If you ask me to name the most exciting city in the world, I won’t hesitate—it’s Shanghai. Once known as “the Paris of the East,” it looks to be reclaiming the title. A recent visit attests to the city’s revitalization; in fact, Shanghai has never been more vibrant or more beautiful than it is now. And its food scene is teeming with some of the most interesting and diverse eateries, ranging from world-class haute-cuisine restaurants to fantastic holes-in-the-wall.
There are xiao leng bao, Shanghai soupy buns, that will make you swoon. The city’s succulent jiao hua ji, also known as Beggar’s Chicken—a whole bird stuffed with garlicky pork, black mushrooms, chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and pickled vegetables, then wrapped in lotus leaves and encased in clay—cannot be missed, especially since the waiter dramatically smashes the hardened casing with a hammer to reveal the most tender, intoxicatingly delicious meat you have ever tasted! Other Shanghai specialties include the seasonal hairy crab, pan-fried chicken buns, drunken chicken, simmered fish tails, and vegetarian steamed buns (the area is renowned for its meatless creations). Selecting my top five favorite restaurants was difficult, but with some assistance from Crystal Mo, food editor of Time Out: Shanghai, and her talented chef husband, Anthony Zhao, I can unabashedly say that the following five places reflect the best that Shanghai has to offer right now.
Bai Jia Qian Wei
Don’t be put off by the fact that this restaurant is in a mall or by its slightly cheesy decor, including faux white leather banquettes and a mirrored ceiling. Do prepare yourself to taste some of the most outstanding dishes from Anhui, a charming province to the west of Shanghai. Sorry, there are no English menus, so just point to the color photos or ask the manager for ordering assistance. Don’t miss one of the restaurant’s signature dishes,bai jia qian wei ji, a braised free-range chicken that’s drenched in rice wine and served with tender bamboo shoots. Other memorable items include luo bo si su bing, crisp, deep-fried pancakes filled with tender daikon radish shreds; tian wei lao xia, fresh baby river shrimp in a fragrant hot-and-sour broth showered with fresh cilantro; and tui pi dou fu guo, a very spicy tofu pot with bell peppers. For a refreshing and fitting finale to your meal, order the yizhi hetao lu, a hot, milky walnut drink. After the meal, take a short walk to check out the colorful Aston Martins in the dealership window a few blocks away.
If you want to get a full taste of Chinese cuisine and culture—as well as experience the magnitude of some restaurants in China—this is the place for you. The interior is meant to evoke an old Chengdu teahouse, with seating for a whopping 800. A dramatic 30-minute Chinese folk dance and opera is performed nightly, and while you watch, you can eat delicious, authentic Szechuanese cuisine. Think of it as lively dinner theater. If you don’t speak Shanghainese, use the menu’s photos to order, but many of the staff do speak passable English. Traditional favorites like zheng shui jiao (dumplings in hot oil), di you zheng jiao (dripped oil steamed dumplings), dan dan noodles, and ma xiang pai gu
Din Tai Fung
I will go anywhere and do almost anything for really good, juicy Shanghai soupy dumplings, and I admit it is ironic that even in Shanghai, one of the best places to sample this treat is in an expertly run restaurant chain that originated in Taipei, Taiwan. (There are now seven branches in this city alone, in addition to numerous outlets all over Asia-Pacific and one each in Los Angeles and Seattle.) But let it be known that I used to be a regular customer at the first Shanghai location on Xin Yi Liu, which was a bit of a dump back in the 1970s. Years later, after being lauded by Chinese food authority Ken Hom as “the best dumpling house in the world,” Din Tai Fung still makes great dumplings, though the quality may vary from branch to branch. Most recently, I was delighted to discover that a new location had opened next to the Ritz-Carlton and Starbucks in the Portman neighborhood of Shanghai’s charming French Concession. Truth be known, I was heading to Starbucks for a late-afternoon soy latte, but how could I resist an order of xiao leng bao? I was not disappointed. The buns were impeccable, with their paper-thin skins and perfectly formed bodies oozing with juice and stuffed with fragrant ground pork. Dipped in some black vinegar with shreds of fresh ginger, they were better than I could have imagined. Despite the fact that it was hairy crab season, I chose not to gild the lily and ordered dumplings with the crab roe garnish instead. Had I been hungry, I would have also opted to eat pao cai (pickled cabbage) and the chain’s famous Close-Steamed Chicken Soup. You can find cheaper versions all over the city, but why not go for the best?
There is no better example of the ethnic diversity in Shanghai’s restaurants than this small gem that features the cuisine of the Xibo. The ethnic minority group originates from the province of Xinjiang in the extreme northwest, bordering Afghanistan, Russia, and Mongolia, and the food reflects that with cumin-flavored lamb or chicken shashlik, and baked breads. Framed hangings of traditional Xibo clothes provide a tasteful and charming background, and a collection of vibrantly colored Uighur hats welcomes you at the entrance. You can sit inside or outside on the sprawling outdoor terrace where James Brown and Stevie Wonder blast from the speakers. If it is chilly, grab a table by the traditional wood-burning grill and bread oven where a cook prepares your order. Especially memorable are the lacy lumpia wrappers stuffed with chopped scallions and red peppers in a spicy black bean sauce, the cumin-laden roasted lamb chop, and various roasted and fried breads. Portions are generous. The restaurant even has a political conscience: The Xibo-native owner, Kuo Xinrui, donates 25 percent of the restaurant’s profits to selected charities working on environmental issues and development incentives in western China.
Generally I balk at the idea of promoting a hotel restaurant because I prefer to recommend lesser-known eateries, but Xindalu, in the Hyatt on the Bund, has several things working in its favor: The open kitchen allows you to watch the chefs at work, the staff provide impeccable service, and the menu offers some of the best not-to-be missed items in all of Shanghai. Many, myself included, consider this restaurant to serve the city’s best Peking duck. The special wood-burning ovens were brought in from Beijing and are fueled with freshly cut wood from apple and date trees that infuses the duck with aromatics and flavor. There is also the rare opportunity to eat the equally outstanding, delicious Beggar’s Chicken, a dish that originated in Hangzhou, a city to the west of Shanghai. Both dishes must be ordered 24 hours in advance, but they are well worth it. There is also Pyramid Braised Pork, a modern take on the classic tung po, except this one is served with pumpkin pancakes. And if you can, order long jing, crystal shrimp cooked in Longjing tea. Begin the meal with liang ban tang hao, a chrysanthemum cress salad seasoned with a light garlic sesame vinaigrette. And along with your order of one of the poultry dishes, choose the seasonal vegetables wok-fried with wu liang ye, a fragrant five-grain liquor that lends flavor. On top of all that, add an order of pan-fried or steamed dumplings. For dessert, head up to the hotel’s Vue Bar on the 32nd floor. You can savor the stunning views of the Bund and the Huangpu River.
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