Chengdu Chinese fine dining – Zi Fei and Yu’s Family Kitchen

Indulging in some of the most expensive Chinese meals at Chengdu's notable restaurants (24 - 28 Sep 2015)
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My trip to Chengdu with Y, R and his parents was not just about seeing Pandas for sure. The trip was made more eventful, as Y’s good friend LY had been there earlier this year and had raved about some amazing Chinese degustation fine dinners with really exquisite displays and cooking, after all it’s the capital of China’s Sichuan province. This piqued our interest and decided our panda visit should definitely be complimented by some interesting new eats. Notably, Chengdu was named the UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2010, the first city in Asia to win this accolade.

Two of the most indulgent eats we were going to try this trip amidst the other local restaurants was Zi Fei and Yu’s Family Kitchen. Both are private dining style with elaborate dinners that on average have at least 15 courses, and also didn’t come cheap as well. They were both also located in one of Chengdu’s famous sightseeing spots – Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi which in Chinese literally means “Wide and Narrow Alleys” – in existence since the Qing Dynasty era. The two famous lanes in this area is the – Kuan Alley (wide lane) and Zhai Ally ( narrow Lane). It has become rather gentrified now with many bars, restaurants, local tea and other local produce shops, street food stalls and has quite an interesting atmosphere especially at night. We were also here at the right time since it was Mid Autumn Festival, and everyone including the locals was out and about in this area.

Bustling activity in the Kuan Zhai alleys and spotted a toy panda no surprise.

Zi Fei 子非 NO.25 Wide alley qingyang district 青羊区宽巷子25号.Tel: 86 28 86633737 Price: 3080RMB per Person

Yes, you didn’t see it wrongly. This restaurant Zi Fei located in the Wide Alley was probably one of the most expensive meals I have had with Y in our entire life. It worked out to be almost S$680 per person, which is something we have never paid so much for a Chinese meal for sure. Local journalist for the Straits Times – Wong Ah Yoke, had wrote about it when he was there earlier this year and it sounded so good that we figured it was worth splurging. Plus seeing all those mouth watering pictures that Y’s friend LY showed us was enough for us to just bite the bullet and dine here. So yes, you can imagine, we already had so much expectations and hype about the place. 

It was hard not to get distracted by all the different attractions and local food shops as we walked down the alleys. We finally found Zi Fei, with very plain almost unnoticable entrance, with only a simple wooden plaque and a litted lantern hanging beside it – both bearing their name 子非. Once we stepped in, we noticed the passageway was lined with many Buddha figurines in glass displays and a large lamp, shaped like a fish was hovering above us as we stepped into the courtyard area. Zi Fei was housed in what seemed like the traditional houses with inner courtyard in the centre and spanning over three floors. Every group was housed in their own private dining room. We were ushered to the top floor – a large private dining room with a separate sitting area. It felt pretty posh already. 

The courtyard and the menu in Chinese characters.

The lady in charge of our group for the night was Chen Zhen, where she would explain the dishes as they came. We had about 14 dishes in all including the cold dishes. We were enjoying taking pictures of the beautiful elaborate cold starters and centerpieces that had already been placed on the table  – such as an old ancient man in Chinese robe that was made entirely from dough – how exquisite! This is where the overhype or disappointment started – more cold dishes started to come charging at our table at full speed and didn’t stop. At this point, we all started to get pretty annoyed as we had not even settled down to start eating and already 6 courses was placed at the table. We asked them to slow down the subsequent courses which Chen Zhen tried to do, but she said that it’s in Sichuan fashion to eat this fast, which I thought was really quite ridiculous. We questioned how could we enjoy the meal, if we had to eat this fast? So after expressing around 3 times, the courses started to slow down, and our tempers also simmered down slightly, and we decided we should try to enjoy this meal despite the not so great service and ridiculous food speed at the start.

We asked Chen Zhen to explain was there a meaning behind the dishes and the concept of Zi Fei’s food, and she said the chef’s concept behind the dishes was largely influenced by the teachings of Zhuang Zi 庄子文化, which has been in existence for many many years and imparts philosophical Taoist teachings.

The first few three courses were cold dishes – the ones that were interesting and I enjoyed most was this green vegetable that seemed to have ice on it. It’s called 水晶冰草, otherwise known as crystal wheatgrass. Chen Zhen explained to us they have an organic farm in the outskirts of Chengdu where they grow all their vegetables used in Zi Fei, and this plant was originally from South Africa, and they brought it back to harvest it locally. What you see as ‘ice’ on the plant is actually dew which is formed on the plant when it’s plucked. We were quite intrigued as we’ve never seen this before. We also had a little flower snail dish, which had a nice bite to it known as 爽口小花累. Seated on a plate held by a jade like porcelain Goddess of Mercy statue was some cold spicy chicken – the first Sichuan-ish dish, but this was not fantastic, as compared to the one we had at Yan Ting in St Regis Hotel the day before. The chicken was rather tough, so this is where so much artistry didn’t make up for the taste. The hot dishes begun with a bowl of egg white with chicken breast meat in soup, nothing to shout about honestly. Some beautiful orange bowls litted with candlelight arrived – oranges were literally carved out to create this effect, with winter melon sitting above it. There was some interesting western inspired dish – foie gras pan fried in a sweet and sour pork style and served in a coconut husk. I hate to say this but it was quite yummy although it sounds very strange, but I don’t feel it was very WOW if I had to critic it in terms of cooking complexity or technique.

There were some really interesting dishes in terms of artistry such as the 福贵花开 which sort of means flourishing flowers It arrived in an elaborate bonsai looking plant with brown branches and ‘sprouting’ beautiful flowers of orange and yellow, made from some Chinese pastry, and placed below it was a plate of stir fried sea cucumber. Since the dish has an auspicious meaning, we all took turns to take selfies plucking the flower for ‘good luck’, although we didn’t really eat it as it tasted bit strange. As this was presented, a performer also came in to perform on a traditional Chinese string instrument for a short 5 minutes. Y and I always had a hatred for sea cucumber because I think it’s just so slimy and it feels like a thick worm that can’t go down our throat. Oh, but this sea cucumber was so delicious, it had a nice bite to it and was very tender, I think it could also be the sea cucumber they sourced that’s different from what we get back in Singapore restaurants.

Another very artistic dish was a rectangular pot with a leafy plant sitting in a bed of soil. We were wondering what could it be. Chen Zhen then removed the soil to a side and broke the aluminium foil sitting below it to reveal a yellow like thick soup made with corn peas. The realistic looking soil was created with flour fried with cocoa. The meaning behind this dish is also one of Zhuang Zi’s teachings – something about the fruits of your labour comes from the soil. This dish again, I feel was artistry more than taste, our group didn’t really enjoy this dish much unfortunately.

The last few courses ended with braised abalone followed by a hot fish soup, which they cooked on the spot in a steamboat style in front of us and with dan dan mian on the side. This type of hot dish was typically the end to their meal, and what followed after was the finale which is usually some kind of rice based dish. The men were served quinoa porridge with mushroom and the ladies – steamed papaya. The rationale behind the difference is the dish for men is for 养生 which means nourishing, and good health, while the steamed papaya for women is for 美容 which is beauty. The sweet ending to this tasting menu was a beautiful Chinese porcelain container with few paintbrushes, and a blueberry sauce on side. What’s interesting is the ‘brush’ portion is made up of sweet pastry, and we were meant to hold it like calligraphers, dip in the sauce and eat it. We had some fun mucking around with this.

Overall, considering we had paid over S$600 per person, we couldn’t help but feel shortchanged. The service was rather lacking at the start with the rush in dishes, which made us feel like they wanted to just get it over and done with. It felt like I was having a set menu than a nice tasting dinner. The artistry and presentation of the dishes was one of the finest I had seen especially for Chinese cuisine, but if I had to count, perhaps only 50% of the entire course menu was quite good and the rest nothing to rave about. Unfortunately, all the artistry in the world sometimes cannot make up for standard food fare. I think if the meal was for instance S$250 – S$300 a head, I think it’s still fair, but based on the price we paid, I definitely feel it was highly overrated.

Yu’s Family Kitchen 喻家厨房  NO.43 Narrow Alley Qingyang District 青羊区窄巷子43号. Tel: 86 28 86691985. Price: 2200RMB per person (Other menu prices at  660 and 1100 RMB per person are available)

Two days later, we were back in the area of Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi on our last night in Chengdu to have another Chinese fine dining at Yu’s Family Kitchen. So what’s the story behind this tiny eatery? I read online that the owner cum chef – Yu Bo, a Sichuan native himself, learnt for a decade on the art of cooking spicy and classic Sichuan cuisine under traditional chefs.

He ventured off on his own in 2006, and opened Yu’s Family Kitchen with his wife. This small place that sits less than 20 people is located in a small house in the ‘ Zhai’ narrow alley. When we arrived at the entrance, we rang the door bell, and shortly after a friendly lady opened the large wooden door and greeted us warmly.

I noticed the house seemed to be a classic Chinese courtyard house. We were led pass a hallway and other private rooms up the stairs to a private dining area also with a sitting area which will be our lovely dinner spot for the night.

Another nondescript entrance of Yu Family Kitchen

The lady that greeted us at the entrance told us she will be attending to us for the night. She also acknowledged our preference to pace the meal speed as our hotel concierge had informed her after we complained to them about our rushed meal at Zi Fei, and she was really accommodating to us. Shortly after we settled in, and ordered our drinks, we were presented a series of 12 small dishes served in small square plates placed in the centre of the table. They consisted of:

1. Cherry tomato
2. Melon ball
3. Pickled spicy ginger
4. Pumpkin
5. French bean (that was twirled almost like a plait)
6. Celery
7. Potato, cut into refined cubes and then fried
8. Preserved Quail egg similar to century egg
9. Cucumber
10. Red capsicum
11. Red bean
12. Tofu
As simple as the dishes looked, they were tasty and the seasoning in some was very light to showcase the freshness of the produce.

Perfect 12 cold dishes to start our meal with. 

After we enjoyed the amazing selection of appetisers, the hot dishes for our 2200 RMB course followed. The first was the 毛笔素(Mao Bi Su – meaning “paintbrush”) similar in look to the dessert we had at Zi Fei, but in this case this was served as the first savoury dish. The brush portion was made with a sweet type of flaky pastry and inside was interestingly with pork floss from Singapore’s own famous brand – Bee Chiang Heng! It was served with tomato sauce on the side, as this had a symbolic meaning to it. In the past, only the king used to be able to write in red, hence the significance of the sauce. We all felt like “kings” in our own way as we applied the pastry in the sauce before devouring the very familiar pork floss that I have grown up eating. The waitress also said the reason why their chef choose to import the pork floss from Bee Chian Heng as he feels it’s the best and China doesn’t have any products close to this standard.

Enjoying the very artistic dish of paintbrushes.

Next we had 干巴菌 (Gan Ba Jun) – a type of fungus with cucumber. It had a bit of spice at the bottom in typical Chuan fashion. The menu not only showcase Yu Bo’s familiarity with Sichuan cuisine but also classic dishes like Shark’s Fin which Cantonese do so well, I think he did a wonderful version of it with a sour spicy tang to it in the next dish – 酸菜鱼翅 (Suan Cai Yu Chi) – using old salted vegetables – 老酸菜 , two types – one for making the soup, and for eating with the shark’s fin. I really enjoyed this dish. After this soup was another nourishing soup using the deer tail with deer antelopes, which was just as enjoyable.

Following the rather heartwarming and nourishing soups, was an updated version of the simple humble wonton but in this case he had minced pork wrapped in cabbage skin – Bravo to this! Y and I had inspiration now for our next Paleo dish, but somehow I don’t think we can execute it, and plus that broth the wonton was served in was just so good. Served in a trio with this was the Sichuan 涼粉 (liang fen) with peppercorn and abalone cooked with superior broth. I really liked the juxtaposition of a simple Sichuan dish like Liang Fen paired with a premium ingredient like abalone to be served together. That’s what I have noticed so far that the menu never seeks to surprise you with what may come next. It’s all rather unexpected as compared to the typical boring Cantonese meals I have had.

The eight dish is a steamed fish with thin golden flake and black truffles 金薄松露想团鱼, Served to the right of this dish is a ‘porcupine’ – one of the signatures from Yu’s based on what I have seen online is this cute animal shaped out from a bun filled with red bean. The bun is painstakingly hand cut at least 100 times to create this beautiful porcupine. All I can say is bravo as their patience to do this and to perfection!

The 10th dish is also a perfect 10 to me for it’s cooking and flavour – titled 红珍珠, it is a large tomato steamed with codfish and corn inside – considered a fairly traditional dish. The soup stock it’s served in also has a rich tomato corn flavour. The tomato had been cooked such that it’s not too soft, and the corn and codfish inside is tender and not overcooked too. We were just curious how they cooked these ingredients as their individual cooking times are different but yet the doneness is perfect.

Another nourishing dish for Y’s skin and my fur was the pumpkin with birds nest – 官燕南瓜灯, served in a tall martini like glass. We felt so blissful eating this, as it was so delicious.

Following the delicious birds nest was a Chayote, bearing a close resemblance in shape to the chinese Hulu, which bears auspicious meanings. The name of this dish is 送福 – which means sending prosperity and blessing. The chayote otherwise known as Buddha Palm melon was stuffed with minced pork inside (佛手瓜炖酸甜菜肉).

Chayote (otherwise known as Buddha Hand Melon) with meat stuffing

The inside of the melon is soft tender meat. 

Yes, am still counting, next up no. 13 is 干拌土鸡 陪茅台 – a really spicy chicken which was served with the famous Chinese Mao tai wine on the side to neutralize it! The only reason I can think of why it can offset the spiciness is the extreme amount of alcohol percentage, it felt way higher than whisky for sure, and I could not stomach it. Placed next to this potent dish was a slice of brinjal 沉香木炖, which I think was the one that helped to offset the spiciness for me. I can’t figure what it was seasoned with or how it was cooked, but there was a nice crunch on the outside, and yet soft on the inside.
Given it was Mid Autumn Festival, our dinner will only be complete with some dishes to symbolise and celebrate this special time of the year. For them, the waitress explained was this titled – 钓片张茶鸭 (Hanging Duck Slice) 陪成都月饼 (Accompanying mooncake on side). The ‘mooncake’ was different from the typical lotus paste that we eat and instead was more of a savoury sweet one with meat, which was super delicious.

Potent No. 13 dish – spicy chicken with alcoholic Maotai on side and the tamest brinjal.

Explaining the ‘hanging duck slice’.

Ooh la la, tender duck meat..

The next few dishes seemed to get a little bit lighter after the meat-centric Mid Autumn celebratory dish. We were next served a Saffron-spiced winter melon 冬瓜宴 (藏红花 炖冬瓜丝). The dish from the picture (1st in slideshow below) may look really simple but the texture of the winter melon was cooked to resemble the texture of hashima (one of my favourite desserts) and the taste with the saffron was delicate enough and not too overpowering. If I wasn’t told, I could have been fooled to believe I was having hashima. After enjoying this somewhat dessert like dish, next was a type of mushroom called 松茸裙边 (Song Rong Qun Bian). On the side of this was a clear concentrated consommé in a simple porcelain cup. This was really tasty and it’s definitely NOT THANKS to MSG but rather it was testament to the amount of cooking involved to create this classic Szechuan national dish known as 开水白菜 (literally translated is “Water White cabbage”) I think the idea was to create stock that can look almost as translucent as clear water but yet have so much taste in it.

After being wowed by the soup, we were treated to the last pairing of dishes – 红烧肉 Hong Shao Rou, another classic Szechuan dish typicall uses pork belly but in this rendition, a Tibet small pig(西藏小香猪) was used instead, as it’s more tender and less fatty then the traditional pork belly. It literally just melted in my mouth! And it was interestingly paired with a peppercorn steamed pear 花椒煮的梨子. Peppercorns are used heavily in Szechuan dishes, and it was nice to use this to end of the Chuan centric menu in a dessert.

After dining at Chengdu’s 2 most notable creative and gastronomic restaurants, my favourite is Yu’s Family Kitchen. He has managed to inject new life into the simplest of food like the common wanton and using Singapore’s pork floss in his signature paint brush dish. There’s a lot of creativity here and also pride in the cooking. I appreciated the presentation and through it wasn’t as fancy as Zi Fei’s, the cooking shone through. And what I liked was the waitress really knew the food and had an in-depth knowledge and passion when describing the food to us, which is as important an element to the food that’s being served in a place like Yu’s. Will I come back ? Definite yes.

Some of the preserved walls seen in Wide and Narrow Alley.

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