20090307: Lunch with Fuchsia Dunlop at Yu Bo’s restaurant

Mantou hedgehog
Mantou hedgehog
Some of the exquisite entrees at Yu Bos restaurant
Some of the exquisite entrees at Yu Bo's restaurant

As part of the 2009 Bookworm Literary Festival, about 30 lucky diners headed off for lunch with Fuchsia Dunlop at Yu Bo’s restaurant at Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi, the recently restored/built ‘old’ town area just to the north west of the Mao statue on TianFu Square in Chengdu.

There’s no menu. You book a table for 4 (there’s one small room with a table for 4) or a table for 10 or a room for 20.
When you book, you discuss what kind of ingredients you would like, and then Yu Bo and his team then, on your lucky day, create for you and your fellow diners a feast that delights and refreshes the eyes and, in turn,  dazzles, caresses, surprises and thrills the tastebuds.

Calligraphy brushes, but not as we know them.
Calligraphy brushes, but not as we know them.

Each dish (we had 46 different dishes, including 24 small entrees) is exquisitely prepared with craftsmanlike skill and devotion, and with a delight (the whole experience is a ‘wow,’ a delight, a surprise and a challenge to your vocabulary) in providing something of such class and taste that combines outstanding culinary technique with a deep understanding of the concept of food as a source of entertainment and pleasure.

Among the higherlights (everything was at least a highlight) were the mantou hedgehog, the sweet tasting vegetable edible brush (it looked exactly like a real hair brush), the interwoven green beans, the celery cut with such artistic precision, and the soup served in a mini pail cut from a strip of bamboo wood.

Fuchsia Dunlop explains Yu Bos approach to cooking
Fuchsia Dunlop explains Yu Bo's approach to cooking

The head waitress described the ingredients in and thinking behind each dish, and it was with a combination of guilt and happiness that diners ate each creation.  Fuchsia Dunlop explained that the venue, approximately 5 rooms around a courtyard, used to be a common type of eatery for the wealthy, and that Yu Bo was part of a revival of this tradition. What is unusual is the quality of the ingredients, of the ideas behindthe dishes and devotion to challenging diners’ pallettes and minds, and the clever combination of dishes that surprises the eater and maintains their interest through 40+ dishes.  The two-and-a-half hours were not marred by boredom.
Our table cooed each dish in as if being presented with our new grandchildren for the first time.  Accompanied by Huang Jiu (sort of a stronger sherry, far more pleasant than baijiu of course), the meal itself was enough to initiate more conversation than most of us have ever had at a table.  Taking fresh, high quality ingredients and then fusing Sichuan and European tastes makes for outstanding food, under the supervision of Yu Bo.

Fuchsia explained that Yu Bo could make a great deal more money by optimising the commercial aspects of his business, but that he is committed to improving his art, his art of cuisine and of entertainment, and so the restaurant is small-scale and of the highest calibre.

Will any of us present eat a better meal in a restaurant?