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My Top Five: Shanghainese Restaurants in Shanghai

These five restaurants exemplify Shanghai cuisine at its best – laid back, local, and hospitable. Now that you know all about Shanghai cuisine thanks to last week’s Shanghai Food Primer, here’s where to try it out for yourself.

Be sure to let me know your favourites too!

1. Qiao Family Gate Restaurant 乔家栅食府 QiaoJiaZhaShiFu

I have a soft spot for this little place on the corner of Xiangyang Lu and Yongjia Lu. It’s a very old-fashioned Shanghai restaurant, full of locals eating lunch after finishing their morning errands and elderly friends getting together once a week for a meal and a gossip.

It’s not a destination restaurant, and there’s no hype or advertising. What you see is what you get. The most expensive dish on the menu is less than $US10 and most are $US3-4.

Every time I eat there one of the chefs will come out to the dining room to ask what I thought of the meal – not in a western celebrity-chef-meets-lowly-diner moment, just in a curious, never-seen-many-foreigners-eat-here kind of way. They always seem pleased I enjoyed the food, and I love that they come and chat.

On Dianping (China’s behemoth restaurant review website), frequent mention is made of the waitstaff’s ‘bad’ and ‘indifferent’ attitudes – you’ll have to decide for yourself. I’ve always found them consistently surly, in a good-natured sort of way.

Downstairs is just for noodles and Shanghai snacks, upstairs is a la carte.
Stand Out Dish: 
Their Drunken Chicken is, in my books, the best in Shanghai. A whole young tender chicken is presented peacefully asleep in a broth of clear chicken stock and Shaoxing wine, its meat suffused with the clear, mellow flavour of the wine and garnished with finely chopped chives. RMB 32.

Details:
336 Xiangyang Lu, corner Yongjia Lu
Xuhui District
Shanghai
021-64374174

乔家栅食府

徐汇区 襄阳南路336号(近永嘉路)

English Menu: No

Picture Menu: Yes

2. Jian Guo 328 建国328
When Jian Guo 328 opened in 2012 there was a sudden realisation that this at last was the Shanghainese restaurant everyone had been looking for.

For a start, the emphasis was very firmly on the best and freshest produce sourced cleanly. Secondly (and most controversially), the restaurant enforced a strict no-smoking policy, unheard of in Shanghai and the source of much initial anger as the smokers huddled together outside, complaining and puffing, before going back inside to finish their meal. 
Shanghai’s restaurant anti-smoking laws were actually introduced two years before Jian Guo 328 opened but were rarely enforced and certainly never by a restaurant proprietor, who might lose business by pushing smokers outside. But non-smoking diners embraced the restaurant enthusiastically, enjoying the consistently well-cooked food without a cloud of dense smoke affecting the flavour. Lovely staff too – not a surly one amongst them.
Stand Out Dishes:
Jian Guo 328 has a very extensive menu, and I’ve yet to find a disappointing dish among it. Their food is terrific.
The ‘Yellow Fish with Scallion’ 竹网葱香小鱼 (zhuwang cong xiang xiao yu ) shown above, is a nest of five sweet-fleshed freshwater fish) wrapped in caramelised scallions and served in a woven bamboo ‘net’. The fish are crispy and salty, and the scallions are smoky and sweet. RMB 58.
‘Eight Treasures Duck’ 私房八宝全鸭 (sifang babao quan ya) is a whole boned duck, marinated and stuffed with rice and smoky ham, dried scallops, and black dates amongst other aromatic delicacies, then wrapped and cooked in dried lotus leaves, imparting a fragrant herb flavour. RMB298, feeds 4-6 people.
‘Braised Pork in Shanghai Grandma Recipe’ 恃色红烧肉 (shi se hong shao rou) is a traditional red-braised pork belly, succulent and sweet, served in a terracotta dish. RMB 58
‘Black Mushroom in Soy Sauce’ 卤水大花蘑菇 (lushui dahua mogu) is a cold dish, an entire giant mushroom head served in a small bowl, dressed with a vinegar and soy dressing. RMB 16.
Details:
Jian Guo 328
328 Jian Guo Lu, near south Xiangyang Lu
021-64713819
Open 7 days for lunch and dinner

建国328
徐汇区 建国西路328号(近襄阳南路)

English Menu: Yes
Picture Menu: No
3. Guang Ming Village 光明邨 Guang Ming Cun
This famous Shanghai restaurant is just around the corner from our first house on Nanchang Lu, but I was always way too intimidated to ever try it out because of the long queue and my lack of Chinese.
Now I understand how it works – the ground floor sells traditional Shanghai snacks and pastries, including famous savoury pork moon cakes, and upstairs is the a la carte restaurant.
There are no reservations except for the top floor private rooms, but don’t worry – you can just turn up and try your luck at table-hovering like everyone else. Walk around the restaurant until you find a group who have almost finished their meal, then hover patiently very close to their elbows. As soon as they stand up, sit down.
If your group doesn’t fill up all the seats on your table, expect to share it with strangers who will be absolutely delighted you like Shanghainese food.
Stand Out Dishes:
River Shrimp with Preserved Vegetables 梅菜干煸白米虾 (mei cai gan bian baimi xis)(above). A wonderful combination of tastes and textures exists together in this dish – crisp-skinned fried river shrimp, with soft, salty preserved vegetable. RMB32.
Scallion Oil Noodles 葱油拌面 (cong you ban mian) – fine wheat noodles topped with caramelised-to-a-crisp scallions. RMB22.
SilkenTofu with Crabmeat 蟹粉豆腐 (xiefen doufu) (below). Best in show. The best version of this classic Shanghai dish in the city – rich and luscious, thick with crabmeat and roe. RMB39.
Details:
588 Middle Huai Hai Lu, near Chengdu Nan Lu
Luwan District

021-53067878 
53061200
Restaurant open 11am-2pm and 5pm-9pm, seven days
Ground floor snacks open 8am to 9pm,seven days

光明邨
卢湾区
 淮海中路588号(近成都南路)
English Menu: No
Picture Menu: Partial
4. Old Zheng Xing 老正興 Lao Zheng Xing
This old Shanghainese restaurant on Fuzhou Lu is the place you would take your grandparents to eat – reliable and unpretentious, but always good. Excellent service.
Stand Out Dishes:
Braised Gluten 烤夫(kaofu) – spiced with star anise, cassia and ginger, this sweet, soft dish is Lao Zheng Xing’s version of gluten cooked together with black wood ear mushrooms and peanuts.


Fried Eel 油爆鳝丝 (you bao shansi) – a predictably good dish. 


Details:
Lao Zheng Xing

556 Fuzhou Lu
Huangpu  District
+86 21 63222624

Open seven days for lunch and dinner

老正興菜馆
上海市黄浦区福州路556号


English Menu: No
Picture Menu: Yes

5. Dianshi Zhai Small Feast 点石斋小宴 Dianshi Zhai Xiao Yan
Housed in a beautiful old restored 1930s mansion on Yongjia Lu, the winding wooden staircase takes you upstairs to several different but equally charming dining rooms looking over the street. Consistently well-executed Shanghai classics with great service.
Stand Out Dishes:
Dong Po Pork 东坡肉 (dong po rou) This single piece of slow-cooked pork belly glistens like a jewel in its tiny dish, sitting in a tarry black sweet soy sauce. Perfection in pork.

Poached Whole Fish with Shaoxing Wine 酒香鰣魚 (jiu xiang shiyu) – a whole poached shad with Shaoxing wine – the wine’s delicate flavour complements the light taste of the fish.

Details:

Dianshi Zhai Small Feast
320 Yongjia Lu, Xuhui District, Shanghai

Open for lunch 11am-2pm
Dinner 5.30pm -9.30pm, seven days

021-54650270 54650271


English Menu: No
Picture Menu: Yes


点石斋小宴 
徐汇区
 永嘉路320号(近襄阳南路)


And Five Honourable Mentions:
Five more places to get your fix of Shanghai cuisine. Are they on your top five list?

Shanghai Club 上海会馆 (shanghai huiguan)
5th Floor, 489 Henan Nan Lu, Huangpu District (near Fuxing Lu)
021-63357779 
Same delicious Shanghai classics, but with modern presentation.

Yuan Yuan 圆苑酒家 (yuan yuan jiu jia)
108 Xiangyang Lu, near Huai Hai Zhong Lu, Xuhui District
021 51083377
A more upmarket dining experience, Yuan Yuan has some beautiful private rooms ideal for large groups, and an extensive and thoughtful menu. 


New Jesse 新吉士(xin jishi)
28 Taojiang Lu, Xuhui District
021-6445 0068
It’s great, but relatively expensive. A nice space on Taojiang Lu, there are another five locations including Xintiandi, and the new IAPM mall on Huai Hai Lu.


Old Jesse 老吉士上海菜 (lao jishi shanghai cai)
41 Tianping Lu, near Huai Hai Zhong Lu, Xuhui District
021-62829260
The original but sadly no longer the best. It’s on a lot of ‘best of’ lists, which means tables are hard to nab and they make you wait outside until yours is ready.


Lu Bo Lang 绿波廊
Yu Gardens, near Bridge of Nine Turnings
021-63280602
Bill Clinton ate there, along with every dignitary in the world. This doesn’t necessarily mean the food is good, but if you spend the whole day taking visitors around Yu Gardens, it’s a great place to put your feet up for an hour.

Bright Lights! Big City! New Eats! Shanghai’s Da Pai Xiao Chu

Imagine, if you will, returning to a giga-mega-cosmopolis the size of Shanghai after six long months on the road – six months of questionably attractive rural backwaters, dead volcanoes and odd foods. Six long months of eating in truck stops and sleeping in rubbish dumps and suddenly – bang – you’re back in the cradle of civilization.

The question I thought would be on everyone’s lips was ‘What’s the rest of China like?’
A bit of the non-Shanghai part of China. Not bad.
But with the confidence peculiar to the Shanghainese, who already know with total certainty they’re living in the best place in China, if not the world, all my Shanghai friends assumed I was simply massively relieved to be back from the sticks and instead asked:
‘What’s the first thing you want to eat now you’re back in Shanghai?’ 
And I honestly, truly, didn’t know the answer. 
Crickets and Coke. Because everything goes better with coke. 
For six months I had eaten so much Chinese food, much of it good, some it alarming, but almost all of it  from restauarants that would make a Health Inspector delirious in anticipation of the food safety violations he was about to impose. Just imagine his list:
  • Meat on display in open air, uncovered and surrounded by flies  
  • Passing pedestrians picking up bits of food to check freshness then putting back on display
  • Refrigerator cabinets not actually switched on ‘for reasons of cost-saving’
  • Tables wiped with thick coating of bacteria from filthy dripping rag used to clean them
  • Cook smoking as he fries food, cigarette ash in most dishes
  • Waitress sleeping with head on food prep area
  • Vermin strolling through kitchen
No I never, ever got sick, not even once, and not even a little bit, despite thinking at almost every meal that this would be the time my luck ran out.

In fact I think my immune system is even more robust now than it was after working in a kids hospital through the flu-epidemic winter of 2008. Try staying well after a kid with a temperature of 40.8 sneezes into your open mouth while you’re yawning from exhaustion.

And yes, despite that hideous image I’ve now put into your head the food almost always tasted good. 
But actually, what I wanted more than anything when I got back to Shanghai was to eat somewhere….clean. I wasn’t too fussy about the type of cuisine, or its authenticity, or even its price.
I just wanted a place where my bowl didn’t come from a bucket on the floor, dripping with cold water and the faint traces of the last meal it contained. 
A place where the cook didn’t smoke while preparing my meal. 
A place where the kitchen walls and ceiling weren’t covered in a textured black fuzz formed by layers of cooking oil vapour and dust. 
A restaurant like…
Da Pai Xiao Chu 大牌小厨
Shanghai’s restaurant scene changes faster than any one person can possibly keep up and new places open and close like the shutters on a bingo barrel. I used to try and keep abreast, really I did, but it just became too exhausting from outer Gansu. 
But after returning to Shanghai I found a four month old review of Nanjing eatery Da Pai Xiao Chu in a magazine and decided to take the whole family there for lunch on Sunday. 
In a single stroke I forgot about all the other fleapit kitchens I’d eaten in around China and decided Shanghai was, actually after all, the best place to experience China’s regional cuisines in an environment that was unlikely to kill you. 
大牌小厨 or Big Name Little Kitchen, specializes in food from Nanjing, northwest of Shanghai. It’s uncomplicated food, salty and occasionally a little sweet, with a harmonious blend of textures and flavours.
L:Knotted snake beans served with preserved vegetable 翡翠干干结 Crunchy, salty, and spanking fresh, from now on I would like all my snake beans hand-knotted before cooking please.
R: Steamed pork with glutinous rice 江米扣肉 The size of a small bowler hat and served on a bamboo leaf, the sticky and chewy rice hides slices of perfectly rendered fat pork that simply melts into the rice on contact. 
L: Steamed pork and coriander dumplings 芫蒸香鲜肉蒸饺 
R:Nanjing salted duck 南京盐水鸭 Perfectly pink and tender slices of cold duck meat with little bone
L:  Scalded Indian lettuce 白灼油麦菜 Simple and softly fried with a lightly sweetened sauce of soy and sesame oil
R: Crystal shrimp dumplings 水晶虾饺 I love the firm bite of the crystal shrimp in these sweet dumplings
R: Taro seedling in osmanthus syrup 桂花 糖芋苗 The warm sticky osmanthus-scented soup was full of marble-sized balls of taro, a little floury but very soft.
The most striking thing about the restaurant, other than the great food pouring out of the open and spotlessly clean kitchen is the decor – slick, modern and welcoming with rows of stonewear pickle jars alongside fresh green tables and chairs with touches of red, and semi-industrial light fittings. The walls are lined with colourful cans, bottles and jars of local Nanjing foods and the arrangements of ‘big cards’ hanging from the ceiling are another play on the meaning of the restaurant’s name – da pai can also be a trump card or honour card in card games.

It’s a restaurant someone has actually put a lot of thought into, and I for one really appreciated every bit of it.

Not a single cigarette to be seen in the kitchen

Fully awake waitpersons and floors free of vermin. Ten out of ten.







It’s certainly nice to be back in the big city. 
Hello Shanghai, I’ve missed you!
(And if you know of a great new Shanghai eatery you’ve discovered in the last six months, be sure to let me know in the comments!)

Da Pai Xiao Chu 大牌小厨
167 Jiangning Lu, Jing’an District, Shanghai
+21 6255 5177
10.30am – 10pm daily
Lunch for four about 240 yuan ($US40) including tea.
上海市靖安区江宁路167号

Yu’s Family Kitchen, Chengdu: A 34-Course Feast For The Senses

After weeks and weeks in the remote wilds of western China, riding camels, sleeping in yurts, trekking through bazaars and witnessing unusual sacrifices, we finally made it across Xinjiang, Gansu and Qinghai to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province and city of spice. 
It was a complete and utter shock as we tumbled frizzy-haired and wild-eyed out of the campervan and into a major centre of civilization, a place with clean sheets and freshly brewed coffee, without yak hair blankets or animals grazing outside the door of our room. And people spoke Chinese there! No surprise really, given that Chengdu is in China, but so are Xinjiang, Qinghai and Gansu – and yet we went for days at a time without meeting a single person who spoke anything but the local Uyghur or Tibetan language.
Chengdu is smack-bang in the middle of China, a fine city with parks and tree-lined streets where the entire population is obsessed with food and eating. I’d been preparing for our arrival by researching the best places to eat and snack, and the best districts for streetfood (a great place to start is Jenny Gao’s blog Jing Theory). The list was very long indeed, and very spicy. You can smell the zesty fragrance of Sichuan pepper as you walk the streets, where every second doorway is a snack stall or a tiny restaurant with their chili-drenched wares displayed outside on the pavement.
I decided we should just dive right into Chengdu’s civilised food culture and eat at Yu’s Family Kitchen, with a 34 course degustation menu from one of China’s most talked about chefs, Yu Bo.
Belying its humble name, Yu’s Family Kitchen is set in a restored mansion house in one of Chengdu’s most vibrant street quarters, the revitalised Alleys district.
The entire meal was a study in new and interesting flavours and contrasts of taste and texture. I have only a limited understanding of Sichuan food so I approached the meal purely on the basis of taste and appearance. Those more knowledgeable about the culture and history of food in Sichuan would no doubt find more layers of meaning and reference in the dishes, but fortunately for me the flavours and tastes were strong enough on their own to make this a memorable experience from start to finish.
After being ushered into our private dining room on the upper floor – a simply furnished library full of cookbooks – Yu Bo’s wife introduced the meal to us, patiently helping me with the Chinese for any dishes I didn’t understand. 
To commence: sixteen cold vegetable appetisers. Cold dishes always start a Chinese meal, preparing the palate for the more complex tastes to come. These were spanking fresh and perfectly reflected the season, some served unadorned but cut into exquisite shapes, others with simple dressings.
From top, L to R: fresh beans with ginger and soy, smoked tofu, braised eggplant, bitter greens 
Pickled baby ginger, quail eggs with quivering jellied whites, red and green peppers
Wood ear fungus with curls of burning chili, tiny perfect red tomatoes, steamed pumpkin, bamboo shoot
Cooling xi nan hua, xi hu gua, sweetened peanuts, spheres of foshou gua (alligator pear)
Then came the slow procession of the next eighteen courses, taken as slowly as we needed, with plenty of time to talk and watch the street life below from our private balcony.
Left: a tiny egg and truffle cake topped with a sliver of truffle and gold leaf. It looked beautiful but sadly the cake was dry and the truffle lacked punch. The night’s only minor disappointment.
Right: A single clove of hei suan – black garlic – slow-roasted in its skin, then smoked and cut open like a delicate lotus flower blooming. The garlic was soft and rich with the texture of chocolate fondant and a deep, sweet, smoky taste. I’m still thinking about this single small culinary feat.
Ginseng root, two slender pieces, crisp and dry with a taste like fresh-baked biscuit, and powdered sugar.
Yu Bo’s signature dish – calligraphy brushes made from crisp pastry filled inside with pork floss, dipped in a sweet tomato ink. Spectacular and clever.

The little details that add to the experience: every dish is served in a different vessel, beautiful fine porcelain, hand-painted. Had I remembered to take a photograph before leaping into this abalone on cubes of richly spicy mung bean jelly you would have seen the inside rather than the outside of the dish.
Hairy crab meat and roe in crab shell, encased in a fine sheet of soft pastry. Served with aged warm Shaoxing huang jiu – rice wine, flavoured with slivers of ginger, and with a traditional accompaniment of vinegar with fine grated ginger, and a cup of chrysanthemum tea.
Left: a single butterflied shrimp, crisp fried in a crunchy batter and topped with nutty, fiery green salsa.
Right: All I caught when this dish was announced was ‘yu’and ‘tang’ – fish soup. So I dipped into the rich milky broth expecting to find flakes of fish and instead found something I couldn’t initially identify. It tasted like fish, but had a much firmer texture and in one bite could have been squid. Hmmm. I quickly did a search on my phone dictionary and showed Yu Bo’s wife when she returned. She nodded, smiling, because it was in fact eyu 鳄鱼 crocodile, farmed in Guangdong province. 
Smoked fish, pastry twists, and roasted chili dipping powder

Left: pumpkin puree with tapioca balls, smooth and warming
Right: Jiangxi bamboo shoot braised with sichuan pepper, the only very spicy dish of the evening
Served on a calligraphy brush stand and looking a little like a butcher’s shop at the market with cuts of meat hanging in the breeze, this was a dish of pink and tender tea-smoked duck slices with small steamed buns, scallions, and home-made hoisin sauce. Delightful and just too much to finish by course twenty eight.
A masterpiece of dumpling art – a hedgehog dumpling filled with red bean paste, two tiny black sesame seeds for eyes. And so began the dian xin or dimsum. Some sweet, some savoury, all six intended to lightly end the meal.

Zong shuijiao – two folded dumpling crescents with a light pork filling and a rich soybean sauce
Left: beef noodles with braised mushrooms
Right: taisui baicai – white cabbage in a light chicken broth
Left: sweetened, soft glutinous rice jelly rolled in peanut starch powder. The coating had a slight oily crunch as though the rice jelly had been flash deep-fried before being rolled in the powder. I don’t know how that would be possible but if anyone can achieve it, Yu Bo can.
Right: huajiao pingguo three globes of just-in-season apple, poached in a syrup scented with the light fire of green huajiao or sichuan pepper.

And the very final dish: a perfect white porcelain teacup decorated with two lucky goldfish and filled with ripe, luscious globes of pomegranate.

What a meal to remember, and so wonderful to see local, seasonal produce at its finest. I hope you get a chance to visit someday and experience this wonderful place for yourself.

Yu’s Family Kitchen 喻家厨房

43 Zhai Xiang Zi, Xia Tong Ren Road, Chengdu
 喻家厨房 四川省成都市青羊区下同仁路窄巷子43

Open daily for dinner between 5pm and 9pm. Bookings essential.
0086 (028) 8669 1975

Cost for a set 30-34 course degustation menu depends on number of diners attending:

1-2 persons: 1000 yuan ($150) per person
6-7 persons: 600 yuan ($100) per person
8 persons: 300 yuan ($50) per person

Restaurant Chinglish Goldmine

Should I run downstairs to see if that huge explosion came from my decrepit Shanghainese fusebox or use my very last towel to mop up the waterfall coming from my kitchen and living room ceilings? These were the tricky decisions thrown at me yesterday by Typhoon Haikui, which roared into Shanghai full of drama, red alerts, floods and high winds. 
Those of you who follow on Facebook and Twitter are already ahead of the curve and know campervanning has been suspended for a week while the van’s poor old cupboards, rattled off their hinges by Inner Mongolia’s roads, get screwed back on again and various work commitments and promises in Shanghai are kept in the meantime. We just hadn’t figured on being in town at the same time as a typhoon. 
It was fierce, to say the least. I got a lot of messages from the city authorities on my mobile phone, hoping I was safe and sound and warning me to stay indoors, which was very kind, but what I would really have liked was for my ceiling to stop pouring water and the power to come back on. 
Today, amazingly, it’s business as usual. And blogging as usual – so here’s the post I originally planned for today, it’ll certainly cheer up your Thursday wherever you are! (And if you’re in Shanghai, I hope you and yours are safe, sound and dry).
Restaurant Chinglish Goldmine
So we left Inner Mongolia, where the mountains, the hills, the valleys and grasslands were incomparably lovely, but where the food, interesting at first, became a bit repetitive (lamb, potatoes, lamb and potatoes, lamb and potato hotpot) – and drove into Shanxi province where untold culinary riches awaited. 
First stop was Datong, a small city in Shanxi’s north where Dianping.com highly rates Yonghe Gourmet City. Can I just say up front, their food was fantastic and deserved its high rating, and I owe a debt of gratitude to the genius who put their menu together. 
Yonghe’s menu is an undiscovered goldmine of the best restaurant Chinglish ever in one place. You might think China is still full of excellent unedited menu Chinglish, but thanks to a governement directive and website for naming dishes in English, restaurant Chinglish has toned down a lot in recent years. Thank goodness for places like Yonghe, still flying the Chinglish flag high!
The first dish to catch my eye let me know we were in for a treat:
Just like lemon juice on a papercut, if you have been shot in the head, cucumber stings like blazes.

Who wouldn’t immediately go for a casserole dish full of baked colon sand nest? Just like a pot full of gritty colon donuts, it sounds exotic, looks mouth-watering, and goes for only eighty eight yuan. Add it to the order, waitress.

This is a euphemism for something, isn’t it, for those in the know. I’m just not sure what it’s a euphemism for, there are just so many buzz words in there piled together. But I think if you’re a straight animal liberationist who never does drugs, this dish could really hold some surprises.

Sometimes, in the restaurant business, it’s better to forgo simple descriptions for something more flowery and….anatomical. Why not just call it brain soup and be done with it?? Everyone finds brain soup delicious, right?
Page three of the menu threw up this cheery cherry-eyed fellow, apparently Popular of all Piglets. 
Personally, I don’t like eating socially awkward piglets, or piglets-no-friends, so thank goodness there were none of those on offer.
Being an equal opportunity restaurant, able-bodied clams and clams with disabilities were both available. Think it’s an easy life being a clam? Try being a clam with a disability.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen prep area there had been violent scenes: 
Looking at those wafer thin slices of cucumber, a very sharp knife has been involved here. I’d say the salmon won. 
Then after the cucumbers were all dead, the salmon turned on each other…..
This one’s harder to call. I mean, when goose fights goose, who can say which goose’s neck or leg ends up on the platter??
And for this dish they just got a whole menagerie of ragtag donkeys together, and waited for one to start picking arguments. There’s always one.
At the height of its powers, and thanks to a single match and a room full of leftover fireworks, the Krustacean Kingdom was gone, just like that. A tragedy.
Now hold on just a sweet second here: clearly, you cannot be Popular of all Piglets if you are, in fact, a dead chicken. We’ve already eaten the Popular Piglet. I’m not that stupid.

But I might be stupid enough to pay 888 yuan for a Mexican/Chinese fusion dish (please note, the Chinese translates as ‘Hong Kong style fried sharkfin’. Use of the word ‘burrito’ is just a bit of artistic embellishment, like a carrot carved as a phoenix).

It’s a mess. What can I say? Moving on….

There’s no better pinnacle to any meal than a plate full of assorted bacteria, nicely arranged. It does seem a lot to pay for food poisoning, but I’ve paid more…..at least these guys are up front about it. And a big thanks to Jane for supplying the bacteria.

More Chinglish…

High Altitude High Tea at the Park Hyatt

My ears popped seven times as a high speed elevator flew me upwards from the darkened and sombre entrance on the ground to the light-filled lobby of the Park Hyatt hotel on the eighty-seventh floor of the Shanghai World Financial Centre. As I stepped out, the intense updraft from the tiny gap at my feet blew my hair skywards and I suddenly felt the vertiginous weak-kneed realisation of how far above the ground I now was. Very far. 
The floor-to-ceiling windows across the room exert a magnetic pull and the entire elevator crowd, like ants to honey, walked across over to lean out on the jaw-droppingly impressive view of the Chrysler-style Jin Mao Tower, the crazed pink and silver sputnik that is the Oriental Pearl Tower, and far, far below the river and the Bund, toy-size.
At this point, as I sank into a deeply comfortable linen-covered lounge, they could have served me any old thing to eat and drink and I would have been quite happy. We had visitors in town and had cycled across town from Nanchang Lu to the Bund, crossed the Huang Pu in a hulking 2 yuan ferry, then walked to the Shanghai World Financial Center from there, and we were thirsty, dusty, tired and famished.
But this being the Park Hyatt, and it being afternoon tea time, we opted for High Tea. At least, the four female members of our party did, imagining dainty pink cakes and bone china and tiny savory tarts, whilst the two males scoured the menu for a steak but had to settle instead for soup and red wine. Philistines. 
The High Tea did not disappoint.
The sweet temptations, lemon sponges topped with lemon curd, raspberry and strawberry macarons, hazelnut chocloate cupcakes, canelles, and a vanilla custard sponge roll were all exquisite little morsels.
Served alongside is your choice of tea (English Breakfast or Xihu Longjing green tea) or coffee. I’m a terrible snob when it comes to drinking tea with an afternoon tea set, but I believe if you’re paying for a proper linen-napkins-and-silver-spoons experience, the tea should be done ‘properly’. There’s nothing worse than getting a silver teapot filled to the brim with hot water and a single, lonely tea bag swimming inside it, label and all. The Park Hyatt fulfilled all my minimum requirements – bone china cup, freshly brewed leaf tea, tea strainer, separate milk and sugar jugs. Perfect. 
The savories on our two-tiered stand were, if anything, even better – a tiny crispy vol au vent filled to the brim with smooth mushroom cream, a miniature croque monsieur, a smoked salmon brioche, and a tiny ‘wonton’, actually a fine crepe filled with foie gras, a sliver of truffle, and sweet aspic, tied with a chive knot. Exceptional.

The Park Hyatt’s Lounge is a great spot for visitors to Shanghai, with its spectacular views and air of calm. They serve afternoon tea daily, as well as a selection of sweet and savory dishes and drinks. Reservations can’t be made, so come early or be prepared to wait for a window seat.
Got a favorite afternoon tea spot in Shanghai? Do tell! (but only if they make proper tea please)

Afternoon Tea at The Park Hyatt

Shanghai World Financial Centre
100 Century Avenue, Pudong
87th Floor

Phone: +86 21 68881234

上海柏悦酒店
浦东世纪大道100号

Afternoon tea 2pm – 6pm
210 yuan per person plus service charge

Reservations not accepted

Lao Zheng Xing Restaurant: A Shanghai Classic

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
Huangpu  District
+86 21 63222624

Open seven days for lunch and dinner
老正興菜馆
福州路556号
Shanghai Foreign Languages Bookstore
390 Fuzhou Lu
Huangpu District
+86 21 6322 3200

Open 7 days 9.30am – 7pm

福州路390号

3 of 3 Quirky Cafes: Willow & Spoon

I’ve found it – the third cafe in my perfect trifecta of quirky Brisbane cafes – and just in time too, because I leave for Shanghai tomorrow – these last three weeks have flown by and it’s hard to believe I’ll be packing my bags tonight.
If you missed the first two of the trifecta, you can read about the incredible cakes and friendly sisters at Sisco, and the extraordinary coffee and 70s decor at Shucked.
Willow & Spoon reminds me at every turn of exactly what I’ll be missing in twenty-four hours’ time – a perfectly brewed cup of coffee, top notch cooking with bright fresh flavours, and most importantly, a chat and a smile to brighten your day and send you on your way feeling well-fed and happy. Shouldn’t that be what all cafes aspire to? Apparently this philosophy is alive and well in Brisbane but yet to hit the shores of China, although I live in hope. 
Willow & Spoon is not what you might expect to find in suburban Alderley. Sitting in a row of old shopfronts, the cheery red walls and friendly lounge on the footpath welcome you in to an interior that looks uncannily like the weatherboard house I grew up in, although we kept our bouclé lounge suite (yes, it was called a suite) inside the house at all times. There’s a checkered red and white linoleum floor, an old white kitchen dresser with leadlight glass doors, and a cabinet housing a collection of Australian souvenir spoons. Owners Tracey Mooney and Keith Nunns want the place to feel just like home, and as they sit you down with a smile you feel instantly relaxed, and quite peckish.

It’s an incredibly gorgeous sunny Brisbane day, so we decide to walk through the cafe’s front room to the back of the house, and here’s where I get an intense case of deja vu looking at the car parked in the driveway underneath the house and the grassy garden with Hill’s Hoist. It is really just like the house I lived in at the age of seven.
But there’s where the similarities with my childhood home end, because we never ate dishes like those served at Willow & Spoon. Chef Adam Starr has taken a mind bursting to the brim with imaginative ideas and translated them into a menu full of dishes you can’t wait to taste. I haven’t been this excited about reading a breakfast menu in years.
We begin with Forbidden Fruit and the Garden of Eden – never was a bowl of muesli and fruit more enticingly named! A whole apple poached with spices is filled with creamy mousse, joined on the plate by fresh edible flowers and fruits all resting on a bed of oats roasted in Manuka honey with dried figs and walnuts. Quite superb.
We follow with Sleeping Beauty – a herby original take on Eggs Benedict with poached eggs wobbling on wilted spinach and a square of mushroom and tarragon ‘muffin’. The eggs, topped with fresh garden pea sauce, are runny and golden-yolky, served alongside sweet roast tomato honey. How can I ever go back to regular Eggs Benedict after a tasting this?
The menu treasures go on and on – The Harlequin – rich smoked cod with house-made brioche, avocado, tomato and green onion salsa and an artichoke veloute is creamy and soft, and next time I want to try Pigs in Zen – pork jowl braised in an asian master stock with enoki mushrooms, quinoa and cucumber with parsnip puree, or The Diabolical Pact – banana, date and roasted green chili loaf with kalamata labna, ricotta and confit of pineapple. 
The dishes could run the risk of overly unusual flavour combinations, but all are thoughtfully, carefully and cleverly executed by Starr and are, simply, totally more-ish. Is there another breakfast menu in Brisbane with this much imagination or care in execution? And it doesn’t stop with the adult menu – children are equally well placed with a plate of Dinosaur Eggs or fresh fruit and mango sorbet.

As I move on to my second coffee, children from nearby tables are running in the open space of the grassy garden, and customers are arriving for morning cake and coffee. I bet they all leave with a smile on their faces, as I did. 
 Shop 2, 28 Samford Road
Alderley, Brisbane
Open Tuesday to Friday 7am to 3pm, Saturday 7.30am to 2pm, Sunday 7.30am to 1pm
Ph +617 3113 3810

2 of 3 Quirky Cafes: Shucked

Here’s my second of three great and quirky Brisbane cafes for your delight!  
This one, Shucked – named for shucked coffee beans – is like walking into your cool best friend’s living room and unexpectedly finding a bunch of top barrista coffee nerds hanging out there, nonchalantly whizzing up cups of coffee with a perfect crema every two minutes. Totally relaxed. 
Shucked is tucked into a lane in the previously coffee-poor suburb of Newstead, rendering the original hole-in-the-wall outlet an instant success and necessitating expansion into a larger, lighter, high-ceilinged brick space. Owners Naomi Mawson and Mark Ferguson opened a year ago, with the aim of creating a cafe with ‘great coffee, great food and great service’ similar to their favourite haunts in Melbourne, and now find themselves running one of Brisbane’s best and most popular coffee stops.
The place has an instantly laid back feel, furnished with a high long communal table graced with mismatched wooden stools and a delicate glass cold-filtered coffee apparatus that drips away slowly all day, filling the pot below with smooth, clean-flavoured black coffee. There are couches too, for lounging, and smaller tables if you don’t feel like being communal.
I love the walls – lined with contrasting panels of original rolls of 70s wallpaper (shipped all the way from New York), in geometrics, florals and mustard tones, and I really get a kick out of the pheasant, poodle and red cat salt and pepper shakers, and the lace doileys, all secondhand finds that make Shucked totally original and take me straight back to my seventies childhood.
And the coffee – a unique blend from local coffee roasters Blackstar – is smooth, full-bodied and packed with flavour. I’m no coffee expert but this coffee is great, and a second cup is practically a given as soon as you take your first sip. They even stock legendary Aeropress coffee presses, and I am now the proud owner of an amazing device I’ll be taking back to China to brighten up my otherwise dark coffee days in Shanghai.
Even more excitingly, the Mawson’s have just appointed a new chef who is adding some amazing dishes to their breakfast and lunch menu – smoked trout with shaved fennel and pear salad, sardines on toast with beetroot mash and fennel flowers, along with sweet favourites like melting moments and the triumphant warm banana and walnut cake served with a shot glass of maple syrup and espresso ricotta. 
Shucked is just a great addition to Brisbane’s coffee scene, and well worth a trip to Newstead’s little back streets to spend an enjoyable hour or two sipping top quality. You’ll feel instantly 15% cooler the minute you walk in the door. Guaranteed. 

Shucked

9 Creswell Street, Newstead
Brisbane

Open seven days for breakfast and lunch
Weekdays from 6am, weekends from 7am

Ph +617 32574567

1 of 3 Quirky Cafes: Sisco

I flew out of Shanghai with the words of a good friend in my ear: 
“Enjoy the coffee” she said, as she wished me well on my way back to Australia for a flying visit. It’s no secret that, as much as I miss dumplings and noodles while I’m away from China, what I miss even more in Shanghai is good cake and coffee. Preferably together. 
What my friend was jealous of, and rightly so, were the dozens upon dozens of cups of good coffee I was planning to fit in between shifts at the hospital (where I hope to earn enough money to pay for that crazy Chinese campervan scheme of mine), in the hope of stockpiling enough coffee experiences to see me through the lean Chinese coffee-filled months ahead, without developing a caffeine-induced arrhythmia in the process. 
Since arriving in Brisbane the weather has been uncommonly unfriendly with non-stop rain and grey skies, but for me it’s the perfect excuse to sit inside one of the inner city’s many gorgeous cafes sipping coffee expertly made by the hands of an experienced barrista, rather than a twenty year old Starbuck’s apprentice named Cyanide.
Time away from the place has made me realise that one of Brisbane’s essential charms, for those lucky enough to live here, is the city’s culture of very individual, independent cafes, spurning the insipid global coffee chains for a charming combination of quirk, personality, excellent coffee, freshly baked cakes and great service. Brisbane is overflowing with them.
I’m starting with Sisco, in the inner city suburb of Spring Hill, and this week will bring you two more of my new favourite coffee and cake spots.
Sisco sits in a narrow old wooden shopfront on the sunny side of the street in inner city Spring Hill, and is one of the friendliest places in town. 
My waitress, who has an impressive tattoo of The Tiger Who Came To Tea on her arm, takes my coffee order (flat white, no melamine) and tells me the apple doughnut cakes are really good today, served with double cream. The combination of the words ‘apple/doughnut/cake/double cream’ seem inseparable with the word ‘good’ in my head, so I order one.

And what comes next is a kind of heavenly cake epiphany. 
Imagine, if you will, all the things you love about a cinnamon doughnut – the crisp outside, the scent of cinnamon and yeast, the grainy sugar crystals that stick to your lips and the corners of your mouth, and the warm soft inside. Now think of all the things you love about your grandmother’s apple sponge cake – soft sweet pieces of apple in a light crumb cake. Now top that, in your imagination, with a dollop of thick fresh double cream. Pretty damn good, huh?
There are other incredible home-made temptations to eat with your coffee, like the strawberry, rosewater, and pistachio syrup cake, or the lemon curd tarts topped with strawberries, or the pink and white striped coconut ice (a nostalgic Australian childhood classic). The cakes change daily and are always fresh, interesting and delicious (chocolate beetroot cake comes to mind).
I believe Sisco also make a mean breakfast and tasty lunches, and next time I’m there before morning tea time I’m going to order the poached tamarillos with french toast and chocolate ricotta.

The quirk and passion behind Sisco comes from sister owners Kelly (pictured) and Vicky Jones, who dreamed of opening the sort of cafe they and their friends would love to eat at, then just went ahead and did it. Love their attitude! Vicky is the mistress of the menu and comes up with cake masterpieces daily, and Kelly runs front of house, taming the queue of customers lining up at the street-side coffee window for their daily fix.

The pair seem to know every customer by name, favourite coffee, and preferred seat, and Sisco is exactly the sort of place where I dream of becoming a regular, with the sisters sitting me down by the window and seconds later delivering me a creamy flat white, and an enormous slab of the daily cake special with double cream.

Sisco Cafe
500 Boundary Street Spring Hill
Open Monday to Friday 7-3
Saturday and Sunday 7-2
for breakfast, coffee and lunch
Ph +61 7 3839 4995

Worshipping at the Shrine of Vegetarianism: Dashu Wujie 大蔬无界


If you had told me yesterday I was about to eat one of my most memorable meals without a single sliver of meat passing my lips, nobody would have been more surprised than myself. This unashamed carnivore, lover of roast duck, confit of rabbit, rare roast beef and lamb shanks, has fallen hard for the vegetarian food at a new Shanghai eatery called Dashu Wujie 大蔬无界.
Last night I was very kindly invited to enjoy a ten course vegetarian degustation dinner, in the company of both Chinese and English language food writers and bloggers (for example the lovely and well-travelled Sugared & Spiced). This was a specially prepared dinner, so I’m planning to get back there soon and try their regular menu when I have a chance.
Overlooking Xujiahui Park, the entire five story restaurant was designed by a Buddhist monk who happens to be an architect (or an architect who happens to be a monk, I’m a little unclear which) and exudes a zen-like calm with beautiful interior wood panelling, natural linen curtains, heavy timber chairs and paper screens. Each floor represents one of five essential Chinese elements, starting with water and rising a floor at a time through wood, fire (naturally, the fire floor is the restaurant’s huge wok-fired kitchen), earth and finally gold.
It’s a far cry from many of Shanghai’s other vegetarian restaurants, featuring a surfeit of orange formica and fake roast goose. I’ve never understood why a vegetarian would want to eat gluten in the shape of a pork cutlet, or tofu shaped as shrimp. These places seem to have an uncertain foot in both camps, as though to say ‘Yes, we’re a vegetarian restaurant! But we also have fake meat!’ Why not celebrate the essence of the vegetables themselves?
Chef Tony Chang, from Taiwan, invited specifically for this four day tasting event, executed ten perfect small dishes doing just that, and left us all reeling as dish after exquisite dish was placed in front of us. I got to try many unusual ingredients or flavour combinations I’d never tried before. Here’s a little taste:
L: Papaya and wild mushroom tower – layers of sweet papaya with a mildly spiced salsa, caramelized pineapple and wild mushrooms served on a sliver of white radish. Sweet, soft, crunchy and spicy, a very palate-cleansing start to the meal.
R: To give you some idea of the complexity of this food, the tiny, perfect tomato in this dish of eggplant with lotus seed puree had been peeled, marinated in red wine vinegar, red wine, and then plum juice for six hours before being roasted, then painstakingly cored and filled with miniature apple mirepoix. It tasted sublime and after a small bite I just put the whole thing in my mouth and enjoyed the intense explosion of sweet tomato flavour.

L: Fresh green pea soup with light milk foam and roast tomato vegetable crisp
R: Three mushrooms. The large textured mushroom is a Lion’s Mane mushroom (also called hóu tóu gū 猴头菇 or monkey head mushroom), rare and flown fresh from Yunnan and cooked with light Sichuan spiciness. The mushroom rested on a circle of white mushroom roasted with miso, alongside a single morel. I’ve never tried a Lion’s Mane mushroom before but it had a wonderful soft smooth texture and (dare I say it) beefy flavour enhanced by the miso and spice.
  

 L: Braised chickpeas with a soft pumpkin crepe and fresh broadbeans. Sweet, nutty and one of my favourites.

R: Bamboo Fungus Eight Treasure pouch – this soft, sponge-textured fungus (which takes an entire year to sprout), had been carefully wrapped around various edible treasures including red date, frilly translucent white fungus, goji berries, black fungus, and dried long’ans, and served in a delicate vegetable consomme. Very refined, although the bamboo fungus’ texture had uncomfotable parallels in the decidedly non-vegetarian fried boiled pig skin.

L: Baby cabbage, carrot aspargus and water bamboo shoot, braised with three cup sauce and served with a soft spinach timbale with the tiniest hint of fresh nutmeg. I loved the water bamboo – a new taste and texture (not unlike cooked radish) for me.

R: Ravioli with red and yellow peppers and tomato concasse. Perfectly soft, yielding ravioli with the sweetness of peppers.

The two sweet courses:

L: A dish I never expected to enjoy – red bean soup served with homemade mochi stuffed with sweet fermented black rice. Red bean is my least favourite sweet Chinese flavour, with its cloying powdery aftertaste but this soup was flavoured with a little dried citrus peel and served smooth and hot, and had an unmistakeable hint of chocolatey-ness about it. Perhaps it was the mental conjuring together of chocolate and orange.

R: Pineapple oreo roll with banana chocolate mousse and meringue tartlet. Chef Chang advised us to move from right to left in eating this dish, tasting the tart pineapple first and the smooth sweet meringue last. The tiny pineapple ‘oreo’ was constructed of laminated layers of pineapple rolled around a frozen chocolate centre, a brilliant combination of intense acid sweetness and chocolate. I can still taste it today!

We finished the evening with strong organic Yunnan coffee served in happily mismatched ceramic cups from Spin ceramics, and a chat with chef Tony Chang, a very jovial man in his late fifties with a broad smile and a kind round face who had clearly enjoyed having complete free rein in the vast kitchens at Dashu Wujie. He sought, but largely failed to elicit any criticism we could offer – a tough ask given that every single dish had been so carefully thought out and so well executed.

It really is the mark of a good meal when you’re still thinking about it long into the following day. Eating vegetarian food is often difficult in a country so recently deprived of meat that they’re now obsessed with it, but I’ve noticed a growing movement away from heavy meat dishes and towards healthy, light eating with an emphasis on organic food.

Good food generously given will keep me happy for some hours (I’m easily pleased) but it takes a particularly special meal to keep me happy for several days as I rethink new tastes, textures and combinations and try and analyse why they were so enjoyable. Very exciting.



DASHUWUJIE 大蔬无界


392 Tianping Lu between Hengshan Lu and Zhaojiabang Lu
Xujiahui

天平路392
(靠近衡山路)

Open 7 days for lunch, afternoon tea and dinner
Phone:  +86 21 34692857

Prix fixe menu (6 courses) from 268 yuan ($40)