Italian haute cuisine has arrived in Beijing with two stars and a story to tell. Ye Jun reviews the food.
Michelin-decorated chef Marco Sacco has decided to camp by the Liangma River at Beijing's Maizidian on the fringe of the city's diplomatic quarters, in his first overseas venture out of Italy.
Sacco's restaurant Piccolo Lago in Verbania is very highly regarded by international gourmets, having been awarded its first Michelin star in 2004, followed by a second star three years later. It ranks among the top 10 Italian restaurants in the world.
River Club in Beijing was conceived just eight months ago and was built in three, a feat which Carlo Sacco, the CEO of the company deems possible only in China.
Carlo is Marco's younger brother and has more than 20 years of experience managing restaurants. He says he was impressed by the pace of development and the enthusiasm in China - which convinces him that the future of business lies right here.
At River Club, visitors are likely to be struck by the purity of colors at first sight. The entrance is painted cyan, the color of water, while the public dining area two floors up is in a dreamlike white.
There is generous space with just 40 seats in the public dining area, and another 40 in six private rooms, most of which have a view of chefs working in the open kitchen through a glass wall.
The same purity is reflected in the food, in the choice of ingredients, and presentation.
Our dinner started with an antipasto of peas and vegetable slices in mayonnaise wrapped in a sliver of red bell pepper, accompanied by a glass of champagne.
The starter was a cleverly marinated salmon burger, with a round of bread soaked in aged balsamic vinegar, with diced salmon on top and below.
To some palates, the combination of balsamic and salty salmon may be a tad sharp but according to Carlo Sacco, the salmon was cured with salt to bring out its flavor. Side-dishes included three onion rings with individual dollops of differently flavored mayonnaise.
A flowering ravioli followed. It was the classic pasta wrap presented like a blossom with a heart of tender rabbit, chicken and veal, accompanied by truffles and a slow-cooked beef reduction.
Wood-grilled Boston lobster was accompanied by a Catalana tomato salad that refreshed the palate and stimulated the appetite. The lobster was washed down with a clean, crisp glass of Gavi white from Piemonte that had nice fruit on the nose.
Dessert was a collection of seven sweets, appropriately named tavolozza, or Italian for "color palette". There was tiramisu, pana cotta, chocolate mousse, creme brulee with tangerine, jasmine jelly, pistachio mousse and apple pie. Surprisingly, every single mouthful was delightful, even for a normally reticent dessert-eater like me. They came with a pleasant glass of sweet Malvasia Gilli.
River Club offers a five-course set meal for 486 yuan per person, and a six-course set at 698 yuan per person.
A third offering is the degustation, a menu with which the chef intends to surprise the diner, at a cost of 899 yuan per person.
Selections from the grill range from 236 to 688 yuan, starters average 180 yuan, soups, pasta and risotto are around 120 yuan, and main courses average 250 yuan.
To celebrate its opening, the restaurant is offering 50 percent discounts for lunch and 15 percent off for dinner until the end of September.
Most seats in the restaurant have a good view of the scenic riverside and the wine cellar also has a private area for reservations. Service is attentive and comfortable.