When visiting Hangzhou, there is nothing more iconic than seeing West Lake 西湖, once home to many of China’s most notable literary figures. Which is why on my recent trip I was thrilled to not only enjoy a sunny boat ride across West Lake but also discover a hidden culinary gem in the area. Tucked away in the West Lake State Guest House 西湖国宾馆, past the elegant Jiangnan-style rock gardens and zigzagging corridors is Zi Wei Hall 紫薇厅.
Zi Wei Hall boasts many traditional Chinese dishes to give diners a taste of authentic ‘state level’ fine-dining. Having hosted the recent G20 delegations in 2016, the State Guest House and Zi Wei Hall had been closed to the general public for a while. But since it quietly reopened last year, Zi Wei Hall is now back as one of the most coveted spots to dine in the West Lake area. While dinners are reservations-only with priority given to hotel guests, lunch is more casual and walk-ins are accepted.
Each dish I tried at Zi Wei Hall was a delicious reminder that China’s rich history has many great tales of food woven into it. An example of this is the 东坡肉 Dong Po Pork Belly we tried. You don’t have to be a connoisseur of Chinese cuisine to appreciate the perfectly glazed and fatty texture of Dong Po Pork, wrapped with pickled vegetables in a steaming hot bun. Named after the famous literary figure 苏东坡 Su Dong Po, the Dong Po Pork Belly recipe was perfected by the Chinese poet who was also quite a gourmand (he penned a poem dedicated to pork!).
Without a doubt, Zi Wei Hall’s claim to fame is their interpretation of West Lake Fish in Black Vinegar 西湖醋鱼. When this dish was brought out, we were amazed by the aroma of black vinegar. The slightly sweet yet tart glaze poured over a fresh carp and topped with a sprinkle of osmanthus flowers was simply put… just delicious. I find that Jiangnan cuisine often features a couple of main condiments so the secret always lies in balance. And in this case, West Lake Fish in Black Vinegary 西湖醋鱼 is a great example of a commonly found household dish that is exceptional when done right.
Other standouts we tried include the Longjing Shrimp 龙井虾仁 which was tender and particularly fragrant. Because West Lake’s Longjing tea leaves are considered some of China’s best, the dish was a harmony between the subtle tea fragrances and the sweetness of river shrimps. For seafood lovers, the Fish Soup 鱼羹 was also quite unique and highly recommended to us. While it is served in the same style as traditional shark fin soup, there is no actual shark fin in it so it’s a great way to sample the Chinese delicacy.
In trying a full spread of Jiangnan-style dishes at Zi Wei Hall, I was impressed that instead of Chinese fine dining in an overly opulent setting, there was an understated elegance to Zi Wei Hall. The post-lunch stroll through the grounds, walking past pavilions that have hosted figures such as Nixon and Mandela perhaps only added to the whole experience.
Zi Wei Hall (West Lake State Guesthouse)*
Address // Hangzhou West Lake 18 杭州市西湖区杨公堤18号西湖国宾馆
Website // www.xihusgh.com
Tel // 0571-87979889
*Reservations are highly recommended.
1. From Shanghai Hongqiao Train Station to Hangzhou is ~1 hour train ride. Tickets should be purchased ahead of time, government issued ID is required for ticket pickup.
2. As the West Lake State Guest House is quite exclusive, smart casual is recommended.
3. After your meal, the staff can help escort you off the hotel grounds via a golf cart as shown above. I also recommend a renting a boat ride (accomodates ~6 people) around the West Lake to see Leifeng Pagoda and ‘Three Pools Mirroring the Moon,’ the backdrop of the 1RMB bill.