuisine, has an ardent following among Beijing foodies, who have ensured his new venture, Okra 1949, is busy every night with customers keen to sample the "sushi, sake and cocktails". Levy is due to open a restaurant shortly in Hong Kong.
Among the specialities there will be uzakyu, with the eel prepared in-house during a three-day process, yakitori-style roasted ribs and sushi made with sustainably farmed prawns. The Sai Ying Pun outlet will have the Beijing tried-and-tested favourites, with a particular focus on the offcuts of Taiwanese tuna and Chilean wagyu beef. The drinks list will offer organic and natural sakes and shochus from the Kyushu region of Japan, and a curated selection of rice wines from China's Guizhou province.
Across from Okra, also in the former factory compound known as 1949-The Hidden City, is Jing-A Taproom, run by Canadian Kristian Li and American Alex Acker. The focus is primarily on beer; the pair concoct craft brews such as Worker's Pale Ale, Flying Fist IPA, Black Velvet Vanilla Stout and the novel Airpocalypse Double IPA, which is offered at a lower price when the pollution index is high.
It's a lively spot, with a hugely popular grassy outdoor patio equipped with trestle tables. The simple menu features chicken wings, fish and chips, sweet potato fries and pan-fried Yunnan cheese.
"We have our six core beers and with the others we try to experiment with local ingredients such as osmanthus flower, peppercorn and hawthornberry," says Li.
The undisputed godfather of the real ale scene, Carl Setzer, recently opened his third Great Leap Brewing outlet, where pizza is the menu centrepiece.
The new Great Leap Brewing pub has a range of up to 20 beers at any one time, including the flagship Honey Ma.
"We push everyone to try Honey Ma, it is a true expression of Chinese craft beer with peppercorn and date," says American Setzer.