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Beijing's Haute Cuisine Revolution
by Kendra Wiseman
TheSyndicatedNews columnist

Kendra Wiseman's articles have appeared in numerous print and web media outlets, including the Sacramento News & Review and Her personal blog, Deflated Lantern, has been syndicated in the San Diego reader. Kendra specializes in humor, travel, and East Asian pieces, but can be persuaded to yammer about practically anything.

Two glasses of merlot provide the only splash of color in the white-on-white loft. Minimalist art fixtures and goateed waiters make up a contemporary backdrop for a roomful of crisply dressed diners. This is Paper, a neo-industrial eatery you might expect to find in one of New York's upscale neighborhoods; but this hideaway for the fabulously trendy is secreted behind a nondescript, windowless storefront in Beijing's Gulou District.

Except for the rare aficionado of chicken neck kebabs and greasy noodles, Beijing has never been considered a mecca of fine dining. Shanghai has long ruled as China's king of the culinary roost, and rightly so, as it was only a mere five years ago that Beijing's classiest date-night pit stop was located in a generic hotel lobby, hideous chandelier and all.

In a place where the origins of every traditional dish are firmly rooted in religious mythology or folk customs, the attraction of Beijing cuisine has largely been academic or cultural. Foodies came to marvel over a hodgepodge of such obliquely titled dishes as Buddha Jumps Over the Wall soup, or the slightly more self-explanatory Beggar's Chicken. A week and several Peking ducks later, it was off to Shanghai for the bright lights, waterside views, and a more modern dining experience.

It wasn't that Beijingers rejected the notion of cross-cultural fare, but rather that the market simply couldn't support more than a few lonely locales. International food almost always requires costly, imported ingredients which raise dish prices far beyond the means of the average citizen. But with the recent explosion of foreign expatriates, the steadily appreciating currency and the climbing median income, residents are looking for a broader range of tastes to titillate the tongue.

Wang JuFei, local restaurant manger and all-around foodie, rejoices that the time is finally right for a steep influx of high-end restaurants.

"I used to tell my clients that they shouldn't expect to see any profits in the first two years," says Wang. "International restaurants were so slow to get off the ground, and because Beijing is such a transitory place, it was difficult to keep regular clientele. Luckily for my stomach and my business, new restaurants can now fill their seats in as little as five months."

Unfortunately, monetary concerns aren't the only impediment to starting a successful operation. Just as Chinese restaurants abroad have altered traditional dishes to suit the western palate, international restaurants in China must consider local preference. Dairy is never used in Chinese cooking, and many Chinese cringe at the thought of a creamy alfredo. Likewise, Chinese chefs traditionally eschew ovens and baking in favor of steaming, boiling, or stir-frying.

"Foreigners don't like to eat Chinese food every day," says Wang, "and the Chinese aren't quite sold on 'western' dining. Fusion is the surest way to land squarely in the center of both markets."

Fusion restaurants, with their unique ability to link even the most disparate of cultural palates, have become particularly popular. Like Paper, which offers a 14-course set meal of Malaysian-Chinese nosh, newly-opened Haiku mixes traditional Japanese fare with a hint of American Creole flavors.

Created by restaurateur legend Alan Wong, pricey Haiku has received rave reviews from foreign and local critics alike, proving yet again that Beijing's cuisine revolution is in full, delicious swing.

Published: Sep 8,2008 15:32
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