Back in Shanghai, and all I can think about now is getting back into some really fabulous local Chinese food.
I’ve adopted a project between now and when the Great Chinese Campervan Adventure begins in July – to find and eat at all of Shanghai’s favourite Shanghainese restaurants. Not content with four or five, I want to try all the places locals love and consider the city’s best, so I asked a Shanghai foodie friend to help me compile a list of them and come along with me to taste their wares. She hesitated for all of…er… half a second before agreeing to be my accomplice.
A place I’d already tried made her shortlist – Lao Zheng Xing restaurant on Fuzhou Lu. It’s just down the road from Shanghai’s Foreign Languages bookstore, a frequent haunt, and I had walked past the double gold doors several times without realising there was a great restaurant upstairs. The doors open on to a very nondescript foyer that could easily belong to an office building, and the heavy black and gold sign above the doors is a trap for young players like myself, reading right to left in the traditional way, rather than left to right. So when I did once glance at it, it made no sense at all.
Only when you cross to the other side of the road do you suddenly see this is, in fact, a place famous enough to deserve golden clouds and its name written two storys high above the street. Impressive.
L: kaofu R: crispy fried yellow fish
Inside, a large silk painting of pink peonies looks over the dining room, furnished with old wooden tables inlaid with the character Xing in mother-of-pearl. We begin with a selection of cold dishes (涼菜 liáng cài), ordered at the start of every meal and shared amongst the table. Eating cold dishes first took some getting used to – cold jellyfish, cold poached chicken, cold roast meats – but they really are a great build-up and a contrast to the hot dishes to come.
Lao Zheng Xing’s menu has a long list of Shanghai’s traditional classics like red dates with lotus seeds (莲子黑的红枣) (top) – sweet little smoky morsels of warm, soft date with nuttier, paler lotus seeds in a light syrup – and kaofu (烤麸), a rich combination of poached peanuts, lotus seeds, black wood ear mushrooms and soft, sponge-like gluten poached with soy, dark sugar and star anise.
The platter of crispy fried yellow fish is not to everyone’s taste – dry, crunchy and cold but certainly traditional.
The hot dishes start arriving: red-braised pork belly (hong shao rou 红烧肉), soft as butter, with a sweet, sticky soy syrup coating every bite. Each Shanghai restaurant does this classic dish a little differently and I like Lao Zheng Xing’s version because it’s less sweet than most. The pork belly is followed by braised bamboo shoots, again in a sweet soy glaze, and lightly peppered beef tenderloin that disappears faster than should be humanly possible.
We don’t want to eat too many hot dishes, saving ourselves for dumplings, so we decline the house specialty – crispy pork intestines on a bed of stir-fried alfalfa sprouts.
On most Chinese menus, the place where you would normally look for deserts is occupied by an assortment of hot savoury snacks, considered a fitting end to a meal. Dumplings, savoury pastries, noodles, fried rice, and some soups take the place of cakes, puddings and sweets. The typical plate of sliced fruit is often not listed, because you need only ask for it when you’re ready.
In place of desert we try a basket of Lao Zheng Xing’s xiaolongbao – they are really beautiful with their rosette of pleats – but within minutes they have disappointingly deflated and four of them break on being lifted. So not the best xiaolongbao in Shanghai, but certainly not the worst (that honour belongs to the flabby, thick-skinned greasy atrocities passed off as xiaolongbao by the Nanxiang Xiaolongbao restaurant at Yu Gardens).
The wonton soup though is outstanding – a clear chicken stock broth dotted with scallions and filled with slippery shreds of fine dumpling skin holding the tiniest bite of flavoursome pork. The soup arrived in a bowl the size of a tureen, empty soon after. I don’t even miss the taste something sweet to end the meal.
At the table next to us, a group of ten octogenarians are in high spirits over their meal, spinning the lazy susan with enthusiasm and drinking oolong tea like there’s no tomorrow. The waitstaff treat them like the regulars they no doubt are. In fact, I look forward to becoming a regular here myself. Maybe I’ll even have the intestines next time.
Got a favourite Shanghainese restaurant anywhere in the world? Pass it on!
Lao Zheng Xing Restaurant
556 Fuzhou Lu
+86 21 63222624
Open seven days for lunch and dinner
Shanghai Foreign Languages Bookstore
390 Fuzhou Lu
+86 21 6322 3200
Open 7 days 9.30am – 7pm