Year on a Plate

Updated: 2013-01-03 11:34

By Ye Jun and Fan Zhen (China Daily)

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 Year on a Plate

David Pooley's lychee pavlova at Aria at the China World Hotel. Jiang Dong / China Daily

 Year on a Plate

Vegetarian offerings figure prominently in several high-end eateries. Ye Jun / China Daily

 Year on a Plate

At the Ritz-Carlton, chef Ku Chi-fai combines lobster and white truffles. Fan Zhen / China Daily

The Beijing culinary scene in 2012 was filled with surprises and excitement, from new restaurants to world-renowned chefs, to new ingredients and new cooking styles. There was also an internationally acclaimed food documentary. Ye Jun and Fan Zhen give us the roundup.

Beijing's chefs and gourmets have stirred up storms on the plate in the past year, bringing new treats and creative thought to the Chinese dining table. Chefs have experimented with new recipes and culinary inventions, offering diners a multi-ethnic and multisensory experience. Chefs have experimented with new recipes and culinary inventions, offering diners exciting choices beyond the ordinary.

Expatriate culinary experts have also paid more attention to locally sourced produce such as Yunnan province's black truffles and China's farmed Schrencki caviar.

As the capital becomes more cosmopolitan, new Western cuisines have made forays into the culinary scene. Led by the French and Italians, now there are also Argentinean and Greek restaurants offering authentic fare.

One of the highlights on this year's culinary calendar was Da Dong's new spring menu promotion, which began right after Spring Festival in late March.

At the restaurant's Jinbaojie branch, everything reminded one of spring: from the green etamine that covers the tables to the beautiful bundles of yellow jasmine. Every dish, from the starter to the cold dishes, soup and main course, had flower petals in it, making dining an art to appreciate.

The winner for June was a lobster salad at the newly relocated Decappo Italian Restaurant.

Italian chef Mario Cittadini, who has experience working in a three Michelin-star restaurant in Spain, used beautiful herbs and edible flowers to decorate the dish, and paved it nicely with orange jelly.

Behind the great food and restaurants are the fabulous chefs. In 2012, we witnessed the arrival of many well-known Western cuisine chefs in Beijing.

Aria at China World Hotel has David Pooley, a very talented Australian chef. Pooley brings his Michelin-star restaurant working experience, the latest culinary skills and concepts in the world of Western cuisine.

It is even more rare to see excellent Chinese executive chefs in Western cuisine restaurants.

Emmanuel Zhao is an exception. Attached to Scarlett restaurant and wine bar, the Beijing native who is now a French national is good at combining Chinese ingredients with his experience working in Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris.

French chef Michael Jakovljev recently took over the kitchen at Heritage, the former Le Pre Le Notre. With experience working in five Michelin-starred restaurants, he prepares meats at low temperature, and by vacuum cooking, to preserve the fullest flavor, while keeping the best texture.

Kenny Fu at Le Quai continues to make the best beef ribs in Beijing. He has a knack for marrying Western food knowledge with Chinese cuisine, which brings presentation and taste to perfection.

Another notable young Chinese chef is Hou Xinqing, Huaiyang style chef de cuisine at Summer Palace, China World Hotel. He adapts Huaiyang style classics - shelled shrimp, sour and sweet yellow croaker - into modern looking dishes.

A roundup of the year's culinary scene in China won't be complete without mentioning A Bite of China, a seven-part documentary that attracted international attention after it was broadcast on CCTV in May.

Many viewers felt the documentary evoked childhood memories, when food was fresh and organic. It also sparked off an interest in ingredients and cuisine styles from various provinces.

Traditionally, China has four major cuisine styles namely Shandong, Sichuan, Huaiyang and Cantonese. While the four major styles are deeply rooted, many restaurants now offer fusion cuisine.

Over the years, regional food styles, such as Xinjiang, Yunnan, and Hunan, have been gaining popularity.

A new kid on the block is Xi'an, which is known for its street food such as spicy and sour tasting cold noodles, and soaked cake with lamb soup. But Reallove, a local chain restaurant that opened its first restaurant in Beijing in April, has elevated it into a high-end treat. Interestingly, many of the dishes on the menu have a historical story linked to it.

With continuous food safety issues and environmental concerns, some hotels and even airlines have banned the use of shark fin and abalone.

Some Chinese restaurant have replaced them with other expensive money-makers - dried fish maw, sea cucumber, and high quality beef.

New ingredients also emerged.

Black garlic, for example, has been used in some dishes at Qi Chinese Restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton Beijing Financial Street. The garlic is shiny, coal-black, and tastes soft and sweet like preserved plum. It is said to be an antioxidant, and have anti-acidification effect.

The restaurant has also used North American wild rice, containing rice protein and high fiber, without cholesterol or fat.

Fairly recently, Hong Kong or Macao style hot pot restaurants appear to have become Beijingers' favorite choice on cold winter days.

These restaurants typically offer fresh meat, a wide variety of seafood, and tasty base soups. Some of the best are Guanyejie Macao Hot Pot, and Faigo Hot Pot Restaurant.

The year saw some world-class restaurants opening in the capital city namely Nobu, and Morton The Steak House from Chicago.

The first Four Seasons Hotel also opened in Beijing, with an Italian and a Chinese restaurant adding to gourmet's choices in Beijing.

It has been a truly bountiful year and we look forward to more culinary surprises in 2013.

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 Year on a Plate

Emmanuel Zhao from Scarlett plates Chinese ingredients in a Western presentation. Jiang Dong / China Daily

 Year on a Plate

Lighter regional cuisines like the Huaiyang style made their presence felt in 2012. Ye Jun / China Daily