Shanghai is an incredibly chic, cosmopolitan place these days, with fine international restaurants covering many world cuisines. I don’t write about those. You’ll find them well covered in guidebooks. On this site you’ll local Chinese food – moderate places, where the city’s food-lovers eat, with terrific food.
Jian Guo 328. When Jian Guo 328 first opened, it caused a stir with its home-style Shanghainese dishes. The fried duck leg is widely loved, even if the day we visited, it could have used a little more salt. Who knew that braised amaranth stems could be so good, or jujubes stuffed with sweetened glutinous rice? Fried yellow croaker came with a pile of delightfully crispy scallions and some equally crispy (but small and bony) fish. Yet the real jaw-dropper at Jian Guo 328 is the braised jiaobai.
Sit tight, you won’t believe this: jiaobai is wheat stalks that have been infected with a fungus called ‘smut’. That’s right! It causes the wheat stalks to puff up as big as a leek, attaining a cooked texture somewhere between a raw mushroom and a bamboo shoot. These thickened stalks, cut on the diagonal and braised, are mild enough to carry the flavor of the sauce. And they come from smut! Smut’s illegal in the states–though of course we do allow the huitlacoche fungus on corn–so when in Shanghai, stop in at this little restaurant and try the braised jiaobai. It may be one of the most unique dishes you ever encounter…thanks to smut.
Jian Guo 328, #328 Jian Guo Xi Lu, Xuhui District. 6471-3819.
Guyi. A slightly upscale Hunanese place in the Jing An District with consistently excellent food, a pleasing space, and the crowds to prove it. Make a reservation, come early or late (dinner’s 5:30-10:30), or wait. Try any of the fresh fish dishes, roasted shrimp on skewers, and lamb with cumin. We also liked salt-and-pepper tofu, and spicy beans with ground pork. The homemade lemon sodas provided a welcome foil to the heat and spice. Reservation or wait in line, your choice. Guyi, 87 Fumin Lu, by Julu Lu, not too far from the Jingan stop of the Metro. Tel. # 6249-5628.
Sichuan Citizen. When you want a delightful Sichuan meal without leaving the leafy confines of your French Concession neighborhood, stop into Sichuan Citizen. Pleasingly decorated in rustic, pine-paneled country style with ristras of red silk “chiles” providing bright accents, the restaurant offers an extensive bilingual menu with photos, along with a full bar. Owner Daisy Fei has lived in the U.S., and returned to China with a sophisticated sense of the restaurant experience. She spends more time than most working with chefs in menu development, and it shows; the Sichuan specialties are spicy but not overpowering, and judging from the hungry Shanghainese filling the place every day at lunch and dinner, she’s got the heat meter just about right. Sichuan Citizen, 30 Donghu Lu, 5404-1235.
See also her other Frenchtown locations: Citizen Cafe is an excellent Western restaurant with a well-designed menu (she took her chefs on a U.S. dining tour to catch that extra level of nuance) and a full bar (don’t miss the house signature drink, the Basil Drop). Senator Saloon brings back the Prohibition era in a 1920s nostalgia bar–from the pressed tin ceilings, to the soft strains of Dixieland, to the appealing vintage cocktails, the design sense is seamless. The place is also an expat magnet, and recently I overheard two young American fellows worrying about their chances as they crept toward 30. “We’re definitely getting more intelligent, and more handsome…” said one uncertainly. “But where are the women?” said the other. Cheers, boys. Drink up those Old Fashioneds.
Senator Saloon, 98 Wuyuan Lu, near Wulumuqi Lu, 5423-1330
Citizen Cafe, 222 Jin Xian Road, 6258-1620
Jishi. Heaven for the lover of home-style Shanghainese cuisine. This French Concession restaurant jammed with locals is also crowded, narrow, and fun. Reservations are advised though I have also walked in and been given a table, especially at lunch. Try jujubes stuffed with glutinous rice, and soy sauce stewed pork, but we especially loved the wild herbs with bean curd (ma lan tou, a very typically Shanghainese cold dish using a wild local vegetable which is hard to come by outside Shanghai), the salt-and-pepper eel, and the sublime razor clams in a dark,complex marinade (these are not always available, but it’s infinitely worth asking). While on the subject of seasonal dishes, it is also worth asking if they have hongshao jiaobai, which in this case are wild rice stems cooked in soy. The house specialty pork knuckle, braised for hours in an even more complex sauce, is also outstanding — when the waiter brought it out, the table of ten next to me cried out in anticipation, then moaned in despair when it went to my table instead. I lifted off the fat to the lean meat underneath, tasted it, swooned, and they sent wine over so I could join them in a toast to the glory of this classic Shanghainese dish. Jishi, 41 Tianping Lu, by Huaihai Zhonglu, near the Hengshan Lu Metro stop. Tel 6282-9260. English menu. To beat the lines, also try Jesse’s new locations, called New Jesse or Xin Ji Shi: 28 Taojiang Lu, Xuhui District, 6445-0068, and at Xintiandi, North Block, House 9, 181 Taicang Lu, near Huangpi Lu. 6336-4746.
Qiao Family Gate. Thanks to Shanghai food blogger Fiona Reilly for locating this down-to-earth and wonderfully budget-friendly Shanghainese restaurant! You may be able to find better Shanghainese cuisine in the city, but for good reliable dishes that are exceptionally light on your wallet, Qiao Family Gate rules. Fiona loves the drunken chicken covered with finely minced scallions, and I am fond of the braised pork knuckle on baby bok choy, even if the meat is a bit dry. No English spoken and no English menu, but the menu does have photos, if that is enough to allow you to wing it. Like many old-style places in Shanghai, the first floor sells snacks from a counter, while the second floor is the sit-down restaurant. Qiao Family Gate, 336 Xiangyang Lu, at Yongjia Lu, 6437-4174.
Di Shui Dong. Another amazingly good Hunanese restaurant. There are many delightful offerings, including chicken in chili pot, mashed pork with sour beans, and spicy bean jelly, but not to be missed are the cumin spare ribs, dense, chewy bones crusted with cumin seeds and hot pepper. Lovers of this restaurant light up at the mere mention of this dish. Di Shui Dong, second floor, 56 Maoming Nanlu, by Changle Lu. Tel. 6253-2689. English menu. No credit cards.
Bao Luo. Crowded and thrumming with noise and energy, Bao Luo serves terrific Shanghainese food. You will need a reservation, though lately they seem to only be giving reservations for the first seating at 6:00… but this is one of those places that’s worth waiting in line for if you do not care to eat early. Almost everything I’ve ordered there has been outstanding. One of their hit dishes is the house special Swiss steak. This is the kind of thing a hopeless snob like me would normally never order in a Chinese restaurant – but it was on almost every table, so we gave it a go. It was surprisingly good. Item #2012, a red-cooked river fish, is even better. Ultra-fresh – before the chef begins it will be brought out, live, for your inspection — it’s braised in an exquisitely balanced soy-based sauce. Don’t miss the sheng jian bao, a large meat-stuffed bun which is first steamed and then pan-fried so that the bottom is crisp and sesame-studded. Some say the best sheng jian bao is made by the famous street stall Yang’s Fry Dumplings, but to me Bao Luo’s version, lighter and less greasy, is better – so delicious I took a leftover one home and gobbled it down the next day for breakfast, cold. Bao Luo, 271 Fumin Lu, by Changle Lu (5403-7239). Closest to Changshu Lu Metro stop. English menu. No credit cards.
Dian Shi Zhai. One of the challenges in going out for great Shanghainese in this town is that the best restaurants quickly attract such a large following that they become hard to get into. A second problem is that many restaurants are only able to really ring the bell with a modest percentage of their dishes, the remainder being merely okay or pretty good. Enter Dian Shi Zhai, a winner on both counts. Housed in a large, rambling, colonial-era house with many private rooms, it’s a place you can actually go to on short notice, even at 7:30 or 8:00. It also managed to produce 10 courses that included 7 or 8 outstanding dishes, a genuinely impressive number. We loved tofu skin noodles in chicken broth, deep fried spicy pork shreds, perfectly seasoned shanghai homestyle noodles with spicy scallions, and a most interesting cold plate of cooked, dark-marinated radish sticks (i.e. daikon). Dian Shi Zhai scores by managing to create outstanding versions of these dishes without the overloading of sugar and oil that can so easily mar Shanghainese cuisine. A winner. Dian Shi Zhai, #320 Yongjia Lu, near Xiangyang Nan Lu. 5465-0270, 5465-0271. No English signage, locate it by street number, but there is an English menu with photos.
Jia Jia Tang Bao. When it comes to dumplings, there are times when only casual, street-level food will satisfy, and the soup dumpling urge is one of those times. Few things are better on a chilly, rainy day than a fresh hot basket of steamed dumplings filled with pork or crab-and-pork along with a shot of rich, hot broth that you suck out first by biting a careful little hole in the wrapper before you actually tear into the dumpling. [Reverse the sequence and you might leave wearing your lunch.] As soon as you turn the corner onto Huanghe Lu you’ll recognize this tiny establishment — it’s the place with the line snaking out the door and down the sidewalk. What’s a 30 minute wait for dumplings like these? A basket of 15 truly excellent pork dumplings is delicious, but splurge and go for the pork and crab dumplings (xiefen xianrou tangbao), unless you wish to avoid pork altogether, in which case the chicken dumplings (jiding xianrou tangbao) should hit the spot. Jia Jia Tang Bao, 90 Huanghe Lu, by Fengyang Lu. 6327-6878. No English menu, but as they serve so few items, it’s not hard to communicate your order.
Guangming Village. You’ll never have any trouble locating this place on busy Huaihai Lu, because every hour of the day and night, there is a mob outside! Most of those people are queuing up to buy the snacks sold on the first floor, but the second floor, where a la carte dishes are served, can also get crowded. Slip back in time to the 70s and 80s when the only way to get a seat in a restaurant was to pick out someone who appeared to be almost finished, hover behind them, and snatch their seat the instant they stood up… it’s still that way during peak hours at Guangming Village. In fact, my local friends think of it as the last such place still hanging on in Shanghai. Great scallion oil noodles. No English spoken, no English menu, but photos of every dish are there to guide you. It’s a Shanghai institution. Hover, point, and take a chance. Guangming Village, 588 Huaihai Zhong Lu, near Chengdu Nan Lu. 5306-7878.
Shanghai Uncle. You have to appreciate a Shanghainese restaurant that is willing to rework classic dishes in search of something new, even if it does not succeed with every dish. Among appetizers, a standout is the Shanghai style smoked fish. Not really smoked, xun yu is dry-cooked in a complex blend of soy and spices that evokes the smoked flavor. The Uncle’s ma lan tou, wild herbs with minced dry tofu, is fantastic, a perfect balance of healthy ingredients and subtle flavors. Some people rave about the pork ribs in pine seed sauce, but we found it to be overly sweet and fatty, with tough meat underneath. Never mind. “Eight Treasure with sticky rice cake” is a triumph–chewy rice cakes are cooked in an addictive piquant sauce with pine nuts, fine-cubed pork, diced mushrooms, and other goodies, then topped with a mound of crystal-fresh shrimp. Atmosphere is elegant, service is attentive, and English at least usable. Shanghai Uncle, two locations. Yan’an Dong Lu #222, 021-6339-1977. Also 211 Tianyaoqiao Lu, by Nandan Lu (6464-6430). English menu.
Xin Dau Ji. After earning a Michelin Star in Hong Kong, Xin Dau Ji opened up two branches in Shanghai. A large glossy menu showcased an extravagant variety of offerings, including dim sum and a much better variety of accompaniments (teas, drinks, etc) than one usually finds. I was not quite up to ordering their signature suckling pig, and we found that most dim sum was sold out by evening, but the large, fresh prawn dumplings were still in stock, and they were awesome. Chicken steamed with black mushrooms in lotus leaf was a little too subtle (on account of steaming the ingredients atop the leaf rather than wrapping them in it), but boneless chicken dusted with Sichuan peppercorn powder and presented atop crunchy deep fried greens was unforgettable. The English name on the menu is something like stir-fried chicken with Sichuan pepper, and the Chinese name means little chicken balls—a bit imprecise, but it is one of their most famous dishes and you should have little trouble locating it. Xin Dau Ji, two locations. Xuhui District: #47 Xinle Road, near Xiangyang Nan Lu, 5403-5777 and 5403-8896. Shanghai City Minghang District: #205 Chengjiaqiao Lu. 5221-7557.