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Posts from the ‘Shanghai’ Category

Whampoa Club

1/2  Whampoa Club was the only restaurant I made reservations for before leaving NYC, and cornily enough, I started having reservations of my own once in China. I got nervous because outside of glossy travel and food magazines, opinions were completely mixed. I couldn’t find one kind word about the place on Chowhound. But then, Chowhound is always a little out of whack for high end restaurants and cities outside of New York.

Our meal was scheduled for our last night in the country so I hemmed and hawed over canceling all week-and-a-half. Did I really want to blow $250 on something lackluster?


I did want to try high end Shanghainese food since it’s not like I’m often faced with opportunity. The reason I’ve postponed this recollection until now is not so much because it was my last meal but because it’s difficult to characterize. The experience was almost more about feeling than taste, which sometimes works.

Whampoa Club is located in an upscale complex, Three on the Bund, which also houses Jean Georges, Laris, Armani’s China flagship and New Heights, a restaurant that is more remarkable for its amazing view. We had drinks on the heated terrace overlooking the Pudong skyline beforehand. And no matter how many photos I took, they all turned out like shit because I can’t seem to master night time lighting. We kept trying to capture shots of this slow moving Goodyear blimp (growing up, my dad worked for the company so I have weird nostalgia for all their logo’d paraphernalia) and it was a blurry disaster.


I honestly don’t know what is so awe inspiring about a view and why looking over a city from above is supposed to romantic. I sort of feel the same way about candles. I don’t fully buy into it, but there are worse ways to spend time on a vacation. The night before, we’d sipped pricy drinks at the Pudong Grand Hyatt for the privilege of gazing across the river the other way.

I’ve barely touched a cigarette since being back home but certain settings just cry out for smoking, health be damned. And those settings usually involve drinking. It’s so leisurely and decadent to smoke during an expensive meal. It certainly felt that way in Spain last summer, though I doubt that will last much longer—even France will be banning smoking in public spaces in three days. And the opulent, modern art deco style of Whampoa was made for cigarettes. In fact, they even had little built in ashtrays in every stall of the plushest bathroom I encountered in all of China (I took a photo but it didn’t do any justice—amusingly, I’m not the only one impressed by the restrooms, this person even took shots of the faucet and toiletries).

I was told we’d have a window seat when I booked, so clearly it’s a selling point. Halfway through our meal, fireworks started going off right behind my head. I couldn’t tell you why, maybe simply because it was Friday. Maybe they do it every night because that’s just how they roll in Shanghai. But two middle aged Chinese men in Member’s Only jackets jumped up and started crowding next to our table to take photos of the spectacle (they did say excuse me and really I don’t mind if someone wants to tourist it up and take photos out of the window of a nice restaurant in another country—it’s only in NYC where I’m sensitive to gaucheness).


By contrast, the table next to us was occupied by rich kid teens (for all know, they were 40—I very much envy the genetic fountain of youth thing that Asians seem to have. Even James who’s only fraction Asian, is two years older than I am and smokes regularly, doesn’t have a single line on his face which is ridiculous) a Chinese Christina Ricci with two pop star looking guys chain smoking and barely eating. I couldn’t say who typical clientele might be.

Thinking back, we probably should’ve ordered Shanghainese food a la carte but whenever presented with multiple menus in an unfamiliar yet notable restaurant, I often go for the tasting menu. We did skip the pricy hairy crab set meal, though. We decided to try a Beijing promotional menu. Why not? We’d already messed cities up by eating soup dumplings in Beijing.


I hate to admit that I can barely remember a thing about the food (it’s nearly been two months), which isn’t to say that it wasn’t memorable. The presentations and ingredients were a bit complicated and the verbal descriptions got a little lost in translation. English as a second (or third) language can be a killer for food explanations. The only reason I remember as much as I do is because I took a photo of the menu. None of the dishes were so compelling that I’d crave a repeat performance, but cocktails and a handful of updated Shanghai classics would be worth a second visit.

Wine served with starters: Watershed Margaret River Sauvignon Semillon 2005

Duo of cabbage and spinach rolls with shrimp and scallop, flavored with yellow mustard and wasabi jelly/Air-dried pork with sweet vinegar dressing

Chinese really seem to be into porky aspic preparations. We had a similar jellied pork knuckle at Made in China. I find the flavor almost too flat and pristine. Strangely, the pungent mustard with spinach was also similar to a vegetable at Made in China. Maybe these really are Beijing flavors.

Wine with mains: Casillero del Diablo Merlot 2005

Imperial-style golden seafood soup


By far the most decadent item. The saline, gelatinous soup was completely teeming with the foie gras and truffles of the Chinese world: abalone and shark’s fin. Oh, and lobster and scallops too. I think I’m supposed to feel bad for eating fins but of course I was curious how they’d taste. Like tendons and other transparent chewy things, I suspect texture is the main attraction. Red vinegar was served with this dish and the sharpness made total sense with almost-too-rich quality of the broth.

Imperial-style fried lamb with sweet bean paste


I wasn’t expecting the spun sugar dome. In fact, I was imagining something more rustic and spicy rather than sweet. This was “ta shi mi,” sweet as honey, the menu says. True. I love sweet meat and could’ve stood for a few more pieces. I liked the fluffy steamed pancake served alongside, so you could make fancy little handheld buns.

Beijing-style slow cooked cabbage in chicken consommé and sun dried scallops

Hmm, more cabbage. I wasn’t very excited about this because it was too subtle , i.e. healthy-seeming, for me.


Beijing-style fermented bean paste and pork with hand made noodles

“I just spent over $200 on ramen and frozen vegetable medley?” we joked about this one. I think I’m going crazy because I swear there were carrots and corn in this dish that looked like they were from a bag of Birdseye, but I’m seeing nothing of the sort in this photo. I liked the diy aesthetic of tossing in as much pork mélange as suited you.

Almond dessert trio.

The tart and candied nuts were nice; not too Western and decadent and not too Asian and unsugary. The sweet almond tea was seriously like loaves and fishes, an everlasting trick. No matter how much you poured in your tiny cup, there appeared to be more left. Or maybe I was really tipsy by this point in the evening.

Whampoa Club * 3 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu, Shanghai, China

South Beauty

I hadn’t expected any acknowledgment of Halloween in China, and I was completely wrong. I don’t know that anyone actually does anything on October 31, but stores and restaurants were decorating with pumpkins, ghosts and witches and sales clerks donned costumes during the week leading up to the holiday.


South Beauty also was getting into the game on my Halloween eve visit. This Sichuan restaurant was kind of hard to pin down. Typical for China, it’s a chain with many branches in malls. I chose this particular Shanghai location because it sounded the most over-the-top décor-wise and it was walking distance from our hotel.


And it really was tricked out like a tycoon’s mansion. The multi-leveled bar takes up the entire front building and feels like an enormous study in a British country manor. You half expect to see men in smoking jackets and decanters of port in the wood-paneled side rooms. It all opens on to a reflecting pool lined with outdoor seating and beyond that is the restaurant proper, all glass and shades of ivory.


So, it feels upscale but it’s not expensive (by Western standards, at least—I’m pretty sure most entrees were under $10) and the food isn’t “serious” in a fine dining sense. Everything is garnished to the nines, though. We were given what seemed to be one of the prime tables, flanked by two impractical sofas. The distance between seat and plating was so vast you felt overexposed and bound to drop something from chopstick to mouth.


The service was typically Asian in that you’re constantly being watched and hawked over, yet ordering is kind of painful, involves lots of pointing and head shaking and misunderstandings abound. All over Shanghai our attempts to order fish were thwarted. I’m not sure if they had run out, the fish in question weren’t in season or what. But after about three attempts, we got an affirmative on the fish head. I don’t know why fish heads freak people out—the meat is flavorful, you don’t have to eat the eyes, plus, this one was practically disguised by sauce and chopped onions, anyway.


I also ordered gong bao ji ding. Wouldn’t you want to see how this take out favorite is cooked in its homeland (yes, kung pao chicken is a real dish not an American invention). The flavors were more pristine and vinegar-sour, though I didn’t really get hits of Sichuan peppercorn The tiny uniformly cut bits were tough to tackle with chopsticks and our slow picking meant it got cold before we could finish. You don’t want cornstarch-thickened sauces to cool too much or they turn gooey.


I had no quibble with the sautéed green beans, which was the only dish that hinted at mouth-numbing properties. I didn’t find the food to be terribly Sichuan, at least the little I know about the cuisine. Nothing we ate was emphatically spicy, and the ma la sensation was absent. I’m not sure if that was due to weird ordering or a toned down preparation. I’m always wary of food in pretty surroundings while traveling. We were similarly underwhelmed at easy-on-the-eyes Celadon in Bangkok, which served elegant yet flat Thai food. I would love a stylish setting and kick ass food.


More notable was the freak show that kept parading through the restaurant as we ate. A Chinese woman, clearly a manager, in a skirt suit with a witches hat, was accompanied by two guys wearing Scream masks and they would periodically trail through the room blaring an electronic device making tinny, wailing ghost sounds. We were like, “oh shit, I hope they don’t come over here,” kind of how I feel about the Martians at Mars 2112, but you’re asking for trouble at Time’s Square theme restaurant.

They stopped at every table to try and convince skeptical diners to stop by the bar for their Halloween party. On their second pass through, they upped the ante and offered a free drink. I always feel guilted into taking unwanted coupons and amNY’s on the street, so I was like do we try to sneak out after dinner (you have to walk through the bar to exit) or stay for a damn cocktail? Free is good, plus I wanted to see what the hell was going to transpire. Despite a predominately western clientele, I was fairly certain we were the only Americans in the restaurant.

We were eventually accosted and planted on bar stools next to the only other takers, a middle-aged German trio. The huge space was empty and overstaffed by kids who looked like they’d be breaking American child labor laws. They were really trying. Cobwebs were everywhere, spooky masks had been affixed on available surfaces, a spastic green laser light eventually made an appearance, as did a fog machine. House of Wax subtitled in Chinese was being projected onto the wall. Classic scary songs like, you know “My Humps” and “SexyBack” were blaring. A mojito with so much mint it was nearly a salad and a fruity thing in a martini glass were placed in front of us. Do we pay? Do we tip? Did we ask for these? It seemed best to just start sipping and go with it.

Then, a teenage bartender who was like 5’4, 80 pounds with white oxford shirt, suspenders and a shaggy, mod moptop started flair bartending. I really should’ve taken photos but I was so disoriented that I couldn’t focus. Plus, the staff to patron ratio was so stifling you felt like your every move was being watched.

Each group that passed through, the 30-ish lady boss (who reminded me of a former supervisor, a London-Educated Chinese Malaysian I dubbed The Cyborg because she had no warmth or emotion like she’d been raised in a laboratory. I used to joke that she’d go into the bathroom and just wash her hands [I never saw her in a stall] so everyone would think she was human. Cyborgs don’t cut loose and they get drunk on one glass of wine. They also don’t let their departments leave even an hour early the Friday before a holiday weekend even when the entire company has gone home. ) tried corralling them to stay with about 50% success rate.

Now, they really needed someone to show them how to party. I was all we need to fuck this shit up and show them what Halloween is all about. Part of me wanted to TP the entire immaculately groomed grounds and start egging all the spotless floor to ceiling plate glass window. See, it’s not all about treats, ok? Tricks might bring tears to a cyborg’s eyes.

We had nothing better to do so we stayed for a few more drinks. And a few more parties had settled into sofas in adjoining rooms, so we didn’t feel so on the spot. While peculiar, the bartenders at least knew cocktails by memory and were able to cobble together a whisky sour for me. At our even emptier hotel bar in Beijing, the young bartender seemed super eager to make drinks, handed us a cocktail menu, but had to consult a recipe book for everything. He painstakingly measured out every little drop, shook just so many times, then went and washed everything out by hand before giving us our beverages. If there had been more than two customers, he would’ve freaked. And these tuned out to be $8 drinks, quite high for Beijing. My Chinese bar experiences made me edgy and nervous for the staff.

The manager began consulting with some of her staff and clearly seemed to be talking about us. You don’t need any Chinese language skills to know you’re being talked about. She approached us to explain, “I’m so sorry, but only the first drink is free.” Well, duh, we fully expected to pay for the two additional rounds and had to reassure her that we knew and that was fine.

That exchange crystallized Chinese-ness for me. Like they’re very rah rah and desperate to win over foreigners but when you take them up on their hospitality and settle in, they start to worry. It kind of made me want to TP the place for real, just to see how they’d react to a genuine problem.


South Beauty * 881 Yan'an Zhong Lu, Shanghai, China

Restaurant interior photos from

Prima Taste

1/2  Is eating laksa at a Singaporean chain restaurant in Shanghai any less blasphemous than shamelessly patronizing Pizza Hut? Well, we did both in the same afternoon and I feel very little guilt. It’s a rare vacation where we don’t indulge in our must-sample-everything second lunch, second dinner plan. And this was a rare vacation because Prima Taste enabled our only second lunch in China.

As much as I’m fond of all of Chinese food iterations (it’s strange how much loathing for Shanghainese cooking I’ve run across on the internet—no, I’m not calling anyone out) coconut milk, shrimp paste and fresh hot chiles suck me in like nothing else. I’m already planning (at least in my mind) a 2008 Malaysia excursion.

HamburgerhelperI was initially tempted by the out of place smell of belacan in a Beijing food court. It was the first Prima Taste restaurant I’d ever seen. I only knew the name from packaged spice pastes I bought at a Carrefour in Singapore a couple years ago. Apparently, they have one American branch in San Jose. I’ll admit the concept of brand-inspired restaurant is off putting. I wouldn’t be in a rush to eat at a Hamburger Helper café. But somehow Asians get away with that crap.

And the food’s not even bad. No, of course it wouldn’t get the Makansutra seal of approval, but not everyone is blessed with hundreds of hawker stalls to choose from. We don’t have any Singaporean food in NYC (nah, Singapore Café barely counts, it’s totally Chinese) so a Prima Taste wouldn’t offend me.


Admittedly, I wasn’t that hungry but I did get through most of my shrimp laksa. The broth was very lemak with fish cakes and quite a bit of chunky, shrimpy sambal that came already mixed in, no cockles. I’m still not sure why all my favorite food hails from hot, sweaty climates when I’m a firm believer in temperate weather. To me, laksa would be best enjoyed somewhere in the 60s, just like Shanghai in autumn.


I only had one bite of the char kway teow so I can’t fairly assess it. I’ve never had a version with flat and thin noodles mixed together—I’m sure sticklers would have a problem with that. I was kind of surprised that it contained crispy bits of fried pork lard, it’s not atypical but I don’t recall ever getting porky nuggets in Penang. See? Now, I have to go back to taste test more seriously.

Prima Taste * 3/F 1111 Zhao Jia Bang Rd., Shanghai, China


I think I bungled my attempt to explore Hunan cuisine and I don’t know if I’ll be able to rectify that in NYC. Grand Sichuan has a few items from the region, but I can’t think of any dedicated restaurants. I’m all ears if anyone has suggestions.


Everything I read went on about how fiery the food is; hotter than Sichuan minus the peppercorns. I blandly mis-ordered, thinking Guyi was where I was meant to get the pork knuckle when it was actually Jishi. Oh well, the massive parcel of tender meat kept us occupied for some time. The slew of dried chiles were really more for looks, though. I enjoyed plucking wedges of meat from the gelatinous casing, though I do prefer the crispy exteriors associated with Filipino crispy pata or German schweinehaxe. Pork skin is meant to be chomped on.


We had quite a bit of time to pick at our cold chile beef and peanuts with preserved vegetable. We started wondering if they’d forgotten about our pork knuckle. We also wondered if we were going to get the fish dish I pointed to that elicited a grunty, “eh” from our waitress. Was “eh” a no or a guttural comment we couldn’t decipher? The fish never appeared, which was for the best since the knuckle was all we could handle. Maybe “eh” meant you are being piggish and I will only allow one entrée.


Lotus root was crunchy, mild and lightly sweet. I’m sure it would’ve been a fitting counterpart to a hotter dish.


If we had one more day in Shanghai I definitely would’ve tried nearby Di Shui Dong, another Hunan restaurant that was supposed to be slightly more down market. The room was only this sparse because we showed up at the tail end of lunch and many restaurants close during the afternoon.

Guyi * 87 Fumin Lu, Shanghai, China

Hot Pot King

1/2  Hot pot restaurants were way more plentiful than I’d anticipated—there’s practically one on every block. But I had to make sure there were English menu translations because I don’t like leaving anything to chance…or pointing. In many cases, picture menus ended up being my friend.

Strangely, Hot Pot King was actually more accessible and less confusing than Happy Family in Flushing, the only other place I’ve had huǒ guō. That’s the funny thing about New York; pockets of the city are less penetrable than foreign countries.


There are a zillion styles of hot pot, but it seems like Mongolian and Sichuan are the two distinct types in China. I intended to try the lamb-centric Muslim version in Beijing but it didn’t happen. Here, we ordered the yin yang broth, hot and spicy on one side, mellow and pork-based on the other. At Happy Family, I think the white side is made with soy milk and is slightly sweet. And the red side is fierce, way more intense and oily than this Shanghai rendition.


There are pages and pages of choices for things to dip and cook, it’s tough to decide. We were encouraged to order six items, which was possibly an upsell, but the number was right on. I tried to get a wide variety and picked fish balls, mustard greens, lotus root, flank steak, lamb and tofu puffs.


The part I find most confusing is choosing sauces. On the side of the room, there were containers of a least twenty different pastes, oils and condiments and at least twenty more chopped and granular things like garlic, sugar, scallions and sesame seeds. I saw that other diners made mixes in little bowls, and that most went with about 80% sesame paste. I copied that, and doctored mine up with multiple similar looking chile oils and purees, then sprinkled green onions on top. James made one with peanut butter, garlic and Sichuan peppercorns. You could get very creative, ff you were so inclined, After dipping all meal long, the concoctions all turn muddy anyway.

It wasn’t until we got up to leave that we noticed everyone was eating from bowls and ours were sitting untouched on a cart next to our table. We’d been using small plates that got all gross and soupy. The bowl/plate dilemma plagued us throughout China. I think chopsticks and small rice bowl is the preferred eating style, but it wasn’t universal.


Hot potting tends to be raucous and restaurants frequently stay open until wee hours. We went for lunch but if I’m correct they don’t close until 4am. I got the feeling that Hot Pot King was sleeker and more expat-friendly than some. But then, Shanghai seemed gentler all-around compared to Beijing.

Hot Pot King * 2F, 1416 Huaihai Zhong Lu, Shanghai, China

Da Dong & Quanjude

Duck versus duck. Even though Peking duck is a Beijing specialty, one meal in town would seem like plenty. I thought so, and did a lot of research narrowing down our choices to four: Quanjude, Li Qun, Made in China and Da Dong. I ultimately decided on the latter. Quanjude is the biggie with lots of name recognition but too touristy. Li Qun? I don’t recall why I nixed it. Made in China felt like where you’d take a foreigner to impress them with stylish (and expensive) versions of local dishes. Da Dong seemed just right.


This was one of the few occasions where having our hotel call for reservations paid off, though we had no control over the dining time. We asked for 8pm on Friday and were told we’d be eating at 6:30 pm, which we quickly learned was more typical (this was our first restaurant meal in China). We also learned that cash is de rigueur, even when buying things like plane tickets. We showed up 15 minutes late, having no concept of heavy Beijing traffic and how taxis avoid white people like the plague (I don’t even want to contemplate how black tourists must fare). Hungry crowds filled the windowed front waiting area while we were immediately seated. I’m surprised they didn’t give away our reservation.


Despite being a bargain at a shocking $12 (I was initially surprised at how inexpensive Beijing was. This was a seriously good value vacation–I almost spent more in Miami over Labor Day weekend than we did in nearly two weeks in China), we couldn’t justify ordering a whole duck just for the two of us. But as it turned out, a half order, while pristinely sliced and presented, was meager for our gluttonous tastes.


Da Dong’s claim to fame is a leaner bird, less fatty and healthy. I don’t know about the healthy part, but it was a classy duck. There truly was very little fat; the skin was shatteringly crisp with little sections placed atop the dainty meat pile to be dipped in granulated sugar. I loved the array of condiments: said sugar, garlic, cucumber, spring onions, radish and what I think was bean paste. Options and multiple sauces always sway me. I knew right then, that Dadong was the right choice.

Cold bamboo shoots with scant chile slices. These weren’t terribly spicy.


Lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice appeared on a lot of menus. I never tried another rendition for comparison, but this sticky dish was very sweet and candied, almost more of a dessert than what we were brought for that course.


Ack, our first meal introduced us to the Chinese melon plate for dessert. I’ll admit this was an impressive version with dry ice and a few crab apples (which must be a local favorite—you see them sold candied on sticks, kabob-style, all over). But they didn’t stop with the fruit. Oh no, sesame pudding, a.k.a. black sludge also appeared after our food was cleared. I don’t have a problem with these types of desserts but after a heavy meal the thick, bittersweet sludge didn’t seem very refreshing. I think the only acceptable American treats that are this less-than-appetizing color are Oreos.


After Da Dong, we were left wanting more. If taxis weren’t so troublesome, we seriously would’ve headed to another roast duck restaurant. Another excursion was going to have to be factored into our schedule. We attempted lunch at Made in China two days later but it turned out to be an item that had to be ordered in advance. Damn. So, we ended up going regionally inaccurate and tried the Quanjude branch in Shanghai.

It was sort of asking for trouble, eating at a so-so chain in a city not renowned for Peking duck, but we were desperate. Compared to Da Dong, the clientele was tourist-heavy and the service more lackadaisical. Even the Chinese didn’t appear to be locals. (I was fascinated by a nearby table with a middle-aged French couple and two totally artsy hipster Asian girls who spoke both Mandarin and French. I’m not sure that they were Chinese, not that a Chinese girl couldn’t speak French.)


Half a duck wasn’t even an option here, so we got more than our fair share. In fact, we ended up making little wraps with the extras and hid them in our bags like old ladies getting the better of a buffet. Communicating was tough, so asking for our leftovers to go wasn’t even worth the bother. Tonal languages will kill you. We asked one waiter for the check, trying to say “mǎi dān” as correctly as we could, and got a confused shrug. Another waiter later came by and said, “mǎi dān?” which I swear sounded just like what we’d tried to articulate.


Quanjude was closer to the Peking duck you’ll find in NYC, and I think it made James happier. The slices were kind of sloppy, the pancakes had adhered to each other and accompaniments only included plum sauce and scallion. Bare bones, yet wonderfully oily and irresistible. The meat was almost minerally. I did notice that the ducks at both restaurants had a meatier, richer flavor than the ones you get here.


I had to order chile tripe even though I knew we wouldn’t get through much of it. I’m starting to think that I have a tripe fetish—I’ve eaten four times in less than a month.


I’m still not clear why this “fish fragrant” eggplant dish caused a ruckus. Our waiter seemed very concerned that I chose it and had to get an English speaking staff member to come over and make sure we understood that it contained pork. Er, do I look Muslim? Or like a pork-hater?  Clearly, we weren’t vegetarian since duck and tripe were also on order. I was aware that fish fragrant/yu xiang is a garlicky Sichuan sauce that doesn’t actually have any fish in it because I’m a dork about the cuisine. Anyway, it turned out to be very good, kind of like what gloppy eggplant in garlic sauce from corner delivery joints wants to be.

Da Dong * Tuanjie Hu Beikou 3, Beijing, China

Quanjude * 4/F, 786 Huaihai Zhong Lu, Shanghai, China

Yang’s Fry Dumpling

Ok, I’d better start practicing the difficult (for me) art of succinct-ness or else I’ll still be rambling on and on about Chinese food eaten in October 2007 well into 2008. Don’t hate me but I never ate xiao long bao in Shanghai. I know, I know, but there was just so much else to sample. However, I did try shengjian mantou, which in many ways I found preferable. It’s all a matter of delicate vs. rustic. I was going to say refined but that’s not accurate because the broth inside these steamed and fried pork dumplings was really stellar. I rarely notice things like the quality of stock but when it’s outstanding and bursting with what I can only imagine is that elusive umami, I get it.

There are two Yang’s stands just a few storefronts apart on Wujiang Lu. It’s chaotic at lunchtime and might be at all times. Because I leave nothing to chance, I read up ahead of time and learned that you order from the woman at a stand on the right, she gives you a ticket and then you stand in the long line on the left and pick up your dumplings. And ordering in fours is the standard. We got eight.


As you can see in the picture, the vessel doing the frying is a huge round affair. It looks like there’d be an endless supply, but the dumplings get burned through in no time. It’s very New York in a way, even though I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying. Customers were making the girl turn over dumplings to get more color on the sides, pointing out ones that looked better, like our equivalent of “gimme that one, no that one” or “cook it good.” I’m still flabbergasted at how much New Yorkers boss around the counter/cart guys and I’ve lived here nearly a decade.


Our line wasn’t that long and we had to wait for maybe three replacement batches, mostly due to the greedy gus three ahead of us who’d brought a soup pot with a glass lid from home (the server is holding it in the top photo) and had that filled, then he pulled out plastic containers from a bag and got those topped off, too. We were like save some for us, mister, and the people in line behind us began grumbling too. Thinking in multiples of four, he had to have ordered at least 32. The pan was decimated. But they’re speedy and a fresh replacement was there in minutes.


We didn’t dare try to snag an inside table (I have horrible fears of ordering food to stay only to end up seat-less) so we tracked down a rare outdoor seat on a low concrete wall and dug into our steaming messy snack. We got stared at by nearly every single passerby. I don’t know if it was because no one eats outside (there were a few others on benches nearby), we weren’t Asian, we were mangling our food or committing some unspoken faux pas, they were curious about what we were eating, or what. This is a modern city with decent amount of expats so it was kind of baffling and nothing like the time James accidentally got a skewer of chicken hearts in Thailand and wound up with unwanted attention from amused locals. Maybe these fried dumplings are good enough to elicit stares. I would certainly swap them for my usual granola bar breakfast.

Yang’s Fry Dumpling * 54 Wujiang Lu, Shanghai, China


1/2  Maybe it’s just because I got back from Shanghai and I’m now sensitive to the subject, but all of a sudden I’m seeing mentions about Shanghainese food in NYC (Eating in Translation, Village Voice and Chowhound) when I don’t recall them before. It’s not a cuisine I’ve delved into much, my one bad fish finger experience at New Green Bo eons ago might have been my only exposure.

So, I wasn’t gung ho on the local grub in Shanghai, though I’ll admit I was swayed by every single description published anywhere calling it “sweet and oily.” Those minor pejoratives are totally positives to me.

Our first night in Shanghai was our only meal of that style and I regret that now. Technically, Whampoa Club, our last supper was upscale Shanghainese but we tried a Beijing-style tasting menu. Kind of wrong-headed, I guess.

Right after checking in at our hotel, we got out the maps and started our leisurely quest to find Jishi. Meandering through the balmy, mostly leafy, occasionally construction-wracked (all of China is covered in dust and littered with cranes, it seems) French Concession, I was already liking Shanghai better than frequently exhausting Beijing. Maybe we lucked out neighborhood-wise because nearly everywhere I had on my Shanghai to-eat list was under 20 minutes on foot while in Beijing we were near historic sites like the Forbidden City, but it took at least 20 minutes by cab to get anywhere of culinary interest.

I was also happy to see the place was still jumping at 9pm, our table up the narrow staircase, was the only one open. We’d made reservations everywhere since all my research indicted this was an absolute must, but it didn’t really turn out to be the case anywhere. There were always open tables and most restaurants didn’t even ask if we’d reserved. The only exception to this were the higher end restaurants, which still weren’t full to capacity, but it did seem that our seats were primer than those allotted to walk-ins. I’d heard about the Shanghainese dialect, and I think we were hearing it shouted from the frenetic young waiters running up and down the stairs, squeezing between chairs all night. The weirdest thing was the row of knocked crooked black and white photos of NYC on one wall. I never thought I’d be eating Chinese eels while staring at a BQE Cadman Plaza exit sign.

I’ve learned enough from Asia travel that upscale is frequently disappointing. Chinese-only hole in the wall isn’t necessarily better. Humble, home-style, one of those H’s is what usually delivers, places with imperfect English translations and picture menus. This was absolutely the case with Jishi. At least I think this clamorous, bi-level restaurant was called Jishi. The sign out front actually read Jesse, and I’ve seen it referred to as both. To complicate matters there seems to be another branch called Xinjishi. James’s guide book (he bought Lonely Planet, I bought Time Out and then left mine at Face Bar during a mid-afternoon gin and tonic pit stop the second day in Shanghai, which really enervated me because we both agreed that mine was the better reference) pegged this original location as the “foodie” one, which meant nothing to me until I saw Xinjishi, which is sleek, more sterile and in tourist-heavy Xintiandi. I would say Jishi is more “local” as opposed to the F word.


If this braised pork belly didn’t epitomize sweet and oily, I don’t know what would. (I might also add rice wine as a distinctive flavor.) Perfect, and it reinforced that yes, I do love sugary soy and mouthfuls of unctuous fat. I still haven’t had a chance to go grocery shopping since getting back, and I’m completely starving thinking about this pork. I have to review a Chilean and Peruvian restaurant in the next two days, when I really want to seek out Shanghainese red cooked pork.


I don’t remember the exact description of this dish but “eel shreds” were mentioned. I thought that might be dried shredded fish but it was bits of eel. Yes, this was also oily, as well as strongly flavored with minced garlic.


I swear this edamame preserved vegetable mix was dressed with melted butter. That doesn’t sound very Chinese, but it was certainly tasty, especially spiked lightly with chiles.

Jishi * 41 Tianping Lu, Shanghai, China

Southern Barbarian

One of my vacation dining goals was to sample as many regional cuisines as I could, and preferably ones not available in NYC (though my Sichuan bent got the better of me and I ended up eating it more than once even though I can get it here). Southern Barbarian, a slightly atypical Shanghai restaurant serving Yunnan food, was the source of one of my more memorable meals. Though to be annoyingly nonpartisan, I didn’t really eat anything unmemorable or even unlikable, with the exception of a few standard issue hotel breakfasts, melon slices and a shao bing that tasted like baking soda.

Yunnan province borders Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam so you might expect more Southeast Asian ingredients that typical Chinese ones. What I found didn’t really adhere strictly to any of those countries.


Maybe I’ve been in New York too long because I expect even the blahest of restaurants to be busy. There were only three other tables occupied when we arrived at Southern Barbarian at 8:30pm Halloween night. However, we did seem to eat late by Chinese standards. We tried scaling back our more typical 9pm to 8pm (two out of four nights in Beijing were a bust—I was so tired that I fell asleep before 8pm and I’m still steamed that I missed two potential dinners) but I think 6pm is more standard.


One of the only unfortunate things about China was that I didn’t know anyone. Socializing wasn’t so critical, but sharing food would’ve been a boon. Two people can only eat so much and I can’t justify ordering lots and nibbling little even when pricing is extremely gentle. At most places we settled on two entrees and one appetizer. At Southern Barbarian we went a little overboard with broad beans with Yunnan ham, potato pancake, salt and pepper cheese, beef with chile and mint and grilled chicken, and somehow still managed to eat everything. I would've loved to try the dumplings and cross the bridge noodles (spelled/translated various ways) but that would've been ridiculous.


James was scared of Chinese goat cheese (I was scared of the dish with honeybees), but there was no way I was ignoring it. Fried cheese? Come on. The thin barely crispy squares were very mild, un-goaty, and dusted with tingly Sichuan pepper.


It was decided that chile powder coated beef on toothpicks would fit in at a Super Bowl party. We’ll try to replicate it come February. Strange as it sounds, a lot of this food, including their vast selection of barbecued meats, wouldn’t be out of place on a menu of bar snacks. Keeping with the pubby theme, they also have a very un-Chinese collection of imported craft beers in bottles. We had to ask for Brooklyn Lager because we’re hokey.


“I don’t think this is Chinese food,” James commented. I could see his point with the broad beans and Yunnan ham, which strongly resembled thick split pea soup on a plate. What he meant was that he thought the chef was taking liberties. I didn’t believe there was nothing nouveau going on. We were told by the owner (one of the most fluent English speakers we encountered in a restaurant) that everything was home-style, not the sort of things you’d find in a restaurant in Yunnan, and that sounded reasonable to me.


Maybe that’s why I liked everything so much; starchy and fried is my thing. If I had a few more days in China, I definitely would’ve tried another Yunnan restaurant for comparison.

Southern Barbarian * 2/F Area E, Ju’Roshine Life Arts Space, 56 Maoming Lu, Shanghai, China

China: KFC & Pizza Hut

Yes, strange that I would start my China restaurant recaps with Pizza Hut. I really intended to steer clear of western food, I swear, but curiosity eventually got the better of me. Pizza Hut and KFC (both Yum! Brands) definitely seemed to be the dominant US chains in China. You might think of McDonald’s or Starbucks as the global evils, but pan pizza and fried chicken are prevailing in that corner of the world.


KFC got the better of me while killing time in the Beijing airport, which is far from a fun way to spend two afternoons (Singapore’s Changi airport is completely engaging but I’ve never needed to hang around for lengths of time). Though I later saw ads for buckets, simple fried chicken didn’t seem to be the attraction. All the combo meals were focused on sandwiches and wraps, and crunchy breaded cutlets between buns appeared to be the snack of choice. As English was non-existent on signage or spoken by staff, James pointed at a random picture and that’s the combo we split.


The bonanza entailed the popular chicken sandwich, four drummettes/wings, a creepy mayonnaisey vegetable salad that I didn’t taste out of fear and lack of cutlery and what tasted like orange Tang. I don’t really eat at KFC in the US so I can’t accurately compare the two. I don’t think extra crispy is our default, though.


I intended to get two egg tarts for dessert and somehow ended up with four. As far as miscommunications went, this was a fairly minor and tasty mishap. The little custardy pies are served warm and were way better than a fast food apple pie (yes, I’m mixing up my chain desserts).


Malls, each with a unique name and different stores, can span multiple blocks connected by overpasses and underground walkways. The only inevitable commonality are the KFCs and Pizza Huts. I only meant to peek at the Pizza Hut menu posted outside a corner location (there was also a Papa John’s nearby, but I’ve never been to one and didn’t think I should start in Shanghai). But after seeing appetizers like escargots and catching a glimpse of the slightly upscale interior, I had to try one of their seafood pizzas, no way around it.


I haven’t eaten inside a Pizza Hut in years (though I did briefly work in a drive-thru only one in college) so maybe they’ve fancified here too. Chinese Pizza Huts are more of a full service restaurant with soups, pastas and light jazz tinkling in the background.


I wasn’t bold enough to start with escargots, the New Orleans wings gave me pause; it was the cumin lamb meatballs that won me over. I just wasn’t expecting the cold marina-style dipping sauce that came on the side.


Because I’m a grotesque American (despite attracting a 98% Asian clientele, we got nasty looks through the window by some young white folks. I really don’t get the big deal. No one ever takes issue with Japanese chains like Yoshinoya or Coco Curry House that were all over the place. I wouldn’t have a problem if someone from China wanted to try mediocre Chinese food in NYC) I ordered the most expensive pizza (around $8) from their Gourmet Line. This doozy contained smoked salmon, shrimp and squid and was drizzled with creamy wasabi sauce.


Lacking any Italian-ness whatsoever in my DNA, cheese paired with seafood doesn’t bother me in the least. And sure, the dairy and spiciness dominated but the mix of flavors was strangely compelling.

KFC * Beijing Capital International Airport, Beijing, China
Pizza Hut * Metro City, 1111 Zhaojiabang Lu, Shanghai, China