Cuisine: Imperial

Area: Yonganli

Price: 90-150 RMB per person.

Na Jia Xiaoguan is a distinctive experience. First, it is a beautiful place. All too many traditional-style restaurants in Beijing feel like their last paint job was before Liberation. At Na Jia Xiaoguan, however, the paint is new, the wood is shining: here, visitors can guess at what it was like to be rich at the height of the Qing Dynasty.

Second, the setting of the place – in view of the towers of CBD – made me feel like I was in a rarefied version of Beijing. A Beijing where traditional restaurants and neighbourhoods thrive, but the city is wealthy and international. Up to this point, I had seen this Beijing mostly in the movies.

On to the food. Unfortunately, I’m not an expert in Manchu and Imperial cuisine! However, I can say that the menu was fascinating and the dishes delicious.

We hit an interesting snag or two while ordering: the lovely waitress told us that one dish wouldn’t suit us, it was too gamey, and another soup was “unsuitable for women.” Gastronomic sexism? No, it turned out the soup involved deer penis. Thanks for the warning!

As an appetizer, we tried the Shi Ning mashed potato (世宁土豆泥). This dish was invented by an Italian painter at the Kangxi emperor’s court, who was trying to recreate Italian ice cream. The painter, however, couldn’t find the right ingredients (in the past, dairy and beef were taboo in China, much like dog meat is for many Westerners). He came up with a dish of sweetened mashed potato dressed in red bean sauce.

This is only like ice cream in the sense that it’s sweet and served cold. But it’s certainly enjoyable, simply tasting of mashed potatoes and sugar.

The “crispy shrimp with unique flavour,” 秘制酥皮虾, were bathed in a delicious sauce – a light, elegant sweet and sour. The prawns were large and meaty – I wanted them a little more tender, but their flavour was good and, looking around, we could see that this was a popular choice.

Next up, the most interesting dish of the evening: 逐鹿皇坛子, one of Na Jia Xiaoguan’s several soups that are slow-cooked for at least 18 hours. Ours included venison (the Manchu were famous hunters), mushroom, egg and medlar.

The soup did taste wonderful, but after all the difficulty of its preparation, I was surprised: its flavours were simple and earthy, to me tasting mostly like excellent chicken broth and eggs. It was very satisfying, with its unusual thick texture making it more filling than most soups. And then, we tried the condiments:

That little square of tofu in the foreground looks innocent, even bland, but that couldn’t be more wrong. This would be the thing to give anyone who things tofu is “boring.” That little square was my first taste of fermented tofu, 豆腐乳, and one tiny speck of it on the tip of a chopstick was almost overpowering. It tasted first shockingly salty, then funky and sweet like overripe fruit. And it was strong – two of us were only able to consume half the block. It was absolutely sensational.

Finally, the conghua bing 葱花饼 were crispy, just greasy enough and mildly flavoured – a strong finish to a fascinating meal. Na Jia Xiaoguan is perfect for new visitors to Beijing, and for those who want a glimpse into the city’s past and possible future.

Na Jia Xiaoguan/那家小馆

Jianguomen Wai, just southwest of Yonganli subway station, beside Elementary School no. 119. Look for the one traditional-looking house behind the LG building.
朝阳区建国门外永安里(119中学西边)

Dianping page.

The Beijinger listing.

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