Wudaoying Hutong’s Chi Restaurant (that’s chi
as in ‘eat’) is very much its parents’ child. Nathan Zhang of nearby up-cycling charity shop Brand Nü and chef Yao Yang, of Spanish spot Saffron, have created a sustainable dining venue set in a little restored hall, complete with peeling concrete walls surrounding an open kitchen built of unfinished wood. You’re eating in a crumbling building, but that’s part of the theme. It’s all about the ethics of urban renewal and sustainability, with a dedication to local eating and organic food even printed on the receipts.
The location could make this a tough sell: fixie bikes zip up and down the street, carrying environmentally aware Westerners who are used to seeing restaurants carting in vegetables from squeaky-clean organic farms. But even if the novelty’s worn off in this area, Chi has a cute gimmick: it claims its ingredients are so fresh that chefs rewrite the menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner every single day to accommodate each morning’s haul.
It takes plenty of moxie to pull off something like that in a city like Beijing. Diners are asked to sit down nearly blind for a lengthy, drawn out procession of small plates at dinnertime (around 240RMB for seven mini-courses). Dinner flows and swells long into the night, a smooth series of dishes that creatively stresses the freshness and purity of the ingredients. Good thing they’re organic, or as close as you can get in China, right? Well, not really – the veg is from a squeaky-clean farm up north, but the rest is only organic when it can be. This doesn’t prevent Yao from working out a charming farm-to-restaurant aesthetic on the tables. A pleasant distraction from the fact that not all of the food is as sustainable as you might like.
Diners begin with a hunk of crusty bread. Tear it apart and drag it through the red-pepper sauce smeared along the plate, and if there’s any left, sop up the shallow mound of mashed eggplant. The eggplant is cooling, rich and flecked with piercing nubs of garlic, all topped off with a miso dressing.
As dishes get more intricate, the flavours become more and more playful, such as the juicy grape halves hidden in a succulent pudding of pumpkin purée and slivers of fried foie gras. A burly scallop arrives juicy and seared, sharing a shell with smooth, slightly sweet corn mash. The duo are then powdered with paprika and drizzled with vinaigrette to bring out a pleasing contrast.
The constant turnover of new recipes means that most bad dishes don’t stay in rotation for long, but some duds occasionally make it through. You’d hope they’d have tossed out the recipe for the brutal loaf of ground mutton, over-spiced and dry, brought back to life only through a salve of cucumber, mint and yogurt. The bland seafood risotto needs throwing back in the ocean as well. But Chi never really claims to be hobnobbing among the fine-dining royalty, as highlighted by the chefs sprinkling pulverised Oreos over a heartbreakingly creamy panna cotta.
Lunch, too, has its struggles. For a soup-and-main set menu, 80RMB is still a wallop compared to other business lunches around town. The mushroom soup is warming, but can’t break the functional mould. The same goes for the spaghetti, which has all the depth and character of something from a kid’s menu, even with the al dentenoodles and meaty tubes from Beijing’s own Andy’s Craft Sausages. The ciabatta, slick with avocado and shrimp, has some taste, but the spongy bread irritatingly takes centre stage.
Even with the marathon dining plan, Chi is best addressed as an incubator for organic ideas than green-eats gluttony. The menu frequently feels like something you could go home and cook, but they’re so giddy in making it for you it’s hard not to share the enthusiasm. Hopefully the restaurant itself can be as sustainable as its ethos.
By Sean Silbert