Discover Shanghai's cultured culinary scene
Finding culinary surprises in reinvented Shanghai
In 2005, Shanghai was booming, rivalling Singapore and other Asian cities in terms of affluence and modernity.
But with construction, road works and bad traffic jams at every corner - and a population of 24 million - the city did not seem inviting enough for this traveller to return.
But last year, when luxury hotel chain JW Marriott chose it as the location for its final Taste Of JW festival run, I found myself succumbing to Shanghai's charms.
The event was a showcase of talents.
Four chefs - each specialising in a different provincial cuisine - and one pastry chef from JW Marriott hotels from around China put together a by-invite-only dinner at the JW Marriott Hotel Shanghai at Tomorrow Square.
The course from Chef Kevin Ji - who holds the fort at Wan Hao, the Chinese restaurant in the host hotel, specialising in Shanghainese cuisine - was most revelatory, riffing on the famous Shanghainese Lion's Head Meatballs dish.
His version was lighter and healthier than the traditional fried version of fatty minced pork and tofu, served in a simmered broth with cabbage leaves.
He replaced the pork with minced cod, and served his dish with a pumpkin soup. The sweet taste and rich, flakey texture of the fish were set off perfectly by the creamy, comforting soup.
Chef Ji's innovative take on heritage at the event was reflective of Shanghai itself, a progressive society moving fast, but able and very willing to hold on to age-old traditions.
Taste Of JW led to a hunger for more, and a curiosity for other culinary gems lurking in the reinvented city.
While exploring the streets, I stumbled upon Daketang, in the middle of the leafy French Concession.
It sits in a 1933 Art Deco mansion once owned by a Kuomintang general. Alibaba owner Jack Ma is said to frequent the teahouse, which is famous for its collection of pu'er black tea - the only tea it serves.
Well-groomed locals in their 20s enjoyed tete-a-tetes on the ground floor, where tea is served for $30 per person.
Or they were reading in quiet rooms upstairs, where a tea experience costs $40 and up.
Also in the French Concession is Fu 1039, which serves some of the best Huaiyang cuisine.
This is a style of Jiangsu cooking, and dining here sets you back $40 to $120 per person, depending on what you order.
The rooms in the restored house - built in 1913 - are charming, and still boast their original tiles and furnishings.
And while Huaiyang cuisine looks deceptively simple, it actually requires delicate knife work and a deft hand that can balance flavours with aplomb.
Classics like xiaolongbao, smoked fish, sauteed crystal shrimp and steamed hairy crabs, which were in season when I visited, were particularly good.
The drunken chicken was tender, with the aroma of just the right amount of Shaoxing wine.
As the peanut-flavoured ice cream course was served, a pianist started to play Chinese classics.
All of this proved how Shanghai has mastered a heady, highly enjoyable mix of old and new.
After two days of feasting, I went in search of lighter nosh.
On the concierge's recommendation, I made a reservation at Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant Fu He Hui in Puxi.
You definitely will not find mock meat made from gluten on the daily set menus, priced from $120 to $180.
Instead, the taste and texture of meat is replicated by using plant ingredients and flavourings culled from various types of fungi, root vegetables and soy products.
The ambience is elegant, and the Western-style plating artistic.
But sometimes, the biggest impressions are in the very simplest things. Perhaps it was all the eating I had been doing, but what I found striking was a simple dish of rice.
It was given extra oomph from the slightly charred, earthy smell from the claypot it was cooked in, and umami from soy sauce and truffle oil. You will not miss meat here.
WHERE TO STAY
JW Marriott Hotel Shanghai at Tomorrow Square (http://www.marriott.com) is in the middle of the city centre, with the nearest metro station being Xintiandi.
It is close to the French Concession and cultural attractions like the Grand Theatre where you can catch a ballet or symphony. Head for the Shanghai Museum for traditional Chinese craft, while lovers of modern art should stop by the Museum of Contemporary Art. On the 60th storey of the hotel building, you will find the world’s highest library.
To satiate your hunger, Wan Hao serves excellent Cantonese and Shanghainese cuisine, while JW’s California Grill boasts a mean surf and turf.
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