Welcome to the most creative restaurant in China

Welcome to the most creative restaurant in China

In Chengdu, Asia’s first UNESCO-listed City of Gastronomy, Yu’s Family Kitchen is giving Sichuan food a makeover
Diners at Yu's Family kitchen start their meal with 16 cold appetizers, called "liang cai."

While the flavors are familiar, the cuisine at Yu’s Family Kitchen in Chengdu, Sichuan, is anything but common or safe.

Even the chef’s simplest dish, a seemingly uncomplicated steamed red bean bun, is artistically pricked with shears, transforming it into an edible hedgehog. 

Artistic details like these have propelled Yu's to the top of Chengdu's "must dine" lists -- and lend considerable clout to claims the Sichuan city is one of the hottest culinary destinations on the planet right now. 

In 2010, Chengdu became the first city in Asia and the second in the world to be named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. (The first, in 2005, was Popayan in Colombia.)  

"No two meals at my restaurant are the same," says chef Yu Bo (right). "Ingredients change daily based on availability.”Among many enticing restaurants in Chengdu, chef Yu Bo’s Yu’s Family Kitchen is without doubt the most exciting.

A Sichuan native, Yu dedicated 10 years of meticulous study to the art of cooking spicy and classic Sichuan cuisine under traditional chefs.

He ventured off on his own in 2006, opening Yu’s Family Kitchen with his wife in one of the city’s restored Zhai alleyways in the heart of Chengdu.

Since its inception, Yu and his restaurant have won praise both at home and abroad for culinary dexterity and exceptional creativity.

He’s garnered accolades from foreign experts on Chinese food such as Fuchsia Dunlop, as well as visits from the likes of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

He teaches diners there's more to Sichuan cuisine than mapo tofu –- though his play on the traditional dish is superb –- and invites them to discover the cuisine of his home through the eyes of a detailed and thoughtful artist.

More on CNN: Chengdu, Asia's first City of Gastronomy

The experience

Four of us gathered for lunch at a large round table at Yu’s Family Kitchen on a recent sunny Chengdu afternoon.

The restaurant is set in a traditional Sichuan lane house.

Meals are served in the usual Chinese banquet style.

But the experience is anything but traditional.

Reservations are required. Not because the restaurant is booked solid every meal, but because that's when diners decide how much they want to spend, discover what seasonal ingredients are available and inform the staff of dietary restrictions.

Once we arrived at the restaurant, no menus were presented.

Each hedgehog spike on this steamed bun was clipped individually with scissors. Instead, with careful precision, the hostess placed a mosaic of 16 cold appetizers before us.

Cold dishes (liang cai) are conventional precursor to nearly every meal in China. Many of Yu's are creatively crafted, like the hand-tied piece of lettuce.

“Traditions are made not to be broken nor kept," says Yu.

"I use traditional methods and styles as the foundation on which I build the rest of my house. I don’t trade past experiences for new ones; I create new experiences with traditional ones.”

Instead of breaking with Chengdu's culinary traditions, Yu refines them.

After our 16 starters -- which represent the 16 additional courses to arrive later -- we were offered three seemingly simple dishes of hand-shredded duck, a sesame and chili oil rabbit and a spice-rubbed chicken.

The ingredients

Incredibly executed, these dishes shined not because of their creativity, but because of Yu’s careful consideration in obtaining ingredients.

The fowl was completely free-range and the MSG -- an often feared and misunderstood hallmark of Asian cuisine -- is made in-house using only organic ingredients.

“It’s nearly impossible to source 100% traceable, environmentally sound and organic products all the time in China,” laments Yu.

“But I try my best to obtain them. That’s why almost no two meals at my restaurant are the same. Ingredients change daily based on availability.”

Yu’s commitment to responsibly sourcing free-range and organic produce should be applauded, but it's his ability to re-introduce Chinese traditions that should really be celebrated.

His creativity is best witnessed in his marriage of two iconic Chinese symbols: calligraphy and dumplings.

He takes something as simple as a dumpling and transforms it into a piece of art, nearly too exquisite to eat.

Instead of enveloping minced pork into a typical doughy wrapper, he creates floss from the dough, spins it onto the end of a wooden handle, and cleverly hides the free range Tibetan ground pork within the threads of floss.

The result is an edible calligraphy brush best served dipped in its ink -- either a tomato dipping sauce or pungent black vinegar.

Equally impressive is Yu’s ability to recreate a classic Sichuan mapo tofu experience without using a single cube of tofu.

In place of tofu, he simmers cubed jelly noodles in a pungent huajiao (Sichuan peppercorn) broth to create a traditional Chinese medicinal concoction as savory as it is healthful.

More on CNN: CNNGo TV in Chengdu

'A lot of chefs play safe.'

“I want to inspire creativity in Chinese kitchens,” Yu says.

I think that is really lacking here. Chinese chefs often get stuck with the recipes that have been handed down to them generation to generation and they don’t possess any discipline.

"Some of those traditional recipes may be great, but they need new life breathed into them and a focused chef. But a lot of chefs play safe.”

The price of his creative cuisine is reasonable. The four of us paid just under RMB 250 ($40) per person for our four-hour, 16-course meal, though the restaurant will try to accommodate most budgets.

Yu's Family Kitchen, 43 Zhao Xiang Zi, Xia Tong Ren Lu Chengdu, China; +86 028 8669 1985

More on CNN: 10 of China's spiciest dishes