Courtyard Cuisine

Sample China's finest from Beijing's trademark courtyard houses

Issue: Oct 2009

The idyllic open-air setting of the courtyard seating at Dali restaurant
The idyllic open-air setting of the courtyard seating at Dali restaurant
Photo credit : Dali

The Chinese capital's famous courtyard houses, or siheyuan, are historical and architectural relics from a past before the country transformed into the world's third-largest and fastest-growing economy. These houses were extensively demolished in the '90s to make way for development, and are now a rarity amidst the frenetic high-rise modernisation of Beijing.

In recent years, however, some of the city's best eating establishments serving a startling array of regional and ethnic-minority cuisines have set up home in these tranquil houses, saving them from the city's inexhaustible bulldozers.

Dali

A table tucked away in a corner for more intimate conversations
A table tucked away in a corner for more intimate conversations
Photo credit : Dali
A laid-back atmospheric space tucked away deep in an alley in the historical Drum and Bell Tower area, Dali serves customers a standard menu of Yunnan dishes starting at US$17.60 (RMB120) per person. Just let the wait-staff know your dining preferences and sit back at a table laid out al-fresco in the spacious candle-lit courtyard while the kitchen whips up your meal. In winter, it might be more comfortable to sit inside the dining rooms surrounding the courtyard rather than freeze under the open sky.

Yunnan cuisines vary greatly owing to the wide number of ethnic groups living in the mountainous south-western region, but they are typically hot and spicy, with mushrooms in profuse varieties featuring prominently. Flowers (yes, flowers!) make up the centrepiece in at least one of the dishes, with bamboo and fruit also common ingredients. Dali restaurant, named after a picturesque region in western Yunnan, serves an adapted version of the province's fare pared down on the spices to appeal to less hardy palates. Servings are a bit on the small side though, so expect to walk away satiated, not stuffed.

67 Xiaojingchang Hutong, Gulou Dongdajie, Dongcheng District;
Tel: (+86)108404 1430


Duck de Chine

Built around a central courtyard, the fine dining area is accentuated by crimson red lanterns.
Built around a central courtyard, the fine dining area is accentuated by crimson red lanterns.
Photo credit: Elite Concepts
Nestled in the heart of the embassy district at buzzing Sanlitun, Duck de Chine is located inside the sprawling, hip-to-a-fault 1949 - The Hidden City, a 6,000 sq metre courtyard space hidden behind inconspicuous grey walls that has led to it being dubbed "a city within a city".

Duck de Chine has in two short years beaten the odds of the city's competitive roast Peking duck business by emerging a consistent favourite among diners despite the presence of decades-old and more established "Old Brand" roast duck outlets like Da Dong and Quanjude. Its executive chef Wilson Lam hails from Hong Kong and had since young understudied his Cantonese chef father as he travelled the world. The menu at the restaurant, naturally, features Cantonese cuisine with a fusion twist.

The perfectly roasted duck served with a home recipe sweet sauce and condiments.
The perfectly roasted duck served with a home recipe sweet sauce and condiments.
Photo credit: Elite Concepts
A whole duck costs US$27.45 (RMB188) and is served with standard condiments like wrapping skins, scallions and a delicious sweet sauce. But the centrepiece, rightfully, is the duck. Roasted to perfection over a traditional apple wood oven, the skin is crispy yet succulent without the greasy overkill that many roast ducks suffer from. It literally "melts the very instant you put it into your mouth", as Lam describes it. The rest of the menu is predominantly duck-based but also offers a small selection of non-duck dishes and standard Chinese delicacies like abalone and sea cucumber.

1949 - The Hidden City, Gongti Beilu, Chaoyang District;
Tel: (+86)106501888


Na Jia Xiao Guan

The locals give this restaurant and its Manchurian fare their thumbs up
The locals give this restaurant and its Manchurian fare their thumbs up
Talking mynahs greet you as you step into the foyer of this elegantly decorated siheyuan restaurant that is widely acknowledged as one of the best in the city. Customers can choose to be seated on the first floor in private rooms or at tables that catch the sunlight in the air-conditioned central courtyard, or proceed to the second storey if they prefer a bird's-eye view of diners below.

The best part of this restaurant, however, is the prices for its Manchurian fare. With appetisers starting from around $1.50 (RMB10) and main dishes hovering around $7 to $9 (RMB50 to RMB60), prices are extremely reasonable for the quality of the food, the ambience and the high level of service. The menu is vast and many dishes come highly recommended, including the crispy fried shrimps, the roasted venison leg and the duck confit. Call ahead with a party of at least four in order to ensure a seat at the always crowded restaurant.

The only drawback is its location, hidden along a nondescript alley behind the LG Twin Towers and compounded by its inconspicuous exterior.

Yonganli, Jianguomenwai Dajie, Chaoyang District;
Tel: (+86)1065673663


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