The Shanghainese have a reputation among their compatriots for snootiness, but when it comes to food, it’s others who have the superiority complex. “Shanghainese food is just too sweet,” is the usual refrain. At its best, however, Shanghainese cooking, a blend of influences from Hangzhou, Suzhou, Ningbo and other places, can be superb, and there’s no better place to try it than at Fu 1088, which opened in 2007 and continues to amaze with the quality of its cooking and its period charm.
Dining here is like attending a party in an Eileen Chang novel. Pull up outside a 1920s Spanish-style mansion in what was once Shanghai’s International Settlement, and you’ll be led through wood-panelled halls with tile-patterned floors to a private room decked out in early 20th-century style (there is no shared dining space). You might end up in a grand dining room with antique clocks on the mantelpiece, or a bedroom under the eaves – the smallest room seats two, the largest up to 40. At certain hours, your arrival will be accompanied by music drifting up from the grand piano downstairs.
The food lives up to the thrill of the atmosphere. The kitchen, led by local chef Tony Lu, offers a selection of traditional dishes from Shanghai and its surrounding region, beautifully executed, with some more modern concoctions (such as pork ribs in cocoa sauce). On a recent visit, we chose mainly from the local offerings, beginning with delectable tea-smoked duck eggs; a Ningbo-style dish of juicy little Shanghai greens with shiitake mushrooms; crisp, soy-sweet fried fish; vegetarian “goose” made from beancurd skin stuffed with dried mushrooms; and a stuffed lotus root that was sweet but not cloying.
Almost every part of China has a local version of red-braised pork, and in Shanghai they like it dense and syrupy. Here, the chunks of belly pork, served on bamboo shoots in a black clay pot, were fei er bu ni (richly fat without being greasy, as the Chinese phrase has it), clothed in a sumptuously reduced sauce and totally irresistible, especially when eaten with some plain steamed rice. We also ordered reeves shad (a meaty fish that was once a Yangtze delicacy, now mostly imported), steamed in its scales for enhanced succulence, with slivers of dark Jinhua ham, bamboo shoots and fermented glutinous rice, the whole providing a magnificent umami kick.
The rich stock bathing our beancurd skin with salt pork was a delicate natural colour, and delicious without the use of MSG. Tender alfalfa shoots (cao tou), a seasonal vegetable, were stir-fried the traditional way with a dash of grain spirits. From the list of dumplings and other titbits, we choose sweet flaky pastries stuffed with tai tiao seaweed.
There is only one irritating thing about Fu 1088, and that is the minimum CNY300 (£29.50) spend on food per person at the evening sitting. The amount itself is more than reasonable for food of this quality, but unless you order the more expensive dishes featuring shark’s fin, bird’s nest and other Chinese delicacies – which don’t excite most westerners – you’ll be hard-pushed to reach this threshold, even with fairly greedy ordering. Another older branch in the same district, Fu 1039, has no minimum spend, shared dining spaces as well as private rooms and similarly atmospheric surroundings, but the food doesn’t quite have the finesse of Fu 1088.
Fu 1088, 375 Zhenning Lu, Changning District, Shanghai; +86 21 5239 7878; Fu 1039, 1039 Yuyuan Road, Changning District, Shanghai; +86 21 5237 1878