Discovering Chinese Imperial Cuisine at ChefGuo
by Bill Babash, Vice Chargé de Presse
The Bailliage of Greater Washington, DC, was thrilled to experience authentic Chinese imperial cuisine at Chef Guo in Alexandria, Virginia on January 15th and 22nd, 2020. The event was so highly anticipated that a second date was added, doubling the number of members and guests of the bailliage who discovered the restaurant that Northern Virginia magazine ranked #9 in its 2019 list of the area’s 50 best.
A native of Beijing, Maître Rôtisseur Chef Guo Wenjun began his culinary journey at age 14 when he became a student of Master Chef Ding Guangzhou, a seventh-generation royal chef. He continued his training at the National Youth Chef Instructional Program and then at the Hong Kong International Haute Training Program. He has served as the Executive Chef at the Beijing Palace International Hotel and the Palace Museum. He has cooked for international heads of state, including President Obama in 2011. He is a well-known celebrity chef in China, with numerous appearances on television in that country and even a music video.
Chef Guo was among the first to bring Chinese imperial cuisine to the United States. Bearing no resemblance to today’s ubiquitous Americanized Chinese food, imperial cuisine originated in the Zhou dynasty (11th century-476 BCE). Emperors of that and successive dynasties collected the best cuisines and cooks of the time from throughout China, creating a cuisine characterized by elaborate and meticulous technique and the strict selection of rare or expensive ingredients.
Beyond mastering Chinese culinary traditions, Chef Guo has researched the techniques of master chefs around the world. Merging his roots in China and with a global perspective, Chef Guo honors the history and legacy of imperial cuisine and continues its evolution by integrating the finest modern ingredients and techniques from around the world into classic Chinese imperial dining. His approach carefully balances innovation and tradition, choosing to “use the excellence and discard the unwanted of the past.” Ultimately, he says, “A good meal is beneficial, arrangement is paramount, flavor is foremost, nutrition is essential.”
Chef Guo’s eponymous restaurant is located adjacent to a typical suburban strip shopping center just off I-395 in Alexandria, Virginia. But its unassuming location is deceiving. Stepping through the door, one is immediately drawn into world of tranquil elegance. Under an artificial ginko tree at one end of the intimate dining room, a large table, designed by Chef Guo himself, features bubbling fountains and live bonsai trees along its center.
Chef Guo’s wife, Irene, greeted arriving confrères and guests and presented each with a ChefGuo lapel pin and lovely red scarf embroidered with the ChefGuo logo. Red in Chinese culture corresponds with fire and symbolizes good fortune and joy. A glass of Chioya Sparkling Umeshu from Osaka Prefecture in Japan accompanied the imperial welcome. Made from 100% Japanese premium nanko ume (plums), this sparkling wine featured soft bubbles that brought out its refreshing, fruity flavor and hints of peach.
Eager to experience the eleven courses on the menu, attendees took their seats at tables set with elaborate enameled yellow plates with matching cloches custom made for the chef. Yellow, corresponding with earth, is considered the most prestigious color and represents power, royalty, and prosperity. In China, yellow tableware would be found only in imperial settings.
For this extravagant banquet, Professionnel du Vin Christian Choi, the bailliage’s own sake sommelier, curated a progression of seven sakes. The hearty flavors and pronounced acidity of traditional wine pairings simply would not have worked well with the delicate flavors and textures of the chef’s menu. Premium sakes, however, added sophisticated nuances to the meal and elevated the food. With his global perspective and passion for integrating the highest quality items into his cuisine, Chef Guo was enthused about the idea of pairing sake with his imperial banquet. Moreover, while bailliage members are quite knowledgeable about wine, many were unfamiliar with the tremendous diversity of very high-quality sakes available today. Christian’s selections and his introduction to each sake provided a great opportunity to broaden those horizons. At the January 22 dinner, the bailliage was honored to have in attendance Mr. Haruo Okasora, President of Chiyomusubi Sake Brewing, and his son So Okasora. Chiyomusubi was established in 1865 in Tattori, Japan, and four of the evening’s sakes were from the brewery.
“Four Cold Hors d’Oeuvres” representing sour, sweet, bitter, and spicy were set at each place to whet appetites: black bean in vinegar, yum in blueberry sauce, bitter gourd, and spicy fried anchovy. Once everyone was at their table, servers lifted the ornate cloches from the plates at each setting to reveal the chef’s first course, an assorted sampler entitled “Butterfly in Love with Flowers.” A true work of art, the composition of multi-spiced beef, shrimp, spicy sausage, chicken roll, broccoli, and squid was entirely edible, including the rice paper butterflies. Chiyomusubi Sorah Junmai Ginjo Sparkling Sake “Beautiful Aurora” was a worthy match to celebrate the opening of the banquet. Produced by merging traditional sake brewing methods with new and innovative techniques, this full-bodied sparkling sake had the refreshing, gentle sweetness of rice with a complex savory finish.
Servers then presented “Prosperity Truffles in Creamy Mushroom Soup.” The earthy yet light and velvety soup was wonderfully accented with luxurious black truffles and a garnish of abalone sauce.
This was followed by “Pan-Fried Foie Gras with Pork Floss.” The Chaîne frequently indulges in foie gras, but Chef Guo’s stood out. It was mild in flavor and the pan-frying at high heat gave it a paper-thin crust adding a wonderful textural element. The chef noted that aftertaste is an important element of every dish and the pork floss enhanced that. Chiyomusubi Diginjo Fukurodori Shizukusake sake accompanied these courses. Winner of the gold prize at the 2017 International Sake Challenge, this sake is made with 100% Yamadanishiki, often referred to as the king of sake rice, polished down to 35% of its original size. Slow dripped, it is pasteurized only once after bottling. This flagship sake of the Tottori Prefecture has the gentle aroma of pears, with a smooth and clean finish.
“Chilean Sea Bass with Fried Dragon Whiskers Noodles in Sweet and Sour Sauce” followed. The delicate fish, cooked perfectly, was garnished with the thinnest noodles imaginable that had been quickly fried to the peak of crispiness. These “dragon whiskers” were a textural highlight of the dish while the sauce added subtle tangy sweetness.
Chiyomusubi Goriki Nama Junmai Ginjo was an inspired pairing for the two seafood courses. Made with very special Goriki rice, cultivated exclusively in the Tottori Prefecture of Japan, this is a pure and unpasteurized sake. It has an elegant, long, and bright finish, with the aroma of pineapples and mango, plus refreshing flavors of green apple that amplified the freshness of both the lobster and seabass.
“Pan-Fried Kobe Beef Seasoned with Sichuan Pepper” was next. The chef quickly seared bite-size cubes of the richly marbled Japanese A5 (the highest rating) beef , leaving it beautifully rare and seasoned it with just enough pepper to enhance but not overpower its flavor. Perhaps in a nod to classic steak frites, the beef was accompanied with apple fries, whose gentle tartness was an unusually delicious complement to the distinctive flavor and marbling of the beef. This extravagant course deserved a similarly special sake – the Chiyomusubi Tokubetsu Junmai. Indeed, Tokubetsu means “Very Special” or “Special Reserved” in Japanese. Made with rice polished down to 50% of its original size, this sake qualifies as Junmai Daiginjo, the highest class in sake, but because of the high standards of the Toji (brew-master), it is classified as Junmai (the next class down). Rich and well balanced, it has crisp hints of spice and licorice and a creamy aroma full of caramel, custard, and butterscotch – notes that were outstanding with the sear on the beef.
Next was a thoroughly original creation of Chef Guo, “Wild Green Stir-Fried Rice.” A thin and crispy shell held petite grains organic millet accented with Chinese chive and pork floss. The single bite was a crispy treat that revealed how flavorful millet can be.
Tofu with caviar then arrived in an “Aladdin’s lamp” with dry ice smoke billowing out. A gently steamed round of freshly made tofu was surrounded by a light scallion sauce and topped with caviar. The neutral flavor and silky texture of the tofu was a wonderful base from which to savor the salty luxury of the caviar, with scallion providing subtle flavor and a burst of color – truly a dish worthy of its theatrical entrance. Sake for these courses was the Kubota Junmai Daiginjo from Niigata Prefecture in Japan. It boasts an elegant nose with notes of pear and melon, harmonious acidity, and a pleasant, smooth texture. Most notable is Kubota’s distinctive clean and crisp finish, which paired wonderfully with these delicate courses.
The final savory course was “ChefGuo’s Signature Noodles with Black Bean Sauce” served, as it is traditionally, at room temperature. The chef’s house-made noodles were perfectly al dente and served with a hearty, flavorful black bean sauce. Carrots and endive garnishes completed the presentation. The sake was Katsuyama Ken Junmai Ginjo (“Ken” means a wonderful gift in Japanese). A gold medal winner in 2015 and 2016, this sake from Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, has superb balance and well-rounded taste that expands into soft and supple rich fullness – a great match for this most satisfying course.
The first of two desserts – “Angel Fish Bones with Kim Milk and Papaya” – was almost certainly a new experience for everyone in attendance. Servers presented each diner with a small glass bowl of angel fish bones and three small dishes containing papaya and kiwi purées and yogurt. (The chef shared that it had taken him four years to find a source in the area for the bones.) These cartilaginous bones had virtually no fishy flavor, but rather provided a gelatinous foundation for diners to mix in the accompaniments. First, they mixed in and tasted the familiar flavor of papaya; next, they added the kiwi resulting a delightful tropical fusion. Finally, they mixed in the yogurt, creating a creamy trio of flavors augmented by the pleasing texture of the fish bones. It was a fun and insightful tutorial in how flavors are layered to create an outstanding dish. And as odd an ingredient as fish bones might have initially seemed to many, the result was genuinely delicious with nice mouthfeel.
Dinner concluded with “Pink Lady,” a scoop of incredibly creamy house-made vanilla ice cream topped with vibrant pink dragon fruit sauce and accompanied by a small classic Chinese green bean cake featuring the ChefGuo logo. Accompanying the desserts was a lovely rose-colored sake, Oze No Yukidoke X Rose Junmai Daigijo, from Gunma Prefecture, Japan. Brewed with exceedingly difficult red yeast, this sake strikes a balance between sweet and tart with layers of flavor that evoke wild strawberries – delightful with the fruit elements of the desserts.
On both evenings, Bailli Judy Mazza spoke on behalf of all there when she congratulated Chef Guo on a truly unique and extraordinary experience that introduced the bailliage to a new cuisine and broadened gastronomic horizons. She particularly noted the artistry of the evening’s banquet – each course was a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. The chef’s accomplishments were even more impressive knowing that he had just a single – and very talented – assistant, Jing Hui Ye, in the kitchen. She presented the Chef with a Chaîne plate to commemorate the grand occasions, and thanked Mr. Ye and the servers with Chaîne pins. She also thanked Christian Choi for his expertise and insight in selecting the sakes and for expanding the bailliage’s knowledge and appreciation of these diverse and sophisticated spirits. For those fortunate enough to have attended, it was an imperial banquet they will long remember.