Cantonese but different

The name Lei Garden stuck in my head when I looked through the Michelin starred restaurants in Guangzhou. Then while I was looking for a place for lunch in the Tianhe district, it clicked in my head. Since this wasn’t the branch which was awarded a Michelin star, we could hope to get a walk-in table. I didn’t know then that this was the first branch of this Hong Kong chain which opened in Mainland China, as long back as 1995. In order to maximize the chance of getting a table, we walked in for lunch quite late, and found a table with ease.

As part of my preparation for eating in Guangzhou I’d made a list of the different kinds of dim sum, written in the Chinese script, and I’d practiced saying these words over and over again. As always, life is simpler than you think it will be. This was a business district after all, so our friendly waiter, Albert, spoke impeccable English. We’d already had several meals in Guangzhou without ordering any dim sum.

With help from Albert we chose three different kinds of dim sum with different fillings. The featured photo shows my favourite, a rice wrapping around shrimp, then there was the lovely steamed pork which you see in the photo above, and the chicken dumplings next to it. When I looked for tofu, Albert suggested the fried tofu balls with a shrimp sauce which you see in one of the photos above. Finally we rounded it all off with the sweet nutty pastry which you can admire in the photos just below.

The signature of the Guangdong kitchen is in the freshness of the ingredients, and the quick cooking which serves to release the flavour. Lei Garden carries this philosophy further, with an emphasis on organic growth. Although it is a chain, five of the restaurants have earned Michelin stars. The food was wonderful. I hadn’t had great expectations of the tofu, but it was surprisingly good. The Family remembers it as her favourite. Mine was the shrimp dumpling which you see in the featured photos. Over the next few days we regretted not being able to go back for a repeat of the experience. The food was clearly more modern and lighter than everything I’d eaten since reaching Guangzhou, while being definitely of the style I was beginning to recognize as belonging to Guangdong. Fortunately, there are branches in Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore, so we should be able to taste this great food if we take a short eastward detour.

Food heaven in Guangzhou

Casting about for one, just one, place to spend a few days in China, we decided on Guangzhou for one simple reason: the food. When you look at lists of Michelin starred restaurants in China, about half of them feature Cantonese food. The food of Guangdong is famous even inside China. Normally I do all the reading about food and restaurants, but this time The Family spent some time looking at descriptions and reviews of restaurants. I left Mumbai with notes on about ten restaurants which we might like to visit.

We found a hotel in the Liwan district of Guangzhou and were surprised to find that several of our top choices were within walking distance. Our first lunch was in the restaurant named after the city, Guangzhou, on the Shangxiajiu pedestrian street. This is a very popular place. A soon as we entered, we were asked whether we wanted lunch or dim sum. We opted for lunch and were given a table on the ground floor. We struggled with the enormous menu, flipping back and forth, until a couple at a neighbouring table offered to help.

The photo above shows the excellent goose that we took on their advise. They spoke excellent English, and turned out to be residents of Hong Kong. They were in Guangzhou for a lunch to celebrate their anniversary. Since the train between Hong Kong and Guangzhou takes only an hour, this seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. That someone would come from Hong Kong specially to this restaurant for their anniversary was as good a recommendation as you could get.

One of the things I like about Cantonese food is the freshness of the ingredients. The sauces are not heavy, and they allow the meat to speak for itself. I also like the huge variety of vegetables that one can get. We went back to this restaurant again the same night. In the absence of our serendepitious guide, an English speaking waiter came to help us. When we had finished ordering he asked whether we might want some vegetables. Of course. We quickly added a plate of steamed cabbage to the order (photo above).

The dish of the night was the tofu and shrimp dish which you see above. This has entered our personal history, when we sigh sadly about food that we would like to eat, but we cannot, this is the dish that we talk about now. It was a surprise, because this is not a combination that I could have predicted that I would like. Food in Guangzhou restaurant is not the kind you find in a Michelin starred place; it is not heavy on presentation. Whatever we ate seemed like old favourites. They should be, since the restaurant has become somewhat of an institution since it opened its doors in 1935. There are now many branches of this restaurant but this three story place is where it started.

I seriously thought of having every one of my meals in this restaurant, but The Family was quite stern about trying more places on our list. So I had to leave with a few photos of its famous indoor pool. The one you see above was taken from the third floor.