Nestled in the bustling streets of Beijing’s Taikoo Li Sanlitun, Refer has been invigorating the Capital’s culinary scene over the last three years since its opening. With an open mind and deep vision, Chef Talib Hudda draws on local terroir and refines techniques and flavour combinations as he transforms food into fine art. Revisiting Refer after almost two years, it was all the more touching.
I used to think Beijing is a “food desert”, especially for Western cuisine, but that has changed after Refer opened. Housed in a commercial building in Sanlitun, Refer ensures maximum privacy for guests: contacting staff is a must before you can access the floor where the restaurant is located. From arrival, reception, entering the lounge, through the kitchen and to the dining area, it is like visiting a friend’s place. A view of the busy streets outside is attainable through the window curtains, but this is a space where you can leave your troubles behind. You will be greeted by warm reception from the kitchen team as you enter the dining area, so full of energy as if covid had never existed.
Refer has all the qualities of a top-notch restaurant. With competence and confidence, Chef has insisted on doing a trifold menu that encompasses a vast range of ingredients, but each dish is dealt with utmost care and exquisite technique. The ability to combine perceptions, cooking skills and the art of plating with subtlety and elegance requires meticulous craftsmanship.
The first dish is a romantic Caviar Flower which is a classic item on the menu. It is a beautiful combination of ingredients and textures: a crispy shell of elderflower kombucha loaded with 9-year sturgeon caviar and garnished with petals of vinegared yellow beetroot, lily bulb and onion. The elegant plating is like presenting a flower bouquet to diners.
Next up is a rich and buttery Japanese bluefin tuna chutoro (mid-belly) aged for 5 days and wrapped in a sheet of caramelised seaweed crisp. The addition of 2-year shiso vinegar jelly adds delightful elements of sushi.I do have preference in sour taste but this dish is already top-tier.
Although easily mistaken as a cheating dish, the Buckwheat Sandwich is surprisingly appetizing and yes, we are still in the appetisers section. Black buckwheat puff pastry is paired with A5 Wagyu beef tartar and wasabi mayonnaise, a perfect matcha as such. Rich, balanced and crisp, the dish is finished off by a final touch of Canadian sea urchin. Exact configuration of ingredients is the key and a strong suit of the chef.
Smooth and rich chicken liver mousse is garnished with crispy stout beer croustade, and brightened by a citrous black plum sauce, as well as Indian tellecherry pepper to jazz up the spice. Fresh cornflower pedals add a floral note to the finishing touch. A bite-size portion keeps the good taste at its best moment.
A fusion of Nordic style and Japanese ingredients, the dish depicts a peaceful winter sea and whalebone-white snow on the beach. Coriander cured Japanese mackerel is served with fresh cucumber and nanguo pear to enrobe the tender fish with a sweet and fruity flavour. Paired with bonito sauce, dill oil and crispy Chinese yam seasoned with chamomile vinegar, this delicacy splashes winter freshness on the tongue. I have strict standards for sashimi, but Refer’s detailed mastery of it is out of question. Another hamachi dish is dealt in both Chinese and Japanese methods and served with Chinese spring roll wrapper to enhance layer and complexity.
A scallop dish that showcases the power of pink. Chef Talib says it brings together “all the pink in winter”. Brittany scallop is decorated with Beijing pink cheek strawberry and purple oxalis in a warm vinaigrette made from homemade rose vinegar and brown butter. Rose and scallop are a natural food pairing. The dish exudes an elegant aroma of rose and a warming sensation that takes the edge off the chill.
Inspired by the traditional French cold dish – Foie Gras Torchon, Refer’s foie gras is freshly shaved for a delicate texture and served with thin green apple slices and a jelly made from Tokushima sudachi juice for a refreshing taste. A dash of Chinese green peppercorn vinegar brings a unique tart, numbing twist.
Lightly sizzled in a sea buckthorn BBQ sauce and coupled with marinated egg yolk, the delicate and tender scampi from New Zealand is further drizzled with Shaoxing Sauce Vin Jaune and decorated with homemade kumquat kosho. Fruity and spicy aromas intertwine as the rich and savoury flavours charm the taste buds away.
Lobster and rice cake, a long-standing classic on Refer’s menu, takes on a new look each year. But the thing that remains unchanged is it continues to satisfy both the Chinese and western palate. The Japanese broth cooked with cream produces an irresistible umami that will please everyone with its excellent warmth.
The next dish is a chargrilled miso-marinated Alaskan black cod, similar to Saikyo yaki, but lighter in flavour, retaining the original flavour of the fish. The cod is perfectly cooked and topped off with a generous layer of caviar, coupled with walnut & oyster sauce, and a secret-recipe XO chili oil. You know how good it is just by reading these words.
We were served Jiabeilan wine from Ningxia to pair the province’s another much sought-after delicacy – Tan sheep. The mutton is cooked in three ways: chargrilled loin, slow-cooked leg of lamb and stewed mutton with vegetables. Black truffle is shaved into cloud-shaped slices and put in a separate bowl to put on top of the stew, which included vegetables like red kidney beans, purple kidney beans, lotus root and specially ordered Hunan larou (cured pork meat), served with a foam of leek oil and white kidney beans, and a mutton broth that is rich and full of flavour. The mutton is tender and has no gamey flavour. All three ways are outstanding and deliciously presented.
This winter-inspired dessert sees a choir of seasonal grapefruit sorbet, local Beijing strawberry jam, strawberry crisps, and homemade sheep milk yoghurt foam. The second dessert, Earl Grey Ice Cream, is served with baked apple, caramel miso and white chocolate mousse for extra flavour, and a macadamia nut custard at the bottom for a creamy finish.
One of the Petit Four is a gingerbread filled with glutinous rice cake (an old Beijing snack) and dried persimmon. A soft Chinese-style filling wrapped inside a crispy crust, lovely and yummy.
On a revisit, I still feel the vibes that Refer has, are very similar to that of the three-starred Copenhagen restaurant. Geranium is luxuriously elegant but Refer combines an exquisite feel with a relaxed and intimate ambiance. It’s amazing to see how Talib Hudda is able to handle Chinese, French and Japanese dishes with ease, and how the passion for research allows him to keep innovating and evolving. As you go through the menu, you can see how well the dishes are executed and how Talib’s personal style is becoming more visible.
Although Beijing Michelin Guide is a bit confusing to me, there is no doubt in my mind that Refer is a two-star restaurant.
Author: Jocelyn 华姐
Photo: Daniel Zhu/Refer