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As the blossom on the magnolia trees heralds spring in Shanghai, the army of expats who have come to further their careers in this city indulge in a more altruistic pastime: discussing where visitors can enjoy the most authentic food.
At M on the Bund’s Glamour Bar I sat debating this subject with two Americans, a Frenchman and Michelle Garnaut, the Australian restaurateur who established this gem in 1999. I had proposed a return trip to Yong Yi Ting in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, where I had enjoyed excellent dim sum the day before, but was politely ignored. Another member of our party suggested Xibo, which specialises in lamb, flatbreads and the cooking of northwest China; another proposed Xindalu in the Hyatt for Beijing duck; and the names of several more local places were bandied about.
There was a brief discussion of the issues that still preoccupy even those who have lived here for years – how, for example, certain venues with great food can be let down by poor service and hygiene – before Garnaut turned to me and said: “You ought to try the Shanghai dumplings at Din Tai Fung.”
We set off to one of the city’s many shopping malls, my interest piqued. I had heard nothing but exemplary comments about the Din Tai Fung group, which originated in Taiwan but has spread to many cities on the Pacific Basin, garnering its reputation for great food, rigorous staff training and scrupulous cleanliness.
I immediately witnessed two elements of this approach as we joined the queue for a table at 7.30pm on a Sunday. To my left, behind glass, a dozen chefs were intently making the xiaolongbao for which this company is famous. Filled with various diced meats and fish, and a small amount of soup, the dumplings require 18 pleats in their outer skin for authenticity and are a labour of love and dexterity.
I stood transfixed until I was tapped on the elbow by a member of the reception team, bearing a tray of cups filled with jasmine tea. This, and the section on the comment card we were given at the end of the meal asking us to mark, inter alia, the quality of the staff’s smiles, were examples of a well-thought-out approach to service.
The food was just as good. The dumplings were delicious (and not served so hot that they burnt your mouth); spicy wontons were equally tasty and best of all was a dish of bean curd topped with diced hairy crab – a Shanghainese delicacy. There was, however, one factor that reminded me of London: the very high number of tables where French was being spoken.
The following lunchtime at Rui Fu Yuan, near the Intercontinental Ruijin, I was the only westerner, as well as being a lot younger than most of the Chinese customers.
Initially opened as a People’s Dining Hall more than 40 years ago, Rui Fu Yuan eventually became a restaurant in the late 1990s. It is still government-owned, prompting my Shanghainese friend to joke that “there won’t be a service charge, because there isn’t much service”.
This proved slightly harsh, since our waitress continued to smile as we turned over the numerous pages of the menu that, happily, came with better-than-average photos of the food – and from which we constructed a most satisfying meal.
We began with large pork buns, crisp underneath and topped with sesame seeds; a plate of tiny, peeled shrimps; a large casserole of soup with a fillet of the freshwater fish yellow croaker and dumplings; and finely diced eel that had the sweet overtones the Shanghainese crave. My nemesis came with the crab, which was brought to the table alive in a red plastic bucket before being deep-fried. Picking up the creature – still in its shell – with chopsticks and then attempting to suck out the flesh was beyond me.
My last stop was the most sought after. Despite a plethora of new and high-profile restaurant openings, one of the few places where a booking is essential at least a month in advance, even for lunch, is Jesse Restaurant in the former French Concession. A tiny and nondescript-looking place, it has four tables on a lower-ground level and a further eight up a staircase.
But the flavours of the extremely varied food are sensational. An unctuous rendition of braised pork belly, Shanghai-style; a clear broth stuffed with wild mushrooms; small, peeled peas sautéed with diced ham; and, Jesse’s speciality, the head of a large white fish roasted under diced vegetables. This was stunning Shanghainese food – albeit in an ordinary setting.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
Din Tai Fung
Shanghai Portland Outlet, Unit 104A, Shanghai Centre 1376, Nanjing West Road, +86 6289 9182;
Rui Fu Yuan
132 South Maoming Road, +86 6445 8999
41 Tian Ping Road, +86 6282 9260