Let’s just get into it. There are two schools of braised brisket and I’ve been to five places in Shanghai in the past ten days doing the math on all of them. Braised brisket is trendy these days.
Snap up. Pay attention. The schools are: 1. Zhu Hou (柱侯) 2. Qing Tang (清湯).
In the Zhu Hou style, the stewing liquid includes dark soy and fermented bean broth. Qing Tang, which means clear soup, does just that: a braise in clarified beef stock.
Lesson One: forget about Zhu Hou.
Purists do it best, and purists go for Qing Tang braised beef. No distractions. This is what I ordered at all five places.
Lesson Two: Know your cuts
Colloquial Chinese uses the term niu nan (牛腩) to refer to the brisket, which is a specific cut, but also nearby cuts. It’s not the most specific term there is. Fortunately, this new wave of brisket specialists is restoring the specificity in naming. The other cuts to watch out for are keng nan (坑腩) or boneless short rib; shuang nan (爽腩) skirt steak; and beng sha nan (崩沙腩), hanger steak. These all come from the undercarriage of the cow. In Chinese butchery, unlike Western butchery, the membranes and connective tissues are left on these cuts to give more texture and flavor. It’s got to have that snap and chew to it. Hanger steak is most prized because it gives the chew and the yielding tenderness in one bite.
Are you taking notes? We are going on a field trip.
Qi Ye (七爺清湯腩)
The first stop is Qi Ye, which means seven masters, and refers to Hong Kong actor Jordon Chan and six of his friends, who opened this shop in the basement of new mall LuOne in October. This is the first Shanghai location, and it goes for Hong Kong vibez with round stools, old stereos lining the walls and HK TV channel TVB playing on a big screen. There’s a queue during prime hours. It borders on wanghong.
The standard 68rmb brisket bowl uses a combination of skirt steak and boneless short rib; they currently don’t have hanger steak on offer. The skirt steak was tender and beefy. Grade A. Short rib, dry and tough, Grade C. Broth was bland, but the requisite white radish, a must-have accompaniment to any Hong Kong braised beef was sweet and tender. 68/100.
Tin Hau Station (天后站)
Another mall basement restaurant, like Qi Ye, without the crowds. However, Tin Hau Station, in the Hubindao Mall, also near Xintiandi, offers all three cuts of Hong Kong brisket, for 24rmb (small) or 42rmb (regular). It has more of a street food vibe with cheap plastic bowls and a heavy dose of umami (MSG) in the broth, which has a place in this kind of food. Marks for authenticity. Grade A for both skirt steak and hanger steak, but the lack of foot traffic meant the white radish was completely mushy. Failure on the radish. Overall, 65/100.
Only spot on the list that’s not a newcomer, and not a brisket specialist. But perhaps in an effort to ride the brisket wave, they have been highlighting their own Qing Tang brisket in advertising and social media. Of the three Shanghai locations, only the Disney branch offers all three cuts of beef. At Xintiandi and Taikoo Hui they only use skirt steak.
The skirt is both tender (the meat) and chewy (the connective tissue), and the soup is clear and light. The whole package, at 62rmb, is better than it needs to be and holds its own against the specialty restaurants. 70/100.
Sun Sin (新仙清湯牛腩)
Sun Sin was started by a Hong Kong couple more than 60 years ago, and opened its first Shanghai branch less than a year ago. They won a Bib Gourmand from Michelin from 2012-2015 and throw it in your face (but no mention of what went wrong after 2015).
These grade high. The triple platter (168rmb) is its own class in beef under-anatomy, presenting all three cuts in an option of clear broth, a spicy mala broth or a curry broth. The menu suggests curry for the short rib. The cooking is enthusiastic, with the connective tissue soft, not snappy, but the meats are all moist and tender. White radish, also tender and sweet. I’ll be back. 80/100.
Yuhua Dongfa (裕華東發)
Yuhua Dongfa is the sister restaurant to the legendary Kau Kee, which many consider the original brisket institution in Hong Kong, in operation since 1930. For decades, celebrities and tourists alike have lined up at 21 Gough Street to eat the brisket noodles, and as of February 2018, Shanghai can do the same.
Opposite IAPM in a second floor walkup, the Shanghai location is a different beast. While Kau Kee focuses on brisket and noodles, Yuhua Dongfa is a full-on Cantonese restaurant, and a very good one at that. Ignore the polyester décor. Their focus is on the kitchen.
The marquee Kau Kee brisket (138rmb) uses a combination of skirt steak and brisket, and is an exercise in elegance and simplicity. Served in a porcelain vessel with a heating element underneath, the brisket stays bubbling hot in a gelatinized and nuanced beef broth. Each slice of beef sits on top of an equally sized sliver of daikon, making for a perfect bite. Pretty to look at, even more satisfying to eat, Yuhua Dongfa is undoubtedly at the head of the Shanghai brisket class. 90/100.