First published on 30 May 2012. Updated on 17 May 2013.
Qianmen 23 used to house a cluster of fine restaurants, but since its opening in 2008 it has seen a string of closures. The newest addition is Lost Heaven, which is making a splash in the corner slot between Maison Boulud à Pékin and Sadler, and hopes to bring more life to the struggling compound.
The restaurant’s name is inspired by Lost Horizon, James Hilton’s story of the timeless, mystical, paradise-like valley of Shangri-La. With two successful branches in Shanghai, this new house of high-brow, swanky, tribal coolness endeavours to seduce you with a likeably sophisticated style. Diners are illuminated beneath a glow of ethnic mystique, surrounded by beautiful patterns and vibrant colours.
Although Lost Heaven is billed as a Yunnanese restaurant, the food is modern-creative, inspired by the legendary Ancient Tea Horse Trail that winds throughout Yunnan, Burma (also known as Myanmar) and Tibet. The journey reveals the treasured flavours of the numerous minority groups in the region, such as the Dai, Bai, Yi, Miao and Naxi. Young chef Li Zhire, from a city near Kunming, leads the kitchen, forging an abundance of provincial ingredients into new combinations that will make you swoon.
Lost Heaven's menu is huge, leaving small tables with a quandary of choice, so go with a larger clan if you can. Start the evening with a cocktail called the Thai zeed (60RMB), an elixir defined by refreshing coconut, chillies, and a sweet edge. The non-alcoholic drinks are less lovable, like the strongly flavoured tamarind and palm sugar cocktail that shivers with too much sweetness. Nibble on crisp wild-weed vegetable cakes (40RMB) flecked with willow leaves and wa coriander
, the pungent leaf called culantro (not to be confused with cilantro) in Latin cuisine. They lend a herbal undertone that complements a crisp, pocked surface speckled with local mountain pine grains that go better with a swipe of tomato chutney and a cocktail.
Burma’s classic laphet thoke, a Shan ethnic tradition, crosses the border to Yunnan renamed as ‘tea leaf and cabbage salad’ (60RMB). It’s lively with fresh-fried peas and favas that hold their bright colour and nutty flavour, exploding in detonations of beany crunch between shreds of cabbage and pickled tea leaves. It’s a refreshing dish to revisit throughout the meal.
A chilled starter salad features soft, fleshy eggplant with annoyingly tough skins beneath slabs of soft, cool tofu, drinking in a delicious sauce under crumbles of fried garlic (50RMB). Dali-style chicken with chilli and green onions (68RMB) are tender skin-on thighs, pan-fried crisp and splayed beneath a green mountain of scallion and herbs, although the chilli is weak. The ‘tribe chicken with seven spices’ (68RMB) is a tender epiphany of silky shreds enveloped in flavour. An odd display of cod fish – relatively unknown in Yunnan – and local sea bass dominate the seafood options.
Lost Heaven shows less dedication to the shroomy flavours that are one of Yunnan’s highlights. A not-so-well-known bai sen mushroom is scrambled with eggs (80RMB) but fails miserably. The petals of these delicate-looking mushrooms have a chewy, fibrous texture that clashes with pale eggs that are insipid and tough.
Pork ribs in black rose sauce (88RMB) are dark inky nuggets that dance between near-overwhelmingly strong flavours and slow-cooked sweet undertones, giving a floral reminder of the blossomy influence of this province’s cuisine. Mount Ka-La grilled pork neck is sliced razor thin and is delicious with a chilli-flecked dip that’s wonderful – until it’s repeated, minus the chillies, with the less successful copper plate potstickers (60RMB/33RMB, full/ half portion). The crisp-bottomed bundles are well-intended and beautifully pleated, but woody with a fibrous siege of lemongrass and herbs that tip over the balance of a good pork dumpling. Go with the Yunnan rice cakes (66RMB), mingled with legendary Xuanwei ham and preserved vegetables that are chewy home-style treasures. The 10RMB bowl of steamed rice may seem expensive, but each perfect grain is justified.
The sizeable menu warrants repeat visits, and on good days the outside terrace and concerned service are gracious bonuses. Suffer the traffic to get to Qianmen 23 and get lost in a taste of heaven.