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[Eat It]: Special Orders at Jesse

SmartShanghai visits a long-time Shanghai fave for a taste of its fabled spring onion fish head and and red braised pork shank.
2012-11-29 16:54:01
Eat It is a regular feature that cuts to the core of a given restaurant's menu, highlighting a specialty, favorite, or otherwise good thing to eat.

Jesse Restaurant's humble, shabby interior belies the artistry that goes in its kitchen. For years it's been a standard bearer for Shanghainese cuisine. Ask any local for dining recommendations, and this place is likely to be on their list. Over the past few years, I've been been piecemeal working through Jesse's menu, and this week I've finally gotten around to trying two of their special advance-order dishes. Let's take a look.

You'll see this one going out to nearly every table in the restaurant.

It's called cong shao yu tou, a fish head roasted in a crisp skein of spring onions. I know what you're thinking. It looks like something you'd encounter on the beach at low tide.

Unfortunately, It doesn't look much better after the server pulls back the scallions either...

So it's not much on appearance. But let's face it. The best of Shanghainese cuisine seldom is. Jesse's recipe calls for cod. That's quite unusual for a restaurant like this. Shanghainese cuisine is better known for it's freshwater fish. Carp, for instance, would normally be the go-to ingredient for such dish. That's not a complaint, mind you. I'm no purist. And if you're going to eat a fish head, you can't do much better than cod. All of that sweet, butteriness that makes a cod fillet so delicious is multiplied by a factor of five when you get to the head with its soft, pliable collar meat and its tender succulent cheeks.

Jesse's staff aren't terribly forthcoming on how exactly they prepare this dish. That's no surprise. Chinese chefs are notoriously stingy with their recipes. All they're willing to divulge to me is that they pan-fry the head in the spring onions. I'm not convinced that it's so simple. There is entirely too much going on with this dish. The fish retains so much fat and moisture on the inside. Outside there is a sweet layer of caramelization. One has to wonder if maybe they don't at least deep fry it for a spell first. I've heard others speculate that they steam it as well.

Now, Jesse isn't about to keep fish as pricey as cod lying around, so if you want some, you'll have to order this in advance -- at least a week. That's about how far in advance you have to book a table at Jesse anyway, so it works out just fine.

Price: 168rmb. Here it is in hanzi: 葱烧鱼头

While you've got them on the phone. Be sure to order one of these too...

This is another specialty you won't find on the regular menu. It's their hongshao tipang. If you've been here long enough you already know the cooking method. It's incredibly versatile. Braise anything -- pomfret, eel, sticky rice cakes, "lion's head" meatballs, or most famously pork belly -- in a mix of soy sauce, Shaoxing rice wine and sugar. Jesse's recipe incorporates fragrant spices like star anise and even a little bit of cinnamon as well. As you'd expect, the method is perfectly suited to pork shank too.

I’d venture to say that it's even better than pork belly. It's on the bone, slow cook anything on the bone and it's going to have much more flavor. Also, it's a more muscular cut. More collagen and connective tissue means a longer cooking time. A longer cooking time usually means more tender meat. And it is oh so tender. No knives are necessary. It yields to your chopsticks upon contact. Even better, noticeably absent are those thick, cloying ribbons of fat that you see on pork belly. The fat is more integrated. Every once in a while you pull off a silky morsel of it, but it doesn't drown out every bite.

Price: 98rmb. Here it is in hanzi: 红烧蹄膀.

For a full listing of Jesse, click here