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Restaurant Rock 'n' Roll

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

At Fisherman's Wharf, seven female hostesses, all dressed in figure-hugging red qi paos, greet you as you walk through the outsized revolving doors. "Huanying Guanglin," they chirp, meaning, "We welcome the approach of your brilliance."

This Wal-Mart-sized restaurant in the Yellow Sea port of Tianjin is the biggest in northern China. Its banquet halls, dining areas and 108 private rooms can accommodate 2,500 customers at once. How big is Fisherman's Wharf? Put it this way. It sells a tonne of live seafood a day. The fish tanks are so vast you walk across footbridges to get to the other side. The lobby is flanked with life-sized carved elephants and fake palm trees. The stainless-steel kitchen accommodates 300 chefs. Oh, and the waiters roller-skate from the kitchen to your table to ensure that the food is hot.

The chefs calibrate the fiery woks with foot pedals and stir-fry a dish in less than a minute. At lunch, my guest and I dive into our first dish 10 minutes after we order. Everything was swimming minutes earlier.

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After centuries of deprivation, a new middle class is fuelling the biggest, most creative restaurant boom in China's long and glorious culinary history. This is, after all, a x culture where the obsession with food is so intense that a secure job is known as an "iron rice bowl." The standard mainland greeting isn't "How are you?" but "Have you eaten?"

Restaurants are temples of conspicuous consumption. Yet fierce competition — a classic Keynesian oversupply — has kept prices down here, and ensured that service is obsequious and reservations unnecessary.

"We wanted to build the biggest restaurant in Tianjin, but we wanted the Old Hundred Surnames to have the nerve to walk in," says Zhang Qiuying, 30, the stylish front manager at Fisherman's Wharf, using the affectionate nickname for ordinary people. "We didn't want them to be intimidated."

After three weeks of eating my way through four Chinese cities, I can say that not only are the restaurants affordable, they also offer more exciting cuisine, often better décor, and much better service than many — Chinese or otherwise — in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. The foreign restaurants in China are as varied here as in the most cosmopolitan city — there is Thai, Italian, German, Brazilian, French, Japanese, Indian and Greek. And I don't believe Canada has a North Korean restaurant where the waitresses wear Kim Il-sung badges.

That China now surpasses the West is amazing enough. It becomes incredible when you realize that any mainland Chinese person in their 40s today is a survivor of the famine of the early 1960s, which claimed 20 million lives in the wake of Chairman Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward. Until the late 1980s, you couldn't even buy rice or noodles without ration coupons. The "comrades," as we called the waiters during the Cultural Revolution, dressed like nurses from horror movies, in stained white caps and aprons.

Back then, when I was learning Chinese at Beijing University, I would bicycle for blocks without finding a restaurant. When I finally did find one, I had to guess who might finish first, and plant myself behind that customer, literally breathing down his neck. It was invariably a "he." Women rarely went out, and almost never together.

Menus were chalked on a blackboard, but they were largely fiction. Restaurants closed — I'm not kidding — at meal times, so the comrades could dine in peace. You ate lunch at 10:30 or 11, or not at all. Supper was scarcely better. Most office workers didn't get off until 6 p.m., but restaurants would padlock their doors at 6:30. Anyone still eating inside would be subject to clouds of dust as the comrades swept up.

Today, the hallmarks of the Maoist-era — rudeness, one-note menus, scarcity — are gone. The provincial statistical bureau reports that per-capita annual food spending jumped 17 per cent in Beijing from 1999 to 2002.

During a 10-kilometre taxi ride in Beijing this month, I tried an experiment. Was it possible to drive by a block without encountering a restaurant? It wasn't. I asked the taxi driver if he could think of a single street in Beijing without a restaurant. "Tiananmen Square," he replied, after thinking hard for a moment. (He's wrong. There's a delicious Peking Duck spot on the east side of the square, a KFC outlet on the south side, and several restaurants underneath the square itself.)

Perhaps the prettiest restaurant in Beijing is Tiandi YiJia, or Heaven Earth Restaurant, a block from Tiananmen Square. It's named after the pavilion where Empress Cixi first caught the emperor's eye.

Heaven Earth is built in traditional courtyard-home style on the edge of the Forbidden City, on Nan Chi Zi, a street that once housed the emperor's male relatives, who were barred from spending the night within the confines of the imperial palace. By day, the sunlight streams through skylights, filtered through pale yellow silk umbrellas suspended from the ceiling. By night, the stone floors and goldfish pond provide a serene setting for the slender waitresses in high-collared black silk gowns.

My guests and I chose mostly home-style dishes: three-cup chicken in a casserole; spicy ma po bean curd; and winter cabbage poached in an intense chicken broth. We decided our one exotic dish would be sautéed footpad of camel with Chinese herbs. It was better than it sounds, but not as good as the chicken. Camel-coloured, aromatic slivers of footpad, tossed with shredded celery and garlic, had a chewiness reminiscent of cooked clams. But only the eight-year-old boy with us spat it out.

Heaven Earth charges 32 yuan, or $5, for individual lidded cups of green tea — more than for spicy ma po bean curd. It also serves flutes of Veuve Clicquot, at $20 each. In addition to foreign businesses, including erstwhile opium-trading firms, the restaurant attracts nouveau riche Chinese.

But even an affordable restaurant such as Beijing's Big Chinese Pear offers tanks of live seafood, authentic Peking Duck with handmade paper-thin pancakes and what I can only call a French fry tower, an obelisk of delicate pommes pailles. Its signature dish is deep-fried, breaded crisp pears stuffed with sweet bean paste.

My guest at Big Chinese Pear was a friend who is a maid. A regular customer, she warned me that the pears were nan chi — awful. Instead, we shared a refreshing salad of blanched shredded Chinese celery tossed with sesame oil and chilis, followed by tiny meatballs cooked in broth with napa cabbage. As we ate, my friend pointed out the amenities: air conditioning and, for each diner, a sealed packet containing disposable chopsticks, moistened cloth finger towels and a carved toothpick. Our meal for two cost 28 yuan, or $4.65, less than a cup of tea at Heaven Earth.

The cornucopia of choice has changed cooking habits too. "I never cook at home," says Dai Qing, 64, an environmental activist who spent several years in prison after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. "I don't want to waste time. The food is good and cheap in basic restaurants."

Today, restaurant staff no longer rudely chant, "Mei you" — "Don't have." Instead, the comrade, now called a server, stands patiently beside the table while you peruse the 20 or 30 illustrated pages of the menu. In Shanghai, I watched in amazement as two young women in a faux 1930s teahouse discussed at length with their waiter how fresh the ingredients were, whether something was steamed or poached. It put Parisians to shame.

At Big Chinese Pear, I couldn't help eavesdropping as an irate customer shouted for 10 minutes at the dining-room manager. The customer had found a hair in her food. The offending item had been whisked away and a replacement brought, but the customer wanted a discount. When the manager politely refused, the customer kept shouting. In Mao's day, the comrades would have shouted back, and perhaps even come to blows.

With so much competition, restaurants are thinking outside the lunchbox to lure customers. In Tianjin, one restaurant doubles as a private museum. Yue Wei Xian is crammed with more than 3,000 items, including mounted elk heads and genuine treasures such as a ninth-century stone sculpture. A plaque outside proclaims that it has made the Guinness Book of World Records as the restaurant with the most archeological relics.

Like Shanghai, Tianjin was a so-called treaty port, forcibly opened to foreign trade after China's defeat in the 19th-century Opium Wars. Yue occupies an Italianate four-storey mansion once owned by a famous opera star named Ma Lianliang. The owner, Zhang Lianzhi, an inveterate collector who has Canadian citizenship, told me that he wanted to share his art.

As my guests, three local residents, ordered starters of diced cucumber in aged vinegar, our server, Shang Junjiang, entered the order in his dian cai bao — an "ordering food treasure," a Chinese version of a Palm Pilot. As we selected each dish, the order went directly to the kitchen, with a copy transmitted to the cashier. When I told him I had seen them using the same devices at Fisherman's Wharf, Shang grimaced. He used to work there, but the roller-skating did him in.

"I can skate," he said, "but not with a big tureen of soup. If you drop one dish, they dock you one month's pay. The first day, I had two collisions with other waiters. I quit."

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