For our last day in China, Jay and I wanted to try something different. We’d sampled a lot of pretty standard “Chinese food” – a few too many greasy, fried meats and vegetables passed around a Lazy Susan – but we hadn’t tried cuisine from the Yunnan province in the far southeast of China, which shares a border with Vietnam, Laos, and Burma. We’d read that this type of food was supposed to be lighter and fresher with mild spices, and that Dali Courtyard was one of the best places in Beijing to try it.
Beijing, China / June 1, 2010 / lunch Winederlust Rating (details below): 8.75 out of 10 / Winederlust Worthy: Yes
Dali Courtyard is hidden down a hutong, a narrow alley in one of Beijing’s historic neighborhoods (some of them date from the 1200s). At one time, most citizens of Beijing lived in the hutongs, but sadly many have now been knocked down and their residents moved to modern apartment buildings.
One of the most scenic areas of hutongs still in existence is called the Back Lakes. Some of the old grey buildings now house trendy boutiques, restaurants, and bars, though people also still live in others. (I’m not sure whether the residents still share a neighborhood bathroom as in the olden days.) This was our favorite neighborhood in the city – atmospheric and interesting with a fun mixture of old and new. (It reminded me of Beijing’s version of Paris’s Marais district.)
Dali Courtyard is a small restaurant with about eight tables outside in the courtyard and six tables inside. Strangely, the vibe is a little Venice Beach meets Mexico with a hippy-chic flair – lots of wood and rattan with a dusty bookshelf in the middle of the dining room.
There’s no menu at Dali Courtyard – they serve you whatever’s fresh that day. We ordered a bottle of Grace Vineyard‘s 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon to accompany our meal. It ended up being the most balanced Chinese wine we tried on the trip – fruity and big, but smooth with not too much oak. Our first dish was a plate of dried mushrooms. If my eyes were closed I would have thought it was crunchy dried fish with a woody, salty flavor.
Tofu skin with mint.
Our third dish was king oyster mushrooms in soy sauce with garlic – a tasty, rich flavor with a little bit of spice.
Next came crispy fried chicken with lemongrass, kefir lime, and ginger. This was my least favorite dish – I thought the pieces of fried chicken were overly boney and chewy – but Jay enjoyed it.
The chicken was followed by delicious plump, juicy shrimp with asparagus and chunks of fresh ginger.
Our next dish was a plate of fresh snow peas – the simplest dish we were served, but still very tasty.
Finally we tried a whole grilled fish with lemongrass. Though the lemongrass sauce was a little heavy, the white fish meat was tender and flaky.
Overall, Dali Courtyard was one of our favorite meals in China, both for the fresh, light food and the interesting historic setting. Hopefully this is one hutong area that will remain in Beijing for a long time — go while you can.
– by Liz Humphreys, Winederlust Eater in Chief
Winederlust Rating Details (out of 10):
Food: 9.0 (preparation, presentation & taste)
Wine: 9.0 (selection, recommendations, pairings & taste)
Service: 8.5 (helpfulness, attentiveness, knowledge & pacing)
Place: 8.5 (location, view, decor & vibe)
Price Range: $$ (Moderate)
Dali Courtyard / 67 Xiaojingchang Hutong, Gulou Dongdajie, Dongcheng District, Beijing, China
Direct Line: (010) 8404-1430
Open daily 11:30am-11pm; prix fixe menus only (lunch menu for 100 yuan); reservations recommended and no credit cards accepted.