SHANGHAI – If I could hop on a plane tomorrow, it would be to Shanghai. A few months ago I made my third visit in 25 years, and oh has that place changed. Everything from the airport to high-rises boasts of the biggest and the best, and the glittery city has lots to go before it fizzles. And the food is among the most exciting in Asia today. From classic Chinese to trendy modern fare, the city offers something for everyone.
It’s been a long time since I got up from the table after dining in a restaurant and whispered to myself, “genius.” But there’s surely a touch of that talent in the young, sure-footed Hong Kong-born Jereme Leung, executive chef at Whampoa Club, the bright, expansive Art Deco-style restaurant in the popular Three on the Bund complex in Shanghai.
If there are revolutions in contemporary Chinese cooking today, then it is the gifted, ambitious chefs such as Jereme that will serve as the leaders. His food is not fusion, it is not confusion, it is not all about avocadoes and papayas with raw tuna. It’s good, honest, Chinese fare that’s been given a facelift, an update, a new look with no sacrifice in flavor. In fact, it’s more like a upgrade to first class.
On one weekday dinner, chef Leung prepared a multicourse tasting menu that highlighted some of his greatest hits, many of them classic Shanghai dishes to which he’s given a personal, well-studied touch. Most of his small treasures arrive in threes, set in bowls or dishes or cups on crisp white rectangular plates, each offering tiny tastes and massive pleasures.
It was hairy crab season, so we began with the classic drunken crab, a breathtaking preparation that tasted like nothing I’ve ever sampled before, sweet, creamy with the crab roe, raw, and utterly exotic. Alongside, he offered crunchy golf-ball sized glutinous rice rounds stuffed with fresh crab meat, all pretty, crunchy, delicate, delicious. Alongside, Jereme offered a moist preparation of drunken chicken, in which the chicken is poached in a rich broth that is traditionally used for other purposes. Here, the chef chose to turn the broth into a stunning, soothing, golden ice.
His food does not always walk the straight, narrow, and traditional. So he’ll slip in a giant, pillow-like deep-fried prawn that is bathed in a thankfully understated wasabi sauce, all gorgeous, crunchy, soft, and vibrant tasting. In another dish, soft hairy crab meat and sea urchin meet in a delicate egg shell, laced with a touch of black vinegar. Alongside, a warm, deep-fried hairy crab dumpling serves as a fine, firm, contrast in this parade of tempting seasonal treats.
Gorgeous is the word to describe his presentation of foie gras, dates and celery, cutting edge food that offers welcome bits of bliss. A finale of generous portions of fresh crab in the shell laced with tomatoes; followed by sparkling fresh black cod with spring onions made for a perfect close on a stunning meal. When you go, sample the fine South African Sauvignon Blanc, Shiny Blade, 368 Nederberg 2003.
No. 3 on the Bund, 4th floor
3 Zhong Shan Dong Yi Road
Telephone: 8621-6321 3737
Web: www.threeonthebund.com and www.jeremeleung.com.
What is it about a stack of Chinese bamboo steaming baskets, rich with the golden-brown color of age, coming down the aisle towards me that makes me just smile with glee. Dim sum, one of Asia’s greatest treats of little moist tidbits stuffed with all manner of delicacies, is undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest culinary creations.
Sunday lunch in Asia is the perfect moment for a dim sum dumpling feast so we reserved our table and stood in line at the bustling Crystal Jade, a modern, casual restaurant in the newly restored Xintiandi section of old Shanghai.
There are no frills here, but the place is lively and efficient in the way the Chinese manage to move great numbers of people in and out of a restaurant with break-neck speed. Quite simply, this was just some of the finest, most delicate versions of dim sum I’ve ever sampled. The ultra thin-skinned Shanghai pork dumplings arrived steaming and beautiful, oozing with rich stock. It took some fancy dancing with the chopsticks not to break them before they were dipped in black vinegar, ready to devour with careful, delicate bites. The thicker-skinned Beijing pork dumplings were sturdier but no less delicious; while the sublime crab-stuffed dumplings were sheer, feathery, light and elegant in their simplicity.
I couldn’t stop myself from ordering, as well, the vegetarian bean curd in spicy sauce, a truly ethereal dish, all pillow-like and laced with garlic, perfect tiny cubes of carrots, and just the right dose of hot sauce to send me on my blissful way.
Crystal Jade Restaurant
Unit 2F, 12-AB
House 6-7, South block Xintiandi
Lane 123 Xinye Road
Telephone: 86 21 6385 8572.
Restaurant Jean Georges is probably the most Must Visit restaurant in the most Must Visit cities in the world. Like the Whampoa Club, it is situated in a stately 1920’s-era restored bank building with sweeping views of the river, now called Huanpu. The restaurant has been open since last April and the buzz refuses to stop.
French-born chef Jean-George Vongerichten, is a brand-name chef, with outposts all over the world, including New York, Las Vegas, London, and Hong Kong. I can’t say we had a great experience on our Saturday evening visit. Requesting a table for 8 pm we were told we should come at 9 pm and there would be a wait at the bar. Sounds like New York city all over again.
Once inside the dark, noisy, glamorous spot, I felt as though I was in an eerie night club, not a bustling restaurant. We were ushered from handler to handler, then seated at the bar, handed a complimentary drink (the waitress was not sure what was in it, but thought maybe vodka and cranberry juice and something else), offered a bowl full of greasy popcorn, palate-numbing wasabi-seasoned nuts, and left on our own. A bit of hand waving got us yet another waitperson who said maybe our table was ready.
As we entered the dining room it was half empty and it was clear that an 8 pm table would have been no problem at all.. Clearly that sort of attitude does not pave the way for a fine and happy dining experience.
The brief menu is appealing. Jean Georges has one of the most international palates around, knows his food, and knows what appeals on the plate. I could have ordered a dozen different appealing dishes, such as the crackling sea scallops with cucumber mango salad; the steamed shrimp salad with avocado and tomato; or the lobster in a spiced broth with a 17th century chutney.
Instead, I chose the crispy crab cake in cucumber and lime, a moist, generous, delicious starter marred only by the fact that it was served in an oversized soup bowl that made me feel I was eating out of a dog bowl. What’s wrong with a normal plate?
Equally welcoming – and served off a normal plate, thank you – was the crispy fried squid salad, with papaya, cashews, and a spicy sour dressing. I loved this dish, a perfect counterpoint of breaded baby squid, perfectly fried, set off by the soothing and smooth cool papaya slices and the crunchy, salty cashews. Likewise, the king fish sashimi with a Muscat grape jelly offered true satisfaction. But the veal tenderloin with smoked chili glaze fell flat: It was badly conceived and tasted like something that had come off a steam table. Spicy and interesting? No, just flabby and dull slabs of meat.
All this said, I didn’t feel as though I had to go to Shanghai to sample this food. It could just as well have been New York, Las Vegas, London, Hong Kong. That’s the point. Jean Georges has become a branded chef, just like Armani is the branded designer of the moment, with a glitzy shop on the ground floor.
No. 3 on the Bund, 4th floor
3 Zhong Shan Dong Yi Road
Telephone 86 21 6321 7733.
GUYI HUNAN RESTAURANT
If you like spice, then reserve a table (and expect to wait in line) at the modern, simple Hunan restaurant, a large family place that will nearly sizzle your nostrils just walking in the door. Not much English is spoken here, but sign language should get you what you want. And if you like hot, do order the fiery hot pot chicken with bamboo, arriving sizzling in a big black pot, ready to devour with bits of steaming rice and beer or the serviceable French vin de pays d’Oc Chardonnay or Merlot. Pork lovers will dig into the giant portions of pork ribs coated with chili and garlic. For starters, try the cold chicken with chili oil (a meal all on its own), or the soothing pickled cucumbers, there to put out a bit of the fire.
Guyi Hunan Restaurant
1F Jufu Building
No 87, Fumin Road
Telephone: 62 49 56 28.