For quite some time, Shanghai had been relegated second to Beijing on my list of top Chinese cities. The people are rude, there are no historical or cultural sights to explore, and the city reeked of a guilty obsession with cash and all things glamourous. It was also the transcendency perhaps, the fleeting nature of people coming and going that me put off. When is she ever going to slow down and live a little?
Then, magic happened. I think she heard me. Because this time I went to see her, she changed. She slowed down, embraced herself, and emerged more confident and natural than ever (at least the Puxi side of her has). She engaged her past - the little alleys behind brick-walled lane houses, the quiet platane-lined streets where Shanghainese still paddle nonchalantly on their bikes - so that, in the midst of the Expo fervour, she still looked as composed and relaxed as ever. All this, I realized through a sampling of the latest restaurant scene in Shanghai.
Start with Oyama, a fourteen-seat omakase-only restaurant headed by chef Takeo Oyama, who had previously worked with some of the biggest names in sushi in Hong Kong. A short walk from busy Huaihai Zhong Lu, enter through a vaulted corridor on Donghu Lu with dim lights and stone walls to a courtyard opening, where you will be greeted by the laughter of guests from El Willy’s, a Spanish restaurant on the ground floor. A story up, however, and the mood is completely different. Chef Oyama is serious about his food, yet loves to create a bit of a playful banter with his guests which makes dining here more like eating at a friend’s. The omakase menu costs RMB800 per head, but who cares when you have sake, interesting company, and fish fresh from Tokyo and Nagasaki?
Just a short distance from Oyama is the Wagas compound on 195 Anfu Lu, a converted colonial building with high ceilings and a gabled roof housing Baker and Spice on the ground floor, a Thai restaurant on the second and finally, the eponymous Mr. Willis on the third. Baker and Spice is your bread-lover’s-dream come true with its wood-grained marble storefront, rough-hewn communal table and all things artisanal from baguettes, bagels and jams to cupcakes. Mr. Willis is an extension of this theme with its rustic chic designs. Think rough reclaimed wooden floor, Japanese ceramic vases, low-hanging lamps and warm rugs. The fare is simple, comfort bistro style – fig and prosciutto salad, warm goat’s cheese soufflé, and a full pizza menu. In other words, this is the apartment and the dinner party you’d like to have, but never will.
While we’re in the French Concession, hop over to the cutest pho café in town – Pho Real. At first glance you will never have guessed it to be a pho joint with its whitewashed exposed brick walls, baby blue tables, bar seating and fish baskets tastefully hanging from the ceiling. However, the secret is out so expect a half hour wait during lunch times. The pho with beef flank is better than any I’ve had in Hong Kong.
If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, trek over to Table No. 1 at the Waterhouse Hotel and tackle Jason Atherton (formerly of the Gordon Ramsey clique)’s take on a Shanghainese version of Maze – modern European fare in portions small enough to share – all in a “social dining” environment. This means long unfinished wood communal tables, grey brick floors, and glass panels on either side; one overlooking the street, and one the minimalist interior courtyard. We are located in a half-demolished lanehouse on a remote corner of the Bund, with an “urban-decay chic” design featuring broken tiles, exposed brick, lots of rust and scuffed concrete. The interiors might not be your cup of tea, but do come here for the food – the razor clams with chorizo and coriander were particularly memorable.
For a taste closer to home, try Guyi and Lost Heaven. Guyi is an institution of sorts in terms of Hunan cuisine in Shanghai, with its original location on Fumin Lu perpetually crowded with diners who are willing to wait up to hours for it authentic, fiery food; unaffected by local tastes. Try the cumin-crusted ribs (ziran paigu) and fish-head with picked chilies (xiangxi yutou wang). Lost Heaven, on the other hand, is Chinese ethnic cuisine at its best. Housed in an old colonial house in the French Concession, Lost Heaven is like Yunnan’s version of Hakkasan with its dark wooden beams, embroidered drapery, chic, ethnic décor, and very good food indeed. I came to Lost Heaven for the first time in 2006 and have been coming back on all my visits ever since. Prepared to be spoilt by choices from Dali, Lijiang, and even Burma.
If you have time for only one Shanghainese restaurant, come to Jesse, the cornerstone restaurant of Shanghainese cooking that has sprawled a chain of new “Jesses” around town. This is however, by far the best with its no-nonsense Shanghainese staples like red-braised pork, sticky rice-ball with Chinese dates (xintairuan), and a fish head covered in fried spring onions. Expect drab but clean interiors. Reservations essential.
Finally, although I’m not the biggest fan of Shanghainese street food, preferring the healthier, more delicate Taiwanese xiaolongbaos and shengjianbaos (pan-fried pork bun) to Shanghai’s more rugged versions, a visit to Jia Jia Tangbao and Xiaoyang Shengjian would bring a nice, local touch to this rather sophisticated eating itinerary. The dumplings at Jia Jia get 10 pinches as opposed to Din Tai Fung’s 18, but at RMB19.5 for a basket of a pork and crab xiaolongbaos, what is there to complain? Hit Jia Jia and Xiaoyang in one go at Huanghe Lu, and cross Shanghai street food off your list.
Then of course, if you want the glitz, there is still Prive, M1NT, and hoards of expensive chain hotels mushrooming all over Pudong. But, for those who know her better, Shanghai has a quiet, more cultured side; its in the food, and its here to stay.
2/F, 20 Dong Hu Lu
Tel: 02- 5405 7705
BAKER AND SPICE / MR. WILLIS
1 and 3/F, 195 An Fu Road,
near Wulu Muqi Road
tel: 021- 5404 0200
166 Fumin Lu,
near Changle Lu
tel: 021-5403 8110
TABLE NO. 1
1/F, The Waterhouse Hotel,
1-3 Maojiayuan Lu,
near Zhongshan Nan Lu
tel: 021-6080 2918
89 Fumin Lu,
near Julu Lu
Tel: 021- 6249 5628
38 Gaoyou Lu, near Fuxing Xi Lu
tel: 021- 6433 5126
(there is a new branch on the Bund at 17 Yan'an Dong Lu, near Sichuan Nan Lu, tel: 021- 6330 0967)
41 Tianping Lu,
near Huaihai Xi Lu
tel: 021- 6282 9260
JIA JIA TANGBAO / YANG’S FRIED DUMPLINGS
90 and 97 Huanghe Lu,
near Beijing Lu
tel: 021- 6327 6878 / 5375 1793