Location, location, location. Fill it out in triplicate and file it under spectacular. That's about the best way to begin to appreciate that you're smoking a Bolivar Belicoso Fino across the moat from the Forbidden City. As in The Last Emperor. As in Beijing. As in a long way from anywhere you'd expect to find a cigar bar resting atop a superb, fusion restaurant with a kitchen run by a chef who trained at New York's Bouley.
The Courtyard was designed to be a home — it's a small house that current owner Handel Lee, a Chinese-American lawyer, bought after he moved to Beijing from New York.
"I was going to live here," Lee said, "but the location was too good."
The Forbidden City's East Gate is about 35 feet high. At the bottom of the wall is a moat. As the sun sets and the cigar divan upstairs darkens, you can look out the window at one of the most culturally astonishing shrines in the world. Lit up in green and blue, beyond the west wall of the Forbidden City, there is Coal Hill, a sort of replica of the imperial buildings of China. Taking in that view, an American realizes just how far away from home he really is.
That distance — both geographic and cultural — is one of the reasons The Courtyard became a restaurant. Lee wanted a place that felt a little like the spots in New York that he liked to frequent. Lucky for us, Lee likes his Cuban cigars and wine.
Start with a rum in the cigar divan and pair it with a pre-dinner Montecristo No. 4, which will run you about $20. Other choices are available at around the same price, or you can spend more than $30 for a Cohiba Siglo V, the most expensive cigar on the list.
When you're hungry, head downstairs to the dining room, notable for its small bridge and fine artwork. You're in for a treat. Rey Lim, the chef from New York, still misses the properly oily slices of pizza from home, but has clearly not let that sully his regard for your taste buds. Instead of butter or olive oil, the bread comes with a Chinese white bean hummus bathed in sweet balsamic vinaigrette. The appetizers are appealing and the grapefruit-sugar beet arugula salad is not something you're going to find at a Beijing duck restaurant. The spring asparagus and parmesan chips remind you that vegetables, even in China, can be served cold and fresh.
The entrées are diverse and impressive. Herb-roasted blue marlin, poppy-seed crusted salmon and king prawns with herbal essence rounded out the seafood selection on a recent night. The chicken vindaloo, an Indian dish, was a bit sedate, but the Peking duck spring rolls came stacked and crispy, filled with grilled shiitake mushrooms and bean sprout salad in a citrus sauce. There's at least one special vegetarian dish on the menu.
The Courtyard boasts a 120-bottle wine list. The better choices tend to be pricey, as expected, a reminder of how far you are from the vineyards of France and California and how close to the Gobi Desert.
Dessert, if you have room, is best kept on the light and cold side. The best choices were the mocha nougatine parfait and the pineapple-champagne granita over melon soup.
After dinner, head downstairs and take a look at some of China's best new art in the basement gallery. Or, of course, go back upstairs and have another dose of traditional Cuban medicine.
Alejandro Benes, a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado, was last seen at the Great Wall — not your local Chinese restaurant.
95 Donghuamen Avenue
Beijing 100006, China
(86-10) 6526 6881/2/3