Shao Xing has, in one fell swoop, managed to turn my pre-conception of tourist restaurants as being overpriced, underflavoured traps on its head. Trying to escape the relentless rain near Lu Xun street, we followed a small conga line of umbrellas into the Xianheng Restaurant (open since 1894). Ahead of us, a huge hall opened out, filled with black laquered square tables and low square stools. There were two hundred people inside, all with the excited buzz and anticipation that comes with a great meal.
The main tourist street of Shao Xing is right outside the restaurant, the site of the birthplace and childhood home of China's most celebrated modern writer, Lu Xun (1881-1936). I guess that, seeing as the restaurant opened when Lu Xun was only thirteen, it can't really be accused of capitalising on his fame, but it now feeds around eight hundred tourists every day. Very well, as it turns out.
There is no menu, just a long open kitchen and glass shelves stacked with bowls and dishes of fabulous food. You buy a card at the cashier, pre-loaded with a cash value you decide, then line up at the kitchen and point to what you'd like. Traditionally, the 'Ten Dishes Feast' was a way to celebrate a meal when family come together. It wasn't hard to find ten dishes I liked the look of: Xian Beng chicken pickled in fermented rice wine sauce, dried beancurd with Kalimeris Indica, red dates in Tandiao rice wine, dried bream seasoned with soy sauce, or pork belly with fermented green vegetables.
We settled on the crispy skinned chicken - crunchy, salty and with tender and succulent meat; green peppers with eggplant and fermented beans; the pork belly - sweet, melting cubes of pork belly resting on a pile of shredded, salted, preserved green vegetables; and smoky red dates cooked in tiajiao wine. The smoky flavour of the dates was a real surprise, and married well with their sweetness. Not surprisingly the food goes really well with Shao Xing wine, although we stuck with fresh green tea poured from a simple white porcelain teapot with blue trim into small white cups stamped with the restaurant's trademark.
Around us the chatter of families enjoying lunch was rising to a crescendo. There were piles of spat out bones, seeds, prawn shells, and snail shells in piles next to each and every person. All that was left of our meal was the chicken's head. That crispy chicken was good. Really good. But I still can't bring myself to eat the head.
Xian Heng Restaurant (Xian Heng Jiu Dian)
179 Luxun Zhong Lu, Yuecheng District, Shao Xing
Open 7 days for lunch and dinner
Ph: +86 (0)575 8511 6666
Labels: food, Shao Xing