When it opened on the edge of the Forbidden City in 1996, the original Courtyard restaurant was a benchmark for Beijing eats: the first fine-dining destination outside of a hotel. It was a big deal. Beijing has the most millionaires of any city in China, and the French-food venue filled a remarkable gap in fine cuisine. But little of that first Courtyard remains in its newest incarnation; chef and owner Brian McKenna has thrown out pretty much all of what went before, and created a new restaurant in his own image.
The main dining area now has just nine tables, and almost as many servers standing at attention to provide for them. The gently spot-lit tables are set well apart from each other, creating an intimacy broken only when servers politely proclaim what is arriving next. At least they know; those on reception are less clued up. When we called, shortly after the restaurant came out of soft launch, to establish whether it had a full à la carte menu, we were told one would begin ‘next Monday’. We subsequently arrived to find only a six-course tasting menu (588RMB). One month later we asked again. The reply? Still ‘next Monday’. And yet, on our next visit, only that same tasting menu was available. Our beer columnist had similar problems finding out whether the house beer (80RMB) was or wasn’t on tap. So we sat down to try the set menu – à la carte prices had still not been confirmed at time of going to print – and found it to be just as much of a ‘Look what I can do!’ showcase as a meal.
Through the (now-closed) Blu Lobster and, later, ROOMbeijing
, Brian McKenna established himself as a Beijing fine-dining fixture, making his food part of the capital’s mix. And now that he’s been established, The Courtyard is his way to peacock around. This becomes immediately obvious when the amuse bouches
arrive: a mild leek-and-coconut soup in a test tube, and a delectable oyster in a lime rind full of fizzing, crackling pop rocks are two highlights. Likewise the house-made butter and loaf of freshly baked sourdough. Sourdough! Hardly anywhere else has sourdough, and many a Chinese customer didn’t touch it. But it’s clear that McKenna isn’t really making food for them, or for anyone else; he’s invested millions in the restaurant and that means he’ll do things his
way, with his
menu and his
food. The place is named after him for a reason.
This might rub some up the wrong way, but McKenna at least has the culinary chops to put his money where his mouth is (and vice versa). His ‘garden salad’, which arrives in a clear plastic cube and resembles a miniature garden, seems like a food wonder on first glance: a smattering of seasonal vegetables (including, on our visit, radishes and miniature carrots), and potatoes that look like rocks, ‘soil’ composed of various ingredients, a cube of dried olive salad dressing, an egg poached at exactly 60°C, and cutlery in the form of a mini rake and hoe. Unfortunately, it’s been done before – most notably when it was popularised by molecular gastronomist Heston Blumenthal – and the silver potato ‘pebbles’ were originally from the Spanish molecular gastronomy restaurant Mugaritz. This last point is acknowledged on the menu. Then again, so what? It’s not necessary for everything to be completely original in order to enjoy it, only for it to be good. Sadly, the salad itself was paltry, and the egg overwhelmed many of the other flavours, which could have used something a little bit more substantial to bring balance.
The menu is relentlessly playful. Brought over from his days at ROOMbeijing, McKenna’s fiery, flavourful risotto is a high point: a thick portion of chilli-accentuated rice, tempered by a dollop of smooth avocado ice cream that cools and enlivens the dish. Elsewhere, one perfect scallop is paired with cauliflower served four different ways – as couscous, tempura, carpaccio and purée – all paired with textured, crunchy Moroccan sugar. A medallion of silky, grilled foie gras paired with apple chutney upstages the slippery, bland salmon, which would have been vastly improved with a little texture – a crispy surface would have gone a long way. That’s followed up with a substantial portion of through-and-through succulent tenderloin, served up next to a hollowed bone packed with more juicy meat.
McKenna’s signature dessert is a chocolate Terracotta Warrior with an orange-sauce interior, poking out from a pile of chocolate-crumb ‘soil’ under which is buried five more types of mandarin-flavoured sweetness. The stiff, but otherwise fine, chocolate is impossible to cut, so smashing him open is your only choice, though sifting through the chocolate soil looking for tasty bits of sorbet and jelly is fun.
The cocktail list served up in the basement bar (which also has a smoking room and cigars for sale; prices tbc), is similarly whimsical, with a drink for each animal of the Chinese zodiac. The ‘rooster’ is bitter and harsh, a strange mix of champagne and thick Guinness, while the tart ‘horse’ is more refreshing and potently sippable; both are fun to imbibe while looking out through the window at the Forbidden City’s moat, which lies at eye level from the room.
While not all of the dishes here are perfect – and the lack of organisation we encountered with regard to the permanent menu and microbrewed beer was jaw-dropping – there really isn’t anything like Brian McKenna’s imagination in Beijing right now. At the very least, it’s finally okay to play with your food – and that’s true for both you and your chef.