Anfull Court, that curiously transliterated compound at the west end of Anfu Lu. Sharing the building is weekend brunch hotspot and bakery Sunflour
and, next door to that, The Food Central
. Further down the road, the Wagas compound of Amokka
, Mi Thai
, Baker & Spice
, La Strada
What it is:
"Modern Shanghainese by David Laris." That's right. We all knew this day would eventually come. Shanghai's Greek-Aussie golden boy has finally gone native. Of course, a name like Laris on the masthead may cause some of you to question exactly how "native" Le Sheng could possibly be. I'd say it's "native" enough.
For starters, he's brought a chef by the name of Fang Chao on board to run the kitchen. Fang hails from neighboring Anhui Province, but he's spent the last decade working his way up throughout several kitchens in Shanghai, the most recognizable of which, at least to us foreigners, would be the Jardin de Jade. Laris is taking more of a back seat role, offering input mostly on style and presentation.
Like any Chinese restaurant worth its MSG, Le Sheng's menu is enormous, around 150 items in total. It's a veritable primer on the local cuisine. If you've been here for couple of years and have ventured outside of your Sherpa's catalog, you'll already be familiar with much of it. All of the standards are there: sweet and sour pork ribs, drunken chicken, "lion's head" meatballs, smoked fish, several permutations of the crab meat and tofu idiom, stir-fried eel, scallion pancakes, hongshao rou and even yellow croaker noodles with preserved vegetable. It's all traditional in content, but decidedly contemporary in execution. Plating and presentation hew to more Western sensibilities. Think ornamental sauce smears and the occasional island of food stranded in the middle of an oversized plate. Fang also cuts back on the oil and sugar, making a cuisine long lambasted for its cloying heaviness a bit more delicate and refined. He incorporates a few subtle innovations as well, preparing conventional ingredients in unconventional ways, like yellow croaker spring rolls.
Drinks come courtesy of another new recruit, Ryan Noreiks, who first made a name for himself at The Alchemist
. He's created as small list of seasonally-themed cocktails that incorporate Chinese ingredients like rice wine, green tea and ginger. His most interesting contribution, however, has to be the baijius that he's infused with ingredients like peach and chrysanthemum or plum and hibiscus.
Or, if you prefer something a little lighter on the liver, Laris and Co. have consulted with a local tea master to provide a wide range of local varieties.
In spite of the bits of Chinoiserie like napkin rings made of mahjong tiles, tea leaf panels, the atmosphere is arguably the least "Chinese" aspect of Le Sheng. It's dim and intimate, not bright and boisterous. The two main dining rooms consist of small, square, lazy Susanless tables. The music is mainly classics by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Nina Simone. As always, Laris signs his initials, with a big hunk of white marble. Upstairs is a private dining room that seats 16. I'd guess that it houses the only round table in the joint.
Quite a broad range. Most starters are anywhere between 26 and 58rmb, while luxury dishes like bird's nest and South African abalone go for 388 and 688rmb per person, respectively. Sharable portions are anywhere between 38rmb for fried rice to 288rmb for stir-fried river shrimp. Most of the cocktails are 58rmb. Bottles of Noreik's baijiu infusions are 158 across the board. Other spirits are available by the bottle too. Expect to pay anywhere between 600 for Gordon's gin to lucky 8888rmb for Hennessy Paradis. Wine prices start around 250 and end just on the other side of 1900.
Creative types from all of the neighboring design firms. Fashionable, forward-looking, young Shanghainese urbanites with disposable income. Gaggles of lunching tai tais who live in the nearby luxury residential towers and souped up lane houses.
When I first learned of Laris's plans to open this place, I was deeply skeptical. A laowai opening a local restaurant seemed like the height of hubris. Just the thought of it conjured up horrifying images in my mind: clumsy sino-hellenic hybrids like souvlaki yangrou chuan ("on the barbie, mate!"), yuxiang qiezi moussaka or, God forbid, choudoufu spanakopita. But Laris has cannily stepped aside to let the local talent work, providing input where appropriate. It's a collaboration that's produced impressive results so far.