This had to be a record year for restaurant openings in Shanghai. But, as much as we all hate to admit it, we owe it all to the Expo. Along with the random acts of harmony and the creepy haibao statues came a potent dose of optimism. It really was a shot in the arm for Shanghai’s wining and dining scene. But, now comes the true test. With the "festivities" finished and plant succession well under way at the the former Expo site will the optimism fuel another year? You can count on there being some casualties in the coming months. But I can think of at least five with some staying power. These, in no particular order, are my top five Shanghai dining experiences in 2010.
For their charcuterie plate. There are plenty of other great things on the menu here, but this deserves the most praise. This is artisinal food. I know of very few restaurants in town that bother to cure their own coppa ham. I know of none who make their own head cheese and then have the guts to name it as such on the menu. Most restaurants would probably come up with some euphemistic moniker like “pork terrine”. And in spite of the unfortunate name, you should try it! Think of it as a rustic pate filled with tender, slow-cooked pork and gloriously huge chunks of fat.
Not for going local, actually. In a globalized economy “going local” is certainly admirable and, if nothing else, great PR for a restaurant. But countless noodle stalls and homestyle hovels in town are sourcing locally-farmed ingredients and with no hype or carbon footprint considerations. They do it simply because “local” is all that’s available to them. It’s not as big a deal as you might think in Shanghai. And honestly, after eating at Madison, this “local” mantra just seems immaterial. The menu itself is enough of a draw. It reads like an anthology of haikus and what comes to the table is just as simple and elegant: dishes like lightly seared kampachi topped with dollops of crème fraiche and caviar or duck breast over wilted chrysanthemum greens with oyster mushrooms and a brunoise of lemon zest confit. Chef/owner Austin Hu has also done some innovating work with distinctly Chinese ingredients. Yangmei (red bayberry/waxberry) ice cream comes to mind. Then there is the dessert piece de resistance, an apple tart with goat cheese ice cream and brandy caramel sauce.
For its sincerity. It’s small. Real small. But it’s all Brad Turley’s, which means that finally he can cook food unadulterated by input from upper management. It’s nothing ground-breaking, nor does it intend to be, nor, for that matter, does it have to be in order to be good. It’s just simple combinations composed of elements from both sides of the Pacific like toasted baguette topped with sea urchin and avocado, grilled steak with duck fat potatoes and candied bacon, or a torched tuna poké. It’s the food Turley cut his teeth on and it’s the food he does best.
For not exploiting its Michelin cred. Fresh out of the clutches of Gordon Ramsay Holdings, Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton could have done what a lot of chefs of his ilk do when they set up shop in Asia – slap his name on a restaurant masthead, charge exorbitant prices and neglect the place like a deadbeat dad. Instead, he enlisted the core leadership from Maze, the restaurant he ran in London, to run his kitchen. Not only that, he swoops in every eight weeks or so to check up on operations. Suffice it to say, he takes it seriously. And this is serious food. At times the simplicity in presentation belies the complexity in execution, think braised beef cheeks with a side of bone marrow-braised snails. Other times, it’s vice versa with his signature sweet corn sorbet (made from canned Green Giant corn, no less!) with avocado and crab cradled in a cocktail glass.
For showing me the sound of one hand clapping. Kappo Yu has taught me about suffering. Suffering stems from attachment. Attachment stems from not understanding the true nature of the universe and that true nature is that all things are fleeting. One night you may dine at Kappo Yu and have a beautiful toro sashimi or abalone tempura. Come back in a week and, as sure as the cherry blossoms wither and fall, they will be gone, but only to be replaced with something of equal if not greater beauty – fresh and perfectly appropriate for the season. Now, rather than wallowing in the samsaric throes of desire for flavors long since passed, I keep returning and am never disappointed.