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Insider: Shanghai

Shanghai is a city on steroids, growing more dramatically than any other place in Asia. Almost overnight a forest of 150 office towers has sprouted in Pudong, the financial district, across the Huangpu River from the colonial-era waterfront. Suburban executives race to town on a new high-speed subway system and an expressway that plunges beneath the river, then shoots over the rooftops of old Shanghai. City dwellers live equally fast; they're packing the restaurants, pubs, discos, and galleries, with more opening every day. And striking new public spaces—the billion-dollar Pudong International Airport (with a 250-mph maglev shuttle into the city); Shanghai Grand Theatre, designed by French architect Jean-Marie Charpentier; Asia's largest library—just keep coming.

EATING IN SHANGHAI With the current influx of overseas bankers and exporters, it's only natural that Shanghai's trendiest food is fusion, albeit a sophisticated spin on East-meets-West with a natural bias for Asian ingredients. The hottest tables are at T8 (Bldg. No. 8, Xin Tian Di North Part, Lane 181, Tai Cang Rd.; 86-21/6355-8999; dinner for two $96). The skills developed by Australian chef Jordan Theodoros in Mediterranean, Thai, and Burmese kitchens are immediately evident in his caramelized salted salmon atop a green mango and longan salad, and crisp Sichuan king prawns with an octopus compote. ¶ Hong Kong—based restaurateur Michelle Garnaut delivers innovative Continental cuisine at M on the Bund (20 Guang Dong Rd.; 86-21/6350-9988; dinner for two $90), her seventh-floor dining room with spectacular waterfront views from its terrace. Executive chefs Julie and Michael Roper rely on Australian suppliers to maintain the exceptional quality of their slow-cooked, salt-encased leg of lamb, and wisely source their suckling pigs from Yunnan province, which produces the best porkers in China. ¶ The fastest road to Rome from Shanghai is Palladio, in the Portman Ritz-Carlton (86-21/6279-7188; dinner for two $90). Chef Angelo Sabatelli lavishes particular attention on his appetizers: marinated goose liver carpaccio, anchovies dressed with caper sauce. ¶ Across the river, the big predicament at the Grand Hyatt Shanghai is deciding which restaurant to visit. After drinks at Cloud 9 or the Piano Bar, one of the best choices is Club Jin Mao (dinner for two $100). The chef specializes in Shanghai cuisine (usually rich, sweet, and salty), preparing braised bean curd with hairy crab—roe sauce and pork dumplings flavored with crab roe. ¶ Even traditional Shanghainese restaurants are experimenting with fusion. The seven chefs at Bao Luo (271 Fu Min Rd.; 86-21/5403-7239; dinner for two $18) are mixing northern and southern influences to create dishes like hai xian juan, crunchy northern-style fried crullers stuffed with squid and shrimp and bathed in tangy tomato sauce.

WHERE TO STAY The most recent arrival is the sleek 434-room Four Seasons Hotel Shanghai (500 Weihai Rd.; 800/332-3442 or 86-21/6256-8888; www.fourseasons.com; doubles from $310). With only 12 to 16 richly appointed rooms to each floor, guests are assured maximum privacy; personal safes are large enough for a laptop. ¶ The St. Regis Shanghai (889 Dong Fang Rd.; 877/787-3447 or 86-21/5050-4567; www.stregis.com; doubles from $150) has just raised the city's standards for luxury by introducing 24-hour butler service. The 318 rooms are outfitted with jumbo desks and Herman Miller's Aeron chairs. ¶ A few blocks away, the Grand Hyatt Shanghai (88 Century Blvd.; 800/633-7312 or 86-21/5049-1234; www.shanghai.grand.hyatt.com; doubles from $218) offers killer views from its 555 guest rooms in the Jin Mao Tower, the third-tallest building in the world (designed by Chicago firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to resemble a steel-skinned stalk of bamboo). Bathrooms have triple-headed showers and separate tubs—many set beside floor-to-ceiling windows. ¶ The Portman Ritz-Carlton Shanghai (1376 Nanjing Xi Rd.; 800/241-3333 or 86-21/6279-8888; www.ritzcarlton.com; doubles from $300) recently pumped $30 million into redesigning its lobbies and 564 rooms. Its atrium, front desk, and jazz bar are aglow in high-tech fiber-optic light, in sharp contrast to the refined dark woods and blue carpeting of the rooms. And the Ritz's location is tough to beat: the hotel anchors Shanghai Centre, an office-restaurant-retail complex that counts Ferragamo and Cerruti among its high-end tenants.

NEXT GREAT NEIGHBORHOODS The city's gracefully curving harbor, the Bund, is awakening from a half-century of slumber. Its imposing customs house and ornate banks, occupied by government functionaries after the Communists seized power, are now being transformed into swank shops and bistros. Architect Michael Graves recently turned the 86-year-old Union Assurance building into a postmodern pleasure palace named Three on the Bund. When the doors open in July, there'll be branches of Jean Georges and Nobu in the seven-story structure, along with a Shanghainese restaurant, art galleries, a jazz club, high-end luxury retail shops, and an Evian day spa. ¶ Just a few minutes inland, the former French-concession district, a five-square-block area called Xin Tian Di, has turned into a hot spot as well. Fashioned from century-old brick houses called shikumen, this labyrinth of flagstone alleyways holds art galleries, boutiques, nightclubs, and a dozen restaurants. Le Garçon Chinois (No. 3, Lane 9, Heng Shan Rd.; 86-21/6445-7970) is a 1920's Western-style house that has been converted into a lounge, a Continental restaurant, and a Chinese bistro with a menu that blends Sichuan, Hangzhou, and Shanghainese fare. ¶ A few streets away is Face (Bldg. No. 4, 118 Ruijin Er Rd.; 86-21/6466-4328, ext. 17), in a gracefully crumbling pink brick—and—stone manse built by a Japanese trading company in 1936. The ground floor bar is furnished with louche opium beds and overstuffed chairs. Up the grand staircase are two restaurants: one specializes in northern Thai cuisine, the other serves northern Indian curries beneath a rajah's crimson tent. ¶ Fuxing Park, where the French military once encamped, is Shanghai's busiest green space. Ballroom dancers, tai chi practitioners, and elderly men carting their beloved birds' cages now share its grassy expanses at dawn. Afternoons and evenings belong to the fashion-forward, who crowd into Baci, Tokio Joe's, and California Club (2 Gao Lan Rd.; 86-21/5383-2328), two restaurants and a disco sharing one address.

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