We've no word yet on whether the completion of China Zun, Beijing's soon-to-be newest tallest building, will bring with it the next 'highest restaurant in Beijing' but, for now, the current holder of that title – the China World Summit Wing's inimitable Grill 79 – continues to provide one of the more resplendent dining experiences in the capital.
Under the guidance of its newly arrived head chef, the widely travelled Aussie John-Paul 'JP' Fiechtner, its new menu hits appropriate heights. Fiechtner's most recent venture, his own restaurant Thirteen Duxton Hill in Singapore, was a raging success for its flexible menu that changed daily according to what he and his team picked up at the market that morning.
That adaptability and breadth of experience seem to translate well to his Grill 79 offerings, with more delicate seafood options and entrées matched by the richer, more girthsome plates one would expect of anywhere with 'grill' in the name. Among them, his rich take on the pigeon, slowly wood-roasted and served alongside a pear purée and a light filo pastry, is a marvellous, gamier treat seldom seen in Beijing.
Grill 79's setting, in which the requisite opulence of such an esteemed locale can leave it feeling a little serious and ceremonious, is loosened up a touch by a few of the menu's more playful turns, notably some more relaxed takes on dessert: one standout sees a veritable holy trinity of corn – crystallised polenta, popcorn ice cream and a sweetcorn custard – come together for an excellent sweet finale.
As ever, some of the figures on the menu can intimidate, but more accessible options feature throughout, while set lunch menus – previously lamented in our 2012 review – are much improved, with a broader choice and fairer price (two courses, 298RMB; three courses 368RMB; four courses 438RMB, all plus 6 percent tax). Smaller entrées, including a truffle-infused mushroom risotto and a beef tartare, move onto some no-nonsense mains, namely a steak frites, a pesto squid, poached cod and even a suckling pig porchetta. All up, it might be a touch rich, but your lunch break skyward won't leave you feeling short changed, nor unfulfilled.
And food aside, if you're up here on a clear day or evening, that view from the 79th floor is still one of a kind in our fair city. Whatever China Zun comes up with when it opens later this year (Grill 108, perhaps?), it'll have its work cut out to get head and shoulders above Grill 79's place at the summit of Beijing high-altitude dining.
Original review – September 2012
Beijing's tallest restaurant, Grill 79 sounds like it should be a simple steakhouse, but despite a page dedicated to steak, the menu is creative and tantalisingly written to tempt you. And you will be tempted. If you’re being courted here, marry the guy. If it’s the first date, you’ll probably get lucky. If you’re on expenses, go for it.
The menu can intimidate, with pricey American Kumamoto oysters at 64RMB a piece. That’s a lot to shell out for a bivalve. It’s clear you’re paying for first class airfare when you’re this high up and surrounded by fine-cut Murano chandeliers, and big wines are being run back and forth in the velvet landing strip of a dining room by sommelier Koen Masschelein, formerly of the venerable Maison Boulud.
Romaine is the code word for Caesar a triple tower of leaves wrapped in celery root with a lightly smoked quail egg and an odd ‘parmesan sandwich’. It’s one of the most creative salads and delightful. A chicken carpaccio is excitingly described with pumpernickel, lychee, lavender, and ginger beer. But what arrives is thinly sliced cooked chicken that resembles a blandly mute cold cut layered in a mound on pumpernickel. The other exciting flavours are missing on what feels like a fancy open sandwich.
A celeriac velouté with brown butter ice cream and candied bacon arrives with a quenelle of ice cream melting in a warm empty bowl with sprinklings of bacon. A waiter pours in the soup that dissolves the ice cream so quickly that there’s no chance to taste anything separately. The true taste of brown butter ice cream remains a mystery (the same thing also happens at lunch with the sweet corn nage that has sourdough ice cream). The nage appears again with the warm oyster, but the draw to order this is the tempura pig ears and sea urchin roe. It’s not the rock star we expect, more like a quiet solo act with tough pig appendages.
The lamb sirloin is fun, coming with long beans, edamame and a shallot ceviche. A little miso gives a massive assurance of flavour to tender lamb. The odd man out on this plate is the pickled blueberries. They’re tough-skinned, out of season and add nothing. Fish lovers will be happy with the wild Atlantic sea bass, a safe but good choice, but gourmands may be bored. If you get sides, the shallot tarte Tatin is going to make you smile bite after bite while the fondant potato is a homely mash that goes down easy.
Sour cherry financier is a bar of rich, dense almondy cake that’s a natural partner to cherries, even if it’s not their season. The chocolate pavé is highlighted with Espelette chilli that was the new flavour toy a few years ago. It’s still great and pairs well with chocolate and basil – a fine tasting trio.
Lunch options are limited. There’s a different menu featuring a salt-baked chicken leg that couldn’t be more boring, served as a whole leg quarter. And while nothing is better than meat served on the bone, it’s a lazy and uncreative presentation; a misfit in this dining room where expectations run high. At dessert, the chocolate Liégeois is a delicious sundae with icy coffee granita at the bottom, rich cream and chocolate ice cream on the floors above. But, like the chicken leg, this sweet finish is cheapened when dumped into a clear handled mug, the kind you get in a TGI Friday’s when you order a cappuccino.
The new Shangri-la is for burghers and high falutin’ denizens, but lunch is a great option if you’re on a budget (two courses 160RMB; three courses 190RMB). You won’t have the powerful view you do at night though. Note also that Ryan Dadufalza, the new chef, has only recently arrived. He carries the fire in this kitchen well, yet the new menu he is promising is still some time off arriving. Until then, the food and the air up in Beijing’s highest dining room are just fine.