Thursday, September 06, 2007

Beijing Restaurants: Sichuan Cooking, LAN South Beauty

This article in the NYTimes about Chinese artists that have dabbled in the restaurant business got me thinking about the great restaurants we tried in Beijing and how I've neglected to post about them. So here they are. Coincidentally we ate at one of the restaurants mentioned in the article, Tian Xia Yan, a casual Sichuan cafe opened five years ago by the photographer Cang Xin in 798 Dashanzi Art Zone. We were there the day we shot at the Gao Brothers Studio.
Sichuan food is incredibly spicy. If it is prepared correctly it is spicy enough that your lips are tingling halfway through the meal and you think no amount of beer will quell the fire. But then you get used to it and the experience is lovely. That day we tried a tofu dish that looked like shoe leather, it had a tough and chewy texture and was dressed in sesame oil flecked with chopped chilis. I could not get enough.
An upscale place to try Sichuan cuisine is the South Beauty chain of restaurants. The chain, started by female entrepreneur Zhang Lan, is composed of uber-yuppy Asian eateries with over-the-top decor and an army of servers. During our meal we were waited on by no less than 7 white gloved waiters. We had eaten at South Beauty in Shanghai and the chain has 12 locations in Beijing, each one plush and quirky in design but the one most worth visiting is the LAN location. Designed by superstar Philippe Starck, the 6,000 square foot restaurant comprises the entire floor of an office building. The decor is literally every Starck idea on a wonky acid trip. He takes all of his concepts - the gaudy chic, the Alice in Wonderland thing, floor-to-ceiling drapes, the color red, Ventian chandeliers, lucite and layers it repeatedly. In addition to the bar, lounge, and vast dining room there are 15 private rooms, some with throne-like chairs for high-rolling business dinners. The staff seems to revere the restaurant so much that after our dinner one of our servers gave us an extended tour of the venue, showing us each and every private room. And the food?
The nice things about South Beauty is that their menu is basically the same at each spot and if you order wisely you can easily have a great meal for about $40 for two people which, considering the setting, is amazing. Their dan-dan noodles (above) are blisteringly spicy but so satisfying and we also tried their mapo tofu which was nothing special. I was puzzled by the choice of multi-colored sprinkles as garnish for sweet lotus root, it added a bit of crunch which was nice.
There are pricier items on the menu like shark's fin soup and bird's nest but that's not how we roll. On the plus side, the restaurant is Western-friendly and most of the staff spoke English so any questions we had about the food were easily clarified. LAN is a spectacle and ironically being ensconced in Philippe Starck-ness made me feel close to home, it was like a taste of the Delano in the Orient.(LAN South Beauty address: 2/F, West Bldg, China World Shopping Mall, 1 Jianguomenwai Dajie, Chaoyang District.)

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