Tucking into his Hangzhou-style stewed duck and duck tongue, my companion, who was born and bred in Shanghai, explained: “In this city we cook our ingredients rather simply but we then spend a lot of time around the table discussing and enjoying them. It’s the opposite in Beijing.”
We were having lunch at Le Patio & La Famille. I had tried to book for 8.30pm but was told that 7pm was the latest reservation they would accept. I then switched to lunch and asked for a 1.30pm reservation. No, came the response, noon is the latest. Expecting to walk into an empty restaurant, I was surprised that ours was the last but one table to be occupied.
Le Patio & La Famille has been in business for just over six years — a long time in this fast-moving city. It occupies the ground floor of what was once an office. The front half, where we sat, is old-fashioned, to put it bluntly. Long white tablecloths, table lamps and high-backed, padded chairs make for a comfortable setting. Bricks dominate the back section, making it far noisier.
Waitresses wear green tunics, black skirts and numbers instead of names on their badges. Our waitress was No 11. The men dress in black and it was manager No 1 who took our order. Those who carry the food from the kitchen to the tables wear black caps, often at jaunty angles.
Notwithstanding its name, Le Patio & La Famille specialises in cooking from the Hangzhou region. For centuries Hangzhou has been considered heavenly for its wealth, the picturesque West Lake and, above all, its delicacies. As the Chinese saying goes: “Above, there is paradise; below, there is Suzhou and Hangzhou.”
We started with two contrasting dishes, both tagged in the menu with a chef’s hat as a particular recommendation. One was described as “roasted cuttlefish”, although no roasting was involved; the other was the traditional Hangzhou duck. Both showed off this brigade’s dexterity with their knives. Cooked in soy sauce, the cuttlefish had been chopped into wafer-thin slices and then reassembled on the plate; the duck had been prepared similarly. In everything we ate, chef Kevin Yang achieved the perfect balance between soy sauce and sugar.
We followed with deep-fried river shrimp, an elegant dish lifted by just the right dose of vinegar, and a rather more robust plate of fried crab with glutinous rice cakes (a dish highlighted on the menu by a joyful “thumbs up”). The crab could have kept us at the table all afternoon, happily chewing on the small pieces of meat and picking at the irresistible rice cakes.
We finished off with two more of the chef’s recommendations: bean-curd rolls with yellow fish, and bowls of West Lake watershield soup, both highly distinguished. The bean-curd rolls were crisp and golden and came with a clever cider dipping sauce, while the soothing soup was enhanced by fish balls and fresh leaves of water shield.
The bill came to Rmb940 (£107.50), including Rmb100 (£11.50) corkage for the delicious bottle of Emilio Lustau old oloroso sherry that my wine-loving companion had brought with him. It is a style of wine we both enjoy, and here it made a special addition to a meal of such contrasting flavours and textures. “Quite simply,” my friend explained, “it removes the hassle of switching from white to red and back again, which is so often the challenge with a Chinese meal.”
After lunch, I was interviewed by a reporter from a Chinese lifestyle magazine about what it takes to do my job. My response was: to have a good appetite; an innate curiosity; an ability to write enthusiastically; and, perhaps most important, a collection of friends in cities around the world, who can point me in the direction of interesting restaurants.
Michelle Garnaut is to be thanked for this particular recommendation. Australian by birth, she moved to Shanghai to open M on The Bund 25 years ago, when she was one of very few outsiders to recognise the city’s potential. Le Patio & La Famille, just round the corner from her restaurant, came with her seal of approval.
Now it comes with mine, as well — my advice to anyone visiting Shanghai is to book at Le Patio & La Famille. But go early.
Le Patio & La Famille
216 Middle Sichuan Road, Huangpu District, Shanghai; +86 21 6323 1797
More articles from Nicholas at ft.com/lander
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