Thursday, 16 January 2014

Out with the Old

First things first - Happy New Year / 恭贺新禧  to all!

We're going to pretend that I have pre-meditatively decided to publish this first post of 2014 perfectly situated between the Western and Eastern New Year celebrations like the delicious filling of a Christmas leftovers sandwich, and not that I'm frantically trying to catch up with post-holiday life.

Interestingly, this time of year also marks the TWO YEAR (!) anniversary of this little corner of the interwebz, a marker of that time I decided to turn my love of food into some sometimes-coherent long-form ramblings dotted with shoddy iPhone pictures, and I can hardly believe it.

Time flies when you stuff your face.

Or something.

Most importantly of all, 2014 will bring changes to this space.

A reflective realization of my own personal preferences regarding reading online (alliterations FTW) combined with the reality that every '2014 Projections' piece I encounter tolls the death knell of "The Blog", I have recognized that this format is broke.

So I'm fixin' it.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Tis (Almost) the Season

Brace yourselves for a rare sighting: a recipe on this site!

Now before you get all indignant that I'm actually suggesting you cook, let it be known it is one of the easiest and yet most elegant desserts you could add to a holiday table.

It all started with a flash of orange.

Almost moreso than the turning leaves, the arrival of autumn in Shanghai is signified by the appearance of persimmons, their eye-catching orange radiating from the pyramids piled in fruit stalls on every corner.

Their seasonal color, their musky scent, their spicy-sweet flavor... everything about the fruit says fall.

But as far as I can tell, no one knows what to do with the things. Friends have assumed they're a type of "Chinese tomato" (one actually attempted salsa) and I almost never see anyone, local or laowai, cooking with them or even eating them out of hand.

I never really knew what to do with the fruits but was desperate to try and use them, if only for their appearance on my kitchen counter. They are a bit sweet to eat on their own, and I couldn't think of anything beyond roughly chopping them and letting the pieces and pulp slowly slump into a jammy slurry in the fridge to be spooned over my morning oatmeal.

So when a friend commissioned a pie for his Thanksgiving feast and I was faced with sticker shock at the price of canned pumpkin in this town, I decided to go where few have gone before - baking with fleshy fruit. I figured it would have a similar spiced taste for a familiar feel, yet be a nice nod to our current home here in Shanghai.

After making my kitchen smell like the inside of a gingerbread house, I had high expectations, but this unorthodox delivered - it's sweet, delicately spiced, and even more tender than most pumpkin numbers.

Although we enjoyed it on Thanksgiving, I have a feeling the festive flavors are also perfect for Christmas.

So go ahead and get baking for the holidays - it's easy as pie.

Persimmon Pie
Shell adapted from Saveur, filling adapted from The Loveless Cafe

Yield: one 9-inch pie

4 cups finely crushed digestive and/or gingersnap cookies (about 1 sleeve digestives)
8 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted 
1 cup persimmon puree (made from peeling, roughly chopping and blending about 2 large persimmons)
½ cup packed dark brown sugar
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 eggs
½ cup heavy cream
Whipped cream (not optional)

1. Crust

Preheat the oven to 350°.

Mix cookie crumbs and butter in a bowl. Press the crumbs into the bottom and up the sides of a 9" springform pan or pie tin. Bake until the crust is just set, about 8-10 minutes. Let cool.

2. Filling

In a mixing bowl, whisk the persimmon puree, brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg together. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time, then the heavy cream. Pour the persimmon filling into the pie shell. Bake for 30 minutes, or until just set. 

Let the pie cool completely before cutting - serve either room temperature or (my favorite) chilled for breakfast.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Wine Must

In the immortal words of Young MC: "You want it? Baby, you got it".

A friend recently commented that he knew Shanghai had finally reached a certain saturation point as a city when Ethiopian food (the excellent but now defunct EatEthio) arrived in town.

Even in the year I've been here, this incredibly international and fast-paced place has increasingly been forcing most new openings to go big and polish up their branding and quality. The other option is always to go niche, with some spots bordering on the comi-tragic in their specific focus - I recently saw a sign for a lasagna-only place about to open in a failed chocolate-only shop (in the old awfully-named Awfully Chocolate on Xiangyang Lu, for the Italian-inclined).

Some executions may be better than others, but it seems like we have almost all 'concept' bases now covered.

So when a friend mentioned that a French comrade-in-croissants was extending his wine bar's offerings, I was intrigued as to how he'd differentiate in a city with more twists on French food than sense.

Although Wine Must has apparently been open for a little while now, the space has been completely redone and is softly re-opening with a new food focus. Tucked away in a courtyard in Jing'an, the invitingly large space is beautifully done in a Sino-Franco rustic style, with shikumen-style stonework on its central bar and large slabs of wood for tables. It also has a great outdoors space, which will be wonderful when pollution eventually makes it within only-mildly-toxic levels.

Although I have a few quibbles with the place's branding - the name, the logo, some of the seasonal decorations, the paper placemats (beyond the fact they are paper placemats, they tragically obscure the terrific tables) - the whole is more than the sum of its sometimes-dubious parts.

In fact, what the space caters best to is actually the concept - all of that heavy wood and low lighting make for a cozy den to enjoy the new offering: French grillhouse food.

The new menu is modeled after the French restaurant Le Relais de L'Entrecôte, which famously only serves a prix-fixe menu of salad, french fries, and steak with its renowned secret sauce.

Wine Must does the same, although with more ambition - there is a choice of salad or soup to start and a selection of three proteins - Australian Wagyu steak, a duck entrecôte, or salmon fillet - along with your unlimited (!) fries (!!!). And of course there is a secret sauce, this one called "esprit de vin" and apparently made with 18 ingredients, including (naturally) wine, chocolate, and 15 spices. It is served across all of proteins, which was intriguing.

(Can we pause to revisit that they serve unlimited fries? Thank you. Moving on).

After we cracked open one of their excellent reds alongside a starter platter (curiously global for a very French concept - you'd be better getting the Belgian "flammenkueche"/'pizza' by itself), we settled at our table and made the only choices necessary for the night: soup or salad and which protein. There's something to be said for limited options.

Appetizers were mixed - the salad was an underwhelmingly clumsy take on the classic frisée aux lardons, but the pumpkin soup was velvety and rich.

But then for the grilled goods: the steak was perfectly cooked, which is exceptional in this town; the salmon tender, although perhaps thin; and the duck the surprise highlight, with enough fat for immense flavor. All were served with potatoes as well as perfectly crispy fries (double the potato but delicious nonetheless) and that sauce, which, as suspected, worked much better on the steak and duck than the fish.

The proteins won the night, and overall, it was an incredibly satisfying meal for under 130rmb each.

For next time, I would skip the starter platter and might even splurge on a giant côte de boeuf "fit for two". It might be the size of a dinosaur steak, but if I came hungry...

So although Shanghai might seemed to have reached saturation, Wine Must's cozy space and the concept - prix-fixe and with enough options to satisfy everyone - make it a perfect spot for a group to catch up over great wine and a hearty meal.

They've got it. I want it.

Wine Must
1/F. Building 2
881 Wuding Lu, near Changde Lu

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

Hope you all have been stretching out your leggings in preparation for pie (just me?) -

Raise a plate or three to the most terrific of holidays, one that celebrates the trifecta - family, friends, and (most importantly) food. 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, 25 November 2013

Ruijin Cajun

Yongkang Lu has been on fire of late.

First, a summer series of pop ups at The Tap House and The Handle Bar, now new openings every weekend, and the happiest of happy hours.

Most recently, however, the barkeeps have been channeling what Shanghairen do best for others' benefit with a series of events that encourage what I will call "indulgence for a cause".

Last weekend, YK put on a fundraiser for those affected by Typhoon Haiyan - almost every bar on the street banded together to offer drinks deals after a mere 50rmb donation towards relief. I can tell you that I, for one, felt more than magnanimous while swilling 2-for-1 craft beers and Campari spritzes... I felt tipsy. On charity. And/or Campari.

Who said the Chinese were doing nothing to help?

One of the other recent benefits for a cause occurred a few weeks ago at The Handle Bar from the NOLA natives Ruijin Cajun. It was a two day residence to benefit Movember, with a portion of the proceeds going towards charity, which let us feel great about gettin' down with some grits.

Gregarious front of house Nathan Power (strong name, friend) held it down while charismatic chef Matt Rea treated us all to a hearty dose of Southern hospitality while dishing out the goods.

For the second day of service, 'the goods' entailed "grillades with goat cheese and thyme grits" and some chicken, shrimp, and sausage jambalaya, all for 55rmb.

While not necessarily a bad thing, the "grillades" were super saucy, with more of the consistency of a soup over a stew, and the grits beneath them were cheesy-licious - both had great flavor. The jambalaya was only the slightest bit underseasoned, but the selection of hot sauces (one homemade!) they had provided remedied this immediately.

Although these not-so-ragin' Cajuns don't yet have a permanent home, they have assured me they will be cooking around town in the coming months, so keep an eye out.

To my knowledge, there is almost no other deep-south Creole or Cajun food here in Shanghai, so from now on, we're the cause.

Ruijin Cajun

Monday, 11 November 2013


Eating in malls is The Worst.

There's absolutely nothing inviting about entering huge sliding doors manned by bored-looking, be-suited security guards, gliding through halls populated only with faceless mannequins, ascending endless escalators, and squeaking across over-polished floors until you reach your final destination, a shiny but soulless brother branch of an already-established restaurant. And no matter how hard they try, these restaurants can never manage to extricate themselves from their consumerist context to form an identity independent of "mall". At least food courts have the perverse dignity of admitting to what they are - hosts for cookie-cutter chains that completely surrender to their surroundings.

It is, however, almost impossible to avoid occasional mall dining in Shanghai, considering both that half of the city seems to be enclosed in one and that, unfortunately, they also happen to house some of the best and (literally strip-lit) brightest of restaurants in town.

And although most are the vacuous shadows of their other incarnations, there are occasional exceptions to be found - one of these is the Sichuan spot Maurya in the new Kerry Center in Jing'an.

Yes, you have to skip through the shiny and eerily empty halls of this newly-opened uber-mall, but once up on the forth floor, the bight Tiffany-blue entrance immediately attracts you away from the endless stretches of white and glass and into its vibrant, light-filled dining room.

The restaurant is decorated in what my colleagues somewhat-charmingly refer to as "minority style", forgoing classic Chinese dark wood and heavy brocades in favor of a light and punchy palette. The bright blue and neutrals, accented with bursts of color and enriched with gold, act as a shot of anti-mall morphine.

Everything from the watercolor-illustrated menus to the flatware decorated with petite pouts feels fresh and stylish without being overdone. This, my friends, is a feat for Chinese design.

My colleagues order a selection of the Sichuan food, famed for a love of offal and liberal spice.

A four-plate starter selection is as invigorating as the restaurant's interior - the marinated celery, pressed egg, vinegary eggplant, and pork with chilies is a great mix of sour, salty, and spicy.

We then moved on to the procession of mains - some classic cauliflower, a super-sweet gong bao chicken ("laowai's favorite!"- thanks guys), and an absurdly delicious mapo dofu. This home-style dish of silky tofu with ground pork and chilies has become one of my favorites since moving to China, and though there are always slight variations on the theme, I was wondering what made this version so superlative when one of my colleagues explained it was Sichuan-style - made with brains.

We then had dishes of deceptively tender strips of beef throat with spinach and more beef with bamboo shoots. Finally, a bowl arrived of what seemed to be only violently-red sliced chilies. Following a colleague's lead, I dug around the pile of peppers in a scavenger hunt for fried chicken.

The chicken was delicious - super-moist with a crackling fried coating - but in retrospect, I should have heeded the chiles' color as the warning it was.

After eating a piece of chicken each, silence befell the table. We all sat there staring, making slightly strangled gasps for air, as the red crept up our faces like mercury up a thermometer. Looking around to make sure we weren't the only one who had swallowed molten lava, we started bellowing inarticulate sounds at each other, trying to communicate our mutual understanding that the bowl had proved a veritable minefield. The real problem wasn't the heat but that it was truly delicious - a Hunanese colleague (no strangers to spice themselves) said it was the spiciest thing he'd ever eaten while choking down more chicken through tears.

After we mopped our brows and settled our heart rates, we headed back out into the colorless corridor, descending on the escalators but floating on a chili high.

Although the Sichuan predilection for organs and superhuman spice almost seem at odds with the exotic yet mellifluously mellow interior, both the tastes and surroundings of Maurya reawaken your senses, an antidote to the monotony of mall-dom - a chili in a haystack.

4F, Jing'an Kerry Center
1515 Nanjing Xi Lu, near Changde Lu

Monday, 4 November 2013

Hillbilly Tea

In a city as international as Shanghai, you see countless restaurants that seek to combine the cultures of their chefs with Chinese cuisine into a form of 'insert-cuisine'-Sino fusion.

Others just hold fast to their roots and dare to be different because they fill a gap in the market.

And sometimes you see a concept and wonder - how the hell did you get here?

Although I had been hearing great things, I had this question of Hillbilly Tea, a relatively new restaurant centered around the leafy brew and accompanied by a down-home menu of Southern American classics.

What makes it indisputably credible and simultaneously confusing is that the seemingly singular spot is actually the second branch of an original in Louisville, Kentucky. Beyond a quite tenuous mutual affection for tea, I didn't quite see how Kentucky two-stepped in time with China, so we went to investigate.

The space, a lovely and light-filled glass box perched in the upper decks of Taikang Terrace, is a straight-outta-Brooklyn hipster hangout, complete with a be-flanneled host sporting sleeve tats. Not that I'm complaining - I'm a huge fan of the aesthetic - but it did little to quell my confusion.

We were all feeling fairly fragile, so we forewent the boozy "tea hooch" cocktails, and fortified ourselves with mason jars (natch) of unlimited coffee or iced tea (either "blank" or tooth-suckingly sweet) before getting stuck into the menu of Southern comfort classics.

Split into sections based on origin ("kettle", "creek", "pit", etc.), we were overwhelmed with the bounty, so we just stuck to "brunch".

Unable to choose, the majority of us plumped (literally) for the Hillbilly Deluxe, which combines everything you would want into one: scrambled eggs, bacon or sausage patty, cheese grits, AND a skillet pancake. It's an amazing deal for 85 of your finest RMBs - the portions absolutely honor Southern hospitality.

One friend went for the steak and eggs (again, a steal), and we got the roasted sweet potatoes and chow chow (a red cabbage slaw) on the side. An order of corn pone went MIA, which was unfortunate mostly because no one knew what exactly a "pone" entailed and caffeinated imaginations were running high.

We might have needed a bigger table...

Everything was super-solid, especially for the price - the eggs were well-seasoned and served with toast soldiers, the sausage patty was savory (a better bet than the bacon), and the pancake - oh, the pancake. Although slightly underdone in the center, its vast fluffy body and crispy edges were just waiting to be smothered with "tea butter" and pumpkin syrup. The sweet butter was good enough to eat alone, and I'm not naming names, but some of us just might have.

The sides were good enough, although small, and the only real disappointment was the grits, milled roughly enough to be risotto and very gluey. Needless to say, the pancake more than made up for them.

By the end, we were stuffed like trophy bucks, and didn't have room to even think about desserts like the bourbon bread pudding or apple layer cake. But that, along with the promise of hooch and many mains, makes a return trip all the more necessary.

It is beyond me how these self-proclaimed Southern "hillbillies" decided to literally bring tea to China, but I'm sure glad they did.

Hillbilly Tea
2F, Building 1, Taikang Terrace
171 Jianguo Zhong Lu, near Ruijin Er Lu