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Sizzling Shanghai

Sizzling Shanghai
by Sandi Butchkiss

Shanghai brings new meaning to the word fusion...
In its cuisine, design, style, architecture and sensibility

Awarded as a prize of the Opium Wars, the victors blithely carved up 19th century Shanghai into three distinct chunks. Radically diverse in every way, there was the French Concession (guarded by the Vietnamese), the British/American International Settlement (watched over by grandly turbaned Sikhs) and, of course, the sprawling Chinese quarter. Each sector was a complete entity with its own laws, police forces, public transport and post offices. Incredibly, these separate enclaves self-governed and coexisted for many decades. So peaceable was this peculiarly partitioned arrangement that both foreigners and wealthy Chinese indulged (and over-indulged) in a virtual non-stop party endowing the 1920’s and 30’s with a seductive allure as none other. Travelers seeking to dip into this rich confection flocked to its shores. Without question, the glamour and sophistication of those silken days of “joy and gin” were unrivaled, not only in Asia, but the world.

Then, suddenly, the Japanese invasion blew out Shanghai’s glittering lights. In a heartbeat, its excessively lush life came to an abrupt and disastrous end. Following their brutal incarceration, the high-living Europeans and modern-minded Americans were forced to abandon their gorgeous mansions and flee the country. The remaining inhabitants were subsequently to suffer the cruel regime of Mao. Yet, not only did Shanghai muster the strength and fortitude to survive these wrenching upheavals, it emerged victorious.

Today the city is every bit as dynamic and switched-on as it ever was, with a renewed vitality, optimism and energy that must be experienced to be believed. It achieved this enviable status without losing its true culture or cutting away its roots. With all its current fashionable flair, towering skyscrapers, pulsating financial district and sleek designer shopping malls, its heart is still very much Chinese.

Blocks upon blocks of its magnificent architecture were savagely demolished during Mao’s “Cultural” Revolution, and the wanton destruction continued, this time in the name of progress. Thankfully, in the last few years, a handful of visionary souls stepped in and had the government declare scores of buildings “heritage sites’ which are now protected. Warehouses and factories along Suzhou Creek, instead of being thoughtlessly torn down by “developers,” have been reinvented into numerous artist’s studios and galleries. Many will say it was too little too late. And the wrecking ball still hangs overhead. Nevertheless, even without a rickshaw in sight, plenty of old world charm and character remain to let you know you are in China’s most populous and fascinating metropolis; a city steeped in history.

A wonderful place to start getting a feel for what it was like in its heyday is to take a walk on The Bund. As you stroll along the boulevard fronting the Huangpu River, take a peek into the old Peace Hotel. Right now this faded beauty is being renovated, but you can glimpse what it was. Let’s hope they leave the ubiquitous Lalique wall sconces and lighting fixtures in the upstairs ballroom and hallways intact. Moving along, past an impressive row of imposing, British-built, Concession-era buildings (among them one of the very first Hong Kong Shanghai banks), you soon arrive at the city’s foremost temple to haute cuisine; world-class in every aspect, and appropriately named, M on the Bund. The M stands for Michelle Garnaut, the dynamic Australian restaurateur who opened Hong Kong’s famed foodie heaven, M at the Fringe, back in 1988.

The award-winning M on The Bund was a brave pioneer in its oldy worldy building,. On the top two floors of a colonial trading house, you can do as Richard Branson, Rupert Murdoch, Gong Li, Daryl Hannah and a host of other celebrities and dignitaries have done before you. Lean back and enjoy the vast open-air terrace with its drop-dead vista of The Bund and the contrasting ultra-modern, Star Trek-esque skyline of Pudong across the river.

The menu is consistently superlative, from its innovative ways with Beluga and foie gras to its signature recipes of roast suckling pig, the slow-cooked, salt-encased leg of lamb and some truly outstanding desserts. It’s still the hot spot for the in-crowd. But “M’s” reams of enthusiastic press coverage and scores of culinary kudos (tops in Zagat and voted one of the world’s 100 best restaurants by Conde Nast Traveler) whet the appetites of entrepreneurial chefs from far and wide. And so, M on the Bund became the catalyst for the stylish food emporiums that followed, with Three on the Bund leading the pack. It opened it’s lavishly renovated neoclassical premises with Giorgio Armani’s flagship store, his largest in the world, on the ground floor. Layered story by story above the Italian designer and amid elegant art galleries and design shops, are Jean Georges, French super chef, Vongerichten’s eponymous Michael Graves-designed restaurant. Just above is the chic, old Shanghai-inspired, Art Deco Whampoa Club, with its superb regional fare prepared by its master innovative chef. Here you will dine on marvelous morsels served on yellow jade placemats atop green marble tables under glittering chandeliers. Finally, on the floor above, we reach the ultra cool, snow-white premises of Laris, named for Aussie-Greek chef David Laris.(“The food and clients provide the color here” he declares.) Laris worked in Hong Kong and last helmed London’s successful Mezzo for Terrance Conran before opening his much-lauded dining spot whose cuisine is every bit as bold and dramatic as the decor. Sensational starters like thick and flavorsome cauliflower and caviar soup and marvelous mains like five-spiced venison and the freshest seafood money can buy, keep his loyal following happy.

If you never strayed from this vintage corner of Shanghai with its quartet of incredible eateries, you certainly wouldn’t starve. But, you would miss a staggering range of memorable dining experiences.

It stands to reason that the city is awash with numbers of Shanghainese restaurants, yet 1221, with its aesthetically awesome presentation of dishes, each with its combination of clearly defined textures, flavors and aromas, has maintained its standards and popularity since day one. No clattering dishes or MSG on their premises.

Locals have been filling rambling old Bao Luo’s warren of tables virtually round the clock since it served its first bowl of noodles. It’s definitely a unique dining experience not to be missed.

And no trip would be complete unless you join the queue at Nanxiang in the delightful Yu Yuan Gardens for their legendary melt-in-the-mouth dumplings. I took my visiting New York cousins here and they polished off a myriad of these prized dumplings with such delectable fillings as crab roe, shredded pork, plump prawns, preserved vegetables and sauteed mushrooms, all in their extra special xiao long baozi “soup” versions. The fun is attempting to get the dumplings and liquid into your mouth at the same time. It’s a real crowd pleaser for those who have mastered the feat.

Even though it’s become quite touristy and uncomfortably crowded, you really must take a look-see at the two-square block complex of Xintiendi (it’s pronounced shin-tee-en-dee and means New Heaven on Earth). Hard to believe this hot spot, packed with eateries, coffee shops, bars, clubs, one-of-a-kind boutiques, cinemas, ice cream parlors and jazzy, high-fashion clothing stores, was until very recently, a pitifully rundown little neighborhood, depressingly filled with dilapidated tenements and plumbing-challenged back alleys.

Everything changed when its savior, Benjamin Wood, an American architect with vision and heart and perhaps a wee bit of profit motive, happened upon the area and saw how it could be. He joined with developers from Hong Kong, and saved, renovated, and faithfully preserved its original cobblestone lanes, brought back the old stone buildings to their former glory and breathed new life into a marvelous piece of old Shanghai. Ironically, it was on this very spot in a local meeting hall, over fifty years ago, that Chairman Mao held his infamous comrade koffee-klatch and formed his version of the Communist Party. The old meeting hall is now a little museum.

Jacky Chan recently got into the act and opened his popular Star East here. Nearby, award-winning Singaporean chef/restaurateur, Justin Quek picked a wonderful old building around the corner for his elegant La Platane. There’s an upscale brasserie serving comfort food on the ground floor, offering highly sophisticated gourmet delectables one flight up.

You can dig into some marvelously authentic Italian dishes at Hong Kong’s own Va Bene, and try the hip Asian-fusion specialties at the architecturally stunning T8. When Americans hanker for a bit of back-home cooking, they pig-out on state-of-the-art burgers, ribs and all the trimmings at KABB. Rise at dawn and fall into bed in the wee hours, and you’ll still be hard-pressed to squeeze it all in. But do set aside some time for Fuxing Park. This secluded setting is now home to a retinue of delicious dining options. Rave reviews have lured fashionable food-lovers to the double delight of Mesa/Manifesto. Come to this double-decked converted factory, a few blocks from Chou en Lai and Sun Yet Sen’s former homes, for such superb fusion specialties as harissa lamb pie with tzatziki salsa and the latter for their knock-out drinks. The frozen Margarita was perfection itself. And you simply must get a close-up of the fabulous Face. Situated on the manicured grounds of the old Ruijin Guest House, Face is in an impeccably restored old French villa, once home to the original owner’s mistress, so they say. Its sumptuously seductive environment provides luxurious opium-style beds where you can relax while awaiting your table. Upstairs you’ll find superb Thai cuisine, while downstairs, outside, under canvas tents, you can indulge in traditional Indian fare prepared with deliciously innovative touches.

This is just a taste of what foodies on the loose in Shanghai have on their plates. The incredible plethora of brilliant chefs producing a cornucopia of international gourmet fare certainly makes your head spin. Even as you read these words some establishments may have closed their doors, but a dozen more will have opened them. Decision, decisions, decisions.

Don’t panic. There’s no better place for making up your mind than over one of the killer Martinis up in the Grand Hyatt’s Cloud 9 Sky Lounge. Here, in the stratospheric heights of the 87th floor, atop the tallest hotel in the world, you can gaze out over all of Shanghai (hopefully the pollution won’t be too bad) as you ponder your plans for dinner.

Life should always be full of such dilemmas.

  • M on the Bund 20 Guangdong Lu, tel 86-21/6350 9988
  • Three on the Bund Jean-Georges, The Whampoa Club, Laris
  • 1221 Yan’an Xi Lu, 6213 6585.
  • Bao Luo 271 Fumin Road, 5403 7239.
  • Nanxiang Yu Yuan Gardens no reservations
  • Xintiendi Star East, T8, KABB 3307 0798
  • Venues in Fuxing Park 6318 0785
  • Mesa/Manifesto 748 Julu Lu 5403 7700
  • Face 118 Ruijin Er Lu (Ruijin Guest House) 6466 4328

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