Article by XIANEASE
There is a saying that if you ate a different Chinese dish every day of your life, you would not be able to eat every dish over an entire life time. While Chinese cuisine can be a vast and complicated subject, generally there are eight major cuisines, with a four of those considered to be the ‘Great Traditions’ recognized as the best of the best, and also meant to represent the best of the North, South, East, and West. Most people will be familiar with Chuan, the food from Shaanxi’s neighboring province of Sichuan, as well as Yue, the food of Guangdong, commonly referred to as Cantonese cuisine.
The remaining two cuisines are probably less well-known in Xi’an; those being Lu and Huaiyang cuisine. Lu is the cuisine of Shandong province, known for its heavy use of seafood and light taste, as well as its distinctive vinegar. The other cuisine, Huaiyang cuisine, hails from Jiangsu. As with much of the coastal cuisines, there is a heavy use of seafood, but Huaiyang cuisine also uses other types of ingredients, blending the tastes of the North and South due to its location in the middle of the coastal region. Huaiyang cuisine was featured at the first State Banquet in 1949, and once again on the 50th anniversary.
Being a chef in China that cooks Chinese food often comes with a heavy burden. Many want to respect the traditions of the cuisine, while still innovating in ways that can help the cuisine evolve further. At the W XIAN’s YEN Restaurant, Chef Arthur Li is attempting to do just that. Though still quite young, especially for a head chef in China, Chef Li has gained a great deal of experience in the culinary field, especially when it comes to the food of his home province of Jiangsu.
Still, he tries to push the limits of the cuisine, adding new and modernizing elements to his cuisine, keeping in line with the W’s trendy and modern image, while still trying to stay true to the origins of the cuisine. The result is a range of dishes that wouldn’t look out of place on a modernist cuisine menu, yet still retains the essence of the original cuisine.
The chef first presented a range of cold dishes to demonstrate his cuisine. First to come out was what looked like a set of very shiny tomatoes on a log, but turned out to be expertly crafted balls of fois gras that had been dipped in a special solution to give it a thick outer shell. What was surprising was that there was no food coloring used, but instead only natural colorings were used, as is true for all of the food at the restaurant. What appeared to be a log was actually a custom crafted ceramic piece specifically designed by the chef. He stated that studying culture and history was a hobby of his, and he tries to incorporate his hobby wherever possible. This particular plate was crafted based of an item he had seen previously in a museum.
The next dish looked like a sushi roll at first appearance, but was in fact entirely composed of eel. Even the apparent seaweed wrapper was made from the skin of the eel, and each component was carefully cooked and crafted to both mimic its respective item, and also taste good. Paired with a light sauce, the dish had the slight sweetness of eel, with no fishiness. The next dish was a cold dish of scallops nestled in a bed of thinly sliced celtuse. The chef decided to add a bit of heat to this dish, something that you wouldn’t normally have in Huaiyang cuisine, but something that he has done to better suit the tastes of the locals here in Shaanxi.
Next we were each served individual bowls of seafood soup. With a large amount of seafood in each bowl and a peppery broth, it was a light transition from the cold to the hot dishes.
Next up was something that was completely new. Four small bowls, each containing a single large abalone that had been stewed in a variety of spices and chilies, resting on top of a bed of chilies and vegetables. They were served with a set of mo, the Shaanxi flatbread. That’s right, and abalone jiamo. It was a surprising combination to be sure, but the texture and the taste of the abalone was perfect, and well-suited to the mo. In addition, there was served a crispy fried beef dish, tender on the inside and crunchy on the outside, coated in a sweet sauce.
There was also a bowl with four small packages on a special branch over a bowl. Dry ice added a smoke to the visual appeal, making the small dumplings appear almost magical. The packages were yellow in color, with generous helpings of caviar on top. Each package was filled with a variety of seafood that included crayfish and crab. The chef informed us that the wrapper, traditionally made from tofu skin, was instead made from durian, but with none of the odor typically associated with the fruit. He had done this because he wanted to replicate the color, but have a more flexible and unique wrapper for a traditional dish. Dessert was a crispy rice paste roll with sugar and peanuts, a common sweet in Huaiyang cuisine, and a small pudding topped with candied rose and a special koi gummy that perfectly finished everything up.
After sampling all the delicious food, we toured the restaurant to see the rest of the space. The main dining area is spacious with a large window looking in on the kitchen. There are several large scale artistic prints, as well as a huge selection of various teas from around China that you can select with your meal. Two smaller private rooms flank the main dining area, with other larger private dining rooms down the hall. Each dining room is decorated with special art and lighting, and also has its own private balcony that looks out on the South Lake. The largest of these rooms, designed to host up to 22 people, has its own tea table, karaoke machine, mahjong table, and separate seating area, as well as a corner balcony with a fantastic view of the lake.
All in all, YEN at W XIAN is something to experience, a new take on a traditional cuisine that must be tried to be understood. The menu will adjust for the seasons, so if you’d like to try some of the dishes described above, make a reservation soon.