Taihu white shrimp and shrimp with wild rice stems, two dishes served at Huai Yang Fu restaurant in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of Xie Ling
China's culinary culture and restaurants are increasingly appealing to global foodies who expect to see and sample the most authentic and choicest Chinese flavors.
In December 2016, La Liste, a French gastronomic guide that lists the top 1,000 restaurants in the world, unveiled its 2017 ranking of eateries. A total of 100 Chinese restaurants, of which 68 are on the Chinese mainland, were on the list.
The number of Chinese restaurants named on La Liste grew by about 45 percent from a total of 69 in 2016, making China third in restaurant number on the list, after Japan and France with 116 and 113 restaurants respectively.
As China gains an international reputation as a culinary hot spot, Chinese restaurants that provide quality food and services are in greater demand not only in China but also in overseas markets, gastronomy critics and industry leaders say.
A double tofu platter served at Da Dong Photo: Courtesy of Xie Ling
Ci Gu braised pork, one of the flagship dishes served at Huai Yang Fu restaurant in Beijing Photo: Courtesy of Xie Ling
From left: Gourmet critic Dong Keping; Chen Wanqing, general manager of Yang Zhou State Guesthouse; Luo Yang, general manager of Huai Yang Fu Andingmen; and Xie Ling at the launch of The Guide to La Liste's Top Chinese Restaurants in December. Photo: Courtesy of Xie Ling
Transcending local borders
Xie Ling, a Chinese food and wine critic and a member of the panel of judges that vet La Liste, said the increase in the number of Chinese restaurants on the list is a reflection of the growing appreciation of Chinese culinary culture among global diners.
"As more and more foreigners come to China to travel and work, they get the opportunity to experience the high quality and richness of Chinese food in person, which enriches their knowledge and understanding of Chinese food culture," she said.
Xie, better known in China's hospitality and catering industry as Lingxin Xiaoxie, is also a co-author of The Guide to La Liste's Top Chinese Restaurants, a Chinese language epicurean guidebook published by Qingdao Publishing House in December 2016.
The guide recommends 42 La Liste eateries located in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin as well as Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Sichuan provinces. Restaurants featured in Beijing include The Capital restaurant inside the Beijing Hong Kong Jockey Club, which is number 15 on the 2017 list.
Another eatery, Huai Yang Fu Beijing Andingmen, which is well-known for its Huaiyang cuisine served in an ancient Chinese mansion, and Da Dong's Gongti branch, which is famous for providing one of the best Beijing roast ducks, are some of the top-notch eateries named in the guidebook.
According to Xie, the La Liste ranking system is based on a wide range of references: a total of 400 gastronomic guides from around the globe as well as Internet-based user ratings. Apart from the food served at the restaurants, the ranking also considers multiple criteria such as restaurant service, interior design, atmosphere and wine and food pairing.
"La Liste is not based on the traditional tastes and gastronomic standards of Western diners," explained Xie.
"It is a more diversified food classification with an abundance of different culinary cultures and ranks regional restaurants in accordance with local standards and tastes."
A Dong family specialty, braised eggplants served at Da Dong Photo: Courtesy of Xie Ling
Blossom, a dessert served at Da Dong Photo: Courtesy of Xie Ling
Shifting dining styles
La Liste is not the only international guidebook to highlight China's dynamic food culture recently.
The Michelin Guide, known in the West as an authoritative voice for global business travelers and tourists, published the first-ever Shanghai edition in September 2016.
Gao Fu, the president of the World Federation of Chinese Catering Industry Tourism and Hospitality Committee, said the creation of a Michelin Shanghai edition is an indication of Michelin's market strategy to enter the Chinese catering market.
"We noticed that in Europe, people's view of dining is changing. Young people have a different opinion of Michelin Guides from the older generation. Some young diners choose restaurants based on their personal tastes rather than the recommended or star-awarded ones," said Gao.
"At the same time, China's gastronomic scene, as a new and emerging market, gives foreign food guides more opportunities to seek new followers," he said.
"We welcome Michelin's entry into China."
The growing number of Chinese restaurants being featured by international dining guides reflects the trend of diversification in the catering and hospitality industry, according to Xie.
Nevertheless, she cautioned that it's too early to say that Chinese cuisine has already become mainstream.
"French cuisine is the classy and classic choice enjoyed by people from different backgrounds in the West. However, its dominance has, in recent years, been challenged by the rise of other cuisines such as Japanese cuisine," said Xie. "Chinese cuisine also contributes to the trend. It has become an alternative choice for international diners."
Gao agrees, adding that there is a growing demand for fine Chinese restaurants with quality food and services overseas.
The demand comes from the increase in the number of Chinese travelers and a more intensive interaction with Chinese clients or business partners. Chinese immigrants' desire for food from home also drives market demand.
"Chinese cuisine has become one of the most popular foreign food offerings in the US," he said.
"Traditionally, Chinese restaurants overseas are usually a family business, without professional chefs. These restaurants, which offer modified Chinese flavors, have limited the Western understanding of authentic Chinese cuisine and dining culture," said Gao.
Being awarded and listed by international dining guides can help Chinese restaurant brands gain a more high-profile global reputation and pave the way into foreign markets, said Gao.
He said an estimated 500,000 Chinese restaurants operate overseas and that the number will continue to rise.
"Accor Hotels Group in France and some hotel management groups in the US have expressed their willingness to have Chinese restaurants operate in their hotels," Gao said.
Among the Chinese catering brands that are pioneers in expanding into the Western market is Da Dong, a food enterprise well known for its Beijing roast duck and artistic food concepts.
Da Dong is scheduled to open its first branch in the US near Bryant Park on 42nd Street in New York by August.
For Dong Zhenxiang, the chief executive officer of Da Dong, the company's overseas expansion is a natural and inevitable result when a Chinese catering brand endeavors to grow in the global market, and New York is a prime market.
"The New York branch will target not only overseas Chinese but also Americans," Dong told Metropolitan. "It will be a localized restaurant that interacts with locals."
Dong said Chinese dining companies need to adapt when seeking to operate overseas because the foreign catering market is totally different from the Chinese market.
One of the challenges facing the company's localization is finding the right local duck species for its flagship Beijing roast duck.
"After three years of experimenting, we finally decided to use the American Maple Duck to replace our original Beijing duck. It can achieve up to 80 percent of the trait and taste of the Beijing roast ducks served in Beijing," said Dong.
Da Dong has also redesigned its menu to meet the tastes and appetites of local New Yorkers as well as the city's dining trends.
"For example, in Western cuisine, lobster is considered a high-end dish. But trepang, one of the most welcomed upscale dishes served at Da Dong's Chinese branches, might not be well received by American diners," he said.
"We will also use different methods to cook beef to better serve Western dining habits."
Despite all the challenges, Dong said he is optimistic about Da Dong's global expansion. He also plans to make Da Dong's roast duck hamburger a famous fast food brand in the future.
"We are also considering cooperating with the Four Seasons Hotel in London to open a Chinese restaurant," he said.