Lou Wai Lou
30 Gushan Road
Solitary Island (West Lake)
No trip to Hangzhou is complete without a trip to the famous Lou Wai Lou restaurant. Translated, it means “a building within a building” – not too sure why, but the building is huge, with the restaurant split out into a few rooms. Make sure you ask for the main hall on the second floor, for the best views over West Lake. This 150 year old restaurant one of the oldest and most famous restaurant in Hangzhou, so we were told repeatedly by colleagues to go check it out. Situated on a small island in the middle of the large West Lake, it’s also one of the most picturesque restaurants I’ve been to.
After a stroll around the island, we stepped into Lou Wai Lou and were immediately blown away with how ornate it was. It was absolutely huge, with high ceilings on both floors, and with a spiral carpet-lined staircase leading to the second floor. In the main hall upstairs (where we were seated, upon request), there were MASSIVE crystal lights covering the high ceiling, and huge paintings on the walls. Quite an incredible sight.
We were delighted (and surprised) that the thick menu was in both Chinese and English. Loved how their famous dishes also came with a blurb of their history – a very nice touch. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of dishes on offer, we decided to go with just 2 of their signature dishes. Sounds small, but considering it was 1 whole (large) fish and 1 whole chicken, we ended up pretty damn stuffed afterwards!
The West Lake sweet & sour vinegar-glazed fish was an absolute stunner. This famous traditional dish is said to emerge from a folktale of the Song Dynasty. It is made by lightly poaching a fresh grass carp fish from West Lake itself, and serving it with a tangy sweet and sour vinegar sauce. The fish was unbelievable, absolutely white in colour and so so so tender it melted in our mouths. It had a lovely fresh, sweet flavour when eaten just by itself… but when eaten with the sauce, was a total explosion of sweet and sour combined. It’s not like the fluro-orange sweet and sour sauces that are prevalent in Western countries, but was a dark thick sauce with a strong vinegar taste. Just a small dab was enough to give the fish a huge flavour kick. It was crazy good!!! We ploughed through the whole fish like our lives depended on it. The best whole fish I’ve ever had. It was also the most expensive whole fish I’ve ever had ;)
The Hangzhou’s Beggar’s Chicken was also a specialty. It is said that this dish was ceated by a beggar who came upon a chicken, and unsure of what to do with it, he put it into a lotus leaf and buried it in the mud. Later, when one of his companions was starving, he decided to dig up the chicken to feed his friend. Without a proper place to pare and cook the chicken, he put the whole chicken with the mud around it into a fire. When he opened the mud casing the aroma and tenderness of the chicken cooking in its own juices was heavenly.
The restaurant adds some local Shaoxing wine and lotus leaves from West Lake, and I don’t know if the restaurant follows exactly the beggar’s cooking method, but the chicken really did turn out splendidly. The meat just fell right off with a mere poke of our chopsticks, not to mention it was hella fun eating out of a leaf :P The chicken was tender and moist, and was delicious dipped in the juices at the bottom, wish there was more of it to drizzle on my rice too. I didn’t think we’d finish the whole chicken as well, but we easily did because it was that good.
The meal turned out to be exorbitantly priced at 428元 (US$63), most of which was the cost of the fish. I don’t understand why it’s priced so high compared to everything else on the menu, and felt a little annoyed that they’re banking on their success to rip people off. Still, it was an incredibly culinary experience.. and I heard they have a branch in Shanghai so I’m hunting that one down to see what it’s like!
Lou Wai Lou (aka “a building within a building”)
Looking down towards the ground floor of the huge restaurant
The main hall upstairs with its lovely crystal lights
We were fascinated with their custom-made bamboo chopsticks
Chris ordered a drink called “Wa Ha Ha” because he wanted to be exotic. Turned out it
was just a canned drink with sweet tea. Haha! I had the hot Dragon Well (Longjing) tea.
The live and very fat fish brought to our table so we can check (for what? I have no idea!)
Hangzhou’s Beggar’s Chicken
Melty tender meat
West Lake sweet & sour vinegar-glazed fish
Snow white meat, absolutely absolutely tender and so delish!