Old gem gets revamped dreams

By Qi Zhai (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-05-14 10:57
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Old gem gets revamped dreams
Red Capital Club waiter Shen Fang presents the Empress
Cixi Rings. Photos by Wang Jing / China Daily

Tradition has been on the menu at Red Capital Club since 1999. This month, the old gem gets a revamp as chef Yang Li adds five dishes to a menu already replete with gastronomic favorites of top leaders (Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Zhu Rongji) and classics from the imperial kitchens.

This Dongsijiutiao courtyard restaurant, inconspicuously marked on the outside by a parked stately sedan, invites diners to wrap themselves in a dream of the past. And what a dream it is.

The vehicle up front is one of two Red Flag limos that belong to Laurence Brahm, owner of the restaurant (and hospitality venues Red Capital Ranch and Red Capital Residence), political mediator, global activist, author and keeper of history. These cars once ferried Marshal Chen Yi.

Inside the courtyard, other pieces have similarly interesting pasts. Brahm has a knack for finding original doors used in Zhongnanhai and in imperial households and bringing them to delight diners in the restaurant's three main areas. The Red Capital Bar, appointed with two sofas from Lin Biao's office, among other notables, is dedicated to the 1950s and 1960s. The dining room is done in elaborate Qing Dynasty style, complete with hand-carved watermelon lanterns and an imperial robe worn by Emperor Qianlong's brother. The central courtyard, open in the summers, took nearly two years to restore to its historical glory.

The ambience is intoxicating, but the nuanced flavors on the new menu bring diners back to their senses. Waiters with personalities, dressed in full Red Guard uniform, bring dishes and stories to the table.

The Long March Wild Tonic Soup (148 yuan) is the tastiest of the new appetizers. Legend goes that resourceful army cooks gathered wild vegetables and mushrooms during the Long March to fulfill Chairman Mao's craving for homemade soup. The creative concoction was well received and the Chairman himself blessed it with its name.

A heartwarming story follows a palate-warming soup. The Scholar's Chicken rolls (78 yuan), made of steamed minced chicken wrapped around century eggs, were originally prepared by loving mothers for Song Dynasty scholars setting off to take the imperial exam. Served as black-and-white contrasting slices, the texture and flavor of the dish call to mind a delicate terrine.

Beauty is a recurring theme on the new menu. The Xishi Tofu (48 yuan), named after one of China's four great beauties, is a mixture of cold tofu with wild vegetables. Supposedly, this was one of Xishi's signature turns in the kitchen. The simple dish does not quite live up to its namesake.

Empress Cixi, who sought to preserve her youth and beauty almost fanatically, is also honored on the menu, with the Empress Cixi Rings (178 yuan). These bitter melon slices are filled with shrimp and were devised by imperial chefs to cure their mistress of fatigue. Bitter is a hard taste to harness but the chef manages quite well.

The crowning glory on the new menu is the Yang Guifei Mushroom Plate (168 yuan). This royal concubine, also known for her extraordinary beauty, favored ling zhi-like mushrooms, picked from Changbaishan, to improve her complexion. The large, white mushrooms, sliced and fried to look like peony blossoms looks extravagant. A light glaze of lemon sauce adds to its visual and gustatory appeal.

Pair these new dishes with some old favorites, like the South of the Clouds bamboo-braided grilled fish (138 yuan), for a full revelry in a step back in time at Red Capital Club.

Old gem gets revamped dreams
From top to bottom: Yang Guifei Mushroom Plate
(168 yuan), Scholar's Chicken Rolls (78 yuan),
 Xishi Tofu (48 yuan).