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

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