There is a theme of duality that permeates this ornate Southern Chinese restaurant in the China World hotel. First and most obvious is the setting: the China World Hotel, in the World Trade complex. Here, in ground zero of China’s modern ascent to international prominence is an entrance, flanked by statues of dragons and cranes, to a formal Cantonese dining hall. Bathed in soft yellow lights that illuminate white jade, statues, stained glass windows, and dark woods, with an erhu gently warbling in the background, this is by all appearances a very traditional place to eat.
Not so, as it turns out. There is another kind of duality that makes itself clear once inside: the time period. Some waiters in are in full-lengthy traditional gowns, while others are standing, solemn-faced, in bowties; echoes of 1930s Shanghai.
It is clear that there is an effort to at once be as traditional as possible without alienating younger crowds. This can be seen in events held regularly, such as the upcoming Tea Training class: a dinner that incorporates a discussion on how to appreciate the many kinds of teas in China and their traditional uses. Here, they are trying to stir up an excitement for the long-held traditions within the Chinese youth and foreign tourists. This is movement is spearheaded by the young, Singaporean, operations manager, Derrick Siew, who, like a juggler, tries to balance the new and the traditional, the young crowds and the old.
The unique iced teas offered here illustrate this point clearly. Iced tea has never been widely accepted in China, mainly for two reasons: the process of boiling can result in a bitter, concentrated flavor, and the process of drinking with ice cubes results in dilution and a loss in flavor.
By steeping this tea in hot water, not boiling, the flavors are lightly teased out. By making the ice cubes out of cooled tea loaded with tea leaves, the ice acts as a reservoir that continues to add flavor throughout. Staying true to the roots, he provides a new product that appeals to the modern customer.
A rose tea opened the meal. Flavored with dried orange peels, dates, and other fruits, it was a bright red liquid with a sweet berry flavor. Smooth and a bit thick, the rose flavors just lingered on the periphery.
Pu’er iced tea was brought later. Ink-black, earthy, and bitter, with notes of charcoal and soil, it was certainly a challenge to my palate, but I kept going back to it because it was so complex and such an interesting counterpoint to the sweet, light dishes.
In the dishes offered rests yet another example of the duality of Summer Palace. The menu consists of both Huaiyang and Hong Kong/Cantonese dishes. Though they may appear on same plate in the dishes served, they are always separate; one part distinctly Huaiyang, one distinctly Cantonese. They are never fused. Even in the kitchen, the areas are kept separate, as the techniques and ratios, even in similar dishes, are totally different.
Huaiyang is from the region around Shanghai, and is in some ways similar to that city’s cuisine. Huaiyang chefs are most famous for their carving skills; making intricate, delicate presentations that they feel has a great affect on the overall flavor.
Cantonese is also light, but is more famous for its preparation methods, They rely on wok-frying, stir-frying, steaming, and deep frying for both speed and their ability to bring out the flavor of the freshest ingredients.
The CHEF’S CREATION PLATTER, which began our 8 course menu, was the perfect introduction to both styles, and to the spirit of the restaurant. The Cantonese side offered two strips of barbecued meat. A roof of glass-like skin topped a thin slice of pink pork . It cracked under the teeth and infused the meat with the deep flavors that the fat absorbs during cooking. The duck was less crispy, but oil from under the skin oozed into the dark meat, making it that much richer and creamier.
On the Huaiyang side was a carefully stacked pile of asparagus, cooked in a heavily reduced (boiled until the water evaporates and concentrated flavors remain) chicken stock, and a meticulously carved light brown mushroom, splayed out in slivers. While both were expertly prepared, the mushroom didn’t quite register a blip on my flavor radar.
BRAISED FRESH ABALONE, FISH MAW, AND SEA CUCUMBER IN SUPERIOR BROTH
This soup, thick like molasses, contains no starch. Instead, it is a heavily reduced stock of chicken feet and pork. It takes two days to reduce all the way, and is a traditional Cantonese preparation. Mushrooms abound, as well as seafood: abalone, fish maw, sea cucumber. This medley of textures, makes a nice contrast to the velvety, caramel stock that coats that mouth almost like peanut butter.
SAUTEED SHREDDED MANDARIN FISH GARNISHED WITH EGG SHEET AND BLACK MUSHROOM
A characteristically light, fresh Huaiyang dish. A mound of thinly-shredded fish, piled over a salad of tiny peas and finely chopped red and yellow bell peppers, sat next to an egg shell, propped up on a thick, round slice of bitter melon. Inside the cracked egg was a pale yellow egg custard, topped with orange roe, and a lone slender leaf shooting up. The fish had been wok-fried, and was wonderfully mild, gentle, soft, and buttery; almost lobster-like. The fine salad underneath proved a nice base against the fish’s texture and richness, offering crunch and brightness. The egg mirrored that pairing: buttery, soft egg custard, the yolk flavor somehow intensified but not cloying, with a fine, crunchy roe on top.
LAMB CHOP WITH GARLIC, SAUTEED GREEN BEANS WITH MINCED PORK AND PRESERVED VEGETABLE
Much more of a European affair, two chops sat with thin bones crossed, and garnished with mint leaves – a classic lamb paring widely used throughout Mideast and Euro. The meat had a nice caramelization, with deep browns on the edges, and was accompanied by a dense, rich, nutty demi-glaze.
Towards the end of the meal, I realized how nice it was to find that the iced tea had not only not been diluted, but that the flowers had ‘bloomed’, and the flavors along with it.
Despite the apparent incongruity, this restaurant is very much like China itself: refusing to be one thing or another, traditional or modern. It simply is what it is. At 300 RMB for an all-inclusive (read: liquor included) 10-course set meal for lunch or dinner, and 98 RMB for dim sum a la carte, 2pm to 4pm on weekends (unlimited food and tea), Summer Palace simply is a great place to celebrate not being subject to strict limitations.
-- by Rob de Picciotto