Just steps from Tiananmen Square and Zhongnanhai, the walled compound where China’s top party officials live, is the quiet, tree-lined Nanchangjie. Driving down this street, it is easy to miss the doorway of number 38, a small courtyard that houses one of Beijing’s most exclusive restaurants.
Chengfu Courtyard is named after its founder Cheng Ruming, official Zhongnanhai chef and one of 16 “Treasured Culinary Talents” in the country. In 1954 he became the personal chef to Mao Zedong, responsible for the daily meals of Mao’s entire family and whipping up elaborate banquets for visiting heads of state.
Today, his grandson Liu Jian runs the small restaurant of only four private rooms, and because of guanxi, is able to source all of the same ingredients that are delivered into Zhongnanhai. This may be the only place outside of the walled compound where you can rest assured your food is completely safe, organic and free of any artificial preservatives. And let me tell you, that’s quite a feat in China.
The ingredients aren’t the only thing that sets Chengfu Courtyard apart, most of the dishes are recreations of historic communist party banquets and have rich stories behind them. So devoted is Chengfu to the accuracy of this cultural preservation that even the sourcing of ingredients for these dishes have more or less remained the same.
On my last visit to Beijing I managed to get a reservation in one of the private rooms and went with foodies-in-crime J and M to this much anticipated dinner.
From the moment we walked in, the service was consistent and outstanding. We were greeted at the front door on Nanchangjie by the waitstaff and ushered into our room. The decor is not extravagant, but the dining rooms feel cozy and have a salon-type air evocative of 1940s China.
A few plates of snacks were already waiting for us in the room, and our enthusiastic waiter explained that these almonds, walnuts, cashews and peanuts are all organic and seasoned on site using a secret blend of spices.
Almost all of the dishes had quirky stories to them. With this dish, our server explained that according to state banquet customs, the number of ingredients presented on the plate was a nod to the rank or importance of the visiting dignitary. If you can count 5 you’re lucky to be sitting at the table, 7 means you’re pretty hot stuff, and 9 means your last name might be Obama.
A beautiful chicken soup with not a droplet of oil in the broth.
We were also treated to some playful renditions of Zhongnanhai’s own fusion food, this one is reportedly quite popular with the Chinese officials and features a deep fried shimp cake wrapped around a pocket of gooey, yellowy cheese. We felt the cheese, almost movie-theatre-nacho-like in quality, slightly cheapened the overal dish. But hey movie theatre nachos are pretty tasty.
There was no debate that our favourite dish of the night was this little pocket of delight. a 15 day old chicken was deboned and gutted with the delicate skin completely intact, then stuffed with a mixture of smoked chinese sausage, mushrooms, onions, chestnuts and glutinous rice. The kicker is the addition of a fine shaoxing wine with a intoxicating aroma that hits you in the face when you slice into it, like a giant cloud of drunken vapour would. No doubt this one of the best ways to get hit in the face.
Not surprisingly, the simplest dish of the night was also one of Mao’s favourites, white rice mixed with millet. The food of the people. Eaten by millions of peasants for fuel as they toil in the fields. It was funny to see this dish presented so exquisitely here, part of our dinner that no doubt ranks as one of the capital’s most expensive meals, when one thinks back to the period of China’s history when food culture was all but destroyed, and under Mao’s orders, food being reduced to little more than millet and noodles.
More pictures of my meal on Flickr here.
We had a wonderful chat with our chef after, a humble man with a true dedication to his craft and to the preservation of the heritage of this restaurant.
Dinner starts at 1000 RMB per head, reservations required
38 Nanchang Road