new Things I Ate in Cambodia: The Li Family Restaurant: Imperial Chinese Food

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Li Family Restaurant: Imperial Chinese Food

The Li Family Restaurant
Address: No.11, Yangfang hutong, Denei Dajie
Beijing, China

The Li Family Restaurant is a subversive foodie darling. You’ll hear it mentioned whenever you ask what’s good eating on the internet, whether on Chowhound or Egullet or just in casual conversation. “Try the Li Family Restaurant,” someone will say. “It’s imperial dining. Like the French Laundry Chinese style. Nothing else like it.” Run by Li Shanlin, an ex math professor, the restaurant attempts to mirror as closely as possible the kind of high-status eats that the Emperors might have enjoyed in pre revolution times. All menus are set - no ala carte here - and the restaurant supposedly has no employees, using only family members. Reservations are of course required, preferably far in advance.

Not being one to ignore praise like that, we made a reservation. We would eat at the Li Family Restaurant in Beijing.

Getting to the restaurant is an adventure in ourself. Our driver maneuvered our big (by Chinese standards) van down hutong after hutong in the lake district neighborhood the restaurant lurked in, racking up near misses with old women, children, and passing dogs and cats. As we continued onwards, the streets grew smaller, almost pin-prick small, and the pedi-cab drivers passing on both sides looked at us curiously as they squeezed by, captives in hand. And suddenly, the vehicle stopped. “Are we really here?” our guide said, a note of surprise in her face.

We were really there, although the tiny little hutong house we’d stopped in front of certainly didn’t look like much. We shrugged and continued through the alleyway, where we found ourselves in one of those postage stamped-sized but impeccable little courtyards that spring up in profusion in Beijing’s back-alleys.

The slightly sullen waitress led us to a small empty room, put large menus (and a wine list!) into our hands, and retreated. We looked.

The entire menu was prix-fixe, beginning around 60 yuan for the low-level set and around 200ish for the most luxurious. We toyed with going luxe, considering the ridiculously favorable exchange rate, but realized the only difference between the menus: shark fin soup and abalone, along with one lobster dish. We decided to give the endangered species a pass and stuck with the cheap menu.

Cheap, huh? More like “enough food to choke a horse.” Awesome.

Here’s the starters. I’ll attempt to identify them, starting left and going clockwise:

Boiled Eggplant: Yummy, although admittedly I am a huge sucker for eggplant. But yummy.

Mustard Seed Beijing Cabbage: A local speciality...a tasty variant on the usual pickles.

Spicy Chicken: Cold chicken...tasty, but nothing particulalry earthshaking.

Carrot Salad: This is actually a big speciality in Xinjiang, in Western China, and I can see why: it's delicious, with a vinegary, sesame-seed snap. This was a good version. I ate most of it.

Beancurd: This, along with the green variant, were totally delicious and the biggest surprise of the evening. My mom actually proclaimed it one of her favorite things on the trip. It might just be mashed tofu, but it had a buttery, incredible flavor that elevated it far and beyond any other rendition you might have encountered.

(middle) Pickled Celery - Nice, but it is what it is.

Green Beancurd: Very similar in flavor to the a word, incredible.

Roast Pork: Chilled roast pork, with a delicate, fatty flavor. Pig is always welcome with this crowd. (I'm looking at my North Carolina-raised father here.)

Next began what I will refer to as the Fried Course. As you can infer, this was an excellent part of the meal.

On top is a tasty lotus root cake, fried to perfection. The fried tofu with soy dipping sauce you see below was a surprise: the high quality tofu took on a creamy, paneer-like quality. Totally satisfying.

These ethereal fried scallops on a bed of frizzled seaweed were incredible - light, pillowy, and slightly doughy all at once, with a tasty marine crunch. If only all fried food were this weightless...I'd eat it more often.

These might look like standard issue Chinese fried shrimp, but these elevated the discourse a little. The coating had a bit of sugar on it, which gave it an unusual flavor that I had not expected but certainly appreciated. They were not particularly crispy, with an alluring softness.

Next came a couple of palate cleansers.

This frog and egg porridge was well-prepared, but probably my least favorite dish. I am not an egg person (I have no particular objection to frog) and I didn't bother to finish this.

This light broth of pork belly and cabbage was a nice way to segue from fried food to main courses.

Sweet and sour pork ribs: the greasy spoon Chinese joint dish the way it should be. These were tender, sweet but not too sweet, and would have passed muster in the American South, at least according to the whole hearted approval of my father. I apologize for the really awful photo.

More eggplant! My lucky day! I love Chinese style stewed eggplant, and this was a nice, meaty rendition - eggplant is one reason I might be able to withstand being a vegetarian. The soy sauce and chili flavor was excellently handled.

Lobster - a perennial favorite. This light stirfry with zucchini and edible funghi had an excellent, subtle quality...almost a French delicacy of touch. I loved the meaty, rich quality of the big chunks of lobster meat.

Sweet and Sour Fish - probably my favorite dish of the night. Sweet and sour is always a guilty pleasure, but this expert preparation alleviated some of the shame. The fish was lightly fried and covered in a not too sweet sauce prepared with pineapple, green and red chili, and onion, along with some chunks of egg. I was in food nirvana as I pulled out the cheeks and went to happy work on the jawbone and tiny, stone-white bits of meat hidden in the interior. I looked for something similar to this for the reminder of my time in vain. Dammit.

I believe there is some rule that you cannot escape a fine Beijing restaurant without having Beijing Duck. Which is not such a bad rule. This portion was very small, but certainly adequate for our overstuffed needs. The buttery, decadent meat and skin, wrapped in thin pancakes and covered in hoisin and chunks of scallion, made a great "dessert".

We kicked back a few minutes more and enjoyed ourselves, but this is China and dinner is an in and out affair. And we were stuffed.

The Li Family Restaurant definitely lives up to the hype, at least in our experience. It truly is reminiscent of the level of fine dining you might encounter at restaurants in the states, served with a unique and very Chinese flair. It was wonderful for me to encounter "standby" Chinese dishes done the right way - it was like seeing them for the first time, making their acquaintance all over again. Although the restaurant is tiny, the set back private rooms provide a much more relaxing experience then you might find at the typical Beijing restaurant. The Li Family Restaurant simply must make it onto your gastronomic hit list if you find yourself in Beijing.


Don said...

From 1992 through 1994 my family and I lived in Beijing and had the oppurtunity to dine at Mr. Li's "resturant" several times. The food is outstanding but the stories Lao Li told between each course are unforgetable. I can't recommend this place high enough.


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