Not a thing. Not a damn thing. Five liters of Coke Zero every day – though not a single calorie -- and I still get people asking me when the baby is due.
So I decided to eat sugar. I’m consciously cultivating a sweet tooth, deliberately rebelling against stevia and formaldehyde and whatever else they put in Coke Zero. I want some pure, sweet sugar. So I’ve been on a haphazard quest around town. If I am going to keep this inflatable tire around my waist, at least I’m going to enjoy blowing it up.
The first stop on the tour de diabetes was meant to be Amedei, a Florentine brand whose Chuao and Porcelana chocolates have won serious chocolate world awards, like the Chocolate Academy of London's prestigious "Golden Bean" prize.
They opened their first store outside of Italy in 2014, launching in New York, and then in 2016 they opened in Hong Kong Plaza here in Shanghai. I stumbled across them and was shocked. How had no one told me about this? Did anybody even know some of the world’s best chocolates were on the third floor of a Huaihai Lu mall? Apparently not because when I went back, they were closed. For good. Dammit!
So instead I walked across the intersection on that Shibuya/diagonal crossing at Huangpi Lu into the basement level of K11 and straight to Pierre Marcolini.
Marcolini is a Belgian pastry chef. His store has been open for about a year. I think there is more to the story but I was distracted by the macaroons and didn’t bother asking.
The eight levels of heaven
Marcolini has a lovely display case of chocolates, and they are delicious, and a kind of layered macaroon cone of various colors that you can pick from, and they are delicious too, and I’ve bought both on more than one occasion, and did I mention they are delicious?
My office is in this building and I pass by the store almost every day. But there’s one thing I’ve never done, nor seen anyone do, and that’s sit at the marble dessert bar in the back of the store and order plated desserts from a menu. There is a young Belgian chef who is responsible for it whom I feel bad for, because hanging out in a mall all day while no one orders your desserts must be a bore. So I put him to work.
This is what he does. The black gloves are so goth.
The chocolate Bio-Dome, 168 rmb
A dome of chocolate. Inside is a controlled atmosphere, a composting system, a closed water filtration loop, very sensitive scientific monitoring equipment, Pauly Shore and six tiny astronauts preparing for their certain-to-die mission to a far-off galaxy.
Oh no! The seal has been broken by hot chocolate poured over the high-tech chocolate dome!
Inside is caramel ice cream, poached meringue, praline, and chocolate cremeux. I didn’t see Pauly Shore anywhere. He must have escaped earlier.
Sorbet a la Framboise et Coulis de Chocolat Maison – it means “breakfast”, 168 rmb
This one was more classic. Raspberry sorbet with a chocolate meringue, milk chocolate coulis with fresh raspberry and blackcurrant, candied kumquat, and rose petals. Did I mention this all happened at 10am? This was breakfast. If I’m going to get my sugar levels up, I need to start early.
Next stop, IAPM, which has two chocolate shops worth visiting, for very specific things.
The first is Godiva, whose chocolate is just fine but whose ice cream is… If you have not had Godiva ice cream, you need to have Godiva ice cream. That is the message here. Eat. Godiva. Ice. Cream.
It is disgustingly rich. It can barely hold its shape.
A palate cleanser, 50 rmb
This picture was taken 10 seconds after it came out of the soft serve machine, and the cone weighed 10 pounds. This stuff has a higher specific density than lead. I think it’s made in that factory in the Ukraine that is helping North Korea. It is weapons-grade enhanced chocolate ice cream. I hear Valrhona is targeting them with a carefully crafted computer virus.
The second thing at IAPM is Royce.
Royce is Japanese – you can just tell from the name, right? – and they have come up with a special chocolate engineering method that produces chocolates that are in suspended animation, somewhere between a ganache and a solid, a fourth state of matter that slices like fudge but melts like a liquid.
Japanese chocolate innovation, 135 rmb
These are not the shiny, polished chocolates of Marcolini. Instead, they look like miniature cocoa brownies, slightly dusty, 20 to the box. You do not chew them. You let them warm up in your mouth, at which point they become very creamy. There are lots of varieties. I like Ghana Bitter. I’ve never got past Ghana Bitter. I hear the matcha ones are good too.
I used to think they were expensive but the way Shanghai goes, 135 rmb for a box of Royce chocolates – which will easily last me an hour – is beginning to seem like a bargain.
The Mixed Bag
The next day was Sogo, or Jiu Guang, if you’re being Chinese. That’s the mall next to Jing’an Temple and they refurbish their basement level every so often. This time around they are very heavy on snack-y desserts and so I wanted to check those out.
I headed straight to Beard Papa, the cream puff progenitor, who now offer various outer layers of puff (i.e., extra crispy), and, for August and September, a mango and thyme pastry cream. They are messy to eat, and are kind of like a jelly donut reimagined with an edible Styrofoam exterior. Like Royce and Godiva, they are not new but if you’ve never had one – why not?
Along the way we passed some gorgeous cakes.
I mean, just look at that Rose Cake. No idea what it tastes like because I didn’t think I could finish the entire thing on my own, and I have no friends, so it will remain a beautiful mystery. One day. One day…
Sweet sweet Mahjong cake
The most interesting thing in Jiu Guang by far is a shop called Tang’s Cake, or Tang Bing Jia, in Chinese. This is innovation. They sell pastries that look like mochi but are not mochi, and are done in traditional Chinese flavors like purple taro and salted egg yolk as well as new combinations like butter and coconut.
The outside layer is not the glutinous rice flour that the Japanese use for mochi but instead a flaky Chinese short pastry. Next time someone rips on Chinese desserts, or you need a gift for an older local, or you just want to support a company using their heritage to produce a great (assuming you like Chinese desserts – I do) product: Tang Bing Jia. I gave these to the girls in my office. They returned with a spreadsheet charting their scores for the various flavors. The salted egg yolk with taro was the runaway winner.
The Plated Desserts
The final stop on my three-day quest to ruin my pancreas brought me to Chikalicious.
I showed up at 12, ready to eat multiple courses of plated desserts. It turns out only the downstairs café is open then, serving layered crepe cakes paired with wine. One section of the menu was titled “It is fashion to drink white wine”. This was not for me.
I returned 112 minutes later, which I can state with accuracy, because the host of the second floor refused to let us in to wait at the dessert bar because we were – god forbid – eight minutes early.
A little insistence and we were granted seats in the air-conditioned dessert bar, but only in the waiting area, though all the pastry chefs were just milling about.
A senior chef waved us off taking photos of the staff with an arrogant shake of the hand, which seems dumb, because if you open a dessert bar, where all the chefs are working in front of you, the point might seem to some that you are fostering transparency.
At exactly 2pm, we were given permission to sit at the dessert bar.
Shot you anyway, Chikalicious. Ha!
That bitter start didn’t last long, because as much as I want to call Chikalicious an arrogant and pretentious dessert club, the desserts themselves were first rate. Light, fruity, interesting combinations, and beautiful plating. The menu is a prix fixe, which is not cheap. For 188 rmb, you get an amuse bouche (on my visit, a pink peppercorn mousse with raspberry sorbet), a choice of five desserts, and petit fours. This being the climax of my extended sugar rush, I went in for four plated desserts.
The amuse: Pink peppercorn mousse with raspberry sorbet
Fromage Blanc Island “Cheese Cake”, before they pour milk over it all
Mauro and Maya’s Wonderland Tiramisu
Lychee, Rose, Coconut, Yuzu
Chocolate, Pear, Dulce de Leche
The first three were excellent. They all had a light touch and little surprises, and were carefully calibrated pastry compositions, fancy little sugar creations for fancy young women (70% of their customers are young women, they estimated), and one bearded uncouth man, scratching his belly and wondering about his insulin levels.
The fourth, that chocolate thing, was meh. If you want chocolate, go to Marcolini.
So how did I fare, a Coke Zero man in the land of the sugar plum fairies? I loved it. I gorged on chocolate, like a real man does, and I pranced around with the Chikalicious girls, taking selfies and eating 600 rmb worth of desserts on a Friday afternoon, like the properly kept woman I’ve always yearned to be. I’m still not off the Coke, but you know how it is to quit. Maybe, just maybe, with a couple more desserts, I’ll finally be able to let go.
- Photos by Sheila Zhao