Despite Pyongyang Hae Dang Hwa’s being on the other side of the globe, I had the opportunities to dine there four times in the last two years.
The Other Bib stumbled across it.. a North Korean restaurant (now with four branches in Beijing) rumoured to cater high-profile NK officials and affluent businessmen in China. A “very expensive restaurant” according to a few Beijingians who we know but have never been. Inside there are many private rooms traditionally laid. The main dining room is warm and cosy – all decorated with wood and exuding a rather retro-perfect vision of life unspoilt by the materialistic world. Tearfully beautiful NK waiters floundered in traditional dresses and professsional female-only performers hopped from room to room with musical instruments. No photography is allowed. No phone ( my Other Bib claimed). And, of course, no English is spoken.
First (second, third and fourth) time.. we were blown away, fell instantaneously in love with everything about this restaurant, from the ambiance, the very helpful and friendly service (we used hand gesture a lot as we can’t speak Mandarin!), and THE FOOD!! Very traditional North Korean cooking with a “pomp” factor. Prime ingredients, many of which were unheard of, being flown in fresh from their motherland and traditionally prepared with utmost thoughts, precision and care. All arrived with a spectacular display.
NO.. our banquet for two at Hae Dang Hwa never soared above £50 per person. And the price per dish varies from around £3 to £80.
These were what we had from our last trips. Sneaky shots…
Kimchi, pickled in house, was freshest and crunchiest. Not exaggeratingly powerful as the one we are accustomed to in the West. The vinegar was not too sharp or the chilli too robust. Korean traditional rice cakes were these little discs of scrumptiousness. Very similar to the Kuzu bread I had at Mugaritz (and surely a rival to Mugaritz’s perfection) but with a lot more sweetness.
Shellfish Soup arrived as a medley of prawns, clams, abalone, scallops, cloud ears and shitake mushroons half poached in a gigantic shell. The delicate broth was to be poured into the shell at table. Steamed Egg with Sea Urchin was one of my most favourites at HDH. Silky egg custard (similar to Japanese chawanmushi) was rightly seasoned and steamed to perfection. Underneath was this very distinct layer of sea urchin, adding pleasurable roughness and sea-fresh aroma to the dish.
More goodies? Raw Beef with Korean Pear was equally stunning. It came as this artistically shaped ball with a firm yolk resting on top. I couldn’t snap a shot before it was mixed up. Clarity from the juicy pear batons to match with very tender strips of beef, pine nuts and sesame oil. Glass Noodle Vermicelli with Flying Fish Roe boast a playful heat from dried chilli sautee with onions. Barbecue Beef Tenderloin was well marinated and served on heated, sesame oil-lubed stone to keep the temperature and generate appetising aroma. Very tender. Mt Kumgang Pine Tree Mushroom was a foraged item and one of the most expensive on the menu – about £40. Here it was just flash grilled and coated (at table) in traditional salted oil. Nearly raw texture. Subtle in flavours. Very notable, pine-like aroma as if I dashed through a very high mountain after a bite.
The actual highlights..
Lobster!! Steamed, lightly sauteed in oil and served on a bed of cloud-shaped omelette. A very minimalist approach to highlight its supreme quality. The head and the legs were later taken away to be re-created another dish, a sauteed head in white pepper. Divine. I hyperventilated very much when seeing this massive tray-sized plate of Seacucumber and East Sea Abalones. The plump, gelatinous seacucumber was stuffed with soft chicken paste and carefully braised in oyster sauce based gravy. There was a distinct sweetness from goji berries, setting it apart from the more salty and savoury Chinese version. Nicely cooked abalones and crunchy, finely sliced asparagus-like stems, too. This sea cucumber dish cost around £40. A ridiculously low price as a similar but half as big offering at Hakkasan would cost more than £100 or even more when I crossed over to Hong Kong’s three-Michelin-starred Lung King Heen!
For more adventurous offerings, I reprised this Dog Meat Hot Pot. Braised roulade of dog’s legs toppled with some ground nuts, spring onions and an infusion of tomato and chilli sauce. The meat was fragrant. Not that robustly game-y sort of smell but more delicate. It also fell apart nicely. The skin that held the roulade, however, was not pleasant. Quite gelatinous and tasted as if it could slither. We also had Snapping Turtle Soup with Gingeng, which was basically a turtle dissected, re-assembled with its shell intact and served in a soup-y pot as if it was still swimming. The Other Bib detested the look but I was in love with the pungent ginseng note and the bone-y turtle claws. An ideal dish for winter (when we had it).
And the meal concluded with this. A simple bowl of North Korean Cold Noodle, a NK speciality hardly found in any South Korean restaurants. The dish comprised of glass noodle, chilli-pickled radish, chilli paste, beef slices, fresh Daikon and shredded omelette in chilled, crystal clear consomme. It was a dish of paradox that shook my taste bud with vinegar-y acidity and chilli but also appeased it with cooling broth and perceptibly sweet pinenut aftertaste.
That’s it.. my two meals conflated into one post. There are (still) dishes I have not mentioned. A little of our “privacy”. But, very briefly, the cooking at Hae Dang Hwa, I believe, can trace back to some centuries-old Korean tradition. There was craft, finesse, balance, comfort and memorable theatricality. And, above all else, it was so innocent and pure. The sort of food that has not yet been polluted by the artful gastronomy of the “outside” world. This is, perhaps, a glimpse of what this much vilified nation might be like, if not now, many decades ago.
Picking up the restaurant’s tri-lingual booklet on my way out, I found out there is a Hae Dang Hwa recently unveiled in Amsterdam. Cannot wait to check this out!
My head rating says, “10 out of 10″.
My heart rating says, “10 out of 10″.
Beijing Pyongyang Hae Dang Hwa Restaurant
2nd Flr, Wangshibaili
No.12 Kuntai Building
Tel. +86 010 85612926 or +86 010 85613109