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January 23, 2012

Shanghai

Ubiquity Defined Dominic Armato

Every time I travel abroad, sights like this give me hives. Not because one of our nation's most notable exports is a place that serves espresso that tastes like anthracite and coffee flavored milkshakes in one quart cups (though that's a fabulous reason). Rather, it's because cities overseas look more and more like home every year, and while nobody's going to be mistaking Shanghai for Phoenix anytime soon (or ever), the neighborhoods where you could ignore the language on the signs and imagine that you're Stateside are growing by leaps and bounds.

Of course, to a certain degree, this has always been the case in Shanghai, a modern and internationally-influenced metropolis on the shores of what was, until recently, a highly insular country -- and a city that, for me, has always been a frustratingly short layover rather than an actual destination. Though I've spent plenty of time in Pudong International Airport, this past trip was the first time I managed to get into the city proper. The evening connection was looking just a little too tight. We'd need to spend the night. And with the next day set aside as a free day to rest and prepare for work, why not schedule the second leg of our flight to Hong Kong for later in the day and explore Shanghai a bit? And so, with just shy of 24 hours on the ground in a city I've always wanted to visit, the question became how much could I and what would I cram in.

Salted ChickenDominic Armato

A 9:30 PM hotel arrival, even on a Saturday night, limited our dinner options somewhat, so I figured a good start would be to shoot for a taste of classic Shanghai at the original Ji Shi restaurant, more colloquially referred to and even listed on their street sign as "Old Jesse." Though other locations have spread throughout the city, some offering highly contemporary takes on the local cuisine, scuttlebutt is that the original is both the most classic and by far the best, so that's where we landed. Squirmed might actually be a more appropriate verb. From street level you descend into a narrow storefront, a good six feet below ground level, into a room that can’t be more than 10' x 10', yet seated 20 on this particular evening (there are other floors above that we didn't see). Though subterranean, it's well-appointed, with a translated and easily approachable menu that makes it easy for those of us who neither look nor (sadly) speak the part.

Beef TendonDominic Armato

We started with Ji Shi's salted chicken, marinated, cooked (poached?), chilled and then, in typical Chinese fashion, sliced with little to no regard for where the bones are located. I'm always amazed by the chickens in China, so lean and flavorful. It's yet another stunning example of how we've completely ruined our livestock. In any case, this chicken was very lightly seasoned, perhaps a touch of shaoxing and an ample but not overpowering amount of salt. What it tasted like was chicken, and though a little tougher than similar preparations that I've enjoyed more, it was a fine start. We moved on to the spicy beef tendon, sliced thick, slightly sweet with a little bit of chile warmth, dressed with cilantro and toasted peanuts. Chinese food tends to be highly texture-conscious, and though the flavor was lovely, what grabbed me was the pleasant chewiness of the tendon, cut thick enough to provide some real bite, but cooked enough that it yielded to active chewing. I really dug it.

Fried BambooDominic Armato

I was surprised to discover that the fried bamboo was a dish I've had before, many times in fact, at Peking Garden in Hong Kong. While I find these days that Peking Garden, one of our old standbys, is no longer to my taste (more on this shortly), this is one dish where I prefer the Maxim Group's contemporary take. Ji Shi's version is delicious, bamboo shoots fried to achieve a light golden color, sweet flavor and tender bite, buried in a pile of crispy fried greens (salt cabbage?). It's a texture and flavor contrast that has an addictive, almost snacky character. On the other hand, the additions of fried shredded conpoy (dried scallop) and candied walnuts in the version to which I'm accustomed take the dish over the top, and whether or Ji Shi's version is more traditional -- I really don't know -- I found myself pining for the other.

Pork Belly in Brown SauceDominic Armato

Ji Shi's highly regarded braised pork belly in brown sauce, however, elicits no comparisons to others, because as far as I'm concerned this is basically as good as it gets. Oh, sure, there are infinite variations on the premise, but none I enjoy more. It is, I believe, a straight-up traditional Hong Shao Rou, or red-cooked pork, but in Ji Shi's version the "brown sauce" is an unusually deep and complex (though no less sweet) sauce, with heavy caramel flavor, predominantly scented with star anise. The texture of the pork shoots the gap between firm and gelatinous, the fatty parts melting away in the mouth while the meatier bits keep your jaw from feeling superfluous. I've had this dish a lot, and though those whose preferences shy away from the sweeter end of the spectrum may find it lacking, I thought it was a really superlative version, among the best I've tasted.

Steamed FishDominic Armato

I'd also heard good things about the steamed perch, but our server's recommendation took us to a different fish instead. I don't know what it was, but it was predictably delicious. This is a simple prep that I never tire of, a whole fresh fish steamed and doused with a mix of soy sauce, shaoxing, sesame oil, rock sugar and aromatics, in this case just scallions. The fish's flesh was shockingly moist, bordering on downright juicy, and the sauce was mellow but none lacking in flavor. Simple, traditional and beautifully executed. It being a chilly winter night, we also had soup on the brain. Though I don't recall the name of the chicken soup we ordered, I probably should have gathered from the price that I was ordering more than a simple cup of broth for two. Rather, this one took the phrase "a chicken in every pot" to a literal level, as we were served a whole chicken in a giant tureen, submerged in a simple chicken broth spiked with goji berries. Though the chicken itself was unseasoned and halfway spent, having sacrificed its flavor to the soup, the broth was delightful, sporting a vibrant yellow color and tasting simply of chicken with only the slightest hint of sweetness from the berries. One of the things that never ceases to amaze me in China is the color, flavor and clarity of their beautiful broths, so simple and yet so stunningly good. Though a western palate may expect more salt, this was no exception. I've had chicken broths I've enjoyed more, but this was expertly prepared.

Chicken Soup Dominic Armato

Though the restaurant was cramped and raucous when we entered at 10:00, it was completely deserted except for a couple of staff members who seemed anxious for us to leave when we did just that around 11:30. We climbed into a taxi and headed back to get some rest. Though I wouldn't list the meal among my favorites of the trip, Ji Shi had provided a fine start and set the table for the deluge to come.

Lin Long Fang's MenuDominic Armato

The next morning brought an early start and a subway trek into a Shanghai residential neighborhood in search of a local foodstuff that has inspired more recent food nerd obsession than perhaps any of China's culinary exports. My devotion to xiao long bao (aka soup dumplings) has already been documented, and an opportunity to sample some in close proximity to their birthplace makes for the kind of anticipation that keeps people like me awake at night. Or maybe that was the jetlag. In any case, my target was Lin Long Fang, called out by Jing Theory and E*ting The World, and further backed up by pal TonyC of SinoSoul as one of the finest and most consistent spots in Shanghai for XLB. The subway was a breeze. Even if I weren't good with maps, Google Maps on a smartphone makes navigating the streets trivial. The menu, on the other hand, presented something of a problem for somebody who can't even speak Mandarin, much less read it. I would like to take this opportunity to once again offer my undying loyalty, devotion and a sizable portion of my pocketbook to the first person who develops a smartphone app that will allow you to photograph and instantly translate menus written in non-Roman characters. But I have to say, Twitter and TonyC filled in beautifully for the software of my dreams. Two minutes later, I knew which placards to point to, and my order was handed off to the kitchen.

Folded To OrderDominic Armato

The kitchen, or at least the displayed portion thereof, is right next to the register (it's a tiny place), a small table partially separated from the dining area by a single pane of glass and manned at this early hour (7:30 or so) by a small staff of young hands, folding every dumpling to order and placing them in bamboo steamers by the dozen before shipping them to the back room to cook. From there, it's just a few steps to the dining area, where I imagine the six seat tables make for something of a communal dining experience once the lunchtime crowds start to roll in, but which was largely deserted at this early breakfast hour. We took a seat, grabbed a pair of chopsticks off a crock on the table, and had a taste of the shredded ginger -- ordered separately -- in a sweet and vinegary light syrup, a departure from the chinkiang vinegar to which I'm accustomed. And in less than ten minutes, our xiao long bao arrived in a cloud of steam.

Shredded GingerDominic Armato

For the uninitiated, xiao long bao are a stunning example of a highly evolved foodstuff, where a scant handful of ingredients are transformed through creativity and precise technique into a sophisticated, refined and absurdly delicious dish. Technically a bun owing to the wrapper's composition, even if they more closely resemble dumplings in practice, xiao long bao's most notable feature is that they're filled with both solid and liquid filling. The filling, when folded, includes chilled pork aspic that liquefies when steamed, such that biting into a cooked bun yields both meat -- most often pork and possibly crab -- and a gush of clear, luscious pork broth. Of course, when in China, biting seems far less prevalent than nipping, sipping, then dipping and eating the rest once the soup has been drained. But speaking personally, for me there's nothing like that burst of hot soup when one of these fellows explodes in your mouth, and though caution is advised, I'll risk scalding myself every time, particularly when they're this amazing.

Xiao Long BaoDominic Armato

Given the amount of steam billowing out of the basket, I thought it best, given my preferences when it comes to eating these fellows, to give them a minute or two before diving in. Two minutes might as well have been two hours. Lin Long Fang's are beautifully constructed, perhaps not with the almost mechanical perfection of Din Tai Fung's, but thin and light, appropriately droopy and heavily laden with soup; soup possessed of a beautiful, clean and clear pork flavor, just fatty enough to provide a little lusciousness without getting heavy. The wrapper, delicate and delightful. The pork filling, tender and moist. And the ginger in sweet syrup, though new to me, has supplanted chinkiang vinegar as my favored condiment. I've had scant few XLB of this caliber, and while stylistic choices make me reluctant to call one the best, I think I'm okay with calling Lin Long Fang's my favorite.

Sag Factor Dominic Armato

From the pork only version, we moved on to the pork and crab. I've never been satisfied with the combination -- the crab has always struck me as too subtle -- until now. And though it was tempting to throw caution to the wind and order a third basket of dumplings filled completely with crab, I decided to hold off given our lunch plans. Best part? A dozen pork XLB came in at a whopping $1.58. I could have happily sat there all day, gorging on every kind of XLB on the menu for a pittance. But Sipalou Lu called.

Qiang BingDominic Armato

Consensus among those who know what they're talking about seems to be that the street food scene in Shanghai has nosedived in recent years. The "cleanup" that proceeded the 2010 Expo included gentrification that eliminated some of the most popular spots for roadside grub, and lamentations that the old Shanghai has become even harder to find are numerous. While I'm in no position to speak firsthand, I do know that researching spots for street food in Shanghai led to an awful lot of outdated dead ends until TonyC came to the rescue again with the recommendation of Sipalou Lu. Old Shanghai indeed, bustling foot traffic crowding out the occasional car, rough around the edges and nothing taller than three stories, this stretch of the street east of the City God Temple and just north of Fu Xing Dong Lu, though nestled amongst the skyscrapers, has remained entirely untouched by gentrification, and is among the more vibrant and exciting places -- at least for a food nerd -- that I've visited in China.

Low-Tech CookeryDominic Armato

We started on Sipalou Lu proper, which didn't seem to be operating at full strength. I suspect the timing of our visit, both early in the morning and on an especially frosty winter day, meant that we didn't catch it at its best. Still, there were a number of stands up and running, and the first thing I sampled was an item called, I believe, qiang bing (somebody please correct me if I've missed this one), a large, bready pancake stuffed with green onions. I can't say this was an exciting start, though I suspect it was more the fault of the food's preparation than its inherent nature. Rule number one for street food is that you ought to be watching it cooked right in front of you, and I have no idea how long these had been sitting there. Given their lukewarm temperature and soggy consistency, I suspect a while. The flavor wasn't unenjoyable, but I'm sure these were nowhere near their best.

Jian BingDominic Armato

I wouldn't make the same mistake twice. My next item was one made to order, a thin, rolled egg crepe called jian bing, which was being prepared by no fewer than four vendors on the three block stretch we walked. The fellow preparing mine was cooking on an empty, rusted drum filled with burning wood and topped with a flat griddle, a bucket of thick batter at one side and a tray of fresh ingredients at the other. He started by spreading a ladleful of the batter around his cooking surface and letting it rest for a few moments before cracking an egg over the top and gently beating and spreading it around. After loosening the pancake from the griddle, he proceeded to add other ingredients... a smear of bean paste, a dash of chile sauce, a sprinkling of minced garlic and cilantro... before laying on a crisply fried sheet of bean curd, folding the crepe over three or four times, slicing it down the middle and stacking the two halves on top of each other. He wrapped it in plastic, I paid my seven yuan, and walked down the street crunching away. THIS particular item, unlike the qiang bing, was completely fabulous. It was everything that makes for great street food, a vibrant combination of flavors and textures, hot and crisp and in your mouth seconds after leaving the fire. Between this, nearly two dozen XLB and a large, thick onion pancake I was nearing capacity and fearing for my lunchtime appetite, else I would have tried two more vendors to compare. Instead, I thought it best to call a win a win and move on.

EggsDominic Armato

Sadly, this was all the street food I got. These vendors rotate what they offer throughout the day, and we were still a couple of hours from lunchtime, so the only other offering I located was youtiao, the large sticks of fried bread that I just wasn't prepared for at that point. So instead we headed west into the surrounding neighborhood, and came upon a really stunning street market area, probably not dissimilar to countless others around the city but still breathtaking to somebody who only sees such things when traveling abroad. The very first stand I encountered? Eggs. How many varieties? I don't know... eight? Nine? Ten? And we're not talking about the difference between large, extra large and jumbo, here. Different sizes, different colors, different birds... I could visit a dozen markets in Phoenix and not see the variety of this one ramshackle roadside stand in a random neighborhood in Shanghai. The produce, predictably, wasn't as varied (after all, they're pretty much cooking only one cuisine over there), but criminy, I'd kill for vegetables this crisp and fresh. Seafood still swimming, chickens and ducks still wandering around, ready for a quick roadside slaughter... I'm sure most if not all of what I saw was on the farm just a few hours prior.

ButcherDominic Armato

Though it's somewhat less exciting than seeing all of these stands crowded onto the sidewalk, there's an indoor market in the vicinity as well. I should've noted its exact location as it's easy to miss (just follow the crowds), small entrances on four sides of the block opening into a dark, dingy but impressive collection of stands, jam-packed with produce, meats and fish of every kind. Naturally, they all specialize. Produce stands sell produce. Fishmongers sell fish. Butchers sell meat, usually just from one animal. Others may specialize in eggs, cured meats, pickled vegetables, fresh noodles... all narrow categories overseen by folks who make a living working just with that specialty. THIS is the way to shop for food, the purveyors more closely connected to their products and in a better position to offer you the best, and all of them packed into close proximity. Aside from needing to pay three or four times to get everything on your list, it's no less convenient than a supermarket, yet it provides all of the obvious advantages. Even the best permanent markets I've seen in the States barely hold a candle to this random Shanghai neighborhood market, and so few cities back home have them. How did we get away from this? How did we lose this wisdom? It's as infuriating as it is exciting, a feeling that would color all of my market visits throughout the trip. We wandered for a couple of hours, marveling at what we saw. And got hungry. Time for lunch.

Crab, Crab, Crab and Crab Dominic Armato

Hairy crab is a local delicacy this time of year, and I made a goal of gorging on it before skipping town. In truth, fall is more the time of year for such an endeavor, but I was assured that we'd catch the tail end of the season, and I'd read some good things about Xinguang restaurant, which offers lengthy set menus centered around these little fellows. What Xinguang does when hairy crabs aren't in season, I have no idea. But hairy or otherwise, crabs are such a high-maintenance food that I'd gladly take any opportunity to try seven different preparations thereof in one sitting.

Thick Crab SoupDominic Armato

The first four dishes were a quick progression of largely unadulterated crab meat, starting with the claws and moving inward. The first, a pile of claw meat, struck me as disappointingly dry, but was served with two sauces, chinkiang vinegar and an extremely sweet, almost syrupy soy infused with ginger and also, I believe, touched with some vinegar. These helped to moisten it a bit as well as bring out the flavor. I found the leg meat much more satisfying, stir fried with fresh asparagus, lightly glazed and possessing the moisture that the claws lacked. I started to swoon when we got to the body, all of the tiny flakes of meat that those back home would refer to as backfin, again stir fried and seasoned with I don't know what, but definitely including a touch of mustard -- by which I don't mean prepared mustard seed, but naturally the crab's yellow hepatopancreas -- lending it a slightly funky flavor that was still ruled by the sweetness of the meat. The fourth iteration fully brought the funk, comprised solely of the mustard stir fried with flat bean noodles, rich and almost eggy, thick and sticky and tasting of all the parts of the crab most folks back home would discard. For me, it needed a touch of the sweet ginger vinegar to cut it, but with that minor adjustment, it was still fabulously decadent and in the running with the backfin for my favorite of the meal.

Noodles with CrabDominic Armato

Simple, almost unadulterated crab out of the way, we moved on to other dishes. First was a thickened crab soup that -- before I accidentally dusted it with about four times the amount of white pepper I would have liked -- possessed a mellow but full flavor, flecked with crabmeat and topped with a smattering of cilantro. Next were noodles, topped with another crab mixture, that satisfied even if it was one of the weaker dishes of the bunch. The crab was predictably lovely, but the noodles were quite ordinary. The crab deserved better. Our final dish was another soup, this one a clear broth with a very pronounced green onion or chive flavor, within which were swimming small wontons filled with seasoned crab meat. It was a light and delicate finish to a fine meal, and a note on which I was prepared to happily exit until we were also presented with a tea that I loved. It was an extremely dark brown, very sweet, and bursting with more ginger flavor than I would have thought it possible to cram into one little cup. I'd love to know how this stuff was made so I can do it at home.

Crab Dumpling SoupDominic Armato

I've often said that between the usually prohibitive expense and the fact that it's a royal pain to get it out of the shell, I've never eaten my fill of crab. I doubt I would have arrived there had it not been for the morning's exploits, but Xinguang was a first for me in this regard. Still, I have mixed feelings about the place. With the exception of the noodles, the preparations were very well done, but the product inspired some doubts. I felt the crab itself was lacking in some cases. No doubt hairy crab quality runs the gamut, and to be fair, as mentioned, this was right at the end of the season, but still... good as it was, I find it difficult to believe that this was what all the fuss is about. Add to this that our meal was in the neighborhood of $85/pp, and particularly when measured against the joy of $1.50/dozen xiao long bao, price performance is a legitimate question. Still, it's a rare treat to have so much crab in so many forms without getting near a shell, and on that basis I think it's a worthwhile endeavor.

Out of time already? Frustratingly, after a brief stop at the nearby First Food Store (meh...) and a roadside cart for a dessert of fresh mangosteen, it was time to return to the hotel, check out and head for the airport. To leave so soon after arriving in an exciting place is a difficult thing to do, and I hope to return someday. The good news is that the trip was barely getting started...

Old Jesse (Ji Shi)
www.xinjishi.com
41 Tianping Lu
Shanghai, China
6282-9260
Lin Long Fang
10 Jianguo Dong Lu
Shanghai, China
6386-7021
Xinguang Jiu Jia
512 Tianjin Lu
Shanghai, China
6322-3978

Comments

Torture... So glad you had a killer trip!

I am amazed at your ability to eat this all in one day! They would have had to roll me out of the market in a semi-comatose state. Thanks for letting us live vicariously through your adventures!

Vesuvius... leadup to the trip involved two weeks of near fasting in anticipation of days like these :-)

Dom, it's so wonderful that you created your blog to record just this kind of experience. I don't take photographs of my travels, because I feel like it can't capture what I see, but your photos combined with you words, transcribed so soon after have the experience, are truly priceless.

Um, I don't want to point fingers anywhere but my "random" set of objects to type in for my last post were eatc8n. Eat Satan? !!!!

;)

For reading Chinese menus try the Pleco app.

Great blog. But most importantly, where do I get some Grog(TM)? That is, do you have a place where your voice over fans can visit?

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