Dining in Shanghai can be a bewildering adventure. The sheer number of restaurants in this megacity is intimidating! Add to this that Chinese food here often bears little relation to the Chinese food you may have grown up eating in Australia. And that’s all before you’ve even started trying to interpret the menu! Some Shanghai menus are not very well translated. Some Shanghai menus are not translated at all. Luckily, the photographic menu is very popular...
As in most cities, there are dining options at all price points. You’ll find everything from impossibly cheap street food cooked on grills the back of motorbikes, to foie gras and truffles in more decadent arrangements than you’ve probably ever seen. I mean, Shanghai is where I ate my first ever truffle sandwich! To work out approximate prices, you can divide any Yuan mention by six for approximate Australian dollars.
For the crucial first meal of the day, I was pretty happy easing my stomach into things with breakfast at Quay on the sixth floor of my hotel, the Hotel Indigo Shanghai on the Bund. On top of the well-appointed breakfast buffet boasting everything from local fruit to pastries, to congee with exciting condiments, to daily smoothies, they also have an international menu of hot breakfasts.
Being that you are in Shanghai, you should probably try the Shanghai set breakfast (150 Yuan) with traditional noodle soup, steamed xiao long bao (soup dumplings) and tea-smoked egg. It will get your tummy ready for the decadence that is to come.
Now as I mentioned, I was happy with breakfast at the hotel, well I was happy until I read the three-course weekend brunch menu at Cuivre in the former French concession! Firstly, the menu arrives via an ipad; secondly, you get to choose three courses (188 Yuan with a beverage) for breakfast; and thirdly, one of those courses can be a grilled truffle sandwich with brie cheese, coppa and arugula! Be still my defibrillating heart!
Did I mention they also do breakfast cocktails like The Hulk (20 Yuan) featuring cucumber and celery juice mixed with rum, and Maple Leaf (20 Yuan) blending orange and carrot juice, mint leaves and tequila? Add to this the ouef Benedict here has about the best hollandaise sauce I’ve ever tried…
If there’s one part of Shanghainese food that will be familiar to most Aussies, it’s dumplings, so they are definitely a good place to begin. While I was intrigued by the endless queue of Chinese waiting for steamed soup dumplings at Nanxiang Mantou Dian in Yu Garden; I’m not all that great at waiting. Meaning I actually ate at the neighbouring Din Tai Fung. Best thing I ate was black truffle and pork xiao long bao (88 Yuan), which clued me in that truffles (there were five slices in each dumpling) are certainly cheaper here in China.
Another spot you’ll find dumplings that you might recognise is New Shanghai. Yes, that’s the same restaurant group who have also done a lot toward popularising them in Sydney, with restaurants in Chatswood, Ashfield and Bondi Junction. While it is a little difficult to find on the fourth floor of a circular shopping centre full of restaurants, it is worth the trip.
You should expect staff with little English but great sign language, and a picture menu offering up dishes like braised pork in brown sauce (58 Yuan)...
...sauteed diced beef with goose liver (58 Yuan) and special pork xiao long bao (22 Yuan). They all taste great with the locally produced TsingTao beer (15 Yuan/580ml).
After ticking off breakfast and dumplings, my next mission was to get a bit of a handle on Chinese cuisine. It might surprise you to hear there are Eight Great Traditions (Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan and Zhejiang). Add to this a whole range of regional variations, and it's hard to know where to begin! As I only had six and a half days, I just tried what I could fit in...
My first taste of China's regional cuisine came from Yunnan, which is a province in the southwest of China that's bordered by Tibet, Burma and Vietnam. The restaurant to eat it is called Lost Heaven, and I'd highly recommend you try it!
It has two outlets, one on The Bund and one in the former French concession; I dined in the latter - a hugely popular deep red womb-like affair. (You'll definitely need a reservation.)
To enjoy Yunnan food you need to be able to eat spicy; as pretty much everything, down to the signature cocktail Thai Zeed (60 Yuan) is hot.
As one Yunnan specialty is ham, I tried the Yunnanese Ham Pancake (68 Yuan); it's tasty and a nice relief from spice in dishes like the Dai Tribe Chicken with Seven Spices (68 Yuan).
While it is spicy, the Yunnan Eggplant and Tofu Salad (50 Yuan) provides beautiful relief when you bite into each slippery slice of tofu. It's probably my favourite dish, though I liked the decadence of the Yunnan Truffle Steamed Eggs (160 Yuan) which gave my tingling lips another break.
After a few days in Shanghai I decided I was ready to dip my toes into real Sichuan cuisine.
The restaurant I headed to was called Sichuan Citizen. It's a funky space, buzzing with diners even at lunchtime.
For a bit of Dutch courage while I chose between the one, two and three chilli rated dishes on the extensive menu, I ordered a Sichuan ice tea (55 Yuan) with a TsingTao Gold (30 Yuan) chaser. It took both of them to get me through the heat of my meal, which started reasonably gently with a one-chilli plate of needle mushrooms salad with lime and cilantro (22 Yuan).
This dish was provided welcome relief throughout the meal which included a much hotter (yet still one-chilli rated) dry sauteed cauliflower with Sichuan bacon (32 Yuan). It's a great. meaty dish that I'd love to eat again. I also had a plate of three-chilli rated diced chicken with chilli (58 Yuan) that where numbing Sichuan peppers disguised how hot it really was.
The near-addictive bamboo shoots in the two-chilli rated beer braised duck with soy bean and chilli (68 Yuan) made it my winner.
After surviving Sichuan, I moved on to the northwest of China, their largest region called Xinjiang. It borders Russia, Mongolia, India and five of the 'stans. It is home to a number of ethnic groups, including the Uygher people.
The restaurant I try Xinjian at is called Xibo. I start with a plate of Xibo Tapas (58 Yuan) which includes pickles, cold meats, Xibonese grilled eggplant & pepper with grilled Xibonese bread plus a traditional Xinjiang salad.
They're also renowned for fried bread stuffed with lamb, onions, mushroom and cheese (48 Yuan), and...
...BBQ meat skewers (6 Yuan/each) which taste almost Middle Eastern to me. Both of these dishes go down particularly well with a refreshing TsingTao beer.
Of course no visit to Shanghai would be complete without trying the local cuisine.
The restaurant I chose to do it in, Lynn, was pretty fancy. It's next door to Christian Louboutin, just one of a gleaming golden array of high end brands.
My Chinese work colleague had sent me on a mission to try Shanghai smoked fish (45 Yuan) which turns out to be sweet, sticky and easy to eat - like the BBQ pork of the fish world. I also tried another local speciality, hairy crab (18 Yuan/piece) braised with rice cake and bean paste. While the sauce is addictive, I'm not a huge fan of the hairy crab.
I did however love the sheer decadence of a crab shell filled with baked crab meat and topped with a slice of goose liver (88 Yuan).
I wrapped up my decadent meal with roast leg of lamb with pancake (188 Yuan) which was again a very Middle Eastern style of dish done Peking pancake style with the staff wrapping at the table. A meal this good requires a range of beverages. With wine still turning me off with the price, I settled for a vivid green apple mojito; and even my staple TsingTao beer came in a fancy curved glass.
Hold over Cantonese for when you start to get overwhelmed by the constant newness and explosions of chilli and flavour. It's gentler and more familiar to Westerners, coming from the Guangdong province which is a trading port.
Now that's not to say you'll be eating lemon chicken and honey prawns; though at the first restaurant I tried, Canton (admittedly mostly chosen for its location on the 55th floor of the Jin Mao tower in Pudong) it was pretty familar stuff.
I took in the (amazing) view with a barbequed platter (198 Yuan) boasting suckling pig, roasted goose, chicken and honey glazed pork, beautifully accompanied by TsingTao beer and some black fungus with mountain chilli (48 Yuan) for good measure.
To my tastebuds, a better example of Cantonese can be found across the Huangpu River at Dragon Phoenix in the Fairmont Peace Hotel. It's a highly ornate space with the window tables offering decent river views offset slightly by how bright the lighting is.
My choices included a local specialty, kung pao river shrimp (188 Yuan).
I threw in a minced pork and eggplant clay pot (68 Yuan) because Cantonese is renowned for clay pot cooking; but my surprisingly delicate winner was a double boiled wild mushroom and bamboo fungus broth (78 Yuan). Yep, it's a long way from lemon chicken but still a nice way to give your tummy a break.
Now if you really can't handle another Chinese meal, recall that Shanghai has some pretty amazing French cooking too. The former French concession is a treasure trove of French language, cooking, fashion and style.
My pick of the lot is Cuivre and the dish you must eat is soupe a la truffe (118 Yuan) - an airy white bean and truffle soup. You'll also find the best pomme de terre (48 Yuan) (aka potato gratin) I've tried.
Despite all this eating, I feel like I barely scratched the surface of Chinese cuisine. There are plenty of amazing meals I'd have liked to eat, and many (including this inexpensive banquet we had at the airport) that I didn't include here. If I had one more meal, I would have liked to have visited one of Paul Pairet's restaurants - despite trying for two months before I left, I couldn't get a reservation for love or money at his newly opened Ultraviolet; and didn't end up having a spare meal for Mr & Mrs Bund. I think it's nice to leave a city still wanting more...
Stay tuned for the final two parts of my Shanghai adventure. I would be remiss here if I did not thank Hotel Indigo’s Thomas Milazzo. Thomas provided invaluable advice on what’s currently hot in Shanghai, including the it-restaurants and bars. His suggestions formed no small part of my itinerary, and even when I did get intrepid, his advice nearly always worked out better than anything I found on my own. I would also like to thank New Shanghai, for without them I may not have found myself visiting Shanghai at all.
Please also see: Shanghai, Shanghai Bars, Shanghai Sights & Shanghai Attractions.