West Lake in Hangzhou may be beautiful, but most of the time, it was packed with people. And the restaurants around the lake were no different. Most of there were tourist traps, but several old establishments like Flavour Mansion still exist to serve the palates of discerning travellers like us.
West Lake in China has been described as “Heaven on Earth”. And around the lake, because of the G20 Summit held in Hangzhou in 2016, the whole place underwent a 5 years refurbishment program that went back all the way to 2010. So the whole area was spruced up. Old buildings were retrofitted and given new coats of paint. The older inns and hotels were renovated and each Country Inn 国宾馆 was designated accommodations for the different delegations from different countries.
Views like this were plentiful around West Lake. But you need to pay a little more if you want to avoid the crowd. This is the private dining area for the Flavour Mansion, you need to guaranteed a minimum spend per banquet room before you are allowed into this private garden.
But once you are in, you will find the reason why West Lake is the “Heaven on Earth”.
The History of Flavour Mansion
Founded in 1913 by Mr Sun YiZhai 孙翼斋, ZhiWeiGuan 知味观 was not a runaway hit in its first year. Mr Sun improvised and concentrated on the pastry, and by 1914, it has become the must-buy gifts from Hangzhou.
Stop the carriage, dismount from the horse when you smell the fragrance.
To know the taste, just look at the ingredients.
This poem was written by Mr Sun and hung on the main door since 1914. Ever since, they are known for the pastries and then for the Hangzhou specialties. Of course, the other one was more famous.
Flavour Mansion was opened in 2007 as part of the revamp of the Hangzhou West Lake Tourist Area. But it is no tourist trap – it is the higher echelon of the ZhiWeiGuan brand and has served really authentic and tasty Hangzhou cuisine, and incorporated other cuisines from around China over the years. These days, the menu is a thick compilation of the all time favourites, as well as Sichuan, Cantonese and Hunanese favourites.
We started with several starters, three vegetarian choices and three non-veg choices, as the Chinese banquet dictates. A bit excessive, but this was after all a proper Chinese banquet.
核桃味知沙拉 House Salad with Walnut
This is dressed with a citrusy (orange) taste. The walnut has been roasted and coated with caramel, so it is quite delicious on its own but a bit too sweet for me.
秘制鸭舌 Stewed Duck Tongue
The Chinese chewing gum, we used to buy a pack and ate it as a snack while watching TV. The tastiest part is the tendons that attached the tongue to the beak, the two little bits of crunchy packed with the flavour of the stew.
湖畔素鸭 West Lake Mock Duck
This is a vegetarian dish, even though it is described as duck. The bean curd skin that is used to wrap the ingredients of julienne carrots, turnips, celery etc. turned crispy brown, just like Duck Confit. A very savoury dish, I liked it.
十年花雕醉香螺 Sea Snails in 10yo Chinese Wine
One of the best way to preserve food is to soak them in edible alcohol of some sort. The popular choices include Huadiao and Chinese wines. Hu 滬 cuisine (generalisation of the cuisines of Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang areas) relies on this method frequently, not only to preserve seafood, but to also enhance the flavours of the source. Sea snails on their own are not a delicacy. They are chewy and quite bland, you ate them because they provided the tidbits for drinks like peanuts. But when they are soaked in wine, they now incorporate the flavour of the wine and elevate to a delicacy.
Lotus Roots with Honey 蜜汁藕
A very popular Hu cuisine starter, this is lotus roots stuffed with glutinous rice (and sometime dates paste) and pine nuts. The roots are then steamed and cooled, and just before serving, drizzled with a liberal amount of syrup (not necessarily honey). It is obscenely sweet, I never had enjoyed this starter.
Cold Tofu with Jalapeño 凉拌剁椒豆腐
On the other hand, I always love tofu as a cold starter. Here, they mixed cold tofu with a spicy Szechuan chili-pepper and black vinegar sauce, complemented by chopped Hunan chili, pickled radish, century eggs and Chinese parsley. Perfect for a hot summer dinner.
Hangzhou Springrolls 杭州春卷
Hangzhou springrolls, unlike egg rolls in US, are stuffed with only vegetarian ingredients. Eggs are not vegetarian in Chinese context. So only turnips, carrots, dried tofu, celery, etc are used. The ingredients are precooked and then wrapped in a spring roll skin and then deep fried. Trivial: Which country exports the most spring roll skin? Answer : Singapore.
The Hangzhou Specials 杭帮菜
Hangzhou cuisine 杭帮菜 refers to dishes that originate or flourish in Hangzhou. Hangzhou cuisine is one of the eight major cuisines in China – the most important one in Zhejiang cuisine 江浙菜. Since the late 1980s, it has formed independent cuisine. Hangzhou cuisine pays attention to authenticity, choice of the finest and seasonal ingredients, orderly kitchen, exquisite presentation, and emphasis on color, smell and taste. “Lightness” is an important feature of Hangzhou cuisine.
龙井虾仁 Shrimps Infused with LongJin Green Tea
The Hangzhou area is famous for Longjin tea, a kind of light green tea that exudes a fragrance that would leave a natural sweet aftertaste for the drinker, what we describe as 回甘 or “returned sweetness”. So to incorporate the tea with a cuisine would be natural for them too. Sautéed river shrimps is a common Zhejiang dish, and by adding Longjin, it gave the simple dish an added dimension of aroma, and along the way, lessen the taste of the shrimps.
宋嫂鱼羹 Mrs Song’s “Fish” Soup
Waiter, there’s no fish in this soup! Unlike the Mrs Song’s Fish Soup that are served in other restaurants, here they avoided the fish as it was really difficult to get rid of the muddy smell of freshwater fish like carps and catfish, which are used in the soup. So it turned out to be like a Sweet and Sour Soup 酸辣汤 that can be found all over the place.
叫化鸡 Beggar’s Chicken
Legend has it that in the Song Dynasty, a beggar got hold of a chicken but had not utensils to cook it. So the ingenious beggar wrapped the chicken in lotus leave, packed the outside in mud or clay, and then buried the entire package under a smothering amber. This is more a ZheJiang dish, but in the early 1900s, a very famous chef brought the dish to Hangzhou when he was employed by a local restaurant, and he made this dish a Hangzhou speciality ever since.
The heat basically created the oven-like environment for the chicken to be cooked in the lotus leave, and the lotus leave infused the light, fragrance to the chicken. The chicken was reduced to pull through texture but retained all moisture.
This version was pretty moist when opened up, but I would still say the chicken was as good as those that you find when you make soup with – bland and tough.
I would not recommend this dish, as I have so far not enjoyed any iteration of this dish in any restaurant. The cooking process was more a legend then a true technique and romanticised by novels and other stories.
东坡肉 Braised Pork Belly “DongPo” style
In Chinese cuisine, there are almost always a backstory. Braised Pork Belly “DongPo” Style dated back again to the Song Dynasty. There was a mandarin called Su Dong Po 苏东坡 who happened to a leading poet and literati of the day. He was also a very good cook and gourmand, as all learned people are 😉
It was the year 1080, Su Dong Po was demoted and sent to a really poor county called Huang County, where the only meat he could afford was pork. He found that if you simmered pork belly with Chinese wine and sauce, you got a very soft and tender meat that was not dry, and the fat rendered without turning into oil. Hence “DongPo” style braised pork was born. He was so happy that he even wrote a poem about it.
东坡肉 Braised Pork Belly “DongPo” style here has been cooked in individual portions. Pork belly were cut into squares and braised in a big pot before carefully placed into individual bowls and steamed once more. When you opened the paper covering the individual urn of pork, you were greeted with a whiff of aroma and right in there was the caramelised sauce glimmering with a clear layer of fat. The fat has fully rendered and melt in your mouth. I find the lean meat a tad too dry though.
西湖莼菜汤 West Lake Water Shield Soup
Water shield is a type of water plant that grows everywhere in Jiangsu, and would almost be a weed. Water shield has a distinctive gelatinous slime on the underside of the leaves and coating the stems. Due to its texture (it coats itself with a gelatine like substance when cooked), it was believed to be beneficial to health, particularly good for replenishing collagen 🙂 Again, the vegetable has no taste. It borrows the taste from other ingredients (ham, pork, chicken stock) that are used to cook the dish.
The Jiangnan Specials 江浙菜
Jiangzhe refers to two regions south of Yangtze River – Jiangsu 江蘇 and Zhejiang 浙江 – and is referred in the history books as Jiangnan 江南 or literally “south of the river”.
Zhejiang cuisine 浙菜 is one of the eight great traditions of Chinese cuisine. Zhejiang Cuisine originates from the populous and rich eastern province of Zhejiang on the Pacific. If you don’t like spicy cuisine, but prefer fish and seafood, then this is the food style for you. Zhejiang cuisine consists of at least three styles, each originating from a major city in the province:
- Hangzhou style: Characterised by rich variations and the use of bamboo shoots.
- Shaoxing style: Specialising in poultry and freshwater fish.
- Ningbo style: Specialising in seafood, with emphasis on freshness and salty dishes.
Jiangsu cuisine is sometimes simply called Su cuisine, and one of its major styles is Huaiyang cuisine 淮揚菜. Although Huaiyang cuisine is one of several sub-regional styles within Jiangsu cuisine, it is widely seen in Chinese culinary circles as the most popular and prestigious style of Jiangsu cuisine – to a point where it is considered to be among one of the four most influential regional schools (四大菜系) that dominate the culinary heritage of China, along with Cantonese cuisine 粵菜/廣東菜 (made popular by Hong Kong chefs diaspora around the world), Shandong cuisine 魯菜/山東菜 (lesser known outside of China, but it was where Chinese civilisation started and home of Confucius and is used by the Chinese government in state banquets) and Sichuan cuisine 川菜 (the extreme spicy and really popular recently).
Jiangsu cuisine actually consists of several other sub-regional styles, including:
- Nanjing style: Its dishes emphasise an even taste and matching colours, with dishes incorporating river fish/shrimp and duck.
- Suzhou style: The emphasis is on the selection of ingredients. It has a stronger taste than Nanjing style cuisine as well as a tendency to be sweeter than the other varieties of Zhejiang cuisine.
- Wuxi style: Wuxi’s proximity to Lake Tai means it is notable for wide variety of freshwater produce, such as the “Three Whites” – white bait (銀魚), white fish (白魚) and white shrimp (白蝦).
- Nantong style: The dishes emphasise a flavour of freshness on the ingredients which cover a variety of seafood, since Nantong is located at the intersection of the local Hao River, the Yangtze River and the Yellow Sea.
蟹粉豆腐 Tofu with Crab Roe
They used hairy crab roe and meat that were kept frozen (it’s May so it’s not hairy crab season yet) and made this classic Jiangsu dish. Hairy crabs are best in autumn and from Yangcheng Lake in Jiangsu. The savoury crab roe provided the umami to a otherwise bland soft tofu. There’s not enough crab for this dish though, I guess the season was wrong.
乾隆鱼头 “Emperor Qianlong” Braised Fish Head
Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) was a gourmet and in his 6 trips to Jiangnan, he tried many delicious food that were recorded in different history books. In later years, many restaurants will use Qianlong to name their dish to show how tasty it was, but most were not really tried by the emperor himself.
Legend has it that the Emperor Qianlong went south to Jiangnan and went incognito in civilian clothings to visit Wushan. It was Qingming (around May) and Jiangnan was often wet and rainy. Qianlong seeked sheltered from the rain under the roof of Wang Runxing Inn in Qinghefang. Qianlong was cold and hungry, and as the emperor, did not carry any money with him. He asked the innkeeper to provide him a meal. The innkeeper did not know he was the emperor but they took pity on this tramp-looking person. So they took a fish head and cooked it with tofu and bean paste, and gave it Qianlong. He found it delicious, even more delicious than the delicacies of the royal kitchen.
After Qianlong returned to the palace, he could not forget the delicious meal in Hangzhou. He asked the royal kitchen to try to prepare it but they could never get the taste right. The following year, Qianlong went down to the south and came to Hangzhou again. He made a special trip to Wang Runxing Inn at Qinghefang. For the second time, they served him the same dish, the same taste, and he was so delighted. He revealed his identity and repaid their generosity with a plaque saying “皇饭儿” , meaning “royal cuisine”. Since then, “Qianlong fish head” becomes a famous dish.
虾爆鳝片 Deep Fried Freshwater Eel
Breaded eel with a sweet and sour sauce that is similar to BBQ sauce. Not a fan, as it was too sour.
咸呛蟹 Marinated Live Swimmer Crabs
I love marinated crab and Jiangsu has many fantastic variations – soaked in wine, soaked in soy sauce and chili, and in this one soaked in wine and soy sauce. Sure is saltish, but still very satisfying.
咸肉青葱榆耳 Chinese Leeks with Salted Pork and Elm Fungus
The most boring dish of the evening – Chinese leeks with salted pork belly.
Hangzhou is also famous for its pastries. This restaurant especially, they made them and shipped them worldwide. Japanese tourists were especially fond of buying the pastries from this place and bringing them back as omiyage. Not difficult to see why.
Lotus Puff and Longjin Tea Puff 荷花酥 龙井茶酥
These were puff pastries with date paste as filling. Very fluffy, they crumbled with every bite.
Victory Cake 南宋定胜糕
In Southern Song dynasty, the army of General Han of Hangzhou would prepare this glutinous cake with a sweet taste to give to the soldiers to wish them victory. On each cake was the word 定勝 meaning “Sure Victory”. Filled with red bean paste.
West Lake Snow Lady 西湖雪媚娘
I am not kidding, this is the official translation of this sweet glutinous rice ball similar to mochi on the G20 Hangzhou 2016 website. It was one of the must-eat pastry of Hangzhou. The snow white skin of the glutinous ball was chewy and cool to taste due to the icing sugar used to coat the exterior. The inside filing is either custard, red bean, mung bean or green tea paste.
And then there were courses which were not from this part of China. Very forgettable, regretted to order these.
Tree Mushroom with Clams 茶树菇炒鲜蛏
Not a memorable dish.
Potato Gratin 起司焗土豆
Fried Fish Paste with Spinach 桃花时蔬
Three strikes out.
This is a very large complex that can cater to over 2000 people to dine at the same time. There are other branches, but to have a really good experience, come in a big group and order more variety.
电话： 0571-87970568 0571-87971913
Date Visited : May 2018