Located near the Purple Bamboo Park, at the Shangri-La Hotel Beijing is STAY, an acronym for ‘Simple Table Alléno Yannick’. The concept is one of easy comfort food without the fuss, all served in a beautiful setting. It comes from five-time Michelin-starred French chef Yannick Alléno, whose empire now comprises 15 restaurants in six countries.
When you’re seated, a tiny lazy Susan is filled with treats, including fresh cherry radishes dipped in tempered butter like bonbons; fried snapper goujons with a herby remoulade; and an hors d’oeuvre described as ‘a 3D pizza bite’ with a cube of tomato intensity, micro shavings of cheese, fine cuts of olive and little cracker-crust handles for grabbing. There is a chequerboard of puréed ham and butter to spread on something from your breadbasket. And it’s a great beginning.
At dinner, two set menus are priced at 1,288RMB for eight courses and 528RMB for four courses. If you really want to taste, then opt for the lavish degustation menu. The foie gras (238RMB) is silky and perfect on one night, slightly overcooked on another. The sweetcorn reduction with bacon pools beneath it is wonderful, creamy and sweet, despite being in the wrong season.
There has been a buzz about the quail eggs with sea urchin coral starter. A trio of large, spiky brown nests are filled with a trove of rich decadence: two lightly poached quail eggs, a creamy slick of crème fraiche over dark urchin roe, topped with generous dollops of Schrenckii caviar. This caviar is farmed and produces large hutong-greycoloured beads that pop deliciously briny flavours. The order is huge, comprising a total of six quail eggs and 30 grams of caviar (not that one can ever have too much). This rich starter costs a staggering 698RMB – a price where one expects the sea urchins to be flown in first-class from, say Japan. However, not only are they the star on the menu but also the weakest in flavour; and they are almost offputting when a waiter admits that the sea urchin comes from Dalian.
The chicken pot au feu (298RMB) is simply chicken breast, skinless and tender, served with common vegetables like carrots and celery, all cut into classic French shapes. It is a humble dish served in opulence, while the black cod in seaweed butter (298RMB) feels like a Michelinstarred chef has worked some magic on the plate, and for the same price.
The duck à la royale (328RMB) is a signature dish that is an example of classical French cuisine, albeit traditionally made with hare. For China, the dish features duck instead. According to chef de cuisine Maxime Gilbert, a Bordeaux native who has worked with Alléno for ten years, the dish takes over 40 hours to prepare and calls for stocks and consommé to be reduced and concentrated. The result is a vault of flavour that is packed with forcemeat and a hidden piece of liver beneath a larger slice of seared liver. It’s a big disc of brown with an even browner sauce that’s deeply intense and salted just over the tipping point. A side dish of buttered fettuccine is bland, even with a generous shaving of local black truffles. Given all the magic surrounding each dish, the pasta is something anyone can make from a menu full of dishes that few can replicate. The side of potato purée (88RMB), which comes with even more truffles, is rich, unctuous and the definition of buttery excess. It’s divine.
A coincidental conversation later reveals Gilbert’s opinion that local Chinese do not understand French cuisine therefore adaptations are made in the selection of dishes to make them as uncomplicated as possible. This at least fits in terms of the ‘Simple Table’ concept. Levels of salt and sweetness are adjusted in the food, with 30 per cent less sugar used in the dessert recipes.
The pastry library at the back of the restaurant is an eye magnet. Illuminated shelves conjure up Wonka-like feelings for grown-ups, with glass jars full of bonbons and colourful macarons, which are for your eyes only. Desserts are 128RMB each or sold by the ribbon metre (438RMB for a half-metre; 898RMB for one metre). There are classic French desserts like profiteroles and a gateau St Honoré; but however classic the name, it's the presentation that delights, such as an artful play on lemon and lime meringue with candied peel and lime zest. The mille-feuille also comes in different flavours, although some of the crisp pastry had burnt undertones layered between vanilla crème.
The concept is simple, with a few showstoppers, and STAY can be good for those who can afford it. It’s location in Haidian may seem disadvantageous, but it seems the target clientele is not necessarily French or English speakers. STAY is not going to give you the experience of a Michelin-starred restaurant; rather, it is for those who want simple French food and can pay the price. Meal for two around 2,000RMB. Lillian Chou.