SILK ROAD, MAY 1999
By PAUL MOONEY in Beijing
It was probably the easiest contract the Chinese-American lawyer had ever negotiated in China. Drinking with a few friends one night in Beijing about two years ago, Handel Lee lamented the lack of a top notch Western restaurant in the Chinese capital, like the ones he frequented in New York, one of his favorite cities.
"I love to eat and drink, but there aren't many places in Beijing where one can really go and enjoy excellent food and a good ambiance," Handel explained to his companions.
"All right, Handel" responded one of his friends. "If you can do this, I'm in with you." The friend grabbed a cocktail napkin from the table, quickly scribbled out a business agreement, and a new restaurant was born.
The 37-year-old Handel had snapped up a siheyuan, or traditional Chinese courtyard house, several years earlier, intending to live there himself. Realizing the location was too good to keep to just himself, he decided it would be an ideal location for his dream restaurant-cum-art gallery. Ten like-minded friends agreed to chip in the US$1 million needed to get the venture off the ground.
The house originally belonged to a lieutenant of Yuan Shikai, a powerful commander of the North China Army who forced the abdication of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. The large courtyard house was turned into a factory in the early 1950s, after the Chinese Communist Party rose to power. During the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the house was one of many taken over by squatters. After China opened up, the house was returned to the descendants of the Qing lieutenant, who in turn sold it to the young American lawyer.
From the outside, The Courtyard looks like a very up-market Beijing dumpling house… Step inside and you find yourself in a new world, part east, part west. It was fitting that Handel should open a restaurant built beside the moat surrounding the Forbidden City, once home to China's rulers. His family is Manchu, the northern people who ruled China from 1644 to 1911 under the banner of the Qing Dynasty, and his ancestors had served as courtiers in the imperial court. Furthermore, his mother, a Beijing native, had grown up in a siheyuan.
Putting together the cocktail napkin contract was easy; getting the restaurant up and running was not. Years of neglect had left the building in poor condition. "We tried to save the old structure, but it was too old and fragile, and almost collapsed during renovation," says Handel. "We had to tear it down."
The No. 2 Traditional Chinese Architecture Co., experienced in working with traditional courtyard houses, was called in to take over the project after a less-experienced contractor proved incapable of doing the work.
The original building was leveled, and a new structure built, with the addition of the second floor, and an enlarged basement. "We wanted to keep the old charm, and not make it garish," says Handel, "so we tried to keep it simple and elegant."
"The location was one of our biggest assets," he claims, "but it was also one of our biggest problems."
The Courtyard is located just a short walk from the imposing east gate of the Forbidden City, which for hundreds of years served as the center of Chinese politics and culture. One of China's most famous historical sites, government officials were uncomfortable with the idea of foreign businessmen owning property so close to the Forbidden City, and turning it into a restaurant to boot.
Delays followed as numerous permits had to be obtained from the Bureau of Cultural Relics, the Ministry of Culture and other government departments.
The new glass and steel roof had structural problems and had to be torn down and redesigned; the full glass roof covering the divan, declared to be out of sync with traditional lines of the Forbidden City, had to be replaced with a normal roof, forcing Handel to settle for large windows peering over the moat. The enlargement of the basement violated other city building codes. Construction was delayed for months, and an anxious Handel got little sleep.
Making matters worse, the neighborhood is home to high-ranking Chinese leaders, and there was concern that the restaurant would bring unwanted traffic to the area. An opening night party seemed to confirm the validity of these fears, as some 400 of Beijing's beautiful people turned out for the affair.
A persistent Handel, who says the experience taught him it was "better to ask for forgiveness than permission," pushed ahead, despite the many obstacles, opening eight months behind schedule.
From the outside, The Courtyard looks like a very up-market Beijing dumpling house. A traditional sweeping roof runs across the middle of the house, which is surrounded by large trees. A heavy wooden door, painted a bright red, and adorned with brass fittings, leads into the small restaurant. However, a peek through the large windows gives passers-by a hint of what's inside.
Step inside and you find yourself in a new world, part east, part west. The center of the square building -- which is usually open-air in a siheyuan -- has been covered by an atrium-style glass roof, which allows natural light to pour in during daylight. Below the glass roof sits a back-lit, frosted glass bar where smart-looking bartenders, decked out in starched white shirts and bow ties, pour expensive wines, whiskeys, imported and local beers and thick espressos.
Track lighting directs attention to the paintings that adorn the white walls, as apron-clad waiters and waitresses glide across the polished wooden floors carrying trays of food and drinks, light jazz playing softly in the background. The sloping sides of the roof covering the main dining room are supported by heavy lumber beams, much like in a temple.
A short walk up the wooden stairs just inside the front door leads to the cigar divan overlooking the moat that once protected the imperial family from the outside world. This is the place to go for a relaxing drink after dinner (you don't necessarily have to smoke cigars here). The divan is furnished with worn brown leather sofas and armchairs imported from Paris, and a Tibetan table. Two Milefos, or plump laughing Buddhas, smile knowingly from the corner of the room.
Down in the basement, which can be seen from the small bridge that traverses the open center of the first floor, is a small art gallery, featuring the avant-garde works of contemporary Chinese artists, who Handel hopes to promote through rotating exhibitions. Handel says that the repository of modern Chinese art has been Hong Kong and Europe, but that he would like to see it centered in China.
"My mother was an artist, and we grew up around art," says Handel, explaining the restaurant's focus on paintings. "We try to have a balance of well--known, and not-so-well-known Chinese artists."
But let's not forget that The Courtyard is a restaurant. Handel is extremely proud of executive chef Rey Lim, who learned his craft at the CIA (the Culinary Institute of America, that is), describing the Chinese-Filipino as "the best and most innovative chef in Beijing."
Rey turns out what Handel calls "fusion cuisine," French-based cooking using Asian ingredients. The dinner menu, which runs from US$17 to US$25, includes blackened salmon, tea-smoked chicken, filet mignon, honey-glazed duck breast, lamb chops and other Western and Asian choices. The wine list numbers 120 selections, primarily from France and California, while the cigars are Cuban born -- primarily Montecristo, Cohiba, Upmann, Romeo & Julietta.
The Courtyard is located at 95 Donghuamen Avenue, just west of the east gate of the Forbidden City, and is only open in the evenings.
© 2013 Paul J. Mooney