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  • Nick Lander
Written by
  • Nick Lander
1 May 2010

This article was also published in the Financial Times.

The Peninsula hotel is the only new building to open on Shanghai's famous riverside Bund in the past 60 years. From its thirteenth floor I had a panoramic view of what this captivating city holds in store as it prepares to host the 2010 Expo from 1 May to October.

This floor is now called Sir Elly's, after the member of the Kadoorie family who started the company, with various private dining rooms named after such Cluedo-esque members of his family as Lady Laura and Sir Horace. In addition there is a spacious bar; a modern European menu that seems to feature imported luxuries such as foie gras, Kumamoto oysters and Wagyu beef in every dish; and a well-stocked wine cellar. At every turn there seems to be a vast number of smiling, well-dressed, eager young staff only too keen to serve.

With me were Marcus Ford and Yang Lu, who, from very different backgrounds, have played a considerable part in transforming Shanghai's restaurants.

Ford arrived 10 years ago to work temporarily on the opening of Michelle Garnaut's still-flourishing M on the Bund and has stayed ever since, although he recently moved from restaurants into wine retail. Born in Hong Kong, educated in England, he admits, 'I've been Shanghaied, heart and soul.'

Lu was born in St John, Canada, before coming back to work in China and to be the first to pass the stiff sommelier's exams in 2007, although he still looks so young that any officious bartender in the US would ask him for ID. When we met he professed to be under great stress because, having compiled the hotel's wine list, he was now doing the same for the historic building next door, formerly the British Consulate, complete with its own chapel. For the coming six months this stunning venue, managed by the Peninsula, will be used for the official Expo entertaining. What the guests drink at these events now rests on Lu's palate.

But as we circumnavigated this floor with exceptional vistas on all sides, one significant difference in their appreciation of what they saw became obvious. While Ford preferred the views to the south, to the old parts of town that had first captured his imagination and which still (just) exist, Lu preferred those towards Pudong, the new financial district that henceforth will be the source of his regular customers. I realised that, subconsciously or not, this divided the romantic from the businessman.

There was to be a similarly strong division in the flavours of what I ate in the city's newest and more established restaurants.

I had met Ford in Yi Lang Court, he Peninsula hotel's dim sum restaurant on its second floor, although this is not a dim sum restaurant as anyone who has enjoyed these delicious hot parcels of food in London or New York's Chinatowns would recognise.

This is dim sum de luxe in a room decorated with vast chandeliers, acres of space between each table, and a setting that attempts to represent the best of the elegant China of yore. The problem is that all the kitchen equipment is brand new.

As a result, although each basket comes elegantly presented, there is a distinct lack of flavour. Everything is just too pristine. The steamers, woks, and pans need time to accumulate oil and seasoning, burn marks and the odd dent. Custom over Expo should certainly provide all this.

When I mentioned this experience to Isabel Xie, a food writer colleague in the FT's Shanghai office, she offered to take me to two places that have been extremely popular with the Shanghainese since they opened in the 1980s, when the city returned to normalcy after the Cultural Revolution.

Our first rendezvous was outside the state-owned food store Wang Jia Sha on Nanjing Road West and Xie said that she would have no trouble recognising me because although it was only 100 metres from a branch of Marks & Spencer, I would be the only Westerner there.

She was absolutely right, although so popular is Wang Jia Sha, and so unusual its layout, that we were barely able to walk side by side.

The ground floor has open kitchens on either side preparing noodles, dumplings and scores of take-away dishes while the centre was crowded with stalls selling boxes of the local sticky sweet delicacies. A vociferous argument between a young porter delivering a large tray of noodle dough to the fierce female chef in charge of that section only added to the drama.

The two floors of the café upstairs are somewhat more tranquil, perhaps a reflection of the rather unmotivated waiting staff. From the paper menu, Xie ordered soup with cubes of duck and chicken liver; fried dumplings with crab; a bowl of tiny little fish which I could not recognise and she could not translate; sesame buns; mooncakes stuffed with pork; and sticky rice topped with dried fruit. The bill with tea came to £6 but, far more memorably, I felt that during this meal I had been subsumed into the local and obviously heartfelt passion for food.

This was to manifest itself several hours later when, again at Isabel's suggestion, I sat opposite Xue Sheng Nian (pictured below), better known by his nickname of A' Shan, at the end of dinner in his eponymous restaurant in the west of the city en route to the Hongqiao airport from the centre.

A' Shan, now 64 but with a cherubic face, cooks everything himself in this very basic restaurant, where cardboard boxes are stacked along the wall, little of the crockery matches, and the brickwork and the cabling are exposed. Little in fact seems to have changed since he opened here in 1983, after his family lost their farm. Even the menu is written on hanging cards on a board, a tradition that goes back to the Qing dynasty.

A_Shan

He remains committed to traditional Shanghai cooking, which he believes does not deserve its reputation for being heavy or oily. And these characteristics were certainly not obvious in a dishes of fried prawns with sliced cucumber; cold, boiled chicken with spring onion; ta cai, a local vegetable similar to kale, with bamboo shoots; soft, unctuous pork belly; and sweet, sticky rice. The bill, scribbled on a scrap of paper, came to £25 for two.

After our picture had been taken together, so that he could add it to his collection on the wall, we shook hands and Ashan asked me to send him more English customers. I do so willingly, and recommend A'Shan highly, if not for comfort then definitely for flavour.


The Peninsula, www.peninsula.com

A'Shan, 2378 Hongqiao Road, Shanghai, 00 86 21 62686583