This article was translated by Marian Rosenberg and edited by Vanessa Jencks. The original article by Freeter can be found here. Rosenberg commented, “When translating this article I thought it was ‘puffed up’ language. After trying with two other friends, who have lived in China for various amounts of time, we all agreed this was the best restaurant meal we had eaten in China.”
The first time I heard of the concept of a “bistro” was from a friend of mine who had studied overseas in France. A bistro isn’t as formal as a restaurant and it isn’t as loud as a bar. The standard translation into Chinese of the word “bistro” more or less means a small French style restaurant with a unique and casual style.
Bistro type restaurants have long been popular in the mainland’s first-tier cities, but Haikou just recently got its first bistro. Feeling curious, I obviously had to go check this place out and see what it was like.
This restaurant is located inside Phase Two of Hengda Apartments on the Haikou Bund. The taxi driver dropped me off only 15m away from my destination, but when I got there, I discovered that the rear gate was locked, and I had to go alllllll the way around to the main entrance. As a result, I was almost late.
Finding this place really isn’t the easiest thing to do. I spent absolutely ages wandering around looking for it. Finally a puff sign appeared before my eyes, and I knew I'd found the right place. From first glance, I knew this was going to be good.
My initial impression was of a ‘modern + retro’ style. Mixing wood and metal, the décor is quite simple. It’s a little bit American and a little bit post industrial, but really, the best way to describe it is, ‘Noveau French’.
This sort of ‘neo bistro’ type of restaurant is different from a traditional bistro. Both the atmosphere and the dishes are more trendy and more for Instagram moments. The combination of warm yellow interior lighting and soothing background jazz were like something out of any first class city: Beijing, Shanghai, Paris. And now Haikou.
For a meal at a bistro, it’s all about the wine pairing. So far as a puff is concerned, getting the right wine is even more important than getting the right food. Each menu revolves around specific wine pairings. The wine which they serve are all natural wines, referring to a generalized movement among winemakers to produce wine using simple or traditional methods.
The freshest and most exciting thing about their menu though is the choice of ingredients. This is true fusion cuisine, mixing Hainanese ingredients with French cooking. Furthermore, instead of a fixed menu, they intend to change the dishes regularly according to what is in season.
The boss is a well-traveled and quite fashionable lady. The head chef is a Le Cordon Bleu trained young woman from Sichuan. Even the waitstaff here all have interesting backstories ranging from piano teacher to psychologist.
Decor reflects the flavor of a restaurant, but it’s the staff who make up the soul. A good foundation really is the most important way to build a good restaurant.
This was my first time encountering a restaurant that specialized in serving natural wine. There were so many different types available for me to choose from that I was positively overwhelmed. Unfortunately, with the exception of myself, everyone who was there that day with me had driven a car and couldn’t indulge.
When compared to ordinary grape wines, natural wine can be said to have a strong personality. It's wild, fresh, and a completely new experience.
When it comes to picking which meal or appetizer to go with your wine, it’s best to just listen to the suggestions made by the kitchen. They know their stuff. Indulging their customers with incredible flavors is their goal.
While waiting, each table is provided with some bread. Inhaling deeply, you’ll get the fragrance of fine wheat; the bread is soft (but not too soft) and the texture was sublime. Paired with olive oil and vinaigrette for dipping, it’s the perfect way to start a meal.
Lantern Pepper Fish and Garlic Bruschetta RMB58
Crispy slices of toasted bread are topped with a seasonal ocean fish and Hainanese yellow lantern peppers.
Each slice of garlic toast crunched. Each piece of fish carries with it the flavor of the ocean. The lantern peppers are a bright garnish which tie everything together and bring joy to the whole dish.
Passionfruit Orange Marinated Tuna with a Black Vinegar Sauce RMB118
I’m a bit picky about my fish but this dish was nothing short of excellent!
From the bottom up, this enchantingly plated dish starts with a slab of almost pink tuna atop which a brown vinaigrette and golden passion fruit sauce have been drizzled. This is then garnished with orange pulp, capers and fennel.
When taking a forkful of the tuna, make sure to catch at least a little bit of each of the rich ingredients as they combine in a symphony of flavors, starting from the fresh fish and intertwining with the sweet and sour of the passion fruit, the vinaigrette, and the bits of orange pulp.
White Wine Prawns and Scallops RMB78
Hainanese cooking often incorporates prawns and shellfish. You’d think that mixing these ingredients with white wine would be “gilding the lily” but you’d be wrong.
Pairing the fragrant aroma of white wine with fresh shellfish creates a gentle dish which is accented by the calamansi and other spices which have been added to finish it off.
Fruit Smoked Duck Breast with Clitocybe Mushrooms and Seasonal Vegetables RMB68
Duck breast is one of the mainstay ingredients in French cuisine. In making this delicacy, a puff insists on using locally raised duck meat. The Chinese name for Clitocybe Mushrooms translates as “pork belly mushroom” and I initially thought that the dish would have pork belly, but instead, it turned out to be mushrooms.
The duck breast is cooked just right and the sauce with which it is served is a perfect accompaniment. It sits on a bed of roasted mushrooms and seasonal vegetables (carrots on the day I went) and I have to admit, it seemed to be a very healthy choice.
Kidney Bean Cassoulet with Spanish Sausage and Grilled Chicken Breast RMB68
After duck, it was time to have some chicken! Built on the basis of the traditional French Cassoulet, the chef replaced ordinary chicken breasts with Wenchang chicken to create a must eat experience.
The white scoop of sour cream and the golden yellow stew were visually appealing in a way that led to very high expectations on my part. These expectations were suitably met by the mild flavor of the stewed vegetables in combination with the crispy skin and tender meat of the chicken breast. When combined with bits of Spanish sausage, all we can say is ooh la la.
Grilled Octopus and Anchovy Tomato RMB88
This was probably the most western of any of our appetizers. Be that as it may, it still used completely local ingredients. You absolutely can’t forget to order this one.
Once grilled, the huge octopus tentacles have curled up into a crisp ringlet which is served atop roasted vegetables and mashed sweet potatos.
Even after its been cut into pieces, the octopus is a bit on the chewy side. However, this is a good thing as it means the original flavor has been maintained. As for the sweet potato mash, it’s like mashed potatos only better. I’m pretty sure that anyone who orders this will love it as much as I did.
Red Wine Braised Ding'an Beef Tongue and House Picked Vegetables RMB 118
The only main course that I had the opportunity to try that day was nothing short of stunning. First of all, the cut of the meat - not too thick and not too thin. Personally, I tend to like thick cuts of meat but I know that not everyone else does.
After three hours spent gently simmering in a red wine reduction, even the thickest cut of meat is soft and delicate and thoroughly infused with the flavor of the wine. However, the original taste of the tongue continues to shine through and the overall flavor is absolutely delightful.
I definitely think that the best part of this dish is the kitchen’s decision to pair it with homemade pickled vegetables. When I say homemade, I don’t just mean that they made these pickles in house. I mean that these sour and slightly spicy vegetables were pickled using a recipe which the chef learned from her grandmother. Served together with the red wine tongue, a magical fusion takes place between the flavors of Paris, Sichuan, and Haikou.
Wild Vegetable Risotto with Homemade Cheese RMB78
With an appetite like mine, I can eat and eat and eat. This meant that even though I’d already had so much, I still needed something with carbs to fully fill my stomach. At the time of my visit, the only options were spaghetti and risotto. Seeing another diner's risotto, I knew that was the one for me. The pearls of green risotto had completely melted together into a single pleasing whole. If the chef hadn’t told me what was in it I wouldn’t have been able to figure out just by looking at it.
Combining spinach and local wild vegetables, this fragrant dish uses rice from northeastern China to create something that’s almost a chowder. This is then sprinkled with some of their homemade aged cheese for a truly filling end to the meal. The overall taste is quite subtle and I couldn’t stop myself from spooning it into my mouth one luscious bite after another.
Chocolate Cake with Seasonal Fruit RMB68
Although sweets are not this restaurant's forte, the chocolate cake (like everything else here) is well above the standard for Haikou.
The dense chocolate cake is something to be savored, slowly. Rich and mellow, it matched surprisingly well with the cut grapes and whipped cream with which it was topped. As a sweet end to a sweet meal, I have to say that it very much worked for me.
At an average price of between RMB 200 and RMB 300 per person, this is not a cheap restaurant. However, everything about this place is so wonderful that you don’t feel as though you've overpaid. Their name a puff is quite casual, but the inside and outside of their restaurant are actually quite exquisite. My overall feeling was one of refinement and class.
As a wine drinker, this was the first time I’d heard the term ‘natural wine’ and I was very curious to have a try. For me, I felt that the unrestrained nature of the wine paired quite well with the fussiness of the cooking style. In mixing Hainanese ingredients with French cooking, this bistro absolutely succeeds at making “fusion” cuisine. None of their innovations strained credibility. Every dish had a logical basis upon which the flavors were mixed to a perfect balance point. That’s really something which isn't easy to do.
Once the curtain of night falls, the bistro’s dim lighting creates a warm and cozy atmosphere. The taste of the wine and the meal linger in your memory and the day's exhaustion is wiped away. For a wistful moment, I felt as though it was possible to forget where I was. Is this Paris? Shanghai? Or Haikou?
Do you want to try this Nouveau French Bistro? In that case, you should hurry as Mr. Freeter has negotiated with the owners for an awesome set meal.
A two person meal and wine pairing that was originally RMB 442 can be purchased through Freeter for only RMB 353.
A two person Parisian meal and wine pairing that was originally RMB 518 can be purchased through Freeter for only RMB 414.
The natural wine tasting set that was originally RMB 180 can be purchased through Freeter for only RMB 128.
There’s a limited number of these package sets available. As soon as they sell out, we don’t know when they’ll be available again. So, if you want to take your taste buds on a journey to Paris without ever leaving Haikou, search for the deal on their mini-program (飞特生活馆) or join That’s Sanya Insiders group for a link to it directly (WeChat Id: vanessajencks).
Tuesday to Sunday, 6pm-1am. 114, Building 1, Heng Haikou Bay Apartmets Phase Two Haitang Lu. See listing.
A translator living in Hainan for 17 of her 19 years in China, Marian Rosenberg is best known for her annual cycling trips through rural China. These trips not only have her blogging on Cycleblaze (username: brucianna) and helping people out on the Travel in China During Covid groups (Cyclist Translator), they've also landed her in the Washington Post's travel section and are the reason she has more than 40,000 followers on Douyin (我是凡一).
[Images via Freeter]
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