Shanghai Recommendations for First Time Visitors

Shanghai was home for six years. The glory years. I originally wrote this as an email for a colleague on the eve of her first visit to Shanghai back in 2010. Several others have since taken the same list and come back with positive feedback, so it appears that these beacons of brilliance continue to shine.

1. Morning Shanghai

The best Shanghainese restaurant in Shanghai. It has two outlets, one providing an underground Shikumen experience in Xujiahui, the other taking pride of place on the fringes of the bund. The latter, its interior a throwback to 1920s Shanghai opulence, is situated inside the Astor Hotel, built in 1846 and situated next to the historic old Shanghai bridge. Make sure they give you the Chinese food menu. Do not miss the deep fried mandarin fish with sweet and sour sauce, or the preserved veg/bean curd rolls. Enjoy the velvet and the chandeliers.

2. Taikang Rd: Kommune Cafe / Shopping / Art / Other Goodness

Taikang Rd is home to the largest of Shanghai’s happening artsy districts and also housed my old business. By the time I had left in 2009, it was halfway through a massive transformation that brought an influx of new retailers, restauranteurs and business hopefuls. Though its lost a bit of its raw charm, don’t miss this place. Make sure to stop by the Kommune Cafe – a Taikang Rd establishment owned by a close mate and still the best cafe in the district (nay, city!).

3. Lost Heaven

Excellent Yunnan-style cuisine in a venue with a soothing, dark ambience. Located in the French Concession, this place is always packed, so book ahead. It always satisfied. Some of the best food you’ll find anywhere.

4. Vue Bar

This bar sits 30-odd stories up the Hyatt on The Bund hotel. It has sweeping, priceless views across old and new Shanghai. If you go to Morning Shanghai restaurant (above), then go to Vue before or after, as it’s a few minutes walk away. On every trip back to Shanghai since I left, I have re-visited this place to gaze and reminisce.

5. Glamour Bar

Another must do. Owned by a Melburnian and now an establishment venue, Glamour Bar has an old Shanghai vibe, excellent bar, and fabulous views across the Huangpu river. It is the sister of the famous “M on the Bund” restaurant upstairs (or downstairs?) in the same building. Visiting Australian dignitaries often eat/have  events at M, but I never rated it higher than the restaurants mentioned above. Many others would, though…

6. Park Hyatt lobby bar

Why? Because everyone deserves to have a drink 400+ metres above Shanghai. On a clear day/night, the views and perspective will take you to a higher place. A few floors up in the same building, there’s a glass-floored attraction that’s meant to be rather decent.

7. Yu Garden (old buildings, tea, souvenirs, restaurants)

Go for the sights, a tea ceremony and “Shanghai xiao long bao” (steamed pork dumpling with soup inside). For the latter, find the restaurant at the top floor of the building in the middle (by the pond). It gets very, very busy here, but is definitely worth a visit. However, if it’s raining, I’d recommend staying away, only because you’ll have a hard time finding a taxi out of there.

8. East Nanjing Rd / Nanjing Rd pedestrian street

Why? Because it is super crazy, super big, and so super busy that it’ll simultaneously amaze and annoy you. Go at night for extra dazzle. Start at the bund near the Peace Hotel and keep going until you hit People’s Square. It’s everything good and bad about New Shanghai in a thirty-minute stroll.

9. Barbarossa

If you do the above stroll, keep going along Nanjing Rd until you see People’s Park on the left. Barbarossa is a bar/restaurant suitable for singles, couples, families who want to eat/drink/dance/whatever. It’s everything to everyone and one of the few versatile venues I’ve seen that actually works. It is set amongst a small lake, trees, museums, skyscrapers and old Shanghai folks playing cards.

10. Dragonfly massage

You’ll be walking around and you’ll need a massage. Dragonfly caters mainly for expats/discerning (soft) locals but they pack a decent massage in a very soothing environment. You could also chance it at any of the other many massage places around, but if you want a safe bet, head to DragonFly and tell the masseuse to go as hard/soft as required. Don’t leave Shanghai without having a massage – here or elsewhere. Family tip: Avoid the places that masquerade as hairdressing salons…

Finally, some notes on transport…

Taxis – Ubiquitous and very cheap. If you have a choice, stick to the Dazhong/light blue, Qiansheng/green, or Jinjiang/white taxis (in that order). Most drivers don’t speak English, so get your venues transcribed in Chinese. There’s also an English help line – or there was before/during the Expo, which you can call on demand.

Metro – Efficient but usually chockers. Worth a go to observe the shenanigans alone. Also ubiquitous and very cheap.

Maglev – You’ll need to take the Line 2 metro to Longyang Rd station and then interchange, or taxi to Longyang Rd station and follow the signs to the maglev. Fourteen minutes to the airport? Do it.

AJ’s Sri Lankan Cuisine: Hoppers and more in Hong Kong

Despite being born in Australia, my Sri Lankan heritage dictates that every few months, I will crave a disproportionately large serving of hoppers. They are one of the greatest food exports from the resplendent isle. 

Plain hopper, up close and personal
Plain hopper, up close and personal

Hoppers are hemispherical rice flour and coconut milk pancakes, crispy along the sides while soft and fluffy in the middle. The base mixture is usually fermented overnight to impart a richer flavour. Eaten with both savoury and sweet accompaniments, they are what food dreams are made of.  

Anyhow, six years in Shanghai meant six years without a Sri Lankan restaurant  (that we were able to find, anyway). The only friends who knew how to make hoppers left Shanghai before we could share the joy, so hoppers became a twice or thrice-a-year event on trips back to Melbourne. A travesty. We could have sourced the correct hopper pans and made them ourselves, I guess, but that would have required effort. 

Having recently moved permanently to Hong Kong,  my wife and I were elated to learn of a newly-opened Sri Lankan restaurant in the city. Well, not quite the city, more like 50 minutes from Central on public transport, but a 50 minutes happily travelled for hoppers. 

AJs Restaurant - Exterior View
AJs Sri Lankan Restaurant - exterior

The restaurant, AJ’s Sri Lankan Cuisine, is located close to the pier in Sai Kung. There are several ways to get there, and these are explained well on Sai Kung’s wikipedia page. We took the MTR from Central to Choi Hung via Yau Ma Tei. From Choi Hung MTR station exit C2, there were normal buses 92 and 96R, and a constant stream of the crazy-but-efficient minibuses (route 1A), to Sai Kung pier. The scenic bus ride was about twenty minutes in duration. Arriving at Sai Kung peer, getting to AJ’s was a cruisey five-minute walk south along the waterfront. If confused, look out for the Sri Lankan flag flying from the roof of the restaurant. 

The friendly proprietor and chef, “RJ” Muthu Mudalige, wasn’t sure whether I contained traces of Sri Lankan nuttiness or not, but suspected something was up when I engaged him in a discussion about hoppers, among other things. His restaurant has been open since late 2009. While manning the kitchen of local tourist-friendly restaurant Anthony’s Ranch, RJ decided to set up his own operation, and AJ’s was born. 

AJs Restaurant - Interior View
AJs Sri Lankan Restaurant - interior

A pleasantly small and unpretentious space, AJ’s seats around 30 people at full capacity. If the various ornaments and wood-lined interior weren’t invoking a bit of Sri Lankan nostalgia, the wall flag and LCD-screen slideshow of beautiful photos certainly were. 

The attractively-priced 68 RMB brunch menu is a recent innovation at AJ’s, offering a choice of main course, starters consisting of RJ’s special spicy carrot muffin and fruit salad, and a choice of drink including good quality Ceylon tea. We chose the hoppers for the main course, of course, and with our eyes typically bigger than our stomachs, decided to order a cashew nut curry (unique to Sri Lankan cuisine as far as I know, and a must-have for my wife and probably yours, too), a seeni sambol (a caramelised, spicy onion dish), and fish cutlets. The hoppers came with a small serving of katta sambol (basically, a spicy dip), but I highly recommend ordering at least one curry to get the full Sri Lankan experience. 

Two egg hoppers flanking a plain one
Two egg hoppers and a plain one

As mentioned above, plain hoppers can be eaten with both savoury (curries, sambols) or sweet (jams, condensed milk, coconut concotions, palm sugar, etc, etc, etc… oh man) accompaniments. My favourite, though, is the egg hopper, which is simply an egg cracked into the middle of a cooking hopper. The eggs are usually done ‘over-easy’ so that you can dip the crispy sides of the hopper into the egg, if that’s your thing, as it is mine. I can usually eat four of these without blinking an eye or taking a breath. I have had no food coma that matches the severity of a hopper coma, but it is always worth it. With some restraint – some would call it poor form – I only had two egg hoppers at AJ’s. They were great: not too rich and not too light. The coconut milk and salt in the mixture were well apportioned, and the yeastiness was at a comfortable level. The egg yolk wasn’t runny, which was the only slight disappointment, though in fairness to the restaurant, we did not specifically request it. I forgot to ask RJ about the hard yolks, though I presume this is to make the egg hoppers more acceptable to a wide base of (typically runny-yolk averse?) patrons. Boohoo to that! Next time, we will make a request-for-runny in advance. Again, the egg hoppers were still great to eat, with the right amount of salt and good texture. RJ mentioned that the hoppers are usually available for brunch only, so if you intend to head out to Sai Kung for dinner, it would be wise to call a day ahead and talk to RJ about your hopper requirements to avoid disappointment. 

Sri Lankan Cashew Curry
Sri Lankan cashew curry

The cashew curry was excellent, if not a bit too well-endowned with cashew nuts and peas (which could well be your thing, and who would I be to judge?). Neither too oily nor too spicy, it was a great dipping choice for the plain hoppers. The seeni sambol, though, was too raw and mild for our liking. 

Seeni sambol
Seeni sambol

Usually, seeni sambol contains a generous portion of onions very well fried together with maldive fish to create a sharp and spicy side dish that has the eater craving for plenty more (despite the potentially unpleasant side-effects a few hours later), but this version was just too much like regulation stir-fried onions. We quizzed RJ about this, who understood our consternation, and explained that the recipe was to appeal to a broader (presumably Chinese and European) palate, and was important to ensure his customers weren’t making like afterburners the following morning (my words, not his!). He mentioned again that next time we visit, we could place an advance order for the spicier, more ‘authentic’ version of seeni sambol. We’re already looking forward to that! 

Fish cutlets
Fish cutlets

Fish cutlets are another personal favourite. They are small golf-ball sized portions of joy, rolled, lightly breaded and deep fried. Absolutely no one can beat my mother’s version, but RJ’s were well executed using mackerel and an even mix of pepper, spices, and finely sliced vegetables. We’d certainly order them again next time. 

As my wife and I are vegequarians/pescatarians/vegetarian wannabes, we couldn’t try the lampreis, another Sri Lankan must-have. Lampreis is a selection of condiments and meats (seafood and vegetarian options can sometimes be found, but not yet at AJ’s) served on a bed of either plain or flavoured short grain or basmati rice, then wrapped in banana leaf and steamed. This process infuses the contents with the aroma of banana leaf, and the outcome tends to be absolutely unforgettable. Many food dreams are made of this, too, and lampreis usually vies with hoppers for a Sri Lankan’s meal of choice. The table in front of us tried the chicken lampreis and were full of praise. 

Proprietor and Chef: "RJ"
Proprietor/chef/nice guy: "RJ"

For Sri Lankans reading this, Elephant House drinks are available at AJ’s! For everyone else, I recommend trying either the Ginger Beer or Creaming Soda. Whenever I visit Sri Lanka, I go through at least one Elephant House-branded drink a day, which is both necessary and good for the soul. 

There were plenty of other food favourites that we weren’t able to try, including the fish curry, eggplant moju, lentils, kotthu roti and string hoppers. We’ll be saving those for future trips back to AJ’s. I love a restaurant with an approachable and humble, yet on-task owner, and RJ certainly fits that bill. His passion is understated due to his mild character, but it is well evident in the quality of his food. 

Check out AJ’s website and full menu.

For those with excitable and adventurous taste-buds, a lust for spice, or an intrigue for the hopper phenomenon, I recommend this restaurant highly.

Dark chocolate endorsement: Marks & Spencer Fairtrade 72% cocoa

Name: Marks & Spencer Organic Fairtrade Dark Chocolate 72% cocoa solids

Price: RMB 20

From: Marks and Spencer Shanghai (Nanjing Xi Lu)

Cocoa origin: Peru and Panama

Upon bite: Smooth and creamy

Taste on the ‘buds: Cherry

Palate-attack level: Low, doesn’t linger

Bitterness rating: Low-medium (this is one of the creamiest 70%+ dark chocolates I can remember having)

Meltiness: High (break it without touching it, or be ready to lick fingers clean. Or get someone else to)

Best served with: Japanese green tea (for those in Shanghai, get the Genmai Cha by UjinoTsuyu, from Jing’an Freshmart). I haven’t yet tried it with a single malt. If and when I do, I shall update this post.

Verdict: Inoffensive, tasty and a worthy daily treat.

Rating: 9/10

Glendronach whisky sadness; cork infestation; soft corks; haste bitch

My taxi to the airport was waiting outside while I ran up to get my suitcase. Being one heck of a day, I decided to take a swig of some decent whisky to provide temporary soothing and just because, well, I could.

Ignoring the six already open bottles of whisky, I decided that I just must try one of the unopened ones – a Glendronach 18 year old single malt, matured in sherry casks. I don’t mind a bit of sherry, so I was quite excited by the thought of my first sherrified single malt.

Anyway, so I rip off the top cover (there must be a more appropriate word for that) to be presented with a cork. No worries, it was a lifty cork so no corkscrewing required. With taxi waiting downstairs, I had to be quick.

As we know, haste makes waste.

In my rush to taste the sherry whisky goodness, I pulled the cork out at an angle and snapped the bastard in half (it was a softended cork that had obviously been weakened by splashes of whisky during transport).

Damn soft corks! (hee hee)

Anyway, in a rush I was, so after taking a swig (couldn’t leave without doing so) and absolutely loving it, I put the half-cork back on the bottle and duly exited the building.

To my horror, when I returned three weeks later and poured a small amount of the Glendronach for my drinking pleasure, it REEKED. Something along the lines of the cork going off, had completely ruined the whisky. It stank to high hell. I filtered the whisky out into a glass container in the hope that somehow, magically, it could be restored to its former glory. I don’t know what the cork had done in my three weeks away, but it wasn’t nice. Next time I’ll filter the whisky straight away and remove the cork from the bottle, like so: http://digg.com/videos/educational/Take_the_Cork_off_the_Bottle_Trick (I love the guy’s accent…)

For now, I have to bring myself to the point of acceptance that this fine whisky will be forever undrinkable due to my haste and lack of remedial action, and pour it down the sink.

If you want to make me feel better, buy me this: http://www.theglendronach.com/shop/viewitem.aspx?item=2

Cheers.

Music endorsement: The Bionaut – “Lush Life Electronica”

The artist: The Bionaut

The track: Lush Life Electronica

The year: 1995

The reason: I heard this for the first time just a few hours ago and it immediately took me to a place significant enough to endorse right now. Instrumental big-sounding electronica. Food for your ears. Do it.

Serving suggestion: A worthy listening companion, Bowmore single malt 17 year-old whisky (also hereby endorsed!), dark chocolate, dark room. An artificially bass-enhanced environment may add something but is not essential.

Music endorsement: Eskimo Joe – “London Bombs”

The artist: Eskimo Joe

The track: London Bombs

The year: 2006

The reason: The warmest track off an album (“Black Fingernails, Red Wine”) full of highlights. Check this Australian band out now. Go preview said album on iTunes or Rhapsody or wherever you obtain your music. You will not regret it.

Serving suggestion: Best absorbed with a nice espresso and a reflective mood.

Music endorsement: Faithless – “Insomnia”

The artist: Faithless

The track: Insomnia

The year: 1996

The reason: Most songs by this brilliant British act could (and will) qualify for this column. This anthemic floor-pounder rings in my ears everytime I’m required to be up late: “so here we are… half past three in the morning… let’s roll another one”, lying idle in bed: “Creaky noises make my skin creep, I need to get some sleep, I can’t get no sleep”, and several other memorable lyrics sitting nicely between memorable music and that unforgettable chorus loop. The original version is still the best – though there are many good remixes out there.

Serving suggestion: Best enjoyed in darkness, strobe light flickering, under the influence of a few G&Ts, with a makeshift lounge dancefloor, finished off with gracefully loud loudspeakers with tight and punchy bass.

Music endorsement: The Smiths – “How Soon Is Now”

The band: The Smiths

The track: How Soon Is Now

The year: 1985

The reason: One hell of a depressing song that, for some reason, makes me feel good every time I hear it. It’s one of the few Smiths tracks I can tolerate without needing air and sunshine soon after. That aside, this would easily rate in my top 50 tracks of ‘all time’. The wavy and soaring riffs take the song to another level, unmatched.

Serving suggestion: On a gloomy day, get some good whisky, dark chocolate, and have listen to this track. Just don’t keep anything sharp nearby.

Endorsement: Single malt whisky and dark chocolate

 

I am a big fan of single malt scotch whiskies – the older, the better. I am also a big fan of dark chocolate – the more cocoa, the better.
 
Recently, I’ve been reading about the complementarity of good whisky and dark chocolate. Odd, I thought, with a hint of intrigue. I usually drink my whisky straight, rinsing my mouth beforehand to clear the situation for some focused, quality, unadulterated consumption. Never had I considered coupling whisky with a food item for increased pleasure.
 
Tonight, I put it to the test.
 
The whisky: The Glenlivet Archive (21 years), undiluted
 
The chocolate: Koko Black dark chocolate (74% cocoa)
 
The verdict: Amazing. The chocolate, itself a joyous thing, coats the palate just enough to highlight the best of the whisky, muffling any potential hints of alcoholic harshness (barely noticeable in the fine whisky mentioned above) and bringing out flavours that might be missed when drinking straight.
 
Try it, kids – life is too short to deny yourself these pleasures. And don’t simply swallow the whisky. Nose it. Swish it around a bit. Usher it across the palate with your tongue. Let it hang around in your mouth while you watch someone do something silly out on the street. Melt the dark chocolate evenly across your palate, then take a modest nip of the good stuff. Savour it.
 
Bliss.