JANUARY 1, 1999

The Red Capital Club

There's a bit of history behind every dish





Don't be put off by the exclusive sounding name of the Red Capital Club, arguably one of the finest restaurants in Beijing. There are no members to this club.
"We want to have a club atmosphere, but no members," explains the restaurant's owner. "Anyone can be a Red Capitalist. We have a very proletarian approach."

The beautifully restored courtyard restaurant is a microcosm of some of the contradictions that spice today's Chinese society. The Red Capital Club is dedicated to the hedonistic things in life - fine food, good wine and cigars -- and to the spirit of Chinese capitalism.

At the same time, the restaurant dishes out Zhongnanhai cuisine -- prepared by chefs lured away from the kitchens of China's most famous leaders --- based on the favorite dishes of some of the most conservative Communist officials. The ancient Zhongnanhai complex houses the offices and living quarters of senior party officials since 1949.

The owner, who prefers not to be identified, says there is "a story behind each dish" and that the restaurant's cuisine "captures the sense of history of the past 50 years."

Take, for example, The Marshals' Favorite, a dish of large hot green peppers stuffed with shrimp, pork and bean curd. Its presence on the menu stems from the fact that several of China's 10 Marshals hailed from the pepper-growing provinces of Sichuan and Hunan and had a hankering for fiery hot dishes.

The delicious Deng's Chicken is decorated with two small black and white cats, one carved out of a beet and the other from a turnip. The reason? Former leader Deng Xiaoping once stated: "It doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice."

South of the Clouds, a boneless filleted fish covered with scallions and spices and baked between two pieces of bamboo netting, was a favorite of one of China's old marshals who sampled it when the Red Army was slugging its way through Yunnan during the civil war with the Nationalists. Or so the story goes.

The drinks at the Red Capital Club are also appropriately named, but not after the favorite cocktails of party officials. Many have historical references.

 Lin Biao's Crash is a reference to the failed escape by the former defense minister and heir apparent to Chairman Mao Tse-tung. It is made with vodka, apricot, lemon juice and "a light dash of Maotai ensures the crash," proclaims the drinks menu.

Try the Long March. "After a long night of drinking,'' the menu says, "it's a long march home.''

The setting is as much an attraction as the food. While many courtyard houses in the Beijing have been renovated to look like a gaudy Chinese restaurant in New Jersey, the craftsmen who worked on the Red Capital Club have deftly revived this old structure without spoiling it.

Each facet of the renovation was carried out by experts in traditional architecture: brick people from the Forbidden City, carpenters from Prince Gong's Palace and painters from the Summer Palace. The bricks were hand-cut to fit in place; no cement or nails were used on the roof, just packed earth.

The house, once the home of a Qing White Bannerman, is 200 years old. When digging was done to lay new piping evidence of several other structures, one dating back to the Ming dynasty, were found, including pieces of pottery.

The restaurant has two distinct themes that create different moods: 1950s China and Qing dynasty China. The spirit of the Red Capital Club is dedicated to China's home-grown capitalists, who stayed behind after liberation to build a new China.

"We are trying to capture the mood of the 1950s when there was a great deal of idealism, hope and enthusiasm," the owner says. Each of the arm chairs and lamps came from the offices of former Chinese officials in the 1950s and 1960s.

Pick up the old telephone beside the bar and you'll hear a recording of Chairman Mao. A large painting on the wall shows leading "red capitalists" partying happily with senior party officials such as Mao, Zhou Enlai and Deng prior to Mao's cutting off their "capitalist tails" in the early 1950s.

A Cultural Revolution statue on another table shows several Red Guards subjecting a man to the infamous "airplane position."

The Qing dining room, on the other hand, is simply but elegantly decorated. A large emperor's robe hangs on the wall. On one side is a collection of porcelain pieces, one for each of the 10 Qing emperors. On the eave just over the dining room is a painting of Li Bai, the Tang dynasty poet, toasting the moon with a glass of wine.

In the center of the courtyard is a square cover that opens to the bomb shelter, built during the 1960s when Sino-Soviet relations were at an all-time low. Guests are welcome to twist and wind themselves down the narrow steps for a look at what is now the wine cellar.

Racks of wine, bearing the Red Capital Club labels, are lined against the brick wall, beneath revolutionary sayings made popular during this period: "Dig the wells deep, store grains and resist hegemony."

The label proclaims that the wine has "a rich red bouquet of 100 flowers blooming that's as smooth as the Chinese economic transformation." It goes on to say the wine is "great for Party celebrations and mass gatherings."

Red Capital white, on the other hand, has "non-reactionary elements." Cigars bearing the "Red Capital" label can also be purchased at the restaurant.

The Red Capital Club, which serves only dinner, opens at 6 p.m. and closes when people leave. The restaurant has limited seating and food ingredients, so reservations are highly recommended. Closed on Mondays.

 For more information: 
 Red Capital Club
 No. 66 Dongsi Jiutiao
 Dongcheng District, Beijing
 Reservations: 6402-7150 (daytime) 
 8401-8886 (evenings and weekends)



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© 2013 Paul J. Mooney