This past week has been one of exceptions, and I feel that I should own up right away even if I am, as I type, trying to make up for the indulgences by eating a healthy (but delicious) home-cooked meal of tofu and zucchini and mushrooms on brown rice. First off: I ate out for dinner every day between last Wednesday and Sunday — five nights in a row! I attribute this to Sean being away (though at least I ate with friends and not alone) and my mom and grandmother visiting this past long weekend.
Because of the latter, I also broke my nearly three-month streak of meatlessness. My family came up to see me, yes, but also for the food, and in a city known for xiaolongbao (which we actually didn’t end up having) and hongshaorou, this meant that meat had to be on the table. And that I had to partake, because there was no way my mom and grandma would’ve been able to try (and finish) everything, or enjoyed their meals or my company, if I had stubbornly stuck to the greens. But! I have no regrets, because after the hiatus — and knowing another one would begin shortly — I was able to fully and consciously savour what I was eating, rather than take it for granted as I might’ve done if meat were still an everyday occurrence.
I’d heard about how one loses one’s taste for meat after going without it for a while, and was curious if that had happened to me. No sirree — that stuff is delicious as ever, especially as we’d made it a point to seek out some of the best in town.
Lest I be thought of as a hypocrite, I want to mention that I never called myself vegetarian or resolved to permanently abstain from meat. I did stay meatless for more than 12 weeks, and I’m pretty happy with myself for that, for succeeding in keeping myself full and energized for that long with veggies and eggs and soy and grains (and the occasional muffin, of course). The meals I had with my mom and grandma were — along with the added value of eating with loved ones — that much more meaningful and enjoyable because I saw them as a treat, rather than a cheat (or, worse, a fail). Negative words only serve to create bad feelings that kill motivation and weaken the will…
But enough blabbing. Let’s talk about the food.
Friday night at Fu 1039
A beautiful restored villa hidden in a quiet alley off Yuyuan Road, Fu 1039 was the perfect place to take my mom and grandma for our first dinner together. (I’d taken them to Xiaoyang Shengjian for lunch without having any myself, so I was pretty excited for this meal.) Entering the grounds through a garden complete with a deck, I felt as though we were going to a private dinner party. We were there early with a 5:30pm reservation, likely the first “guests” of the evening, and since we were only three, we got one of the few smaller tables in the dining room closest to the entrance.
The interior was clean, spacious if a little sparsely furnished, dark wood and white walls and art on the walls. The menu was generous but not overwhelming in its selection. We ordered a bunch of appetizers — Shanghainese cuisine’s strongest suit, in my opinion — to start.
Lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice in osmanthus syrup: a mouthful of a name, but a delicious mouthful and my first love upon arriving in this city. This was done decently, though the lotus could’ve been steamed a tad longer to fully remove the crunch. The kaofu was lightly flavoured, which was refreshing, but in place of the peanuts could have used more wood ear.
The drunken chicken, presented with a mound of shaved ice to keep it nice and cold, was excellent: the wine was sweet, the meat tender. The key, I think, is not to let the wine overpower. The crispy eel, which actually came near the end, was deep-fried into crunchy sweet-and-tangy fries (sort of like pork rinds) — the only time I’ve had yellow eel and not been disgusted, which is saying a lot.
The smoked fish was the clear winner of the appetizers. It looked a bit dry and overdone at first glance, but one bite through its crispy, sweet-and-savoury skin into the moist, juicy flesh reassured me that dianping.com reviews can indeed be trusted. It was fatty like salmon but entirely absent of that “fishy” taste. This was perfectly executed and generously portioned.
We also had a napa cabbage with morel mushrooms, which was nice and light, although the expensive morels, which probably made up 80 of the dish’s 88 RMB price tag, tasted rather plain to me.
What was worth every kuai, though, was the similarly priced hongshaorou, which I am certain every table ordered, because we saw a pretty constant stream of those ample ceramic pots parading past our dining room. This “red-braised” pork belly was to-die-for: a perfect ratio of meat to fat to skin and a sweet and savoury sauce that was deep-flavoured but not cloying or overly oily. ‘Twas divine with a bit of rice.
At 7 o’clock, the soothing sounds of live piano music drifted into the room. It was a welcome addition to our dining experience since the room at times felt a bit too quiet.
I suppose Shanghainese cuisine is sweet enough not to warrant an extensive and well developed array of desserts, since we had to dance around the heavily Cantonese menu to find a few more “unique” dishes: glutinous rice dumpling in fermented rice wine (酒酿圆子), red date glutinous rice cake (枣泥拉糕), and a radish pastry (which — along with a ham pastry and a seaweed pastry — our server insisted was sweet, but turned out to be savoury), none of which were particularly memorable, but perhaps because we were already full to bursting by that point.
All in all, we had a very pleasant dinner, and the ambiance and presentation only added to our experience at the table. While not all the dishes were perfect, there were enough that were completely on point and the entire meal was a remarkably non-oily affair. Most importantly, my grandma, who nitpicks with her sky-high standards almost every time we eat out, also enjoyed the meal, which came to 528RMB.
My only grumbles would be the minimum spend of 150RMB/person excluding tea/drinks (we found ourselves ordering more food than we needed just to make the count), our not-so-knowledgeable server, and the uncomfortable feeling of being watched most of the time, even if it did mean more-attentive-and-less-snotty-than-average service.
Overall, Fu 1039 is probably the best — though fittingly, also the most expensive — experience of Shanghainese food I’ve had here (think solid offerings in a calm, relaxed atmosphere), and I’m glad to have shared it with family. At this price range, though, it might be a while before I’ll be back.
Fu 1039 (福 1039)
1039 Yuyuan Road, near Jiangsu Lu
(Walk down the lane and enter through the garden on your left)
(21) 5237-1878 (Reservations highly recommended)
(Meeaatt! Pt. II – Stiller’s – Stay tuned.)