The scene is the China World Hotel adjoining the $520-million (U.S.) World Trade Centre, China's single largest commercial development. In the Hong Kong suite, a sumptuous accommodation slightly smaller than Saskatchewan, a group of American and Chinese executives sits around a circular table. The view takes in the glittering towers of Beijing's eastern business district and the ribbons of traffic below. A soloist seated in one corner of the room strums on the pipa, a guitar-like stringed instrument. A server, her red-silk cheongsam slit to the thigh, hovers at the table. A flurry of cooks dance from the kitchen with a feast fit for an emperor.
Dinner may be the gastronomic icons of abalone, braised shark's fin and bird's nest soup from the Hotel's Chinese restaurant, the Summer Palace. Or something as international as seared foie gras and Bangkok bouillabaise from Aria, the gorgeously hip California-style grill. Either way, bring on the bubbly. In the new and with-it Beijing, business is a pleasure.
Dining en suite, if you're sufficiently flush, is the latest wave of sophistication to strike the capital of the world's most populous nation. China World, managed by the Singapore-based Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, is right on top of it. After all, it makes uncommon sense: The dining room in a luxury suite usually goes to waste. The idea here is to put it to use while elevating the art of room service to event status. Certainly there is great caché in entertaining in your own digs: You can, like Hugh Hefner, dine in pajamas. Even better, you can roll right off to bed afterwards, leaving the clean-up to a platoon of hotel staffers, who perform their chores as discreetly as elves.
Welcome to China in the fast-forward mode. When I first visited Beijing two decades ago, it had a single restaurant deemed worthy of foreigners and everyone went in to stuff themselves on Peking duck and Mongolian hot pot. Now, newly affluent Chinese are literally chewing into a new millennium. The itinerant foodie should expect an adventure.
In the Horizon restaurant at the nearby Kerry Centre Hotel -- another Shangri-La property, rightly noted for its avant-garde interior design -- Hong Kongese chef Tom Cheung is showcasing the incredible richness of China's regional cuisines.
On this occasion, Yunnan Province maintained the reputation of China's southwest with straw mushrooms in spicy sesame sauce, a chili-zapped fireball certain to awaken any snoozing palate. From Guangxi came unbelievably delicate "drunken" duck, inebriated with Chinese wine and garnished with mandarin peel. Szechwan contributed ox tongue seething with garlic.
Those were just the starters. Mains got under way with a Shanghainese shredded pork with bamboo shoots and pungently preserved vegetables. The ambassador from Donbei was sea cucumber (read sea slug) deliciously braised with leeks and addictive wood-ear mushrooms. Hangzhou jumped in with pork hock dusted with Chinese five-spice. Dongbei struck again with deep-fried lamb, chewy and intense with sweet vinegar and sesame seeds, like lamb candy. Then came the stewed melon stuffed with minced pork, the gastronomic lily gilded with a sauce of crabmeat and roe, a masterstroke from the Cantonese kitchen. And on it went, a procession of aromas, colours, textures and flavours reclaiming a heritage once lost in revolutionary gunsmoke.
Have no doubt about it. This is a China resurgent on the gastronomic front. You need no more to journey to Hong Kong, Taipei or Singapore to tuck into miracles culled from 5,000 years of Chinese cooking. Nor is this renewal of foodiedom confined to the kitchens of luxury hotels. It's hit the streets, a populist phenomenon on a rip. The Chinese are again echoing the venerable greeting, "Have you eaten today?"
Golden arches may be proliferating hither and thither among the new Beijing's mirror-glass corridors and Starbucks has opened shop next door to the China World, but it would be wrong to assume the Chinese have sold out to Big Mac hawkers.
A visit to the food court of a modern department store told all: Smartly clad shopgirls in short skirts, tailored blouses and green silk ties were lining up at 20 concessions offering à la minute Chinese cooking, hundreds of dishes at a loony a plate, not to mention chilled draft beer at a buck a mug. At immaculately maintained tables, the proletariat slurped pork-packed potstickers and yabbered away on cellular phones. We ate crisp spring rolls, noodles and Szechwan eggplant roaring with chilies and bricks of garlic (more garlic than I've encountered at any one time in my life). A tourist might try 20 new dishes for as many dollars. The "food courts" at home in Canada seemed, by comparison, gauntlets of salt and grease.
The old China of rampant omnivores, of course, hasn't gone away. One morning we made our way to the city's Hong Qiao market near the Temple of Heaven. A traditional wet market occupies the basement of a three-storey building bursting with goods from freshwater pearls to designer-label knock-offs. Much is still alive and kicking: We saw fat, twitching silk worms awaiting their date with a wok. No less juicy were the plump sand worms, same fate in store. Snakes coiled passively in the reptile section. Eels were skinned alive and flung into bins of bloodied carcasses. Live scorpions, sold by the kilo, were a new one on us, but we weren't feeling quite that exploratory.
Okay, forget the scorpions: China travellers will find ordinary restaurants much-improved. At least, the overflowing ceramic spittoons are gone. A tourist menu of eight courses should cost about $10 a person, with dishes ranging from chicken stir-fry with peanuts to breaded pork with five-spice. Mostly, they're not much different from the grotty, five-burp eateries of Toronto's Spadina strip. And it's still possible to leave the table with your eyeballs ricocheting in your head courtesy of an MSG overdose.
We journeyed on to Shanghai, slated by Beijing to assume the mantle of Asia's economic capital by 2008. On my last visit, the Oriental sin city of legend had been one endless construction site. Construction cranes had dominated the horizon for so long, people were starting to feed them. Now I gaped at the results: If Rome wasn't built in a day, the new Shanghai almost was. From the restored Bund to the magnificent new Shanghai Museum, from booming Nanjing Road to the glittering phalanx of skyscrapers along the Huangpu River, this is a metropolis fiercely determined to out-glimmer and out-glitz Manhattan itself.
The museum turned out to be a logical start for the itinerant foodie. Its exquisite bronze wine and food vessels spoke to us across the millennia from the Shang Dynasty, circa 13th century B.C. Even more impressive was a jacket and trousers made entirely of salmon skin. I'm not much of a fashion plate (pardon the expression), but I believe it's the only time I've ever hungered for a suit.
A modern supermarket wasn't much different from its Canadian counterpart except for the edible zoo. The most expensive cut of chicken was the feet. Counters sagged with plastic sacks of gleaming MSG crystals. The frozen counter displayed microwavable fried rice. Our guide told us 80 per cent of Shanghai families have microwaves and programmable rice cookers. Talk about a changed China. It lent some credence to an International Herald Tribune article claiming that a third of the working population earns more than $30,000 (U.S.) a year.
We sampled the good, the bad and the ugly of local restaurants. Every morning began with the breakfast buffet in the revolving restaurant atop the Jing Jiang Tower, a luxury hotel in the old French Concession. There is no better way to start a Shanghai day than with congee, Chinese rice porridge liberally laced with soy, green onion, baby shrimps, seaweed and whatever else yanks your crank.
The dining room at the Yangtse Hotel served up the specialty of the China I used to know: indigestion. Its onslaught of grease and MSG left our tummies clenched and heads throbbing. Gawd, the grease: The dishes surfed on it. Noodles arrived writhing in grease, vegetables glimmering with grease, deep-fry oozing grease, plates brimming with grease, spoons literally greased.
On the other hand, we had a perfectly pleasant time at the Lu Bo Lang Drink & Food Co., also known as the Green Wave, a popular tourist restaurant in Shanghai's old quarter. Gleaming hardwood floors, chandeliers and red paper lanterns announced a stylish establishment (U.S. President Bill Clinton ate here), and lunch was no slouch: juicy barbecued pork, hot-and-sour chicken with no skimping on the chilies, plump little shrimps, beef marinated until it could be gummed, tiny banana leaf packets stuffed with sticky rice and Chinese sausage, and, to finish, a fish soup as light and briny as the breeze off the East China Sea.
With Nanjing Road newly glamourous as a pedestrian mall complete with golden arches and the leering Kentucky colonel, the area's old buildings are undergoing a surge in preservation. At the 24-storey Park Hotel, the tallest building in China when it was constructed in 1934, the restaurant has been restored to deco splendour with shining teak floors, jazzy moldings and a stained-glass dome depicting the sun's rays fanning out on a phalanx of art deco skyscrapers. The food was okay, too.
We caught up with Shanghainese at the opulent Shang Palace at the Pudong Shangri-La. Shanghainese avoids easy definition, but it has much to do with large infusions of -- and the fine balance between -- sugar and vinegar. Chef Sham Yun Ming presides in the kitchen and with a sweet tooth: Shanghai-style crisp pork skin came with pineapple, peach and lychee. He sauced shrimps with a sweet-and-sour sauce vaguely reminiscent of marmalade. His bacon-wrapped scallops were a sweet and smoky dream. Chef Ming may be an outsider, but he's clued in fast: Sixty per cent of the restaurant's clientele is Shanghainese. That says a lot about the sudden affluence in China in its 51st year as the People's Republic. For tourist information contact the China National Tourist Office, 480 University Ave., Suite 806, Toronto, Ont. M5G 1V2; tel. (416) 599-6636; Web site Jeremy Ferguson is a Toronto writer and photographer.