A pot of jasmine tea overlooking the Yangtze river; a beer after a trip round a former abattoir; and dinner in a restaurant in a former early 20th century villa with 17 separate dining rooms and space for a full-size snooker table provided contrasting settings on a recent trip I made to taste the continually evolving food of Shanghai.
My tea companion at M on the Bund, which has provided the glamorous location for many meals since the Australian Michelle Garnaut had the foresight to open here in 1999, was the elegant and knowledgeable Lynn Pan. Born in Shanghai in the 1940s, Pan is one of only a handful of women left who have a comprehensive view of her city’s food, on which she holds strong opinions.
“I can tell you right away what the best Shanghainese food isn’t,” she told me firmly. “It isn’t oily, over-sweet or too salty. I think that these are all myths that have been perpetuated by the Cantonese. But our food is different, partly because of the proximity to the sea and I think it has a lot in common with Japan. Unlike most Chinese we really enjoy cold first courses and we use seaweed, for example, in several dishes. There is a very strong emphasis on fish and shellfish.
“There are two other important factors. The first is that Shanghai has seen a continuous wave of immigrants who have brought their own dishes with them which have subsequently been subsumed as our own. We had a cook once who thought that borscht and curried chicken were Shanghainese but the former arrived with the White Russians and the second with the British. The other point is that this city has always focused on the future because its past has been so painful.”
Pan’s opinions resonated as I sat down with Australian chef David Laris, who I had first met a decade ago when he had been in the vanguard of Australian chefs brought to London by Sir Terence Conran. Having opened Mezzo in Soho to great success, Laris was lured to Shanghai by the developers behind 3 on the Bund, directly opposite M on the Bund, which now houses Laris, Jean-Georges and the Whampoa Club restaurants.
“I arrived in 2003 with my wife, daughter and a fair bit of debt,” Laris explained with a smile, “but my timing could not have been better. Restaurants in China, and Shanghai in particular, have been developing very quickly but there is a great deal of money chasing not that many ideas.”
As a result, Laris today has a staff of more than 200, mainly in his restaurant. This includes six consultants who are working with him on a hotel project led by Swire in Beijing, opening later this year, as well as on the transformation of the building “1933” ten minutes from the Bund. A former concrete abattoir built in the round by British engineers and finally opened in 1933, it will over the coming year emerge as a mixed space. It will house a theatre, retail outlets, showrooms and a restaurant and bar on the top floor which Laris’s vivid imagination will transform into a steak house with, he promises, lots of 1950s Hollywood glamour.
Laris has also developed a café, Slice, and an extraordinary chocolate business in which five of the six chocolatiers he now employs are deaf; he plans to formalise this arrangement, possibly by setting up a charitable trust to help deaf people working in the industry. Speaking about his work in China Laris said, “My consultancy role really keeps me on the edge which is what I love about it … As someone who has been a chef for the past 20 years I can lead and inspire by example.”
Certainly, my meal at his restaurant reinforced the opinion of a hedge fund manager based in Shanghai that Laris was the most consistent high-end restaurant in the city. It combines several distinct eating areas including a long seafood bar where I enjoyed two dishes that had immediately caught my eye: a soup of lime, lemon and lily root with a serving of frogs’ legs followed by abalone, a great favourite with the Chinese, here served in the style of an Austrian wiener schnitzel – flattened, breaded and fried with capers and lemon.
Dinner also included a conversation with Jason Oakley, Laris’s American head chef, who explained some of the particular pleasures of cooking in Shanghai. “We can get the most wonderful red clams, eels and frogs’ legs, kingfish, turbot and live hamachi (yellowtail tuna). Vegetables are not that great on the whole because of the high pollution in the soil but it is a big advantage being relatively close to the Caspian and the source of caviar. Whenever, the local stock market jumps five to ten per cent we do sell a lot more caviar.”
This modern face of the city seemed far more distant than the 15-minute taxi ride from our hotel near the Bund to the narrow entrance to Fu 1088 in the former British quarter, where we were greeted by four doormen.
But then this was one of the most remarkable restaurants I have ever eaten in. Opened six months ago, Fu 1088 is a conversion of what must have been a remarkably spacious private villa. This has been done not only in keeping with the building’s past but also a great deal of attention to the history of Shanghai’s food.
Each former room has now been converted into a private dining room which can seat between two and 12 in the larger rooms under the roof. As well as the magnificent restored dark wooden hallway and staircase, each room also contains some well-restored or new replica furniture such as couches, chairs, coat stands and dressing tables with mirrors. One of the larger rooms even houses a piano.
There was definitely an air of expectancy and excitement among our group as we entered – heightened, in my case, by the presence of a large menu full of Shanghainese dishes, described in Mandarin and English.
Among the first courses were deep fried fish in sweet soy sauce; crisp eel strips in sweet chilli sauce which proved highly popular with someone who had not dared to try eel before, and chilled cucumber with soybeans in a spicy, sour sauce. Then steamed river shad with ham; sautéed Ba Bao, a mixed meat dish with spicy soy sauce; and dark cubes of pork in a thick, delicious sauce. As Pan had said, none of this was oily or overly sweet.
As we left, only the realisation that we had eaten so well prevented us from thinking we had just walked off a film set.