Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Best Places to Eat West Lake Fish

In the Chinese town of Hangzhou in Zhejiang, the blue waters of West Lake slowly darken in the twilight, as couples take an evening stroll beneath the ornamental trees lining the shore. As diners marvel at the view from a waterside restaurant, a plate of fragrant West Lake fish arrives at the table, taking its place among a feast of other culinary delights.

A center of trade and business for over 1,000 years, Hangzhou sprang up during the Tang dynasty on fertile, newly reclaimed plains between eastern China’s riverlands and the sea. The Grand Canal brought in merchants, whose money spawned a leisured class that grew fond of the gently poetic scenery of nearby West Lake. The city reached its zenith as China’s capital during the 13th-century Southern Song dynasty, but the countryside – and West Lake in particular – has never lost its place in the Chinese mind as the epitome of cultural refinement and natural elegance. Poets, emperors, gastronomes, and even Marco Polo have all been drawn here, the latter writing that a cruise around West Lake was one of the most pleasurable experiences in the world.

Today the lakeshore shows off the subtlety of Chinese landscaping, taking nature as its starting point but skillfully tweaking it by adding strategically placed paths, arched bridges, temples, and historical monuments to the gently modeled parks and woodlands. A similar vein of artful conceit runs through the local food, which offers apparently simple dishes with clear flavors, often sweet and rich, whose appearance is refined to the point of pretension – all concealing a huge amount of exacting preparation.
West Lake and its surrounds have always provided a rich assortment of foods, and it has been a place for leisurely fun since its artificial formation from a natural bay in the 8th century. Its high point has long been the Mid-Autumn Festival, when families and friends gather to see the full moon over the water.
Cruise boats on the lake traditionally served wine and food, and fish – considered auspicious – would naturally be on the menu.
The need to cook quickly in a confined space probably accounts for the simplicity of these dishes, many of which can still be enjoyed today. The West Lake fish itself is in fact a whole carp, which is poached with ginger and then coated with a sticky sweet-and-sour sauce made from its cooking liquid, sugar, and the local black vinegar. Served alongside crisply stir-fried shrimp, soy-braised pork, and a freshly opened parcel of “Beggar’s Chicken,” this famous fish completes a classic eastern Chinese meal.

The vast, tranquil expanse of West Lake (Xi Hu) is ringed by stunning tourist attractions, but its serenity is easily enjoyed from a simple walk along its shores

A Day around West Lake
There’s no reason to linger in humdrum Hangzhou; the main attraction is West Lake itself and the sights scattered around its shore.
MORNING : In the north lake area, visit the tomb of General Yue Fei (1103–42), a patriotic Song general who defended China against the invading Jurchen armies; the tomb features some extraordinary statuary, including a 15-ft (4.5-m) statue of the general himself. Then delve further into local history at the Zhejiang Provincial Museum. From here, cross south over the lake on foot via the Su Di Causeway, planted with willow and plum trees. Detour to tiny Xiaoying Island, covered in pagodas and reached over a bridge. On the south shore, enjoy a peaceful walk in attractive Huagang Park, which was laid out in Song times.
AFTERNOON : Catch a cab to Lingyin Temple, a famous Zen Buddhist retreat some 2 miles (3 km) west of the lake at Feilai Hill. Then take a second cab ride to Longjing village to tour the family-run tea factories and plantations.
EVENING : Return to West Lake and rent a wooden sampan for a short cruise, before finally tucking into local fare at one of the shoreside restaurants.
Best Places to Eat West Lake Fish in China
Lou Wai Lou
If elegant food served in a lakeside setting is what Hangzhou is all about, then Lou Wai Lou – the “Tower Beyond Towers” – is the best restaurant in town. Right on the waterfront, this palatial institution has been in business since the 19th century. It is renowned for its West Lake fish, mooncakes (available during the Mid-Autumn Festival), and dongpo rou – fatty cubes of pork belly slow-braised to a buttery softness, attributed to the ubiquitous Su Dongpo. Other specialties include the banquet classic bai niao chao feng, a whole chicken braised in stock, and xiang xia guoba, shrimp soup poured over sizzling, crispy-fried rice crusts. The decor is a little heavy-handed – sparkling chandeliers, red carpets, gold wallpaper, and dark wooden screens and furniture – though you’d expect nothing less of a restaurant that has its own gilded pavilion moored in the lake. This is accessible only by private boat, and provides the ultimate location for a moonlit evening of gastronomic delight and contemplation.
30 Gu Shan Lu, Hangzhou; open 8:30 AM–8:30 PM daily; www.louwailou.com.cn (needs translation)
Also in Hangzhou
Tian Wai Tian (+86 571 8796 5450; moderate) is situated in the hills west of Hangzhou, outside the Lingyin Temple. This century-old restaurant features an extensive vegetarian menu alongside local dishes including West Lake fish, Beggar’s Chicken (baked in a clay coating, cracked open at the table), and subtly scented freshwater prawns stir-fried with Longjing tea leaves. It is not as refined as some of the lakeside restaurants, but the food is reliably good.
Also in China
In Shanghai, Xin Kai Yuan (+86 21 6439 7999; moderate) is one of a stylish, city-wide chain of restaurants specializing in Hangzhou cuisine, with all the usual favorites, though you should concentrate on their immaculate dongpo rou and duck soup, both indulgently rich dishes without a trace of greasiness. After this, the inevitably oversized restaurant lobby, groaning under an ostentatious dressing of marble and auspicious decorations, is excusable in a city that cherishes conspicuous wealth.
In Hong Kong, Tien Heung Lau (+86 852 2366 2414; moderate) is a Hangzhou-style restaurant to which elegant furnishings and attentive service are completely alien. But don’t be put off – the food is superb and fresh (many of their classic dishes have to be ordered in advance), including the outstandingly fragrant Beggar’s Chicken, crispy eel, and succulent smoked yellow croaker. If you visit in the fall, try the steamed whole crab or fried shredded crab with noodles.

Longjing Tea

The gently undulating hills southwest of Hangzhou are terraced with plantations sprouting the renowned Longjing tea, one of China’s most famous brews. Its name, meaning “Dragon Well,” comes from the village and water source of Longjing, near West Lake, but the finest brew is said to be prepared using water from Hupaomeng Quan (“Running-Tiger Dream Spring”), a famous spring in Hangzhou. Longjing is a green tea, whose leaf-buds are picked and dried immediately without allowing them to ferment, creating a pale yellow, delicately aromatic tea. Hangzhou governor and man of letters Su Dongpo (1037–1101) recorded the wonders of this tea, and it was a favorite of the great emperor Qianlong (1711–99), who visited Hangzhou during the 18th century.
Getting to Hangzhou
Fly to Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport and take an airport shuttle bus or taxi to Hangzhou. You can also reach the town by train from many other Chinese cities. West Lake is immediately west of Hangzhou.

Where to stay in West Lake in Hangzhou

West Lake Youth Hostel (inexpensive) has friendly, basic dorms and doubles just south of the lake. www.westlakehostel.com
Crystal Orange Hotel (moderate) has boutique rooms near the shore. +86 571 2887 8988
Ramada Plaza (expensive) is an upmarket chain hotel with attentive service situated on the north shore of the lake. www.ramada.com
Hangzhou Tourist Center; www.hicenter.cn

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