Shanghai dining in style

BRIAN JOHNSTON
Last updated 10:38 27/05/2013
China-Landscape
Scott Wright of Limelight Studio

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A teenager in a lime-green tracksuit is standing by my restaurant table, punching at dough as if he's a kung-fu master confronting a demon.

He pirouettes and pulls the dough apart. Whack! whack! it goes on a wooden board and, in moments, strings of noodles appear.

With a twirl and a high kick, the waiter drops them into my hotpot and prances off in a cloud of flour.

Hai Di Lao is a restaurant I always return to in Shanghai, and not just for the spectacle of its kung-fu noodles.

This chain of Sichuan hotpot restaurants has made a name for itself thanks to inexpensive dining, outstanding service and progressive ideas. It now has a dozen outlets in Shanghai and more than 70 across China.

Not many foreign visitors venture into a Hai Di Lao - the do-it-yourself service, Chinese-only menus and sea of black-haired diners seem intimidating.

But join the queue at the door, where staff offer manicures, mobile-phone polishing or a spot of origami as you wait.

Once inside, just tap on pictures on the iPad menu, or point at dishes on other tables. Choose your own dipping sauces, plunge your ingredients into the hotpot - specialities are Mongolian lamb, beef balls and bamboo tofu - and have a giggle with the staff, whose lack of English is balanced by an endearing willingness to help.

The Hai Di Lao outlet on Changshou Road has another entertainment: a high-tech interface that allows diners to eat with their counterparts in Beijing. A semicircular table is set into a huge screen where a video link to the Beijing table gives you the impression you're sitting at the same table as your friends 1065 kilometres away.

The dining scene in China's most energetic city is constantly on the move, responding in wonderful ways to Shanghai's love of novelty and fashion trends.

Nor are there any signs that it's slowing down, with novel ideas popping up constantly. Video links are already almost passe: just check out the latest dining sensation Ultraviolet, which entirely surrounds diners with floor-to-ceiling video projection screens that make it seem as if you're sitting in a forest one minute, a nightclub the next.

Fifteen years ago, such ideas would have seemed as improbable as a Jules Verne story. Shanghai had plenty of hole-in-the-wall eateries, but little concept of fine dining or good service.

It was entirely lacking in international cuisine. These days Shanghai has one of the most varied dining scenes on the planet, making it a destination not just for Chinese food, but for everything from French to Spanish and Japanese.

Bund beginnings

The city's international restaurant revolution got its start when the art deco and neoclassical buildings of the riverside Bund received a facelift. When M on the Bund opened in 1999, it was the city's first international restaurant.

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Remarkably, it remains a favourite in this novelty-obsessed city, and Australian owner and chef Michelle Garnaut's signature dishes are still slow-baked leg of lamb and pavlova. In truth, though, I go here for the restaurant terrace alone, with its wow-worthy view across the river to the skyscrapers of Pudong.

M made the Bund the place to be. Next door, top chefs moved into Three on the Bund: Jean-Georges Vongerichten with Asian-accented French fare; Jeremy Leung reinvigorating Shanghai cuisine at the Whampoa Club.

The lustre faded slowly but, last year, the legendary dining venue bounced back with a few adroit changes.

Vongerichten added Mercato to the sixth floor - a cheaper, more relaxed version of his main restaurant with a focus on Italian seafood. I like his entree-size pasta dishes that allow diners to flit from lobster ravioli to salt-and-pepper sea bass or clam-filled squid-ink fusilli.

On the second floor, Michelin-starred Argentine chef Mauro Colagreco opened Colagreco, part cocktail bar and tapas lounge, part restaurant.

Here, French cuisine is enlivened by Mediterranean and Latin American flavours: chickpea stew with red mullet, scallops on a celeriac puree, Argentine meats barbecued over apple wood.

Bund views are still stellar, though Colagreco's spectacular plating steals the show.

Southern exposure

Despite the changes, Three on the Bund is the grande dame of the Shanghai dining scene. To find the teenagers, head down to South Bund, which has emerged in the last two years as the cool and funky alternative to the Bund's grand and colonial.

El Willy relocated here last year from the French Concession, into an informal space where timber, glass and quirky artworks - along with colourful plates decorated with stylised pig's snouts - reflect the hip, whimsical nature of owner-chef Willy Trullas Moreno.

His "Happy Spanish" cuisine features upmarket, modernised tapas: salmon in puff pastry with truffle oil, seared foie gras with apple, razor clams in spicy sauce.

Also in South Bund, Char has views over the river and Shanghai's neon-lit skyline to please the cocktail crowd. Seared scallops, buckets of oysters and smoked salmon feature on tasting plates at the bar, while the restaurant brings sexy back to the steakhouse.

True, I wrestle with the concept of eating Aussie steak in Shanghai, but there's no doubting the quality of the Blackmore grain-fed, marbled meat - which you can additionally have with seared foie gras, truffle and grilled lobster if you have nearly $300 to spare.

Nearby, Table No 1 has Michelin-star credentials thanks to chef and Gordon Ramsay protege Jason Atherton. Minimalist, industrial chic replaces art deco grandeur.

Guests dine at communal tables on top-quality but relatively simple dishes: squid-ink risotto and bowls of razor-shell clams.

Beyond the waterfront

The Shanghai tapas trend began three or four years ago as part of a wider movement towards more informal spaces and simple, quality food. It is exemplified at Cuivre, nominated newcomer of the year for 2012 in local food awards.

The restaurant's decor is pared down to the basics of concrete, copper and exposed wood, with the chopped-in half-bicycles that provide seats at the bar adding a cheeky note.

Here Chef Michael Wendling makes French food appear artless, with rustic-bistro escargots, terrine, beef tartare and mussels. Occasional Asian influences include chorizo matched with a Beijing-duck plum sauce.

When it comes to simpler, fresher menus, you could hardly be more minimalist than at another newcomer, The Plump Oyster.

Owner David Brode, a former private chef from Chicago, describes it as a "seafood speakeasy", and it's quite the place to go late at night when the mood for American jazz and seduction kicks in. Yes, you can get a few regular tasting plates, white wine and champagne.

But really, it's all about the 40-odd varieties of gin and the dozen types of oyster from seven different countries, flown in daily. Shuckers in chain-metal gloves pop them out of their shells as you order. If only they'd add a few kung-fu kicks, it would be perfect.

FAST FACTS

Staying there Get dizzy at the Grand Hyatt Shanghai, which takes up the 53rd to 87th floors of a Pudong skyscraper. Rooms from 2000 yuan ($402.5). Phone +86 21 5049 1234, see shanghai.grand.hyatt.com.

The Peninsula Shanghai on the Bund is the ultimate in indulgent luxury. Rooms from $637. Phone +86 21 2327 2888, see peninsula.com/shanghai.

Eating there Char, Zhongshan Dong Er Road 585. Phone +86 21 3302 9995, see char-thebund.com.

Cuivre, Huaihai Zhong Road 1502. Phone +86 21 6437 4219, see cuivre.cn.

El Willy, Zhongshan Dong Er Road 22. Phone +86 21 5404 5757, see el-willy.com.

Hai Di Lao Hot Pot, Changshou Road 468. Phone +86 21 6277 0701, see haidilao.com.

M on the Bund, Guangdong Road 5/7F. Phone +86 21 6350 9988, see m-restaurantgroup.com/mbund.

Table No 1, Maojiayuan Road 1-3. Phone +86 21 6080 2918, see tableno-1.com.

The Plump Oyster, Jianguo Road 169/3F. Phone +86 21 5418 3175, see theplumpoyster.com.

Three on the Bund, Zhongshan Dong Yi Road 3. Phone +86 21 6323 3355, see threeonthebund.com.

Ultraviolet (no fixed address). Phone +86 21 6142 5198, see uvbypp.cc.

More information China National Tourist Office, phone 9252 9838, see cnto.org.au.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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