19 January 2016

Take a break on Chang'an Avenue

It is a prestigious neighborhood full of movers and shakers. On the right is Tian'anmen, where the portrait of the nation's founding father gazes down on tourist hordes come to pay homage.

On the left is the capital's shrine to free economy, the Wangfujing shopper's paradise and the multiple annexes of the Oriental Plaza where almost all of the world's couture brands are represented.

And in the middle are the three heritage brands occupying what was Beijing's oldest and best-known hotel block. Sandwiched between Beijing Hotel and Grand Hotel Beijing is Raffles Beijing, the 125-year-old grand dame named after the founder of modern Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles.

Just like its sister establishment in Singapore, the Raffles Beijing lives up to the iconic image.

Take a break on Chang'an Avenue
The block it occupies was the site of a venerable institution of hospitality that has seen presidents and premiers dining and dancing on its ancient parquet floors.

If you go into the main dining room now, you can see plenty of evidence: walls decorated by photos of statesmen and dignitaries from decades past.
But what attract current clientele to the Raffles Beijing are the rare treats in its restaurants.

At the Writers Bar, a new all-day dining menu means those who need refuge from the pressures of business and corporate battles can now drop in for a comforting bite any time of the day.

According to resident manager Christian Westbeld and executive chef Christian Rose, they want to offer a dining experience that is both casual and comfortable. It will also bring back the old-time favorites from the age of classic fine dining, but in manageable modern-day portions.

This is especially true of its steak tartare, which Westbeld says was de rigueur on the menu of any self-respecting top class European hotel.

It's raw beef - the best cut finely diced, not minced, and paired with capers, onions, Worcestershire sauce and other secret seasonings. At the Raffles Beijing, it arrives topped with a barely poached quail's egg and a rye bread wafer.

To eat it, you have to break the creamy egg yolk into the meat. Each forkful is full of meat juices and delicate seasoning with onions giving it a hint of crunch. There is no raw pungency, and you forget it is uncooked meat. The juices are sweet in the mouth and it's easy eating.

However, it does require a sophisticated palate to enjoy steak tartare, and the more squeamish may want to look at the other all-day dining delights such as a delicious hotdog, a lovely Caprese salad with sweet tomatoes and baby mozzarella or a beef burger.

My niece assures me it's the desserts that are "to die for". New York classic cheesecake is indeed light as air and easily demolished. The warm apple crumble cake, too, is a favorite order and speaks of ladies who lunch, and take tea.

But that's exactly it. The Raffles Beijing represents the elegance of a forgotten time, and it is very comforting to escape and seek solace in its deep-seated damask armchairs and sip tea and eat cake.

And of course, now that the chef has decided we can eat our favorites all day long as well, it's even better, old chap.