(this article appeared in www.themalaysianinsider today)
Beijing can truly be described as cosmopolitan: parts of the sprawling city of over 17 million people are very modern, teeming with visitors from all over the world. A wealth of eateries, both local and international, has sprung up in recent years to cater for its many inhabitants, some of them offering excellent food.
When we were there recently, some kind friends took us to a rather unique restaurant that started in the hutongs over a decade ago. “Hua’s Courtyard Restaurant” is in Guijie, Dongzhimen Inner Street in Dongcheng District, aka Ghost Street, presumably because the place is very busy at night. In the evening, the entire street is lit up with hundreds of glowing red lamps strung from tree to tree, and lined with restaurants on either side, and reminded me a bit of the busy Bukit Bintang night scene.
Established by the enterprising and philanthropic Mr Hua, the restaurant serves popular ethnic Chinese food to locals and tourists. Walking in through the unassuming façade, you won’t believe just how big this restaurant is: it has become so well known that there are now six branches and two clubs which employ over 2000 staff which can serve up to 4000 guests at any one time. Even by Beijing standards, it’s huge.
The large, partitioned courtyard is laid out in attractive but serviceable black furniture, with private rooms leading off it. When we arrived, it was buzzing with hungry and satiated customers, the waiters, waitresses and chefs serving up platter after platter of steaming, delicious-looking food. We were lucky to get a table near the front … and I’ll tell you why a bit later.
Friendly Guest Relations Manager Rola Heng who, incidentally, is from Indonesia, was happy to take us through the menu, discoursing on the history of the place and advising us on which dishes to order.
Of course we had to try their most famous dish – after all, we are in Peking! Here, it is called Yongzheng Dynasty Duck, skilfully carved up into thin, delicate slices by one of the chefs a table then served with no less than three types of thin, different-coloured pancakes to wrap it in, and 6 types of julienned vegetables as well as three sauces: sour plum with tips of wasabi, sweet red fruit and a unique, yellow floral osmanthus. “We’ve improved on the traditional Peking Duck because people have different tastes,” according to Rola.
Eaten the traditional way ie the meat and skin rolled up in a pancake with the vegetables and one of the sauces, it was tasty, as was the Braised Eggplant with Abalone Sauce and Spinach with Chicken Soup. However, I thought their “Yi Yuan” Famous Noodles was excellent: cold noodles tossed in their own-recipe spicy peanut butter and sesame sauce, one of their signature dishes.
“It was a favorite of Anita Mui’s,” who called it “Bawang ji” after she tasted it the first time”, Rola added. It’s a bit like gado gado with noodles, but with much more delicate flavours; crunchy, nutty and quite delicious. Everything is beautifully presented, and the dishes are adorned with carved vegetables and
However, what was really interesting about this place was what happened after our meal – that is why I said we were lucky to be seated near the front. The canny proprietor lays on a floor show nightly, when their trained waiters and waitresses perform for the diners. For amateurs, they are surprisingly good, and the half hour show of various feats including Kung Fu Tea Pouring with a two-foot long spout, plate spinning and noodle-slicing (dao xiao mian) whilst balancing on a monocycle was very enjoyable.
The final act though was the piece de resistance: bian lian, the ancient art of face changing. It was fascinating, and much too short – apparently only 200 people in the whole of China are privy to this amazing act, and one of them is based here! It’s worth going just to see it.
After the evening’s entertainment, we were privileged to be given a quick tour of the entire premises, when Rola showed us round the other parts of the massive place, going past their clean show kitchens where teams of chefs are busily and skilfully preparing yet more food; down dimly-lit alleyways and side streets, weaving in and out of the six yards and 3 court yards which are spread over more than 30,000 sq metres and includes alfresco and fine dining areas.
Hua's Courtyard Restaurant
235 Dongzhimen Inner Street
Dongcheng District, Beijing 100007
Tel: 512 83315
Opening hours: daily from 10.30am to 04.00am