Huai Yang Who?: France’s La Liste Says China’s Best Restaurant is Right Here in Beijing

This past week, French Government-backed global restaurant review aggregator La Liste announced its ranking of the world’s top 1,000 restaurants. While the usual suspects all made it to the top 10, the choice for China’s best restaurant may surprise you.

Top of the global list is Guy Savoy’s Monnaiede Paris (Paris Mint) with a score of 99.75 out of 100, followed by American TV chef Eric Ripert’s New York fish restaurant Le Bernardin, and reasonably priced Tokyo sushi restaurant, Kyubey, both with 99.50. For Asia, the ranking continues with the aptly named faux-French chalet, Joel Robuchon (by chef Joel Robuchon) and glamorous sushi restaurant Kyo Aji, both in Japan and both rated 98.75.

By contrast, first in China, third in Asia, 31st overall, and with a score of 98.5 is Huai Yang Fu, located in the parking lot of Melody KTV in Andingmen. Established in 2011, Huai Yang Fu has two other locations, one at Jianguomen and one in Xidan, but it’s the Andingmen branch that has captured the attention of La Liste.

Huai Yang Fu serves dishes typical of Jiangsu’s Huaiyang cuisine, one of China’s Four Great Cuisines, along with Sichuan, Shandong, and Cantonese cuisines. Originating in the cities of Huai’an, Yangzhou and Zhenjiang, at the confluence of the Huai and Yangzi Rivers, the cuisine is famous for its artful preparation of all things aquatic, including freshwater fish, crustaceans, and waterfowl. The cuisine is particularly noted for the subtlety of its flavors and its tendency toward sweetness.

La Liste’s chief number cruncher, Jorg Zipprick, says his method of selecting the world’s top restaurants is “more scientific and reliable” than methods used by other guides. Zipprick and his team take restaurant reviews from 550 guidebooks and other publications and design individualized methodologies to convert each guidebook’s reviews to standardized scores out of 100. They then ask several thousand chefs to give their opinions on each guidebook and use the results to give each publication a trustworthiness score out of 10. Each score out of 100 is then weighted according to the trustworthiness of the source, making up 75 percent of the total score, with the final 25 percent drawn from around 25 million customer reviews on sites like Trip Advisor, Yelp, and Dianping.

With all that impartial and unbiased science leading to the crowning of Huai Yang Fu as China’s ultimate haven for foodies, we thought we’d better find out what makes this restaurant China’s best. True, it has five stars on Dianping and Trip Advisor, but it isn’t ranked within Beijing’s best 100 restaurants on Dianping, nor is it ranked within Beijing’s top 500 on Trip Advisor, nor the top 1,000 restaurants on tripadvisor.com. So what does La Liste know that we don’t?

We stopped by this week and found a multi-level maze of private dining rooms with efficient, no-frills service. The design and decoration was about what you’d expect from a private room at any of the major duck restaurants, although not as fancy as Da Dong and not as atmospheric as Hua Jia Yi Yuan. We tried nine classic dishes – all varieties that we’d either tried before at other Huaiyang restaurants, or that were recommended by Huai Yang Fu staff.

Ten kinds of mixed vegetables 老扬州十香菜 (lǎo yángzhōu shí xiāngcài) (RMB 32)
This dish was a great start to our meal at Huai Yang Fu. As you would expect from southern Chinese cuisine, each of the 10 ingredients brought a different element to the dish. Each mouthful was a fresh, pickled, crispy, chewy, sour, sweet, and salty delight.

Southern-style white chicken 江南白切鸡 (jiāngnán bái qiē jī) (RMB 58)
Bai qieji is most famously served in Cantonese cuisine, where the whole chicken is boiled, cooled, chopped into bite-sized pieces and served with a ginger dipping sauce. The Jiangnan version served at Huai Yang Fu was boneless and far more tender than any we’ve tried in Guangdong but with a sweeter, much saltier, soy-based dressing.

Zhenjiang-style aspic pork 镇江水晶肴肉 (zhènjiāng shuǐjīng yáo ròu ) (RMB 48)
Visiting a restaurant serving Huaiyang cuisine, we’d expected the dishes to be sweeter than we’re used to here in Beijing, but just like the bai qieji above, this dish of cured fatty pork preserved in its own aspic brought with it a salty surprise. We found the flavor of the pork was completely overpowered by even the tiniest toe-in-the-water dip of the dipping sauce. However, after first judging the pork tasteless, we discovered formerly masked, albeit subtle cured pork flavors in the undipped slices. Could that be why they served it without the dipping sauce at Élysée Palace on Monday? Soy sauce stains on the Presidential Carpet aside, we think abandoning the sauce was probably wise.

Signature homemade streaky pork with sauce 招牌秘制红烧肉 (zhāopái mì zhì hóngshāo ròu ) (RMB 128)
Prepared as part of cuisines from many parts of China, hongshaorou or red-braised pork, is most famously prepared in Hunan Province and was a favorite of Hunan’s most famous son, Chairman Mao. The thick, tangy, aromatic sauce on the version at Huai Yang Fu was superb – the kind of superb that would make competitive Texan barbecue veterans wonder what they’ve been doing with their lives – but we found the lean meat a little hard and stringy for a dish that is supposed to melt in the mouth.

Dried and boiled beancurd shreds in chicken soup 扬州大煮干丝 (yángzhōu dà zhǔgàn sī ) (RMB 68)
As good as Huai Yang Fu's rendition of hongshaorou was, the shining star of our meal was this dish of finely shredded tofu served in chicken soup. The soup itself was apparently cooked by a conjured picture-perfect grandma who also happened to be a world-class Chinese chef. Not having tried shredded soft tofu before, we loved the texture it brought to each mouthful of the soup.

Pan-fried buns 招牌生煎包 (zhāopái shēng jiān bāo ) (RMB 24 for six)
Riding a tofu high, these tastefully arranged sheng jianbao lacked the usual contrast between crispy bottoms and soft tops of those sold street-side. The soft, almost brioche-like exterior surrounded a pork filling that was, again, far more delicately flavored than those seen in their natural environment.

Traditional-style baked pumpkin casserole 古法砂锅焗南瓜 (gǔ fǎ shāguō jú nánguā ) (RMB 58)
Half a pumpkin, sliced, laid on a bed of whole garlic, covered, and lightly baked. On tasting the garlic, we had a roundtable discussion on what spices they had used to (with great subtlety) flavor the dish. Was it turmeric? Was it five-spice powder? Was it some exotic mix of southern Chinese spices? No. It was definitely the tiniest one-eighth-teaspoon of curry powder.

Taihu Lake whitebait fried with egg 太湖银鱼炒土鸡蛋 (tàihú yín yú chǎo tǔ jīdàn ) (RMB 88)
This omelette made with tiny whitebait from Tai Hu, a lake in Jiangsu, was flavored with a minuscule suspicion of preserved vegetable, discovered on our third or fourth bite.

Yangzhou-style fried rice 扬州什锦炒饭 (yángzhōu shíjǐn chǎofàn ) (RMB 68)
We are able to be neither subtle nor delicate in our description of the Yangzhou fried rice. A signature dish of Huaiyang cuisine, this dish served in restaurants all over China, albeit without the premium ingredients used in Huai Yang Fu’s version. While most people who’ve dabbled in Chinese cooking know the best fried rice is made with left-over rice from a previous meal, we found this version dry to the point of inedibility. It wasn’t chewy and it wasn’t crispy. It was just hard. We’re almost embarrassed to admit we added a little of the abovementioned chicken soup to the rice in our bowls to see if that would make it any easier to chew and swallow, but ended up abandoning the rice in favor of the check and the complimentary fruit slices.

Could it be that these refined renditions of dishes from an already delicately flavored cuisine were too subtle for our spice-encrusted Beijing taste buds? Possibly. But many were dishes we’ve loved at other restaurants. Former East Hotel head chef Rob Cunningham named Huai Yang Fu his favorite secret restaurant before leaving for Jakarta, and well-known Chinese food and wine critic Xie Ling (Lingxin Xiaoxie) also defends La Liste as being on point, so maybe you’ll love it.

Visit Huai Yang Fu if you have an interest in trying La Liste’s top restaurants in China, if you have visiting relatives who need a subtle and delicate introduction to Chinese cuisine before you take them to hot pot, or if you have an academic interest in Chinese Cuisine and would like to try Huaiyang Cuisine in Beijing (although for that you might like to try the Jiangsu Provincial Government Restaurant, which to be frankly honest, we enjoyed much more).

Huai Yang Fu
Daily 11am-2pm, 5-9pm. 198 Andingmen Waidajie (6426 5858, 6426 5959, bookings essential )
安定门外大街198

Photos: Garth Wilson, courtesy of Huai Yang Fu

Provided: 
Paid: