Last Saturday, Philippe, Philip, Angelina and I were invited to dine at Beijing Gong, a new Beijing cuisine restaurant on Kreta Ayer. The restaurant isn't due to formally open until the end of March, but we were fortunate enough to receive an invitation by virtue of being family friends with owner May Leung.
As a quick prelude, Philippe and I lived in Beijing for 3 years before moving back to Singapore in 2002. We readily acknowledge that, by Singaporean and French standards, Beijing food is really nothing to shout about, comprising primarily of lamb, pork and heavy starches. That said, you could always squeeze a decent, even exotic, dinner out of some of the local staples, good enough for visiting friends or a cold winter evening. It's those dishes that we've developed occasional but strong cravings for in Singapore, and hadn't found worthy replicas of - attempts here are either too light on the sauce, use the wrong cut of meat, flat out off or, dare I say it, simply prepared in too hygienic a manner.
Until we ate at Beijing Gong!!!! *cue celebratory fireworks and clashing cymbals*
Beijing Gong is located at 41 Kreta Ayer Road, just a hop skip away from another famous Beijing restaurant (the Neil Road xiao long bao place - it has a proper name but I think most people know it as that). Despite the abundance of restaurants in the neighbourhood, Kreta Ayer has remained relatively food free, playing host instead to a variety of clinics, reflexology centres and sundry shops. Walking past Beijing Gong's glass door and glancing in at the oil paintings and antique-style furniture, you could easily mistake the place for an art gallery (in fact, Aunty May is the artist behind the various oil paintings here). You wouldn't make that mistake twice though, not after dining there!
The hinata tagline: authentic Beijing home cooking that you'll not fine elsewhere in Singapore, served fine dining style in a modern, elegant restaurant.
Our meal began with an assortment of cold starters, as well as a gorgeous warm herbal tea that combined a rich plum flavour with the toasted grass aftertaste of many a Korean and Japanese tea.
Clockwise from top:
Zha Ou He (literally "Fried-Lotus-Root-Boxes") - Philippe's favourite Beijing dish of all time, and one that's hard to find even within Beijing. We asked for seconds and those disappeared, well, within seconds.
Cucumbers with dried red chillies - very kai wei (appetite whetting). Tossed with omelette, this is a Beijing staple and on every restaurant table.
Sliced cold beef - Likewise, a Beijing staple, this one very akin to an English roast beef.
Red dates - Sweet and very refreshing. We kept this through the meal as a frequent palate cleanser.
Next up, a hot and sour soup ("not too hot" smiled our host):
Followed by what we can confidently proclaim to be the best gong bao ji ding (or Kung Pao chicken to all you non-mainlanders out there). I hesitate though, to call it the most authentic, given that a proper Beijing gong bao ji ding would have scrappy bits of chicken fat and bone - this version is all juicy chunks of flavoursome lean meat. What sets this apart though, is the generous and accurate use of Szechaun ma la peppercorns, spiteful little bombs that numb your tongue and set off sweat glands you never knew you possessed. Angelina was rather taken aback by her first encounter with them, but recovered quickly and tried to convince Philip to crunch on a spoonful. Philip dutifully obliged but spat them out fairly quickly with a bewildered expression.
As intimidating as they may sound (and you don't one to accidentally pop one into your mouth), these peppercorns impart a rich, full bodied aroma that becomes immediately addictive. Kinda like your first glass of red wine.
Next up, crispy duck with pancake and plum sauce. Despite this being a Beijing restaurant, and despite the dish bearing an overwhelming resemblance to Peking duck, the restaurant staff were curiously reluctant to call it so, preferring the moniker "crispy duck". Which was probably fair - the duck meat was lean and smoky, without the typical layer of fat under the skin (Peking duck in Beijing seems more about eating fat than meat), and the skin is thicker and crunchier than its usual paper-thin counterparts. Whether this was a substition made for local tastebuds or a different dish altogether, it was simply gorgeous and a welcome change.
It was at this point in the meal that I turned to Philippe and said, "you know what would be the perfect dessert now? Those fruits covered in caramel that you dip in ice water to freeze up!" Philippe paused for a bit, sifted through some dusty memories and nodded eagerly upon recollection. And lo and behold!
These were banana chunks, battered and fried then literally glued together with lashings of caramel. You're supposed to pull them apart and dip the pieces individually in the bowl of ice water provided (thanks Angelina for the assist!). The caramel then freezes up, and you get crunchy and sweet on the outside, warm and soft on the inside. Happy us.
After that satisfying meal, Philippe and I really didn't have much to say by way of constructive criticism, preferring instead to request a couple more Beijing cornerstone dishes that did not make an appearance that evening. Aunty May reassured us that the first of our requests, yu xiang qie zi (literally Fish-Fragrance-Eggplant) is on the menu and has received rave reviews. We are now lobbying for jing jiang rou si (City-Sauce-Meat-Shreds) as well as for some bottles of er guo tou (the nastiest rice wine this side of the planet).
To conclude, do try Beijing Gong once it opens. It's really one of the rare places (if not the only place) in Singapore you can find authentic Beijing food, and enjoy it with both chic ambience and courteous service.
41 Kreta Ayer Road
(Phone number not available at time of writing)