Deconstructing Dim Sum at Four Seasons Beijing

Traditional Chinese cuisine gets a serious upgrade at Beijing’s Cai Yi Xuan.

Jan 14, 2013
Golf-ball-sized dumplings are served in bamboo steamer baskets at Four Seasons Beijing
Cai Yi Xuan, the new restaurant at Four Seasons Hotel Beijing, puts a Western spin on traditional dim sum.
Photography iStock

Like many of the 20 million souls living in wild and woolly Beijing, dim sum—or yum cha (tea tasting), as it’s called in its native Cantonese—is an import to China’s ever-growing capital. This iconic dish is about as indigenous to Beijing as fried chicken and biscuits are to Boston. To be precise, dim sum is a southern dish that originated 1,300 miles away (roughly the same distance as from Boston, Massachusetts, to Biloxi, Mississippi) in the Guangdong Province. It became popular with travellers along the Silk Road as a fast roadside snack with tea before evolving into today’s toothsome, bite-sized nibbles of simple, hot food served from cart to table to mouth.

So when Executive Chef Martin Knaubert, who cut his Teutonic teeth on Chinese gastronomy in Shanghai during the last three years, began designing the menu at the newly opened Four Seasons Hotel Beijing restaurant Cai Yi Xuan, he didn’t worry about rigid authenticity. The Mandarin translation for dim sum (dian xin) means “a little bit of heart,” and Knaubert’s take on it is a whole lot of heaven. Dumplings called “money bags” burst open to reveal an artful contrast of black codfish and crab roe; bean curd skin is rolled cigar-tight with sea cucumber and doused in fresh abalone sauce; and warm, crisp, golf-ball-sized dumplings ooze with salted egg yolk when cut open.

As I sat in one of the restaurant’s eight intricately lacquered PDRs (Private Dining Rooms), dishes kept arriving like gifts in bamboo steamer baskets, wrapped in fragrant leaves, skewered and glistening like exquisite lacquered jewellery. Knaubert and his team have taken dim sum to new heights by gilding these Chinese staples with some Western sheen: Century eggs are marbled, bamboo shoots are smoked, foie gras wallows in a puddle of golden Shaoxing wine, and fragrant vegetable dumplings are laced with black truffle.

At times, the menu reads like Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, encouraging diners to discover nature’s fantastic world of flora and fauna: hawthorn, sea whelks, red jellyfish, humphead, grass carp, goose web, deer sinew and pigeon eggs are just a few of the menu choices that blur the lines between the plant and animal kingdoms, and create a sensory experience that is probably not for vegans. Cai Yi Xuan is not just one of the best new dim sum parlours in Beijing, it’s also one of the best new restaurants at Four Seasons, and gives this simple roadside fast food its much-earned upgrade.

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