Fine dining is all about occasion, and
no restaurant respects the pageantry
of the formal meal more than TRB Hutong (formerly Temple
Restaurant Beijing). Proprietor Ignace
Lecleir commands an army of highly
trained, attentive staff that wow you with kindness, complimentary
champagne and a seemingly endless
supply of canapés – all in a beautiful
modern dining room inside a 600-year-old temple. Sip on grand a premier cru
from one of the best cellars in China as
the kitchen whiles the hours away with
course after course of modern takes
on classic European haute cuisine.
Fancy a butter-poached lobster with
crab foam, or maybe sweet pea soup
with crème fresh and Beluga caviar?
TRB Hutong is unabashedly luxurious, and we
apologise for none of it.
It took well over a year for Ignace Lecleir, the man who helped launch Maison Boulud à Pekin
, to open the doors to his Temple. And we waited patiently through different trials of pop-up and private events, while the exacting Belgian master of the dining room practised perfect. The restaurant is set within the walls of a 600-year-old temple complex (the actual temple is housed at the back of the compound and saved for functions and events). The conversion is an impressive and delicate balance of the old and new: the bar at the entrance sits beneath ancient ceiling beams and leads to a newly constructed, sparse dining area with towering ceilings.
There, smart Scandinavian furniture stands in subdued colours against a deep-grey canvas, like a painting waiting to happen. At night, however, it buzzes as Peng, the jovial, trilby-hatted concierge, brings you from your car into the restaurant and delivers you to the waiting staff – an army of service that kills you with kindness.
Once seated, the spoiling begins with tokens from the kitchen that last throughout the evening. The golden gougères are little crunches of cheese-infused air that give an explosion of flavour with each bite, while it’s hard not to fill up on the addictive bacon-and-cheese epi rolls.
The kitchen still has some kinks to work out in terms of seasoning: to salt or not to salt? The cauliflower velouté with seafood tartare (108RMB) is an example of sweetness that is one dimensional unless you wise up and stir in some salt to bring out the dish’s full potential. A silky slab of pan-fried foie gras is delightful with a purée of mushroomy cep, and is complemented wonderfully by escargot hidden in a ball of lightly fried crunch (148RMB).
Not everything’s a hit, though. A ham and artichoke terrine (98RMB) is a lost cause, more like a paté from the ghetto. The oxtail tortellini (108RMB) are three golden ingots in a pool of sweet port jus. If the pasta could yield some toothsome firmness, it might be something to fight over.
There is a star on the menu called ‘pot-roasted lobster with smoked aubergine caviar’ (290RMB); this painterly dish is scattered with sections of lobster that have been brilliantly cooked in their flavourful shell, and quenelles of eggplant that revel in a veil of light smokiness. They’d be magical if served warm. It comes with an artichoke barigoule that is both out of season and impossible to notice. A sliver of crisp eggplant leaps out, feathery and light, bringing a harmony of texture and visual ‘ooh-la-la’ beside brushes of golden sauce. The grilled veal chop (230RMB) lacks the smoky char of a grill, but it’s meaty and robust with a jus that’s slick and enriched by tinges of surprising sweetness. Like other menu items, it suffers from spring fever in winter with asparagus and morels.
Fish lovers will delight in splendid options like the excellent slabs of pale salmon in artfully drizzled squid ink. Beautiful and sexy, it’s tenderly steamed with naked simplicity and the purest of flavours shining through. Likewise, the black cod (240RMB) is unctuously poached in olive oil and is allowed to stand out in its simplicity for all that its flavour merits, lying beside a stroke of creamy spinach that cozies up effortlessly.
Desserts (68RMB) are mostly classical, with a chocolate tart that will please but a tarte Tatin that borders on boring. The hot pistachio soufflé is decadently filled with sauce and sided by bitter French chocolate ice cream that’s wicked.
Lecleir’s background as a sommelier is recalled when you order wine and his precise movements are an unforgettable performance. His orchestrated movements to open a bottle of wine are executed like a dance, with each movement smack-down perfect. Unlike the fluffy marshmallows served tableside in the end, wine is the one thing at Temple that is not a gift.
While the prices in Temple aren’t complete giveaways, they are exceptionally reasonable. The restaurant offers brilliant two-to five-course menus for 248RMB, 348RMB or 428RMB. Even more impressive is the three-course lunch menu that changes bi-weekly – plus all the kitchen gifts – for 135RMB. Weekends offer an inclusive brunch for 350RMB.
With high expectations surrounding the man who worked miracles by bringing upscale levels of service to Beijing, Ignace Lecleir is the man of the moment at his finest hour, at your service. So enter the Temple and prepare to be spoiled.
This review differs from that printed Time Out Beijing's March 2012 issue.