28 November 2008

Dragon Well Manor, a place down the road from

I spend much of my waking hours in the PRC, on the clock and off, thinking about topics that I can use during the school’s twice daily English corners. The purposes of these events are manifold. The school as a business uses them primarily to put their foreign teachers on display. In spite of this, I have always tried to make mine somewhat educational and to elicit from the students natural speech that can take place in a less rigid classroom atmosphere. Without going into the challenges, it suffices to say that I spend many hours perusing the internet in hopes of finding news items that can serve me in this function. It was, therefore, doubly pleasurable to come across an article on the New Yorker written by Fuchsia Dunlop, describing her encounter with a chef in Longjingcun who can be seen as a kind of scholarly trailblazer on the path to recover lost cuisine with Chinese characteristics.
I read as Ms. Dunlop confirmed what I had suspected since arriving in China. The great food culture that China has bestowed upon the world as its legacy has suffered greatly first under communist authority and now under the rush to develop economically into the 21st century. Dunlop employs the sesquipedalian word, prelapsarian, to describe the offerings and methods underway at the Dragon Well Manor (龙井草堂). Mao Zedong didn’t, at least openly, enjoy fine dining and with his tastes imposed on everything during his reign, many culinary skills disappeared along with their sensory memories. I recall early on, when I first arrived in China and struggling to find something tasty and nutritious on the university campus, a young coed telling me how the food that we were sharing was what chairman Mao liked as she slurped back a bowl of insipid cornmeal gruel with a skin forming on its surface so fast that the students usually stirred with chopsticks while tilting the bowl back.

I was eager to invite the same two who had hosted me on a similar expedition to Longjingcun just a few weeks before to be my guests to such an oasis of delights. Dunlop explained that the owner and Watersesque man behind the scenes, Dai Jianjun, modestly never expected to recoup his investment and has a kitchen that serves guests based on the ingredients, working backwards from the amount that the diners want to spend. Minimum charges began at a mere 300 RMB. This seemed too good to be true. I asked one fellow wouldbe gourmande to track down the address and to make us reservations. She responded with some bad news. Yes, the meals do start at 300 RMB per diner, but if we want to sit down, a table covercharge is 1,600 RMB. To put these numbers in perspective, a college graduate, even a dentist, often doesn’t expect to earn more than a monthly wage of 2,500 RMB. The food might be affordably priced for some but the chairs and table can break the bank. She instead arranged for us to sample the food at another restaurant in that same area that she thought would be as good. I deferred to her judgment.

Green Tea is another restaurant located on the same road as the Dragon Well Manor, a location for dining that attempts to evoke and exploit the more refined and opulent days of Hangzhou's past as a milieu of cultural attainment. We arrived early for lunch in a setting that can be called pittoresque and sculpted. The restaurant features large expanses of glass, windows and ceilings, to allow diners to look out and contemplate the teabush covered hillsides, the ornamental plantings, and the waters that surround and pass by the diningroom windows. After stepping over a stony arched bridge, we made our way into the restaurant where the morning chill was tempered by braziers charged with coal pressed into tubal shapes. Deleafed grapevines covered an atrium, the frontal dining area, by which voluble growth, the plates of glass had become dislodged and askew. Workmen had been above and squirted large amounts of silicon caulking to cover the gaps. The excess gapfiller hung down indecorously in phlegmatic drips which seemed a minor eyesore given that the spent cartridges were still littered above.

A hostess greeted my two acquaintances and we then selected our menu from the wall mounted chalkboard that has some dishes photographed and a few translated into English. We were then led towards the back of the restaurant along wooden flooring and pebble encrusted walkways, past more precarious braziers and the bar and abundantly stocked juicestation that form the hub of the operation. As I was admiring the fruits on display, I spotted the day’s meat delivery resting on the walkway in front of the bar: gray busstubs of porkbelly strips, chicken quarters, and mutton segments. Our table overlooked a small pond that might have presented a better vista in a warmer season. The summer’s foliage was browning and the waterlilies were getting ready for next spring. A few fishes swam in some of the transparent zones. I struggled to find the lock for closing the window to fend off the chilly breeze. The interior decor was contrived rusticity. The tables and benches were made of an ashlike wood and contoured so as to give a quaint notion of how handmade furniture might have once been made. Crocks stuffed with dried everlastings broke up the large expanse, yet the flowers themselves had outlasted their appeal, many missing petals and tilted downwards. In the evening the interior would be lit up with paper lanterns, oddly some with Tibetan motifs.

I followed the two ladies to see the restrooms which were positioned on an open balcony with an overlook of a stonefaced bridge overlooking one of the watercourses and next to the kitchen service entrance. There was a private diningroom with glass walls along the way that was packed to the ceiling with construction waste as though it has been more convenient to fill the floorspace than to remove the detritus.

I had been asked what I wanted to drink. Beer was suggested and then mijiu. ‘Rice alcohol’ made me think of the Korean makgeolli so we ordered a pitcher after I was told that is made in house. It arrived warm in a bamboo pitcher decorated with red ribbon. We had to ask for clean shot glasses which the waitress delivered after personally inspecting them by eye. Pouring a round, we lifted our glasses and tasted. This was not at all what I was expecting but I tried to taste it without prejudice. It was a artificial orange tinted fluid that had an odd flavor that is present in the ubiquitous baijiu. I can best describe it as filtered hooch mixed with flat orange soda. The first dishes arrived: a platter of sautéed cabbage and cured bacon and deepfried parboiled, squished potatoes. My accompanying diners decided that we would have to eat with only our left hands. After we proved to ourselves that we could in fact move foods to our mouths, using chopsticks in our left hand, the novelty wore off quickly. A hefty bowl of pork intestines was brought out prepared in a Sichuan manner: submerged in vegetable oil and dried red chilies with a green branch of numbing huajiao (花椒) and festooned with a handful of cilantro and green onions.

Then came what seems to be a signature dish of the restaurant. It was a cube of sweetened pain de mie that had been carved out, cut into smaller squares, repacked and then toasted whole thereby resteaming the interior. The piping hot crusty cube was then topped with a small scoop of ice cream. As it was prepared, the outer section was not meant to be eaten. This could have been a delicious course. The pastry was actually tasty. Had it been part of a more complex dessert like a charlotte with seasonal fruit or preserved yangmei from the spring, much tastier and accomplished. Oh, and it would taste better if it also were served at the END of the meal. The Chinese habit of covering the table with dishes in whatever order they leave the kitchen leaves much to be desired by the palate.

On the table next was set a crock of bean soup with cracked pork leg bones. I was portioned a serving with one of the pork bones brimming with marrow at its jagged end. I changed my opinion afterwards, deciding that it was, in fact, a pork broth with beans added as filler. The broth was undeveloped and undersalted while the beans were still chewy and added nothing to the flavor of the soup. The marrow, although sweet, needed something to complement it. A large wooden board was brought out with a section of roasted mutton ribs generously rubbed with dried herbs. The meat was cooked bone tender, slightly greasy, but oddly bland in spite of the spices. It also arrived unsalted and as is typical in most Chinese restaurants, there was no salt on the table to upgrade it.

When I thought that there could be no more to come, a waiter brought out a large shallow bowl lined in a reed basket that held two steamed fishheads. They were floating in a very salty broth that tasted of soy sauce and soybeans and were covered with chopped pickled green chilies. The flesh however had not been completely steamed and rather than flaking apart under the pressure of the chopsticks, it held tight to the bone. I would have sent the dish back in different times, but my tablemates seemed indifferent as though they were conditioned to accept whatever was served and to pay the price. So I looked at those two untouched fishheads and wondered whether we had really found a more affordable restaurant than if we had gone to the Dragon Well Manor. On the whole, I think that I am more annoyed with Dunlop for not accurately giving the full extent of the costs of experiencing a meal at the Dragon Well Manor. Dai Jianjun is on a mission, just as the founders of Chez Panisse so many years ago in Berkley were. He has made it clear to his suppliers that he is not interested in getting the lowest prices. He wants quality and authenticity and is willing to pay a premium to them. This is a subversive revolution in a nation that for thirty years has pulled millions out of poverty by making cheap clothes for the world and counterfeiting products at will. One restaurant, however, is not enough to change more than a few minds at a time. By raising the prices at his restaurant he will get more attention and scrutiny from fellow countrymen and entrepreneurs than from another glowing review in Gourmet or The Art of Eating. Money is what gets people’s attention and Dai is establishing market forces that encourage a renewed appreciation of China’s culinary legacy and that foster an awareness of a forgotten way of enjoying life, rediscovering the past while reimagining a future. As soon as more restaurant owners recognize that they can get rich from copying his formula, they’ll follow in suite. Ultimately this is a metaeducational process with restaurant patrons and restaurateurs/chefs engaged in a mutually beneficial learning process, learning as well as relearning. Does this then produce a more refined leisure class antithetical to the goals of socialism with Chinese characteristics? One can hope as much. Only a well educated class of consumers able and willing to call out cheaply concocted copies of properly prepared platters can push the market for quality upwards. There is already enough evidence to show that lecturing downwards about the need to be honest and creative produces few benefits for a society.

The background noise of the restaurant rose steadily as the lunch chatter developed into a crescendo. We were wise to have arrived before the standard midmeal time. I picked over the last of the potatoes and cabbage and then tore off a piece of the dessert cube. A weedy tree the leaves of which had not begun to turn colors leaned over the water where a few more uncooked fish swam without purpose. I caught a glimpse of something bright land on the branches and fixed my gaze, hoping for a gust to blow strongly enough to offer me a better glimpse. From behind the foliage flew the recognizable profile of a kingfisher, most likely an Alcedo atthis (普通翠鸟). I turned my head to follow its flight leftwards when I heard over my right shoulder that my lunchmates were ready to exit.

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