A Chinese gastronomic adventure into the past, present and future.
They say that the future has a way of arriving unannounced. Shanghai is announcing loud and clear, that they are “in play”—preparing for the future and welcoming it with smiles and open arms. The city has been under construction—a work in progress—a new frontier. Back when Shanghai was getting ready for Expo 2010, the developers and city planners were at work building, restoring, planting, painting and paving.
This ancient city is renowned for its typical Shanghainese cuisine. Time was, there were 56 distinct food-styles, but today these have become only eight, among them, Cantonese, Sichuan, Hunan and, in Shanghai now, modern North American cuisine, Italian and, of course, French cuisine is being incorporated in ways so subtle and with such intelligence, it all seems so right. There is a culinary evolution taking place. West and East are coalescing into a smooth amalgam of delicious dining.
Foreign investment in China is in the multi-billions of dollars, and most of the Fortune 500 companies have some investment here. For the presidents, CEOs and local tycoons, there are exclusive dining clubs with décor, linens and tableware—the best that money can buy. Here, the staffs have been trained by masters—there will not be a faux pas in service. Membership only for a glamorous clientele, but if the reservation book is not filled, non-members can be accommodated.
At Villa du Lac, behind a grey stone structure in Xintiandi, the historic 19th century French Concession, a hushed elegance reminds us of a French home, scrupulously spotless, kept just for entertaining guests. The cuisine is Imperial Chinese, created by chefs who specialize in the Huaiyang style using light, fresh ingredients enhanced through subtle use of herbs, spices and sauces. Sophistication is not dulled down in a lunch menu. Braised boneless yellow fish, wok-fried king prawn with green tea, baked crab, sautéed sliced beef, deep fried soon hock fish in soy sauce, and so it goes for 10 separate dishes, each prettier and more elegant than the previous offering.
A different mood prevails at YongFoo Elite. Walking through the courtyard and its flowering trees into the entrance of this villa makes me feel like I am on the set of an exotic 1930’s movie. There is a moonlit garden where live opera, jazz and other entertainment occurs. Over the decades it has served as a consulate for the UK, Russia and Vietnam. The owner worked diligently for three years restoring the building and the grounds. Many of the art deco items and ancient Chinese paintings are from his own collection. Heavy silver charger plates; embroidered lace, velvet cushions, polished mahogany and leather with a patina of age and soft antique chandeliers evoke a certain romantic mood. The cuisine is flawless Shanghainese, detailed and delicate, and the service immaculate Western. Deep fried Mandarin fish is a signature dish, clay pot cooking, smoked river carp and sautéed fresh water shrimp. The menu culminates with savoury crispy dates pancake. Unusual flavours that stretch the imagination and the palate. These dining clubs and the many others are special places, but they are a small part of the dining-out life in Shanghai.
In Chinese, the standard greeting is “have you eaten yet?” On any crowded street, in any gritty alleyway, there are the aromas of food cooking, and people slurping bowls of Shanghai noodles. One would think Shanghai was a massive kitchen collective. Strolling along the Bund, built as a financial capital in the 1930s to reflect Wall Street, the Goth steeples, Greek domes, French spires, Baroque columns and Spanish verandas are now home to many exclusive restaurants and nightclubs, as well as offices of trade and commerce. The Portman Ritz Carlton Hotel is a haven from the bustling, noisy streets and, though the hotel is large, the staff is trained to recognize guests and welcome them. Comfort, courtesy and an eagerness to please prevails. To a busy tourist like me, the breakfast lounge, the offer of a hotel car, or assistance with the internet, removes the stresses of business travel. While there are a number of dining rooms in the hotel, including Italian and Japanese restaurants, I am up for checking out the night life.
TMSK Xintiandi is worth the trip to Shanghai for sheer excitement and enjoyment. It’s an inspired fusion of deep veined Chinese history and modern Western sensibilities in a culinary, musical and cultural environment. All the things I adore in one space. The owners are glass artisans, and all the glassware, the bar and stools, even the unique lavatories are hand made of gorgeous coloured glass. Massive glass light fixtures adorn the ceilings and, wherever the eye falls, there are lovely surprises. A team of international chefs keep the kitchen offerings up to the level we have come to expect in Shanghai. The best is yet to come. At 8:30, the curtains to a small stage open, there are clouds of fog and the TMSK Folk group in their hip version of traditional garments play what can only be described as ancient Chinese music passionately forged with modern jazz. This show is simply mesmerizing and, though I have a tight schedule, I could not leave until the wee hours.
Chefs from Australia, North America and Europe have migrated here to be part of the excitement at this Mecca of internationalism. There is a two seating system at the Park Hyatt Hotel. The locals are traditional early eaters and come in at 5:30pm or 6:00pm and then, at 9:00pm the expats arrive. There are four distinct kitchens in this incredible, energetic space, and the world’s finest ingredients are sourced for each one. The menu is the ultimate compendium of the Shanghai dining trend. The oyster and seafood bar; sushi bar; the pantry where I spied steamed Canadian mussels with white wine and garlic on the menu; dumplings and Chinese cold cuts; the grill for Australia’s finest steak and lobster; the stove for chicken, salmon and lamb; the side dish menu, the steam menu, a sizzling wok menu, and a BBQ and Chinese side dish menu. The pastry chef is an artist in her own right. And all this on the 87th to 91st floors.
It’s great fun to dine in the clouds, overlooking the neon lit city towers. Shanghai is growing skyward, and has become the go-to dining destination in the world.
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.