This looked like a total tourist trap at first, considering the costumed staff (and the opportunity to take photos with them), the evening entertainment (Chinese opera and such - complete with a gong), and the adjoining gift shop and museum. But my corporate hosts assured me that this was hardly a tourist destination: it's tucked away in a hard to find dark alley (not far from the Forbidden City - I can't read the Chinese address on the business card but the phone number is 010-64078006) and the menus are only in Chinese (indeed, it seemed like all locals at the tables). If I understood them correctly, this place specializes in Imperial Manchurian food, so this was very traditional and about as far away from Panda Express (or Mr. Chau's for those of you in the Bay Area) as you can get (almost - more on that later).
Everything is carefully brought out in tiny little dishes in a timed sequence, thus making it a bit like a Japanese kaiseki
meal, complete with Chinese entertainment in the back. Servants are always there to explain the dishes to you, to help serve the tasty duck stew in the middle, and to provide things like a choice of hot sauces (yum for the "hottest" one - it was like the sauce used in red oil wontons at Lau Deng
in Taipei). The little dishes varied quite significantly, ranging from some pickled cabbage with mustard sprinkled on top, to little battered fish, to some kind of quail egg and grilled pepper thingy. The duck meat in the soup was tender (and great when dipped in the chili sauce), while the little pork meatballs practically melted in your mouth. Some kind of bamboo innard or something was also pretty good, despite how strange it sounds.
Interestingly, sweets were provided early in this process, as apparently that is normal rather than saving them for dessert. A couple other interesting things included pistacchio nuts on the table, as well as - get this - Kung Pao Shrimp! Wow - all this time I thought Kung Pao Shrimp/Chicken was some horrendous American rendition of Chinese food, but it looks like Chinese emperors really ate this stuff, and it actually wasn't that much different than what you see in the US (much smaller portions though). What a shock. (OK, I guess that is the only thing that it has in common with Panda Express.) A great fried rice featuring little bits of smoked turkey finshed off the meal, all without being too greasy.
Our waiter said that normally alcohol is not served with this kind of stuff. But they do keep some in the back in case customers ask, and of course my hosts insisted on drinking and trying some local brews, the first of which was a relatively strong (56% alcohol) Chinese "white liquor" that basically tasted like you would expect: rather rough. Then we downshifted into some kind of Nongxiang Jingjiu
(39% alcohol), which tasted eerily of watermelon Jolly Ranchers with a saccharin aftertaste - but it definitely wasn't as sweet. Then of course there were the local beers, including Beijing Beer, which tasted like water, but it actually went pretty well with Chinese food.
Anyway, the food was good (not to mention off the beaten path), and this was definitely one of the more memorable dining experiences that I've had.