Driving down the highway from Antelias into downtown Beirut, one cannot but notice several huge billboards advertising the latest Asian cuisine restaurant, Chenbao — the Chinese word for castle. Curiosity aroused, Executive decided to pay a visit.
Chenbao is the newest conception of the Kazzami group, which brought us the high-end sushi restaurant Osaka and is planning for the opening of the Italian garden restaurant Villagio on Kantari Street, Beirut. Since Chenbao is also promoted as luxurious dining, expectations were high. Situated on the main road in Saifi Village II, with glass panels allowing diners to see the streets outside and be seen themselves by passersby, glamor is projected before you take your first step inside.
At the entrance, Executive’s party of two is greeted by an Asian hostess wearing a Chinese-style dress, who escorts us to our table and offers us the traditional wet and warm hand towels. The restaurant’s glossy granite flooring and black and gold trimming gives off a subtly luxurious vibe, though the excessive use of dark wood finishing on the walls, perhaps meant to accentuate the Asian feel, lends a somber and somewhat heavy feel to the place. The tables and chairs are placed at such angles so as to allow enough privacy for the diners’ conversations while at the same time allowing them to see most everyone in the spacious setting. The dark wood tables themselves are artfully set with little flowers on the chopsticks holders and upholstered, cream-white chairs prove comfortable for the meal. (An interesting feature of Chenbao, showing particular sensitivity on the owner’s part, is the electric sliding chair attached to the stairs leading to the bathroom — a facility for the disabled, the elderly and those too full to walk down the stairs.)
Menus are provided minutes after we’re seated by another Asian waitress who remains attentive throughout the dining experience, refilling water glasses and removing empty plates almost as soon as the last bite is taken.
sweet and sour
Prepared by the experienced Malaysian chef Eddie Chua, the menu offers traditional Chinese fare, from Szechuan-flavored stir fried meats to rice and noodles, as well as Thai fusion dishes. Matching the high-end image of the restaurant are the prices. A single serving of vegetable noodles costs $11, appetizers are between $20 and $25, and main dishes are as much as $40 if one orders seafood. Upon the waitress’s recommendation, we ordered the wasabi prawns as appetizers, the chicken cashew nuts with vegetables noodles for the main course and finished up with jasmine flavored macaroons — totalling $85 for two, drinks excluded. The artistically arranged dishes of generous portions arrive in perfect sequence, one after the other — the wasabi prawns drizzled in cream sauce offered a unique, harmonious blend between the spicy and sweet adjuncts to the shellfish; the chicken a light and pleasant, if somewhat uninspired, main dish in terms of Chinese cuisine, while the jasmine macaroons were the highlight of the meal, a bouquet of the sweet and the bitter to wrap up the flavor experience.
Having arrived at 9 pm, new customers were still coming in two hours later when we left, keeping the place half full at all times. The clientèle were mainly young professionals, between the ages of 30 and 40, who, according to those who sat around us, were also prompted by the billboard advertisements.
In the months to come, the tables at Chenbao will likely continue to be filled with inquisitive patrons out to see what all the fuss is about, and while they will certainly not be disappointed by the ambiance and the service, some dishes will have to find a stronger identity to pull their weight in an establishment banking its reputation on high-end and original cuisine.