Yanjintang: The Best (and Most Expensive) Private Restaurant We’ve Had the Pleasure of Trying This Year

What makes diners feel special? Dining at a private restaurant that has no trace on social media, not even on Dazhong Dianping? Dining at a restaurant tucked away in an exclusive and private yard deep in Beijing's historical heart? How about dining in the midst of an entire team dedicated to making every moment of your meal the happiest you've ever experienced? Yes, yes, and yes? Well then, Yanjingtang has it all.

To be frank, a downside to exclusive hutong dining is that you can expect the restaurant to be particularly hard to find, and in this regard, Yanjingtang gets bonus points. Hidden in a tranquil residential hutong area on Tanghua Hutong off of Deshengmenwai, you'll want to keep an eye out for two huge scarlet wooden doors. From there, you'll need to ring the bell in order to be granted access to what might be one of the most memorable meals you've ever had in Beijing.

 

Yanjingtang's quaint siheyuan (several dried fish greet you upon entry, left along the wall to sway and dry in the wind) only has enough space for two dining rooms and a table in the yard, all furnished using mostly Ming antiques. A wooden Ming dynasty plaque hung on one of the dining room walls spells out Yanjintang (宴锦棠), and sets the tone for the rustic, comfortable, down-to-earth, yet upscale meal ahead.

There’s no à la carte menu, instead, diners pay RMB 5,000-plus for a table of two to 10 patrons. The team then prepare the dishes prior to your reservation, needing time to tinker and perfect the modern Chinese menu in advance. An example would be our tasting menu starter of crawfish in nitro-yellow rice wine. Each morsel sported a bite of tender and taut meat, which when eaten with the flakes of freeze-dried yellow rice wine, will have you wanting to run back home and pour rice wine all over your favorite ice cream.

The second appetizer, deep-fried wonton wrappers topped with pea sprouts, came with a generous layer of black truffle, which acted as an earthy detonator for the underlying flavors: grassy freshness popped from the pea sprouts and the crunchy casings were lightened from their otherwise plain beginnings. We were happy to see that the dishes were not being assembled with tweezers, even if the energetic young chef Zhang Zhicheng is aiming for Michelin star standards. 

As fine as those appetizers were, the star of the show was the braised isinglass (fish air bladders), sea cucumber with leeks, and (controversially) sharks fin. To give the dish an incredible glutinous texture, and one that is very much appreciated in Chinese cooking, the ingredients were braised for 12 hours prior to serving. Paired with a seemingly simple bowl of rice, which glittered as much as it was sticky and white, silence struck the room as each spoonful of the rich stew was poured over the rice and each grain savored. The secret? “We use rice from Mibole [a high-end rice brand in Liaoning], and wash the rice over 60 times; maybe it’s not nutritious, but it’s delicious,” chef Zhang Zhicheng explained. The groans in the room were a testament to such.

One last amuse bouche-style plate of red-braised pork with preserved vegetables was also flavorful enough to cause a fight for each piece. The meal was then rounded out with mango pomelo sago, a contemporary Hong Kong dessert, whereby mango, coconut milk, and milk are blended into a smoothie-like texture and topped with pomelo. The whole combination made for a chilled, zesty, and sweet finale that left our taste buds buzzing.

We can honestly say that there were many fireworks during our Yanjintang expedition, and the food that was served shone for its true combinations without being able to be pigeonholed into a strict category. Simply put, the meal was composed of the best quality fresh ingredients found on the market cooked to perfection and with a lot of care – something you can easily get lost in.

Yanjintang is open for dinner with a minimal expense of RMB 5,000 per table (for between two-10 patrons). A reservation at least one month ahead is required by calling 158 1069 3778.

Yanjintang
Daily 6pm-late. 12 Xiaoyou Hutong, Xicheng District (158 1069 3778)
宴锦堂:西城区孝友胡同12号

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Photos: He Jing, Tracy Wang

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