Strolling through Shanghai's French Concession, a faded grid of leafy boulevards flanked by colonial mansions, I stumbled on an old Russian Orthodox church with a gaudy portrait of Mao emblazoned on its steeple. Curious about the buzz of construction, I ventured inside and learned that the church — for years occupied by a dreary state-run canteen — was being recast as a glam French restaurant financed by a Swiss art dealer from Hong Kong.
This postmodern cocktail of identities is perfectly true to Shanghai, once a glittering entrepôt, now Asia's born-again international boomtown. "What's the official city bird?" locals ask with a laugh. "The crane!" That's construction cranes, thousands of them (reportedly one-fifth of the world's total), sprouting up all over. The place resembles a vast building site — highways, malls, office towers — and out of the rubble and dust, a newly cosmopolitan restaurant scene is rising.
Rising, literally. With a chic lobby suspended on the 53rd floor of China's tallest building — and a gleaming ensemble of cloud-top dining establishments — the new Grand Hyatt hotel in the Pudong district announces the city's coming-of-age with a lofty swagger. In a nod to the moody Deco of 1930's Shanghai, the firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designed a Gothamesque 88-story office tower (the hotel occupies 34 floors at the top) dramatically sheathed in an aluminum grid. The interior is a millennial reverie of Deco allusions, glass and steel, and heart-stopping views.
The Grand Hyatt's Cucina serves authentic Italian pastas prepared by a Milanese chef. Kobachi has a sleek yakitori bar, not boring tatami rooms. At Canton, the haute Chinese dining room, you can go for expense-account shark's fin soup or luck into, as I did, a regional degustation. Dinner and décor merged in my head—was it jet lag or vertigo?Spongy monkey-head mushrooms from Yunnan in Thai satay sauce. Inlaid terrazzo floors. A whole turtle in broth (shell and all). Piped-in "O Sole Mio." Highland moss with shredded chicken. High-tech Orientalism, strawberry flambé, new-wave Deco. Phew! Post-post-postmodernism?
Meanwhile, back on the ground. . . . Anyone who's gorged on dumplings and noodles on the streets of Hong Kong or Singapore would be tempted to follow suit in Shanghai. Er, maybe not. The unlovely local custom of spitting in public, plus menacing newspaper headlines about outbreaks of TB, should give pause to even die-hard street snackers. (The better restaurants are perfectly safe.) One Shanghainese treat I'd expire for is xiao long bao—a bamboo steamer of quivering apricot-sized dumplings with a complex soupy filling of pork or crab. Plunk a bao on a spoon, then dab on some shredded ginger and black-vinegar sauce. Take a small bite, tilt your head back, and let the thick, fragrant broth squirt into your mouth.
For a perfectly sanitary if somewhat touristic bao fix, consider Lu Bo Lang—an old stalwart, lacquered, gilded, and chandeliered by the state. My dumpling sampler was fine, but I'll never forget the stuffed duck: a gigantic mound of meltingly tender bird with a sweet mahogany sheen and a sticky filling of glutinous rice. As I ate, I wondered why gourmands from elsewhere in China often scoff at Shanghainese cuisine. They worship the throat-searing heat of Szechwan seasonings. They swoon over the pure precious flavors of Canton. But food from Shanghai?"Too sweet!" they grimace. They're missing the point: it's the aromatic sweetness, brownness, and sauciness that makes Shanghai's cuisine so irresistible—the ultimate comfort food.
Just taste the braised pork knuckle at Jie Shi, a modest gem among the city's new bounty of small privately owned eateries. A glistening hunk of slowly cooked meat, soft enough to cut with a spoon, arrives in a fragrant pool of dark "red-braising" liquid. This sweet-smelling mixture of soy sauce and rock sugar perfumed with ginger, star anise, and cinnamon defines Shanghainese cooking. And you'll hear no complaints about Jie Shi's fen pi, the slippery wide cellophane noodles laced with cilantro and sesame oil, or the cracked crab flash-fried with fiery garlic and chilies. Eat your heart out, Canton, I thought, licking my fingers.
While Shanghainese cuisine is making a splash in Hong Kong now, Hong Kong impresarios are infusing Shanghai with their own food savvy. One of the most compelling new restaurants, 1221, was launched by Michelle Liu, a veteran of the Hong Kong fashion industry. "Such a Shanghainese tale," giggled Liu, distracted by the kiss-kiss crush of Chinese and expat regulars. "We opened 1221, then—oops!—highway construction began down the block, so officials would come and cut off our utilities. At serving time, we didn't know if we'd even have gas! And getting the chefs to lay off oil, sugar, and MSG . . . oh, what a struggle!"
The struggle paid off: 1221 succeeded heroically. From the cheekily makeshift interior to the beguiling pan-Chinese menu, everything here is right on the money. The staff escorted me through the Shanghainese specialties arrayed on my table: a light-green mash of broad beans; a sensational taro-and-duck cake with a whiff of star anise; big, fluffy meatballs (called "lion's head") framed by bright baby bok choy; and shreds of saucy stir-fried beef punctuated by crisp bits of you tiao, the Shanghai crullers. Dessert?A soul-warming mold of sweet sticky rice with bananas and red-bean paste. Liu's Hong Kong palate shows: the food is a soft-core fantasy of mainland Chinese—cleaner, leaner, sexier.
Over skewers of spicy grilled lamb at Ali YY, I chatted with Kenny Tang, another Hong Kong transplant. A hairdresser turned nightclub guru, Tang owns a wildly successful disco called YY, short for Yin Yang. Ali YY, his newest venture, has a red-velvet-lined Lebanese nook upstairs, and a smartly homey canteen that is introducing Shanghai to the exotic tastes of Xinjiang, a remote Muslim enclave in western China. Why Xinjiang?The Shanghainese are wild about regional Chinese flavors—Hunan, Szechwan—"and this one is a brand-new concept!" says Tang. "It's perfect for a town where everyone is from somewhere else."
After falling for central Asia years ago, I'm partial to the comforting notes of slowly cooked onions, carrots, and cumin, not to mention the endless mutton. So I loved Ali YY's tangy, cold glass noodles with carrots, the mutton pilaf, and the yang rou bing, a plate-sized fried pie with a juicy filling of onions and hand-chopped lamb—better than anything I'd had in Kashgar.
"What's the secret of success in Shanghai?" I asked Tang. "Va-da-ga," he shot back. (That's Shanghainese dialect for "no worries, it's cool.") This is what makes the town tick.
At M on the Bund, which occupies the palatial former headquarters of the Shanghai Shipping Co., I gasped at the swank supper-club look (backlighted fiberglass columns, banquettes draped in Thai silk) and stunning views of the Bund, the city's old business district. This is Asia's most dazzling new restaurant, hands down. Michelle Garnaut, the Australian owner (who also created Hong Kong's M on the Fringe), winces at the memory of her first visit to Shanghai, 15 years ago: "It was all greasy pork and potatoes; even chicken was scarce." Today her Melbourne-trained chef, Andrew McCommell, delights in serving locally raised foie gras with Sauternes gelée; a splendid risotto with mushrooms gathered from nearby woods; and a plump Shanghainese goose, rendered into an artful assemblage of sausage, smoked breast, croquettes, and liver.
And what of the nouvelle Shanghainese trend?"Try L.A. or Hong Kong," locals chorused. That's where the immigrant cooking flourished, undisturbed by Communist shortages. But now Shanghai is catching up with itself. Case in point: Xian Chiang Fong (called Folk Restaurant in English), which in two years has become such a hit, the owners swiftly opened two more branches. The draw?Jia chang tsai—"family cooking"—slightly tweaked for the new middle class. Instead of lanterns and dragons you get checked tablecloths and petit bourgeois furniture; individual servings in cute earthenware with wooden utensils replace the proletarian lazy Susan. It's hard not to love fo tiao qiang, a clay-pot soup teeming with pork, chicken, and turtle meat, simmered all day. Or the succulent deep-fried pork ribs; the ethereal cold bundles of eight vegetables wrapped in bean-curd skin; the sublime stir-fried tarragon shoots. For drama, order shrimp, alive only minutes ago, slapped against smoking-hot stones that cook them in a flash. And don't forget the famed "drunken crab," a raw crustacean marinated in the region's outstanding rice wine. The chili addicts of Szechwan can keep their tongue-numbing hot pots—I'll take Shanghai.