It’s standard practice for a Beijing hotel to have a glossy Chinese restaurant – a venue used as much for wowing guests with razzmatazz as showing off their culinary chops. In terms of what to serve, refined (often expensive) Cantonese is a safe bet. Yet in the former imperial capital, finding a top-notch Cantonese place is easier said than done. Either the food sucks, or the prices do.
8 Qi Nian, at the New World Hotel, breaks this mould. Their signature restaurant is an affordable luxury, where a touch of elegant Chinoiserie– a line-up of impressive vases and plates look like dynastic porcelain, for instance – plays host to homely Cantonese fare. There’s even live seafood cooked to order (fish from 158RMB per 500g), with the choice of simple preparations – garlic, pepper and so on – that you’d see in a Canton market.
8 Qi Nian’s dedication to the real deal is refreshing, if not enlightening. The first hint is in the rice: instead of serving short-grain rice, bowls of aromatic, long-grain jasmine rice (8RMB) are served. This alone says more about their authenticity than any complex recipe, and any lingering doubts are dispelled when you crunch into the jellyfish soaked in aged vinegar (58RMB).
The chefs cast a wide net over regional Chinese food, including a few Sichuanese and Hunan all-stars. But it’s the Cantonese standards that really stand out. Honeyed cha shaobarbecue pork (68RMB) is cut fatty to make each thick slice taste more meltingly wonderful than the last. Irresistibly tender claypot frog comes out sizzling in a dab of oyster sauce (68RMB), and the yielding strips of chicken laid in an emerald scallion dressing (38RMB) are equally excellent. Soups are also spot-on, exemplified by the soothing, double-boiled duck consommé (68RMB) simmering with herbs and spots of bitter orange peel.
Modern trimmings, designer fixtures and a jazzy soundtrack make the place feel contemporary, despite the traditional dishes on offer. In fact, there’s a blend of the traditional and modern in everything they do. Alongside the requisite tea expert, 8 Qi Nian have a sommelier on the payroll to recommend picks from the expansive wine list – an unusual find for a Chinese restaurant. The chefs also display a similar desire to veer into new territory: finger-length prawns (148RMB) are dressed with a creamy avocado sauce and a dusting of crispy rice flakes for extra crunch. As for the desserts, a velvety oolong-tea crème brûlèe (48RMB) – with faint notes of tea and an ample ball of refreshing rosewater-lychee sorbet (8RMB) – is so light it’s in danger of floating off the table.
If you’re new to Chinese food, you’ll find the helpful staff to be excellent guides – especially seeing as the already-reasonable bill doesn’t have a service charge tacked on. If you know Cantonese cuisine, you’ll know that it’s all about allowing quality ingredients to shine, not slathering them in overpowering sauces; it’s about a delicate balance of fresh flavours, not flashy, potent herbs. With its understated sophistication, this is an ethos 8 Qi Nian has very much taken on board.