Authentic offerings abound in celebration of Chinese New Year at an elegantly Far Eastern eatery that most definitely sets the mood.
If red had a flavour it would be the singe of the Szechuan chili or the fiery heat of a spoonful of doubanjiang – the fermented spicy bean-paste that’s a staple condiment on every Chinese table. Red is a shade of luck and joy associated with both the Chinese zodiac element of fire and the Lunar New Year, which kicked off on February 5.
And so it was that we brought our appetites to China Mood at Al Bustan Palace – A Ritz-Carlton Hotel to get things off to an auspicious start. The resort’s premier fine-dining restaurant, it’s an outlet where the chefs have been hand-picked because of their ‘allegiance to authentic Chinese cuisine’, and we’re eager to see if it lives up to that claim.
Designed to resemble a traditional Chinese tea house, we pass under its slatted wooden entrance flanked by giant marble lions, and enter its warm depths. With black lacquered screens dividing the private interior dining rooms, the ambience is one of muted elegance steeped in the lush heritage of China’s great dynasties.
Tonight, giant red hanging lanterns cast their glow along the corridor in honour of the New Year as we’re greeted by the restaurant’s hostess and tea sommelier and led to our table on their expansive outdoor patio, where it’s a full house for dinner.
This is due in part to the fact that the restaurant has invited Guest Chef Leo Liang from The Ritz-Carlton, Beijing to craft a special five-course set menu in celebration of the Chinese New Year alongside China Mood’s Chef de Cuisine Sam Peong.
As we wait for the first course to arrive, guests are treated to a special ceremonial dance by their tea sommelier, who pours cup after cup full of fragrant green oolong tea from a golden kettle with a metre-long sword-like spout. As she spins and whirls in time to the music, long streams of piping-hot tea are poured from all angles with nary a drop missing the cup.
First up on our culinary journey of traditional Chinese New Year dishes is a trio of plump dim sum of which the duck and foie gras dumpling simply melts in the mouth with a kiss of hoisin sauce while the teriyaki-braised scallop falls away at the touch of our chopsticks like butter.
Next up to warm us from the inside out is a steaming bowl of double-boiled Beijing-style duck soup with oozing morsels of mushroom and crispy wisps of dried scallop that add a pleasant textural element to each spoonful. The flavours mingle and dance off the tongue, both rich and comforting.
As one of our dining party has a shellfish allergy, the staff are incredibly accommodating to the dietary restriction on what us – we admit – woefully short-notice from our side, with the chefs preparing vegetarian alternatives on the fly.
Known for its rather oily texture, reflecting back on our entreés the duck dishes we sample aren’t greasy at all and are absolute standouts. Often, set menus can be hit or miss, and getting every element up to expectation is a culinary feat.
Next up is a tender plate of pan-fried sliced Wagyu beef with sautéed wild mushrooms and soft baby carrots. Not your traditional Chinese New Year fare we note – but rather a dish catering to those with less adventurous palates seeking a small reprieve from the full-bodied, fermented flavours that are the hallmark of Chinese cuisine. While unexpected, it’s still incredibly lush.
For our mains, a choice is offered between a fish or lamb option so, naturally, we go for one of each. The stewed organic lamb shank with baby corn is fall-off-the-bone and braised in a rich oyster sauce that somehow complements its gamey essence. Watching us devour it, one of our party has food envy after their portion of wok-fried grouper with home-made XO sauce arrives. The presentation is incredibly plain with a steamed filet overlaid with some stark slices of asparagus. Perhaps the focus is to let the flavours of the fish shine through, but the XO sauce is a bit lost and the dish comes across as somewhat under-seasoned. The portion of pan-fried rice with diced chicken, beef, and wild mushroom that comes with it is comfort food at its finest, however.
Rounding off the set menu offering, which runs until February 22, is a light-as-air dessert of what we can only describe as a Chinese version of custard served with slices of fresh fruit. Double-boiled milk with egg white has been whipped into an almost effervescent consistency and imbued with the lightest touch of sugar. It’s an unusual eat but not at all unpleasant. In fact, we clean our bowls.
We leave feeling not overly full but fully satisfied. Our first foray to China Mood, it won’t be our last as the restaurant has gone to great lengths to offer up an experience that’s often found lacking in the capital’s ever-evolving foodie scene – something truly unique.
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