100 Days, 100 Restaurants: A Taste of the Chinese Melting Pot in the Capital

Today marks 70 days until the Opening Ceremonies and we've only reviewed 3 restaurants so far (editors note: we know that now there are only 68 days, this post was delayed), so there's going to be a lot of pressure to get through this project, but it will be fun, too. Lot's of eating out and we're always looking for those who'd like to contribute a review or two (or would like to join in when the "editorial board" goes out).


I figured after starting out failing to review a Chinese restaurant it was time to start talking Chinese food, therefore the first review will touch on Yunnan cuisine. Yunnan food is a mix of Chinese, Chinese minorities, and the dishes of the bordering Southeast Asian countries, it is a true culinary melting pot. The local specialities the province is most famous for are mixian (rice noodles, especially crossing the bridge noodles), locally made goat cheese, Yunnan ham, mushrooms, and other wild vegetables.

4. S'Silk Road
When it first opened, this restaurant was named as one of the world's hottest and the Lotus Lane location is regularly packed, requiring reservations a day or two in advance (especially on the weekend. The passing of years has done nothing to impact this restaurant's popularity. The restaurant was set up by an artist and this influence can be seen especially at the Xiandai Soho branch.

The menu is varied, some popular dishes are the peppercorn sausage, the huge whole fish soup, the mushroom choices, and the barbecued options. While there are many drink options on the menu, your choice should be focused on two, the variety of pu’er tea choices (directly from Yunnan) and the homemade mijiu (rice wine).

The food is very fresh, but often less-than-stellar, especially when taking into consideration the higher prices. This is a perennial favorite and its Shichahai location is always packed so make sure to have a reservation. The Xiandai Soho is a bit out of the way for many, but its industrial chic interior is more representative of the artist/owner behind the restaurant. While the menu choices are authentic and there are some rare options, the execution isn't always there. If you are looking for the see-and-be-seen crowd, go to this restaurant's Shichahai location, if you're a rising artist or want to get a feel for the scene, sample the offerings at Xiandai Soho, for everybody else, the city definitely has better Yunnan offerings, but you'll still walk out having had a decent meal.

S'Silk Road (茶马古道)
Shichahai, Lotus Lane
88 Jianguo Rd, Xiandai Soho, Building D, 3rd Floor

5. Dali Courtyard
A unique hutong setting just off Gulou Dong Dajie makes this place difficult to find, but worth searching out. The restaurant is located in a small courtyard and you can choose to dine inside or under the stars, this place makes an excellent choice for a date or for those looking for a different experience.

The menu is simple as there is no menu, you get whatever the chef is preparing that night, with adjustments for any preferences or allergies diners may have. The set menu changes about once a month and will run you RMB100 per person for 5 or so dishes. There are higher priced set menus that you can choose from, but only if you’ve booked in advance.

When we last went, the overall experience was very good. It started out with a very refreshing vegetable salad that showed the Southeast Asian influences. The main vegetable was cucumber and radish, but contained the classic mix of flavors, chili added a spicy kick, fresh lemon offered sour refreshment, and fruit gave it a sweetness. The other small dish/starter was a delicious version of niu gan ba (preserved meat). The main courses, including a grilled fish and a mushroom dish, were more inconsistent. The mushrooms were great, but the fish failed to impress me, there just wasn't that much flavor to it and the Siracha-like sauce didn't do much to improve things.

This restaurant is hutong dining at its finest (yes, yes, I know how much I've already made fun of hutong dining) and is an excellent introduction to Yunnan food. While the price puts it as one of the most expensive Yunnan restaurants, the setting and the surprise that goes with not knowing what will come out of the kitchen next (but assured that it will be delicious), makes it worth checking this restaurant out.

67 Xiaojingchang Hutong, Gulous Dong Dajie, Gulou

6. Middle 8
This longtime Sanlitun favorite has a lot to offer, but if you're looking for authenticity, it falls short, its heavy on atmosphere and style, but doesn't cut it otherwise. That is not to say the food on offer isn't great, all the dishes sampled were good, its just the trendiness of the place means the menu skews to the Southeast Asian side of Yunnan cuisine.

The hei san duo, a mix of diced pork and preserved vegetables, was good as was the mixian. The meat options were varied and all prepared very well. The cold dishes we sampled, which included a spicy chicken and a dish of mixed greens with wild vegetables, were all done excellently.

Also excellent, and a bit of a surprise, was the waiter's honesty. When we ordered the house made mijiu, our waiter informed us that the quality today was not up to the restaurant's usual standards and so they recommended ordering something else. The wait staff's attentiveness let a bit something to be desired, though. In the end, this is a stylish and reasonably priced restaurant in a very popular expat enclave (thus reservations are highly recommended).

Middle 8 (中8楼)
Bldg 8, Dong Sanlitun, In alley running east from 3.3 Mall

7. In & Out
This restaurant is an interesting experience from the moment you walk in and see all the minority trinkets and the wait staff decked out in minority costumes. The atmosphere is very unique and has a rustic chic feel to it, some would even call it romantic.

The problem is that you will never be "in and out", because the wait staff is not very good, perhaps its the fact they spend their time singing instead of serving, but once you sit down, the battle begins to get them to help out.

As for the food, the mixian, the staple dish of the province, falls short of expectations, as do most of the other dishes. The cold jidou fen, pineapple rice, and grilled fish are very popular and often are good, but the kitchen is very inconsistent so you can also be disappointed.

The problems with consistency and the wait staff are too bad, because this restaurant is one of the cheaper Yunnan options in Beijing. With the large number of Yunnan options in the city and dining options at Sanlitun in general, its hard to recommend this restaurant, though you may get lucky.

In & Out (一坐一忘丽江主题餐厅)
1 Sanlitun Beixiaojie, Next to Jenny Lou's

8. Southern Barbarian (Shanghai)
For our final foray into Yunnan cuisine, we took a trip south and sampled the offerings in Shanghai, after all, its also hosting some of the Olympic events. This small, extremely popular restaurant is flooded with expats (and almost exclusively expats) who come to sample the varied Yunnan fare.

The first thing? Toto, we ain't in Kansas anymore, and the prices make this quite obvious. For the most part, things stay within the realm of reasonable, with most cold dishes falling between RMB20-30 and meat dishes in the RMB40-60 range, but when it comes to grilled items, things start getting out of hand, especially with the vegetables (RMB15 for 4-5 skewers of grilled scallions???).

The (expensive) grilled fish was okay, but a little dry, while the toothpick beef and fried potato cake were all very good. The owner is from Mengzi and we didn't regret ordering the Mengzi rice cakes.

This restaurant isn't easy to find and perhaps its hidden location is what deters more Chinese from going, though my bet is the price is what acts as the repellent. Portions were relatively small and despite ordering more dishes than we usually would, we still walked out not feeling completely full. Also, while the menu was chock full of imported beer choices, it failed to offer a Yunnan beer and no home-made mijiu, a Yunnan restaurant staple in the capital. While Yunnan options are abundant in Beijing, in Shanghai, unfortunately, this is one of your better choices, but it falls below the standards of the capital's restaurants.

Southern Barbarian (南蛮子)
2/F, Area E, Ju'Roshine Life Art Space, 56 Maoming Nan Lu, Huaihai Zhong Lu near Changle Lu

1 comment:

Meg said...

Hey! Just wondering if you want a contribution to your 100 resturants? We went to Hutong Pizza last night, and as I was writing it up for my blog, I thought of your 100 restaurant plan. meganlouise at the google-based email provider if you're interested!