Thanks, Will, that is some help. But I guess what I was really asking is, if we took the top 10 restaurants in China (putting aside regional differences here), what would distinguish those from the more run-of-the mill restaurants, cuisine wise? I have some grasp what sets aside a western Michelin 2-star restaurant from my local chain, but I don't have a grasp what that might entail in China. For example, on those textures that the Chinese enjoy, are people willing to pay an order of magnitude more to get it perfected?
I think the quality of the ingredients is one thing, and the skill of the chefs; also the service, though maybe not to the same extent as at a high-end Western place. So in that sense, similar things to what makes a high-end restaurant expensive here. Certain ingredients are rare or expensive (sharks fin, for example), and so ordering them at all tends to be expensive anywhere you go. As far as Cantonese style seafood, a lot of places will also stock live fish. For fish, a lot of Chinese preparations tend to be simple (steamed, maybe with some aromatics on top), and served whole with the head on. I think across the board there's also a broader acceptance of nose to tail eating - of course there are folks here who like to eat pig intestine or cow tongue, but I think there are proportionally more Chinese who will eat these things with gusto. And as far as chickens, pigs, etc., while most Chinese folks I've met aren't too concerned about animal welfare, they do seem interested in eating gamier tasting meat, which tends to mean heritage breeds which have spent time outdoors and moved around.
Of course, China has a lot of new wealth, and there are folks who will pay more just to impress their guests. In some cases, the money being paid may be justified by the quality of the food, and in other cases, maybe not.
I don't claim at all to be an expert, but I think the political and economic situation of the past 60 or so years, as well as the widespread use of flavor enhancers such as MSG may have helped to somewhat diminish Chinese cuisines as a whole. But with the growing wealth of the country, and the growing middle and upper middle classes, I think we'll see more interest in bringing back some older techniques, and an interest in finding safe, naturally grown ingredients, in a country where this is increasingly hard. Better certification and less corruption will probably be important for this. One other Fuchsia Dunlop article which I think is really interesting, and kind of touches on the amount of work it takes to source clean ingredients (even if this guy is exaggerating a little about the lengths he goes to, it's definitely hard to ensure you're getting what you're paying for):http://www.newyorker...4fa_fact_dunlop