Thursday, June 14, 2012

Rose, Rose, I Love You - Shanghai Chronicles, Part 1

The Thirties and Forties. An era of glamour, intrigue, coloured with tales of spies and conspiracies. Shanghai appeared to be ruled by the KMT Government, but was controlled by the mafia. Tight fitting qipao, tailored suits, rickshaws, and dancing at the Bailemen. The era of the Peace Hotel, concession zones, and lace doilies. The age of Eileen Chang, of the Mesdames Song, the 8 year-long war sparked by the invasion of the Japanese.

An era I have always been fascinated with.

With the Chinese economy booming, there are more restaurants than ever, with a marked increase in fine dining. Some degustations cost upwards of 2000 Chinese Yuan per person (approx 335 AUD), with promises of imperial cuisine featuring abalone, swallow's nest, shark fin, sea urchin, and fish maw, dishes requiring days of preparation. There are also themed restaurants, like one which recreates a factory canteen during the days of the Cultural Revolution, with its enamel crockery and wooden chopsticks, and food served in aluminium lunch boxes.

Fu 1088 and Fu 1039 were more up my alley: set in restored houses built in the Golden Age of Shanghai, the restaurants serve traditional Shanghai fare (上海本帮菜) in mainly private dining rooms. None of the usual rowdiness and noisiness attached to Chinese restaurants here.

Let's start with Fu 1039. The name is derived from the house being No. 1039 on Yuyuan Road. "Fu" (福) means good fortune in Chinese. Along with Fu 1088 and Fu 1015, all located on Yuyuan Road, the restaurants are discrete settings in restored upper-middle class houses in the Changning district of Shanghai, with antique furniture and fittings.

Entrees: chilled drunken chicken, smoked freshwater fish Shanghai-style, jellyfish salad, sugar lotus stuffed with sticky rice.

Mains: Crystal freshwater prawns (no photo), braised pork belly, steamed Tenualosa with Jinhua ham and Jiuniang, braised black sea urchin with prawn roe, hairy crab 3 ways, yellow croaker soup.

Dessert: Fruit platter (no photo).

All in all, it wasn't too bad. Certainly it wasn't cheap for dinner in Shanghai, at around 300CNY per person (approx 50AUD), it wasn't too expensive either.

The drunken chicken was very chilled, served with Shaoxing granita on top, the chicken having sucked up the fragrance and flavour of Chinese rice wine. The smoked freshwater fish, Shanghai-style isn't actually smoked - the fish pieces are first marinaded, then deep fried, and finally dipped in a sweet soy-based sauce, served at room temperature. The version at Fu 1039 wasn't too bad, but leaned towards the dry side. Jellyfish salad, was refreshing and crunchy, a kind of crunch that does need some getting used to. Sugar lotus with sticky rice, though, is my personal favourite; and yes, as sweet as it is, the dish isn't actually a dessert, but a starter. The contrast between the slight bite of lotus root and the soft glutinous rice coated in osmanthus sugar syrup was lovely.

A few special mentions: the crystal freshwater prawns (I was too engrossed with eating and forgot to take a photo) were fantastic. The right balance between crunch, subtle umami and tenderness, that can only be achieved with wild caught freshwater prawns. I have lost count of the number of times I have tasted prawns from the sea passed of as its freshwater cousins.

Pork belly was unctuous. The Tenualosa bony but full of flavour, albeit slightly overcooked and a tad dry. The hairy crab 3 ways came in the form of stir-fried crab meat, fried sesame ball with crab roe and meat filling, and baked crab shell. All delicious, but a bit rich towards the end of a meal.

The yellow croaker fish was a let down. What was supposed to be a milky white soup with specks of dark green from the Ningbo-style salted preserved vegetables came to our table as a slightly murky green milky soup. One taste was enough to conclude that the fish had not been properly slaughtered - the fish gall had been pierced and contaminated the meat. Needless to say we informed the waitress, who immediately turned and walked out of the room without saying a word. We called her back, and requested, more firmly, that we wanted to speak with the manager. That took a good ten minutes. The manager then insisted that the soup was fine, and the peculiar bitterness must come from the "special" style of the salted vegetables and not an issue with the soup - something my grandmother, born and raised in Ningbo, simply did not buy. The manager initially resisted our invitation to taste the soup, but later gave in, tasted it, and took it back to the kitchen. While she may have not charged us for the soup, it did leave somewhat of a bitter taste in our mouths, literally and otherwise. While it may sound bad enough on paper, I must admit that service has improved overall in China: ten years ago, a comment like that would have been the fuse for a fight.

A beautiful setting, with distinctly Chinese service. Still worth a try.

Fu 1039 福1039
1039 Yuyuan Road, Changning District, Shanghai
+86 21 52371878
Bookings required. Minimum spend per person may be applicable.
Expect some Chinglish on the menu.

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