BEIJING – Picture this: Lobster cooked eight ways. Sharks' fin bathed in a rich brown sauce. Stewed bird's nest sweetened with apricots. Abalone braised until tender.
Now, the bill for a party of 10: $24,500
The Lao Zhengxing restaurant in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou has taken culinary decadence to new heights with its Chinese New Year banquet menu — a mix of exorbitantly priced ingredients and flashy cooking topped off with a dash of self-promotion.
Just a few years ago, Chinese spent the Lunar New Year — their most celebrated holiday — preparing feasts at home. But now, increasingly wealthy and busy, they are splurging on restaurant banquets. Eateries like Lao Zhengxing with special New Year menus are benefiting.
"It is the time for families to gather," said Bian Jiang, Secretary General of the China Cuisine Association. "People expect and enjoy higher standards of food, teas, wines and services during the New Year."
The rush to book a table starts as early as December, and meals range from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars — a fortune in a country where incomes average about $300 a year in the countryside and $1,000 in cities.
"People are getting lazier and they have less time to cook," said Liu Jiang, a 43-year-old homemaker from Beijing who has reserved a table for 12 at a roast duck restaurant Saturday, the eve of the Lunar New Year.
"It's so much easier to go out — especially if you have as many people as we do."
Dishes are full of symbolic meaning: noodles represent longevity, fish for wealth and round foods, like meat balls, emphasize togetherness. The menu usually has one or two high-priced delicacies like abalone or sharks' fin to make the occasion more memorable.
The Lao Zhengxing banquet features a soup with a hair-like black sea moss whose name in Mandarin sounds the same as the phrase "get rich."
Among the other rarities offered are, a "three-headed" Japanese abalone, which cost $2,400 each and 50-year-old Pu'er tea from southern Yunnan province.
The price is so high, the restaurant manager said, because the ingredients are rare and come from the restaurant owner's private collection.
"We have enough only for about 20 to 24 people," said the manager, who would give only his surname, Li. "It will take at least another five years to collect them again."
So far, there's been one taker for the banquet, a Hong Kong businessman who is an old friend of the restaurant owner, Li said.
Quan Ju De, a popular roast duck chain in Beijing, is attracting more customers, with its most expensive holiday menu, which feeds 10 for about $1,000. The holiday menu includes Australian scallops, bird's nest and of course, duck.
Quan Ju De packs them in: One branch seats 900 people and is filled with white-cloth topped tables and red velvet chairs, with bunches of firecrackers on pillars. Photos of President Bush, Yasser Arafat and Fidel Castro line the walls — all said to be among the restaurant's customers.
The Chinese zodiac moves in a 12-year cycle named after animals, starting with the Year of the Rat and ending with the Year of the Pig, which falls in 2007. According to that series, this is the Year of the Dog.