14 December 2016

Beefing it up

Beefing it up
Restaurant Char in Beijing serves the seafood combo called "Char indulgence"-fillet of Blackmore Wagyu with grilled lobster, foie gras and truffle mash potato.


A Beijing steak emporium makes the most of Australia's top steaks, Mike Peters reports.

A famous TV ad for hamburgers once challenged viewers by asking: "Where's the beef?'

If that's a question you find yourself asking in Beijing, maybe you should stop by Char.

The restaurant had a splashy opening this summer in Beijing's Lido area, and recently launched a sibling in Topwin Center.

What we have here is a celebration of great beef. At the top of the line, that's David Blackmore Wagyu, a star of Australia's cattle industry with its long bloodlines and sustainable ranching practices. Several Beijing restaurants offer the pricey Blackmore Wagyu at wine dinners and special events; Char serves it up every day.

The restaurant space is comfortably open but the coloring has the warmth of a snug pub. Red brick, red leather and red lighting complements rich woods that highlight the decor. The background music can be a little too laid-back (think Kenny G), but before that wears too thin the soundtrack shifts to smoky. Is that Edith Piaf we hear? If not, the voice is seductively similar.

Our meal started with a perfectly crusty round of Italian-style bread, hot from the oven and served with both pesto and a savory herb butter.

Next came a beautiful platter of six Guillardeau French oysters (388 yuan, or $56), fresh and as delicious as the vision promised, but two were surprisingly gritty for the price and tone of the establishment.

Our Wagyu surf-and-turf plate (the menu calls the steak and seafood combo "Char indulgence") is a 120-gram fillet of Blackmore Wagyu, fed for at least 600 days in the traditional Japanese style out in the countryside of Oz. It comes with grilled lobster, foie gras and truffle mash potato for 1,208 yuan; you can get a bigger hunk of Wagyu, 180 grams, for 1,588 yuan.

The steak was a hymn made flesh, cooked medium to order and so tender we might have been able to cut it with a fork. We didn't bother to try, however, because our server presented us with a wooden box with five fancy steak knives from around the world. The most popular, we're told, is amber-handled Laguiole from France, though we thought the black-grip Global from Japan was tres chic.

Chef Fernando Tabernero's way of cooking is to focus on simplicity and flavor, and our fillet is an example of how he simply unleashes the flavors of superbly sourced ingredients instead of depending on sauces and such to carry the day.

The Spanish chef clearly sees salt's potential to make the most of his meats, and steaks are served with six different sea salts, including Nordic rosemary, black lava and a very sexy smoked salt. A little goes a long way.

There are also three mustards on offer, and while we didn't doubt their quality, it seemed like gilding the lily. We left our Wagyu unadorned, except for salt and a smidgeon of black-pepper sauce.

The shelled lobster was pretty as a picture, like the oysters, but plated next to the perfectly executed Wagyu it was short of the mark. (Translation: Tasty but a tad overcooked. A touch of the elegant salt helped us get over it.)

If you need to skip the Wagyu until you win the lottery, Char has quality beef options for more modest spenders. A 200-gram eye fillet of O'Connor grass-fed beef, also Australian, runs 368 yuan, while a 250-gram rib-eye-a cut which many consider to be the flavor king of steak-is a mere 258 yuan. Similar cuts of grain-fed Black Angus are similarly priced.

While this is no burger joint, Char also serves up a widely praised burger. It's Wagyu, too.

Besides the truffle mashed potatoes that came with our beef platter, we chose a side of asparagus, which came au gratin with Parmentier cheese, truffle, one of those trendy 38 C eggs and a nice textural addition of quinoa.

Dessert, if you have room, deserves special consideration. We tried two: a chocolate fondant with a molten center and vanilla ice cream, and an apple tart tatin that was simply a stunner.

Why?

The kitchen honors the simplicity of the apple as much as the simplicity of great beef. The pastry base is made with little if any sugar, and the slices of fruit are sweetened and spiced just as sparingly. The result is not the gloppy tart favored by many pastry chefs but a trophy of bare-naked apple goodness on a crust that's baked hot and fast, giving the edges a crisp edge like a pizza.

Almost ... charred.

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