Following a gentle stroll along the banks of the West Lake, Hangzhou's serenely peaceful UNESCO World Heritage site, we adjourned to Zhiweiguan for our first taste of the local cuisine. Set on rather large grounds, which included a beautiful garden and pond, we were led, through and past various "levels" of dining areas of increasing refinement, and no doubt expense, until we finally arrived at the private room we had booked - to say I was a little concerned at how much the minimum spend on our private room would be, was an understatement. As it turned out RMB1700 was the figure, which between seven, wasn't too bad - already the disparity in prices between Hangzhou and the big city, Shanghai, was clear for all to see. We still had to have quite a few dishes to get to the minimum, mind, as the prices on individual dishes here also exhibited a similar level of discount compared to their Shanghai counterparts.
And with that in mind, I'm not going to go through each individual dish as I ordinarily would; instead I will just pick out the high, and low, lights, and I can't help but start with the Dongpo pork - a speciality of the region, and easily the most memorable dish of a meal that boasted a few. The pork was nice and fatty, meltingly tender, full of flavour, and just absolutely delicious. It's not something one could eat on a daily basis, most certainly not, but as a one off treat - it's up there with the best. A second pork dish, Gold-medal braised sliced pork, was also very good, and stunningly presented as a layered pagoda. The paper thin sliced pork was again tender as can be, with a lovely, more subtle but no less appealing, flavour. Both were excellent pork dishes, no two ways about it.
Backtracking a little bit, a cold dish of Lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice was very pleasant, and easily one of the better examples we sampled on this trip. Sea cucumber with three kinds of peppers, meanwhile, was a colourful, and tasty dish.
Not everything hit the spot, however. Beggar's chicken, another speciality of the region, was too dry; Quick-fried eel slices with shelled shrimps was just deep fried eel in a slightly too heavy batter and a none-too-memorable, overly thick sauce; Crab meat braised with beancurd tasted of nothing; while the tea could not be detected in the Fried shelled shrimps with dragon well tea, again a well known dish of the area.
Things picked up again with the desserts. West Lake pastry made of glutinous rice and fresh fruit with butter had a super thin, gooey, doughy exterior very similar in texture to the "Ping Pei" used for mooncakes, and had a lovely light, creamy mango filling. But as good as it was, the second dessert, Gold-medal longjing tea crispy cake, was even better. A wonderful, flaky pastry gave way to a delightful dragon well green tea paste surrounding a piece of kiwi fruit, with a base lined with sesame seeds. Both were exquisite, refined desserts the equal of any Chinese dessert, a noted weak point of this genre of cuisine, I have encountered to date.
In a nutshell...
There were actually at least as many mediocre dishes as there were good ones, but the good dishes were very good, bordering on outstanding; enough to elevate Zhiweiguan in my estimation, and for it to rank amongst the best meals we had on this trip.
10-12 Yanggong Di, Hangzhou, China
Average Price: RMB250