I heard about this secret restaurant location from a Chinese friend of a friend. Pressed to spill the beans on the best place in Shanghai to eat hairy crab (a late autumn seasonal delicacy in Shanghai), she offered up the names of all the fancy and well-known restaurants, exactly the kind of recommendations you give to people you’ve never met, because they’re safe and reliable.
But I was looking for something a little different. ‘Where would you go to eat hairy crab?’ she was pressured. So she gave me this name. Only five tables and fifteen seats in all, with a wait of two weeks for a booking. Japanese businessmen apparently fly in to Shanghai for a morning ‘meeting’, spend all afternoon eating hairy crab here, then fly back to Tokyo in the evening. Sounds promising.
We phoned four days in a row with absolutely no luck, only to have fortune smile on us when, on the fifth try, I happened to phone just after a cancellation. Of course at first I mistrusted my translation of what I’d heard. Tonight? Yes. At 7.30? Yes. Crikey, that was in thirty minutes and my dinner friends hadn’t even been told the good news yet. One thing you cannot be in China is fashionably late. They are sticklers for punctuality – being on time means arriving fifteen minutes early. I once had a popular and busy restaurant phone me at 6.20 to say ‘Where are you??’ For a 6.30 reservation!
So I sweated it in the back of the taxi, but thank god those Shanghai taxi drivers can make double quick time when they feel like it, and we arrived at the street address with one minute to spare. The restaurant is on the ground floor of an old lane house on Fuxing Lu, tucked towards the back. When you open the small door it feels exactly like you’ve just stepped into someone’s living room, circa 1975.
The restaurant is some sort of warped Chinese time capsule from my childhood – twin living rooms, separated by an archway papered in faux red-brick wallpaper, fake petunias in a window box below the arch, and a stuccoed ceiling. Decoration is…um…..eclectic, with a chandelier, a cuckoo clock, a waving Lucky Cat, a small temple to the Town God, a lucky fish and a TV showing Chinese soap operas. The dark swirly carpet looks just the same as the one in my best friend Delena’s house, 1978, and the owner has a perm exactly like her mum did back then. A sort of Chinese Afro.
So I’m thinking, this is either going to be mind-blowingly good, or very, very, very bad. But at least the decor has been entertaining. Luckily, it’s the former. We choose a variety of dishes from the pictureless Chinese menu by doing a round of the other four tables and pointing to what we like the look of, and then surveying the two fishtanks in the corner of the room and choosing the fattest bullfrog, and the healthiest looking fish swimming in it.
The cold dishes arrive first – duck breast wrapped around duck yolks (a sort of Chinese Sotch egg), followed by the whole fish – baked with a smothering of crisped and sweetened chopped garlic, it’s easily one of the best fish dishes I’ve eaten. Then comes eggplant, Shanghai style – sweet and soy braised, and the bullfrog, very tender but a little bland with a sauce very heavy on onions and little else.
This is all by way of preparation for the hairy crabs – so-called because of the pompoms the male crab has on each claw. The males are larger, with more meat, but the females are sweeter with their rich roe. They are served steamed, with a light, sweet, vinegar and garlic dipping sauce, a perfect foil to the richness of the crabmeat. After looking clueless, all four of us, about how to dismember the small crabs, our waitress offers to cut them up for us with tiny scissors, separating the body from the legs and claws, and serving the legs neatly snipped down each side so we can open them easily.
Well, they are good. Really, really good. For twenty minutes our raucous table turns to silent reverie as we extract every last morsel of that crab meat from the shells. The roe is so delicious, and so rich, it’s lucky the crabs are small. When there seems to be no more meat to prise from the pincers, our waitress brings us a huge, steaming glass bowl filled with chryanthemum tea – our finger bowl, to leave our hands smelling sweet when we leave. The owner smiles benevolently from under her perm as we head back out into the night. What a tip-off!
Yong Xing Restaurant
House 1, 626 Fuxing Zhong Lu, near Ruijin Er Lu
Ph +86 21 64733780