Category Archives: restaurants – non-vegetarian

Vegetarians need not visit Cantonese Uncle (表叔)

I may have mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again: Cantonese and vegetarian don’t mix. Cantonese food, compared with probably all the other regional cuisines in China, is terribly vegetarian-unfriendly. Sure, there are the Buddhist vegetarian restaurants, but outside of those you are basically screwed. Tonight, the second time I’ve gone for Cantonese cha canting-style food since going off meat, was a disheartening reminder of that fact.

It used to be that whenever I was face-to-face with a menu at any Cantonese/Hong Kong style diner, my head would reel with indecision because everything looked so appealing: Char siu on rice? Greasy beef chow fun? Fujian fried rice? Soy sauce chicken? Hainanese chicken? Chicken congee? Curry beef brisket? One of each, please!

And that boring, overpriced plate of blanched lettuce/kai lan/choi sum that’s kind of a chore to eat but the only green item on the menu? I can go without if you can.

I grew up with this food (along with non-cha canting Canto cuisine), first as a tot in Hong Kong, then as an immigrant in uber-Cantonesey Vancouver, and then back in HK before I headed to Philadelphia for college, where I was able to get this stuff on the occasional trip to Chinatown (thank you Sang Kee). This food is a taste of home, a reminder of family, a source of comfort. It’s in my blood (perhaps literally).

I was brought up steeped in the food culture of one of the meat-lovingest regions on the planet, where roast duck and pork are ubiquitous but snake and cat and scorpion are all fair game, and the joy of eating revolves around meat. So it makes me very uneasy that my desire to positively contribute to the environment by rejecting meat necessitates a breaking away from this culture. Tonight at Uncle (表叔), a Guangzhou cha canting chain that recently made it to Shanghai (complete with Cantonese-speaking servers), I was faced with an inner conflict: the rational-ideological, that dutifully reminded me why I stopped eating meat, versus the cultural-emotional, that said HEY! This is home, this is what you love and crave. Are you sure you can give it up forever? Look, don’t these dishes all sound familiar and delicious?

They sounded familiar alright, but tonight I couldn’t dwell on their pleasurable properties. My eyes did not linger on the chicken and duck hanging by the window. Sean and I first scoured the extensive menu for savoury meatless dishes, which led us to a whopping three items under “Vegetables” and a plain cheung fun with hoisin/sesame suace. Then we looked for dishes we could “turn” vegetarian, and finally settled on a Fujian fried rice and a fried rice noodle, hold the meat. We don’t want meat. Is there shrimp in the rice? Put it on the side. Yes, talk to the cook.

The vibe at Uncle was casual and comforting, the toy model display of old-school Hong Kong buses and taxis endearing, but the food at this place wasn’t even great. The fried rice noodles, which looked crispy in the picture, was soaked in soy sauce and laden with strips of ham (c’mon, ham?!? if you’re going to ignore my request, at least do it right with shredded pork); the Fujian fried rice was over-salted and overloaded with squid, shrimp, and imitation crab; the pineapple bun was not crunchy or chewy (Tsui Wah still wins); and the greens in broth with preserved and salted egg was bland and one-dimensional — and topped with generic meat bits. The cheung fun was pretty good, though the sauces were watered down. Sean and I picked and danced our way around the meat, which likely made our friend at least slightly uncomfortable.

I dislike eating with picky eaters, but recently realized, to my horror, that I’ve become one myself. More so now than during any of my temporary diets in the past, I feel torn between my love of food — and the hearty, no-holds-barred meal– and the principles I’ve set up to guide my consumption. If we are what we eat, and eating meatlessly is shaping my current self, then my avoidance of the meat-centric food culture that has long been a part of me has also forged a dent in my identity. How much chipping away at a root before it can no longer hold up the tree?

Maybe I was just asking for trouble, dining at a Cantonese joint as a vegetarian. Thankfully there are other more veggie-friendly Chinese regional cuisines available in Shanghai, so I’ll let tofu and green beans and shredded potatoes keep me distracted until I visit my parents in Hong Kong this December…

Uncle (表叔茶餐厅)
456 Huichuan Lu near Kaixuan Lu
汇川路456号 近凯旋路
(21) 5273-6797


Filed under eating out, food news & issues, restaurants - non-vegetarian

A bad phone break-up with our neighbourhood Dongbei diner

I broke up with one of my favourite restaurants yesterday. I’d been collecting photos to write a positive review of this place, but what I already have will do for a farewell.

As Sean and I don’t eat out super often, there are few restaurants where we would be considered “regulars”. The one place we’ve found ourselves going back to again and again, and has in recent weeks become our Sunday night ritual, is a small Dongbei (Northeastern Chinese) restaurant at the back gate of East China Normal University, a pleasant 15-minute walk/5-minute bike ride from our apartment.

The love

Known for its jiaozi (dumplings) and other solid, cheap eats, Dong Bei Ren Jia (东北人家, a very generic name) is somewhat of an institution among nearby residents as well as current and former students at the university. Sean and I have written about it on CNNGo and I gushed about its caramelized sugar-coated sweet potato fritters in a long-ago post.

It used to be a tired, grubby place with a dozen or so tables and way too many bored-looking employees, but early this year, after its usual month-long Chinese New Year hiatus, half the space was turned into a fried chicken stall, while the other half was given a makeover, its staff and menu — including the fritters — trimmed and delivery made available.

We loved it for its homestyle dishes, cheap and delicious jiaozi (including 2 vegetarian varieties), and its reliable presence in the midst of constant change along the back gate food street. I’ve taken out-of-towners here despite its unimpressive decor. We had been devastated to hear a few months back that the food street was going to be demolished, but had been elated to learn the closures wouldn’t reach this restaurant. While its laoban (owner), a no-nonsense middle-aged woman who barks and spends most of the time reading a magazine at the cashier, is less than charming, we grew to appreciate her gruff manner as part of the experience. On one of our recent visits, she asked if we were vegetarian, and that’s when I thought, awesome, she recognizes us now! and began to get that fuzzy feeling of home: This had become our Chinese neighbourhood diner.

This past Sunday, we decided to try out their delivery since I wanted to make a cold appetizer at home. As free delivery requires a minimum 30 RMB order, we ordered 4 dozen jiaozi — 2 dozen chive & egg, 2 dozen zucchini & egg — for 32 RMB. The dumplings arrived, hit the spot; our love for the place grew.

The break-up

Then yesterday. I’d taken the day off to rest up at home, and we were both in the mood for jiaozi even though we’d had them just three days ago. I called up the place at 11:30am, but was told that they couldn’t deliver to our apartment since the laoban‘s son wasn’t around. Sean agreed to bike over to pick up the 4 dozen dumplings, so I told them fine, I’ll come pick it up.

Ten minutes after Sean left for the restaurant, I got a call from the laoban, demanding to know why I wasn’t there yet and if I was coming ’cause the food was getting cold. Puzzled, since I’d assumed Sean would’ve arrived by then, I told them “Will be there soon”. I called Sean immediately after hanging up, and he said he’d just picked up the food. Cool.

A few minutes later, I got a call back from the woman, who immediately started yelling at me. She asked if I’d sent a “foreign student” to come pick up the dumplings, and I said yes. Why didn’t you tell me on the phone?? You didn’t say you were sending a foreigner to get your food so we made another 4 dozen for you. Now we have 4 dozen jiaozi that’s going to go to waste. What kind of customer are you??

A bit confused — how did she not have a clue that Sean was there to pick up the food I’d ordered? — and not knowing how to fight back, I took a deep breath and simply said Sorry.

Which unleashed another round of barking that made it seem as if I had tricked her into cooking a duplicate order. Feeling personally attacked at this point, I told her her attitude was bad and I was never going back there again… to which she snapped, It doesn’t matter if you don’t come back. The point is you made me waste all this food.

To that, I suggested that she serve the food to someone else, and hung up.

This was outrageous. How likely was it that two different parties had placed the exact same (vegetarian, no less) order at the same time? She had misinterpreted the situation, given him “my” dumplings that were ready to go, then called me to ask if I was still coming before I knew Sean had already been there and left, and when I told her “will be there soon” had started making another batch. A communication mix-up that could’ve easily been avoided if she’d checked with Sean — or asked me straight out if I’d sent a “foreign student” — before doing anything with the food. (Sean told me later that he had told her “I ordered” not “I want to order” so it wasn’t even a language problem.)

And really, what kind of business would call a regular customer (I’m sure she figured out who were were) and scream at them, and then basically tell them I don’t want your business? Maybe I hadn’t been clear on the phone, but it was she who made the mistake, so why not swallow the loss rather than end the relationship over 32 RMB (which really could be salvaged if she fed the food to someone else)?

Perhaps that — her lack of business and common sense — is the reason half her store got taken over by a fried chicken take-out. Dongbei diner, it was lovely getting dinner with you, but you’ve given me no choice but to look elsewhere for my dumpling fix. I’ve ripped up your delivery menu and deleted your number so I won’t be tempted to call, and won’t be coming ’round to your parts again ’til I’m in love with another.

Bulldozer, come get ’em if you want.


Filed under eating out, restaurants - non-vegetarian

A cool stop on a warm day: Bellagio (鹿港小镇)

The first time I ate at Bellagio was for lunch on an unexpectedly warm Christmas Eve, my first in Shanghai. When my friend Jen texted me the name and address of this place, I got a bit nervous: were we going to an expensive Italian restaurant in tourist-trap pricey Xintiandi?

Turns out Bellagio is a mid-range Taiwanese joint with a dessert and drinks menu as thick as (if not thicker than) their regular menu. While their savoury dishes didn’t impress me much and the bill was on the high end of my then-student budget, their shaved ice desserts were unforgettable. Since that meal, Sean and I have been back a couple times, to the Xintiandi location as well as its Xujiahui and Jing’an ones.

All three branches feel clean and trendy-casual, and look the same with their shiny black tables and shiny black chairs and uniformed waitresses sporting uniform pixie cuts. Their vegetarian selection (marked with a green leaf) is not large or particularly remarkable, but during my last few visits I’ve found a few decent dishes that justify having a full meal there (as opposed to going just for dessert). These are my picks for meatless eaters:

The string beans with salted duck egg (咸蛋四季豆, 29 RMB) is wonderfully crunchy and salty and perfect on rice. I could eat an entire plate of the stuff if I were ever to come here by myself…

They do a decent vegetarian spin on their famous three-cup chicken (三杯鸡, 49 RMB) with the three-cup abalone mushroom (三杯杏鲍菇, 36 RMB). The mushrooms are nice and chunky, but unfortunately do not absorb the flavours from the sauce as well as meat does.

The eggplant in clay pot (鱼香茄子煲, 38 RMB), a sweet, spicy, and oily veggie staple originating in Sichuan (not sure what it’s doing in a Taiwanese place), is another solid choice — but I’m usually a fan of this dish wherever I go :-)

For me, though, shaved ice desserts remain the single draw of this restaurant. If you’re not adverse to the idea of beans as dessert, the Bellagio Breeze (综合冰, 33 RMB) — a veritable mountain of shaved ice blanketed in red beans, mung beans, sugary pineapple, pearl tapioca (boba), and chewy taro balls, all infused with sweetened condensed milk — is king. Sean and I usually follow up two dishes and rice with one of these bad boys, and leave completely satisfied.

If you have more people in your party, the strawberry shaved ice is also a great pick.

The one thing that really irks me about this place is that they really pressure you to order their overpriced drinks, even when you ask for just water. Half the time they’ve outright refused to bring us water, and half the time they eventually brought us warm tap water. I realize that restaurants’ profits depend largely on selling beverages and desserts, but it’s always the higher-end, trendy places that refuse to give free tea or water.

In spite of this, since there’s a Bellagio less than a block from my office, I’ll be back many times this summer (armed with a bottle of water, shhh), and maybe discover a few more worthwhile vegetarian dishes!

Bellagio (multiple locations)
Jing’an branch
111 Xikang Lu (西康路111号)
(21) 6247-2666

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Veggie Burger quest IV: Gourmet Cafe

Two Mondays ago some coworkers, Sean, and I hit up the Gourmet Cafe at Shanghai Centre for their “Double Double Monday” burger deal. Having been let down the week before by Malone’s, I was eager to give these so-called “gourmet” burgers a shot.

Gourmet Cafe is a clean, modern space that is at once casual and intimate, with indoor seating as well as picnic tables and loungy sofas on a large outdoor patio overlooking Nanjing West Road. The menu has a creative selection of cheekily/cheesily named burgers, deep-fried appetizers, salads, and milkshakes. It also does happy hour starting at 6pm, during which selected drinks are buy-one-get-one (meaning 16 RMB Coronas :-). Because of its location and clientele, the servers are generally pleasant and speak English.

The place offers lunchtime combo “deals” — which, at 70 RMB for burger+soft drink, is hardly a deal to me — and the more appealing buy-one-get-one burger special on Mondays.

Sean and I ordered the two unappetizingly christened vegetarian options: the Bun Laden and Beano.

The Bun Laden (64 RMB) was not so much a burger as a falafel sandwich. I first had this back in March, and was (and still am) quite impressed with the light and crispy falafel and the soft pita. However, I found the accompaniments a bit lacking this time around; the “yogurt sauce” could’ve been richer and less watered down. Still, it was overall a tasty sandwich.

The Beano (67 RMB) was what I’d come here to try, and it was very satisfying. The patty, made of mixed beans and jalapeno and fried in bread crumbs, was crunchy on the outside, substantial and flavourful on the inside, with a spice kick from the pepper rounding out the patty. The patty expanded from being squeezed as I made my way through the burger, but what do you expect with beans, eh. The burger was filled out with some raw onion, avocado, grated cucumber, and a pillow of greens. It came with salsa and another thin yogurty sauce that didn’t worked quite well, but on the whole, this felt as a burger should feel: big and a little messy, fresh-tasting with varying textures. It gets extra points for standing at least as tall as its meaty counterparts at the table.

In keeping with the clean, light, gourmet thing, the burgers were served with a side of unidentified greens (they were slightly bitter like arugula but didn’t look like arugula) rather than fries, which you could order on the side.

Sean and I also shared a “Mudslide” (35 RMB), a chocolate milkshake blended with a brownie, which was a bit on the sweet side (to me, but just right for Sean). It’d been a while since I’d had a proper milkshake (as opposed to a fruit smoothie), so this was nonetheless really satisfying.

Two solid burgers and a milkshake came to a reasonable 102 RMB. (We could’ve replaced the milkshake with two beers for less money, making this a clear winner over Malone’s.) Given its ridiculous proximity to my office, I’ll probably be back on a Monday :-)

Gourmet Cafe (Shanghai Centre)
1376 Nanjing West Road
(21) 6289-5733


Filed under eating out, restaurants - non-vegetarian

Veggie Burger quest III: Malone’s

Monday screams burger special!!! here in Shanghai (or is that everywhere in the world?*): Malone’s, Blue Frog, Gourmet Cafe, and others make sure there’s at least one day in the week you can grab a burger without forking over American-sized dough.

My coworkers and I decided last week it was about time we partook in one of these burger specials, and with our office situated in expat-heavy Jing’an, we had two obvious choices: Malone’s, which offers a burger & a beer for 50 RMB, and Gourmet Cafe, which does a buy-one-get-one-free deal on Mondays. We went with Malone’s today.

I’d been here a couple times last year for the 50 RMB meal, which is quite a steal considering their giant selection of burgers ranges from 75 to 105 RMB (drink excluded). But then I’d been eating meat. Tonight I had but one choice: their veggie burger (normally 75 RMB) with a patty made from mushrooms, onions, and grains, which sounded alright on paper.

The first thing I noticed when our food came was how pitifully FLAT my burger was compared to everyone else’s. Sure, the patty was different, but did they have to skimp on everything else? A peek under the bun revealed two slices of tomato, some lettuce, and plain mayo. The “low-fat cheese” could barely be seen. No pickles, no creative sauce, no apparent effort put in at all to ensure that their vegetarian patrons feel taken care of amid a sea of meat burgers decked out with all sorts of interesting toppings. It felt almost as if they were making fun of the idea of vegetarians eating burgers — “you probably don’t know how to enjoy food anyway, so we’ll give you the bare minimum.” Maybe they were, but ouch.

Oh well, perhaps they designed the patty to hold its own in the face of scarce resources… or something like that? A couple careful bites dispelled that last hope: the mushroom taste was overpowering, and despite the “grains”, the whole thing was mushy and began to break apart as I made my way through the burger. The lettuce and overripe tomato didn’t help things, and I ended up spooning some crunchy coleslaw in just to add some depth of texture.

Granted, I didn’t go into it with high hopes, so it wasn’t the biggest disappointment ever. At least I’ve got one more crossed off the list in my slow-moving quest for the best (read: least shameful) veggie burger in Shanghai. And had a chance to unwind with coworkers after a long day (yes, it’s only Monday, but it really feels like it should be Friday already). And get to keep feeling smug about my homemade version. So it’s all good.

One of these coming Mondays: Gourmet Cafe. I’ve been there for lunch before and had a delicious — albeit distastefully named — “Bun Laden” (essentially falafel in pita… yeah, they really need to find a new name now), but they also have a bean-based burger. Stay tuned!

Malone’s American Cafe
255 Tongren Rd. near Nanjing West Rd.
(21) 6247-2400 (reservations not accepted on Mondays)

*Google search results suggest that, at least in the English-speaking world, “Wednesday burger special”s are the most common, with Monday being the second most economical day to satisfy your burger cravings. Don’t bother looking for a burger deal on Saturdays.


Filed under eating out, restaurants - non-vegetarian

Meeaatt! Pt. 3 — Xiao Shaoxing (小绍兴)

Alright, last post on my recent family-weekend meat-binge (hey, at least I stocked up on vitamin B12), but I couldn’t go all-out this weekend without filling up on some (more) of my all-time favourite meat: chicken. Fully recovered from the morning’s aches and nausea, I headed with Mom and Grandma late Sunday afternoon to Xiao Shaoxing (小绍兴), a longtime fixture on the Yunnan Road food street. My mom and I had been to Xiao Shaoxing once before, back in Sept. 2009 when I first moved to Shanghai. I’d completely forgotten about the place until she picked up our SH travel guide again this time and recalled our meal with relish.

This is what we came for (photo taken several minutes after we let our chopsticks go wild):

A glorious plate of 白斩鸡, or boiled “white cut” chicken, served with a sweet soy ginger dipping sauce. The nearly 70-year-old restaurant is synonymous with this type of chicken in Shanghai, with a large window on the ground floor offering views of whole boiled chickens deftly rendered by a cleaver into chopstick-friendly pieces.

As with a few other restaurants in Shanghai, both dining comfort and prices at this multi-story establishment rise the higher up you go. The first floor presents a no-frills, fast-food style experience, with low prices luring customers in and plastic trays and hard seats encouraging them not to linger. The second floor is an open, casual-but-comfortable-enough space whose ambiance was sufficient for our food-focused purposes. The third floor offers more stylish “banquet-style” dining, and even higher up are private dining rooms and the guesthouse… all serving presumably the same chicken.

After you’ve picked your level of eliteness, the restaurant offers further opportunities for choice at time of ordering: what parts of the chicken do you want? The head, neck, and feet are left out by default. A plate of chicken on the second floor goes for 80 RMB when you only want the thighs, drumsticks, and back (widely accepted by the Chinese as the best parts), and drops to 47 RMB when you’re willing to have some breast (typically shunned by Chinese as either dry or mushy) thrown in there (totaling about half a chicken). My grandma and mom prefer the dark meat, as do I, but noting the price difference I was willing to give the chicken breast a chance.

Good thing, because the chicken was such good quality that even the breast meat was excellent: moist and smooth and not so lean as to be a chore to chew. It was also chopped into thinner pieces to avoid that “huge chunk of lean meat” look and feel that Chinese eaters seem to fear. Anyway, the whole deal was delicious: neither too fat nor too lean, too meaty or too bony, not overcooked. I realize I’m using a lot of negatives to describe this chicken, but I guess you can’t know you’re having the good stuff unless you’ve had some less impressive stuff? In fact, I’m not really sure what adjectives to use in English, because I grew up hearing food mostly described in Chinese: 香,滑, 弹牙 come to mind: fragrant, silky/smooth, springy? … Yeah, sounds more like a bad ad for a luxury pillow or mattress pad.

The other dishes we ordered — a pot of fish soup, mater convolvulus (空心菜), some sort of mushroom — were quite average. The only other one worth mentioning is the lily bulb and pumpkin cold dish (another Shanghainese favourite of mine), which is served refreshingly cold and lightly sweet:

Need more convincing that the chicken at this place is the real deal? My grandmother, who has lost her taste for both Canadian (too much meat) and Hong Kong (flavourless) chicken, actually wanted to come back the next day — on her way to the airport — and pack a box to bring back to HK for my dad! We entertained the idea for a while, but feared it wouldn’t last six hours in transit (and worse, what if it got confiscated by HK Customs?), so the suggestion was finally scrapped.

Back to meatlessness after this post, I promise :)

Xiao Shaoxing (小绍兴)
75 Yunnan Rd., near Ninghai Dong Rd.
(21) 6326-0845

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Meeaatt! Pt. 2 — Stiller’s Restaurant

On Saturday night we went to Stiller’s Restaurant in the south Bund. Embarrassingly enough, I’d never made it out to the fairly new Cool Docks before this, mostly because it’s inconveniently located and full of restaurants out of my usual price range. My mom had found out about this place while reading an account of a food writer’s trip to Shanghai. Apparently the writer’s wife had deemed the restaurant’s 36-hour slow-braised beef cheek — of all things! — the most unforgettable part of their trip. So my mom, always eager to try something new, had me put it on the agenda.

The restaurant is physically connected to a cooking school by the same name, all owned by German chef Stefan Stiller. After a short ride in a dim elevator to the top floor, my mom, my grandma, and I were led through an elegant, modern-looking space with an open kitchen to a balcony-side table that gave us views of the Huangpu and Pudong on the other side.

We’d peeked at the menu online before heading out, so had some idea of what we wanted. The dishes are pricey, so we didn’t want to overdo it, but we also didn’t want to leave hungry. Worried that four dishes might not fill us up, we asked our server if we could get some bread to start…

…to which she responded by bringing us a very generous basket of warm rolls along with three types of “butter”: sesame, cilantro, and curry. They were all interesting twists, but the sesame spread was truly delicious. The bread kept us company all through the meal. (Before the bread came, we’d already enjoyed a complimentary plate of savoury meat-filled mini-pastries… mmm.)

Our next surprise was an aesthetically pleasing array of amuse-bouche, three little hors d’oeuvres centred around the lantern pepper. Our server pointed to them in turn: chopped yellow pepper “salad”, red pepper mousse, and a green pepper “soup”. Soup? we echoed, gazing questioningly at the neat, round blob on the spoon. But then we popped it into our mouths, the blob went “pop”, and our tastebuds were delighted with a burst of sweet-peppery liquid that had til then been encased in a delicate skin. Mouth amusement, indeed.

Then came the stuff we actually ordered: a turbot-crayfish consomme with crayfish sausage, accompanied by slivers of toast and a saffron aioli. For fear of an allergic reaction, I didn’t touch the sausage (which looked weird anyway, a fleshy floating finger), but the consomme was light and sweet, but because we split it in three, the portion felt a tad small.

Next was a prettily presented foie gras “cake” layered with black truffle, served with toast and spiced pineapple bits. I hadn’t had foie gras in years, after learning about the horrors involved in producing the stuff, but I’d had pork belly last night and was about to have beef cheek, so what the heck. OH MAN. It was rich and creamy, its sweetness balanced by the tang of the pineapple and balsamic jelly, a refreshing alternative to the decadent heart-stopping devil that is fried foie gras. Not that we had any illusions about its nutritional properties…

And then the mains, a turbot fillet and Boston lobster with “lemon-grass curry sauce” — though the “sauce” really was foam and didn’t taste of lemon-grass or curry. The turbot, which my mom informed me is a big (and expensive) deal in fish-eating circles, was very tasty, tender-firm and moist and with none of that dryness or mushiness that characterizes too many restaurant fish dishes.

And then, of course, the slow-braised beef cheek, which was served with a delicious cauliflower puree, Servietten-Knoedel (dish-towel dumplings), and yummy sliced potatoes. After all the anticipation, though, I have to say I was a bit let down. Actually, we all agreed that a plain steak would’ve been more satisfying. The beef was super tender — so soft, indeed, it could be cut with a fork — but came off overwhelmingly… well, beefy. It tasted more like animal than meat, if that makes any sense, and the sweet gravy that accompanied it only served to emphasize the rawness, even though after 36 hours in a pot I’m certain it was fully cooked. The plate came with an extra dish containing two more chunks of cheek, but we could’ve done without seconds on this one. By the end I was making mini cheek sandwiches with the rolls.

We were too full — and too practical — to order one of the 110RMB desserts, but our reservations were actually rewarded with a plate of tiny sweets, on the house: a waxberry tartlet, a soft fruity (berry? hawthorn?) candy, mini cream puff, and a wonderful dark chocolate truffle, which wrapped up the meal splendidly.

While my tummy and palate were satisfied, my favourite part of this experience, perhaps more than the food itself, was the thoughtfulness and creativity that went into preparing and presenting the food, as well as all the little surprises (a.k.a. complimentary stuff :-) that really made us feel like we were being well looked after (rather than being watched) and justified the 885 RMB bill. Service was attentive but not over-eager, professional but not at all snooty, and the owner-chef even came over to see us out.

It had rained all day and was still drizzling when we emerged from the restaurant. The Cool Docks resembled a deserted Xintiandi, and in the rain felt like another world, a movie set. Bellies full and hearts warmed, we caught a cab back to the hotel for a good night’s rest.

The bad news: the next morning I felt terrible, afflicted with headache, stomachache, and a desire to vomit, though I wasn’t able to. Huddled against a chair in the hotel room, I felt nauseous at the thought and sight of food (on the cover of a travel guide). By noon I managed a pear, and recovered shortly thereafter… My mom and grandma were fine, though, so the problem was probably more my body (too much meat maybe?) than the food.

P.S. While the a la carte menu offers few meatless options, Stiller’s also has a vegetarian tasting menu alongside a “regular” non-vegetarian one, which looks promising. Nice to see a restaurant tell us that fine dining doesn’t have to mean lots of meat! At 598RMB, though, these veggies (and cheeses) had better be out of this world.

Stiller’s Restaurant & Cooking School
The Cool Docks, 6-7/F, Bldg 13
505 Zhongshan Nan Rd. near Fuxing Dong Rd.


Filed under eating out, restaurants - non-vegetarian

Meeaatt! Pt. 1 — Fu 1039 (福 1039)

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 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.)


Filed under eating out, restaurants - non-vegetarian