Of course we had to have an opinion.
The moment is ripe for historically themed restaurants. Period dramas are in full effect on TV. Restaurants are constantly seeking new décor ideas. There's a whiff of historical reflection in the air. Voila! Those three threads coalesced and turned into a recent trend in the Chinese restaurant industry: restaurants themed on ancient China. Most of them — all but one that I visited — pair that theme with the cooking of eastern China, an area also known as Jiangnan, or south of the (Yangtze) river.
But are they any good?
I set out to sample six.
The first thing that greeted me at Gui Man Long
was the long rows of people waiting on stools for a table. On a Thursday night, the wait was an hour, after securing a digital ticket on my phone. The theme here was modeled after an 800-year-old peach blossom villa in Hangzhou, with a white wall and grey tiled facade. The interior was dark and comfortable with fake peach blossoms on the corners.
Still, if you didn’t tell me they were going for a theme, I wouldn’t have noticed. The theme here instead should be the value for this price. They don’t try to get overly cute with classic dishes, but they do vamp up the presentation of casual fare.
The savory sauce pork ribs (48rmb, pictured above) were quite tasty, the bubbling hot 15rmb stone pot tofu a steal. They did take the classic glutinous rice with duck dish (58rmb) and turn it into a sushi-looking thing, but I wasn’t offended. The sweet and sour pork was decent though the Hangzhou scallion pancakes (12rmb) were on the dry and bland side.
Gui Man Long is a slightly hectic environment, as waiters storm to and fro, but the food arrives fast. Thankfully, they do not make you vacate your table in a given time frame, so you can linger without being forced out.
Yes but after 8pm to avoid the lines
The intended theme here was Jiangnan Guzheng, or the ancient river towns south of the Yangtze in Zhejiang and Jiangsu province. 2,500 years ago, when Suzhou became a city, its surrounding areas sprouted a number of half-urban, half-rural towns such as Tongli, Luzhi, Wuzhen, Nanxun, and Xitang that really began to thrive in the 13th century.
I say “intended” because Ke Guan
is a bit of a fail in décor. The semi-open kitchen and blue neon wall fixtures clash directly with the cheap rustic furniture and random displays of abacuses. Nothing here invokes “river town” nor do the frumpy waiters dressed in wrinkled uniforms inspire confidence in hygiene. This was confirmed with a trip to the washroom, which shares a hallway with the kitchen back door, left open to show a wet, chaotic mess. Here’s the river town. At 7pm, the dining space was half-empty empty on a Wednesday (half-full if you work in marketing).
First dish that arrived was the green peppercorn fish, a giant portion for 78rmb. I was pleasantly surprised by the subtlety of the broth and its light, peppery kick. The slices of northern snakehead fish were cleaned of all bones and kept on the right amount of skin, meaty and tender at the same time. This dish was a winner.
Then things started to head downhill. The marquee roasted lotus chicken (78rmb) lacked the advertised crispy skin and the “ancient seasoning techniques” yielded greasy roasted bird with dry flesh.
The special chicken soup “made with old hen, ham and mineral water” (pictured above) was a pass. DIY tofu also forgettable, tasting only of the mediocre condiments. Special scallion noodles were big in portion, low in quality. Also, there were a ton of little fruit flies here for some reason.
By the time I visited the Mei Qing
, I’d lost interest in the historical context of the theme. Naturally, this was the first place where the theme came across strong and clear.
Deep swaths of red dominate the space with gold and satin trim. Tasteful watercolor paintings hang in calculated areas and a stuffed peacock classes up an alcove. The waitresses wear ceremonial garb. It is decidedly higher end than the first two.
It doesn’t take much imagination to feel like you are dining where the rich did in ancient Zhejiang or Jiangsu.
However, fine dining this was not, located inside the Crystal Galleria mall.
As with all these restaurants, the food was fast to arrive after we ticked off their most suggested dishes on their app. The golden chicken, playfully served in a birdcage, was good for the 48rmb price. The skin was crispy and the chicken was seasoned in a spice blend reminiscent of Middle Eastern kebabs. A good start.
The standout dish was the salted duck egg pumpkin, thin slices of pumpkin covered with a light crust of salted egg and presumably sugared breadcrumbs and then fried. The resulting texture was very interesting: the pumpkin turned into a soft caramel consistency. Felt like a dessert. I would order it again as one.
The abalone red-braised pork (68rmb, pictured above) was high-level hongshao rou, cooked to the edge of falling apart tender and at risk of detaching from the fatty layers. Just right.
286rmb for two
In fact, I plan on it
This particular branch of Shao Dong Jia
near the Nanjing Dong Lu walking strip was booming on the Friday night I went. Even at 8.30pm, I had to wait 20 minutes. (Reservations can only be made one week ahead).
The restaurant décor here was also Jiangnan river town, except they pulled out all the tricks: projections of ancient villagers toiling, smoke machines in animated lily ponds, and tiered seating that gave the impression of being outdoors in one of these ancient water town settings. This place felt like a historical amusement park. It felt fun.
Service was prompt and friendly, a well-trained machine. The other Shao Dong Jia branches have the prefix 70后 instead of Jiang Yue but the staff assured me it’s all the same décor and menu.
Their number one recommended dish is a Shaoxing fried fish, talked up so highly on the menu it could only be a letdown. And it was, over-fried and ambiguously seasoned.
The rest varied from good (the lion’s head meatball with meigan cai, pictured above) to the hongshao pork (average at best). Overall, a fun venue with fast and friendly service, mostly disappointing food.
290rmb for two but could get away for far less
Pi Pa Man
served the broader field of Huaiyang cuisine, which encompasses Jiangnan cuisine and is one of the four main pillars of Chinese cuisine. More soups, more broths.
I had to come twice to get a table, after showing up at 8pm one day and being turned away. So I came back the next day at 4.30pm, half an hour before they opened. By 5pm, a line was already beginning to form. This place is popular.
Four big ancient looking bells hung out front of the restaurant, and stacks of pink salt blocks dominated the dimly lit space, presumably a nod to the salt trade in Yangzhou. Old-looking stuff was arranged here and there. Nice.
Among the successes were a meat floss shengjian bao for 11rmb (pictured above) and the Jiangsu-style red soup noodles in a broth that tasted of tea and Chinese herbs. Fails included a slimy lion’s head meatball in dishwater broth and the duck in sweet plum sauce, with bone shards deployed throughout the meat. I suppose at this price (29rmb for the duck), not too many people are complaining.
170rmb and could have been cheaper
I’m a maybe
This crazy chain has outposts in Chengdu and Xian; the Shanghai branch just opened. In barely a month, they seem to have found their footing. They don’t take reservations after 6.30pm, and on a Sunday evening they were completely full by 7pm.
I had initially thought Jiang Yue was a bit over the top; this place took that approach with a needle full of steroids. A massive double-headed dragon stares you down upon entering, preparing you for the outlandishness that unfolds inside.
A carpet-bombing for the senses, bright golden dragons wrap around the pillars, garish wall panels and bright red furniture; if there was a swath of real estate that could be adorned with a dragon I’m sure they considered it. Heavy smoke effects billows out of the lily ponds as live musical and face shifting acts played out on a center stage.
Historical context? Imperial outrageousness.
And, oh yes, they serve hotpot. Fairly standard ensemble. Unimaginative in the food, perhaps because they spent so much brainpower on the decor.
746rmb for two
With friends from out of town