A bit like stumbling into an ancient teahouse in the middle of a mall, the new Hangzhou cuisine Kwei Mun Lung is a mini theme park of trickling water, peaked eaves, veined marble table tops overhung by burlap-wrapped lanterns and carved wooden screens galore. An oversized bonsai tree stands inside the entrance, ostensibly symbolizing serenity and nature. But just outside in the Cloud Nine Mall hallway, there’s a ravenous crowd, each person clutching a paper slip with their table number and a menu listing in small characters what looks like hundreds of dishes.
Kwei Man Lung may have taken the decoration gorgeously back in history, but it’s an astute follower of other popular brands with similar menus and crowds like Hangzhou giants The Grandma’s and Green Tea. You take a slick, softly-lit interior whether vintage or modern, add a long menu of popular dishes from around the region, keep an iron grip on cost and staff training, and order all your staples in volume, like soy sauce by the truck, resulting in a sophisticated business model in which you can offer preposterously low prices (plenty in the 8-15RMB range). Then you just sit back and count the table turns.
Just like its competitors, Kwei Mun Lung has winners and some sore losers on its vast menu. We literally argued over who could eat the last bites of the deeply-spiced Vietnamese simmered beef (yueshi wenhuo xiao niurou, 68RMB) which is so incredible it’s worth the wait in itself. It’s also one of the priciest dishes on the menu. Equally strategic as buying the cheapest house in the most expensive town is coming to the most economical restaurant and ordering on the top end: you’ll get some pretty fine deals. The beef chunks are permeated by a sauce almost black with intensity, sweet but not sugary, rich but not oily, enriched by star anise and cut with vinegar.
Also delicious is the simple roast meat fried rice (kaorou chaofan, 22RMB), high quality pearlescent rice grains, each one separate like pods, coated in a soy glaze with carrot strips, fluffy egg bits, shredded cabbage, red onion and fatty pork cubes. Another likeable basic is the warm spinach salad with cumin (ziran bocai, 16RMB), the baby leaves just barely wilted and tossed together with slivers of garlic.
Some of the downers include spicy, one-note seaweed (but how demanding can you be for 5RMB?), clams served not fresh enough (nanlu huage, 16RMB), and a whole eggplant stewed with a boatload of minced garlic but far too much salt and oil. Meanwhile, a giant bowl of okra (guangshi qiukui, 12RMB), simple and sticky, is bland in a light soy dressing, although with this massive portion it’s almost cheaper to eat it here than to buy it at the supermarket.
While the mall itself utterly lacks romance, once ensconced inside, Kwei Man Lung offers a dark wood and flowing water sanctuary that’s as pleasant to the palate as it is to the wallet.
By Crystyl Mo