SHANGHAI - The last time I saw Shanghai it was 1982, the populace wore the obligatory blue Mao jackets and cotton shoes, we ate as ''special guests'' in cavernous greasy-spoon restaurant dining rooms reserved for foreigners, and everyone rode bicycles. It was as if the city had been closed for repairs.
Today, the dress is more likely to be Armani and John Lobb, the dining halls are named Haagen-Dazs, Baskin-Robbins and KFC, and the mode of transport is a VW Golf.
The city is as haze-choked as ever, and you can wander down the city's main drag, Nanjing Road, from the Peace Hotel and watch as whole blocks of China's Fifth Avenue are torn down, not with a wrecking ball but with bare hands and hammers by men in wicker hard hats.
Food Imitates Life
Food mimics cultural, political and financial trends. And so it comes as no surprise to see a reawakened Shanghai sporting the familiar golden arches, Kentucky colonel, pizzerias, waiters on roller skates, German microbreweries and shopping-mall food courts with U.S. beef, alongside the hundreds of street vendors offering deliciously fresh traditional snacks for eating with your hands.
If ever there was an East-meets-West cuisine culture, this is it. As Shanghai works to compete with Hong Kong and Singapore for the Asian capital of the next century, it is inevitable that modern, Western-style restaurants will make inroads, as the city relearns its past and invents the future.
One of the first East-West restaurants is fittingly named Park 97, the creation of a group of Australians who already have no less than seven Hong Kong establishments, all trendy and designed to appeal to the young, beautiful and well-heeled, more interested in seeing and being seen than in gastronomy.
Park 97 is nestled in a rare stretch of Shanghai greenery at the edge of Fuxing Park near the city's ever-popular French quarter, where the character-filled, two-story buildings are being torn down at a frighteningly rapid pace, to be replaced with the ever-expanding overhead expressway and inevitable high-rises.
Decorated in an understated Art Deco style, this seven-day-a-week restaurant caters to local Shanghai residents as well as the mass of transient businessmen and women aiming to set up business in the city. The menu is designed to please its lean, health-conscious clientele, with a gentrified, East-West mix of sushi, asparagus in balsamic-vinegar dressing, breast of chicken with saffron couscous and vegetarian-oriented casserole with mixed grains and beans.
What we did not witness, but heard much about, was China's favorite new drink. A passion for cognac has been replaced by a wine obsession. But not just red wine alone. Wine has become the Chinese toasting drink, drunk bottoms up, mixing red wine with Sprite and white wine with Coke.
But I was in Shanghai to sample the people's fare, so one raw, misty, drab-gray Sunday in December we strolled with masses of Chinese along the two-kilometer walkway that parallels the Huangpu River, stopping now and then for a sidewalk snack. The most popular remains a steaming, conical mass of rice steamed in lotus leaf. Just tear the leaf back and bite into the compact rice, eating it all like an ice cream cone. The piping-hot package of glutinous rice, chicken, dried shrimp and black mushrooms will warm you all the way through.
EQUALLY delicious, and found every few blocks throughout Shanghai, are the pan-fried buns - known as pot stickers - steamed dumplings filled with Chinese black mushrooms and fatty ground pork, finely chopped scallions and fresh leaves of coriander. The best are steam-cooked, then bottom-fried to a crisp, often at curbside over a makeshift brazier. Delicious on a cold winter's day, they're designed for dipping into doses of soy, wine and ginger.
For indoor dining, one could hardly do better than the grand and popular Mei Long Zhen. With its grand, jade-green pagoda-style entrance, the restaurant was established in 1938 by a group of filmmakers, actors, playwrights and authors and has long been one of the city's premier dining establishments.
Today the enormous restaurant boasts seven dining halls, all traditionally decorated with painted wall scrolls, lanterns and frescoes and reliefs. Television monitors are a modern addition: In one of the main-floor dining halls, monitors hung in each corner of the room while the Chinese equivalent of MTV treated us to a series of young, bashful, awkward Chinese girls singing and dancing their hearts out.
The place was bustling. At one table, a family of 10 celebrated a girl's eighth birthday, complete with candles and a baroquely decorated cake that twirled atop the lazy Susan. At another, a young Shanghai couple sat devouring their lunch, accompanied by Coke in the can.
Our meal was truly magnificent - a refined Shanghai version of Sichuan cuisine, not nearly as spicy as that you'll find in the capital of Chengdu. The food is prepared with superb local ingredients and subtle seasoning. Service follows suit, with efficiency and attentiveness.
Start with the steaming hot pork and crab dumplings, ethereal dim sum delicacies that one must learn to eat with dexterity and patience. Hold the little pillow between two chopsticks, deftly sucking out the vermilion juice that's colored by sweet crab roe.
For a soothing balance of texture and elegance, try the broth-like mixture of buttery, sliced bean curd and crab meat punctuated by the lively addition of fresh ginger and chives. As suggested by our waiter, we drizzled it all with a touch of pungent Chinese black vinegar, adding a perfect acid tone.
But the finest dish of the day was the ''dancing'' crab - sautéed crab in pepper sauce, one of the most satisfying and exciting Chinese dishes I have ever had. The raw crab was cracked with a cleaver to allow the seasoning to penetrate the meat, then stir-fried in a mix of rock salt, coarsely ground black pepper, garlic and chives, and showered with a bit of cornstarch to bind the seasonings to the crab shell. This is finger food, designed to suck noisily and happily, savoring every bit of sauce, extracting every morsel of sweet crab.
Unusual were the crisp cakes of radish, puff pastry prepared with lard and wrapped around a ball of shredded daikon radish, then steamed; and one could make a meal of the hearty fried rice, studded with mushrooms, peas, shredded eggs and ham, with another dose of black vinegar to cut the fat.
a scrumptious end Dessert lovers will devour the date pancake with melon kernel, an Asian version of a date strudel, with sweet date filling wrapped in a thin, golden-yellow pancake.
Wash it all down with a glass or two of delicate Dynasty nonvintage wine, a drinkable all-purpose wine that's made from the muscat grape in the Tianjin region of China as part of a Chinese-French joint venture.
Park 97 Shanghai, 2 Gao Lan Road, Fuxing Park; tel: (86-21) 6318-0785; fax: 6387- 4716. All major credit cards. Open daily. About $50 per person, including wine and service.
Mei Long Zhen, 1081 Nanjing Road; tel: (86-21) 6256-6688. All major credit cards. Open daily. About $35 per person, including wine and service.
Next week: Hong Kong.