Shanghai In Love

There’s something special about Shanghai’s hongshao rou (red braised fatty pork). The perfect cubes of pork, with a inch-thick layer of pure fat on the top that I love to peel off and leave to the side. It’s the meat underneath that’s solid gold. Tender, melt-in-your-mouth (pardon the cliche), dreamy. Slather the piece over a white bowl of rice and you’ve got yourself the perfect meal. Order perhaps a saucy tomato-and-egg on the side for contrast. But the hongshao rou itself will suffice. It always has. No surprise that it was Chairman Mao’s favorite dish.

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“J, we have to go to Shanghai,” were my exact words a day into our stay in Xiamen. Not a food connoisseur himself (but an amazing food photog), he pressed me for reasons to go other than the food. I listed them with fluency (I had been rehearsing this moment for a while now): cheap custom-tailored suits for under $100, a heavy Western culture in a Chinese city, a thriving metropolis comparable to New York City, a chance to hone his Mandarin-speaking skills with my Chinese colleagues I had met the year before. I even added one of the world’s best xiaolongbaos to the list for good measure.

I had him at the suits.

By Friday we were on a high speed bullet train to the city I had fallen in love with a year ago. I remember my first fine dining experience at Jean Georges Shanghai, and some particularly impressive demonstrations of molecular gastronomy a la Paul Pairet’s Mr. and Mrs. Bund. But it wasn’t the $75+ prix-fixe with gorgeous views of the Huangpu river I was after this time.

It was the fare at Shanghai Grandmother (on the corner of Sichuan and Fuzhou Lu) — a unpretentious Shanghainese restaurant with service passable enough for Western tastes and food palatable for all. It was my regular favorite and the place I always took visitors. Their red-braised pork is top-notch, their sauteed eggplant — oh-so-creamy. The tomato-and-egg is fluffy with a hint of sugar and their glutinous rice ball soup dessert is unlike anything I’ve ever set my tongue to in the states. It’s chewy rice balls settled in thick, sweet broth. And the meal was cheap too. A total of no more than $12 for a four dish meal.

After our meal, we braved through the winds and rain and walked two blocks to the viewing strip on the Bund, perhaps the most iconic destination in the city. A sprawling strip of Western architecture to our backs housed Shanghai’s most prestigious banks. We were standing at the cusp of Shanghai’s economic center — and arguably the country’s.

Across the shimmering river was the towering Pearl Tower, a shining pink, and a growing line of skyscrapers. Faint pastel lights, rhythmic pouring rain, and a clock tower to the distance — it was like falling in love with Shanghai all over again.

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