Food Diary: My 40th Birthday at the Best Restaurant in China – Dragon Well Manor

Entrance to Dragon Well Manor - Hangzhou
Entrance to Dragon Well Manor – Hangzhou

When I realized we’d be in China for my 40th birthday, I knew it was the perfect chance to try a restaurant I’d been reading about for the last couple of years – Dragon Well Manor. Set amongst the rolling green tea fields of Hangzhou, Dragon Well Manor is one of the first farm-to-table, organic restaurants in China. Locally sourced – with the exception of occasional seafood dishes – the food served is traditional Hangzhou cuisine. So is it the best restaurant in China?IMG_5729.JPG

Many seem to think so. Fiona Dunlop (author of the amazing Sichuan cookbook “Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking“) wrote an article for the New Yorker about Dragon Well Manor that describes Hangzhou cuisine: “Our flavors are as varied as the Sichuanese, but they tend to be light and bright, without that heavy spiciness. We emphasize seasonal produce, and the essential tastes of our raw ingredients.” Hangzhou cuisine isn’t big on spices – which suits this fresh presentation. IMG_5746.JPG

A friend who speaks Mandarin made the reservations (which is a good thing because no one speaks English). The restaurant doesn’t advertise and is relatively unknown, except for locals in the know, and foodies who make pilgrimages here. The grounds surrounding the restaurant are beautifully manicured Chinese gardens. IMG_5732.JPGThe restaurant is made up of a series of individual pavilions which customers reserve for the day. This isn’t a candle lit “dinner with your honey” sort of joint – this is Chinese style – you need to bring several well-heeled friends to split the bill with. The restaurant encourages you to show up in the afternoon and enjoy the gardens over a pot of tea and the sunset.

The long list of teas available.
The long list of teas available.

We had business to attend to, so we were unable to linger for the afternoon, but one could imagine Mandarins of old composing poetry in this elegant, classical Chinese environment.IMG_5738Our first course was freshly pressed soy milk served with savory and sweet condiments. I really enjoyed the pickled vegetable toppings. The condiments were similar to what is served with breakfast congee.

IMG_5757This was followed by a series of cold dishes, including pickled cucumber. However it was the next dish that got our attention – duck soup flavored with cicada. You heard right – bugs! Now I’m not one to let a bug disturb me – this is China after all…IMG_5773Cicadas are used to bring out the flavor of the duck in a light but rich broth. The duck was tender and the broth was delicate and delicious. DuckThe presentation of the dishes was flawless. And on and on the dishes rolled out. IMG_5776The Dongpo pork was another favorite – and a traditional Hangzhou delicacy. Named after revered Song Dynasty poet, artist and calligrapher Su Dongpo, this dish is slowly cooked pork belly braised in wine. It is one of those melt-in-your-mouth dishes you dream about.IMG_5780Other dishes included fresh and delicately cooked vegetables, river shrimp and bamboo. Diners can request to see the restaurant’s famous contract book – you’re able to read where the owner procured your meal locally.Shrimp BambooThe dinner was served over the course of several hours and by the time we finished it was dark.IMG_5728.JPGSo the question remains – is it the best restaurant in China? I wish was food expert enough to say, but it was truly one of the most lovely dining experiences I’ve had in Asia. And it was the perfect way to turn 40.

Dragon Well Manor
399 Longjing Road, Hangzhou Ph#: 86 571 878 88777
Expect to pay about $100 a person, not including tea or alcohol.
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