Saucy Duck, Burger Spice the Shanghai Tom Cruise Missed: Review

View from the Century Avenue Restaurant
An elevated view shows the Oriental Pearl Tower and Bank of China Tower from the 91st floor of the Century Avenue Restaurant in Pudong, Shanghai, on April 15, 2010. Photographer: Allen Wan/Bloomberg

So you’re coming to Shanghai for the World Expo, and all you’ve seen of the city is the part in “Mission Impossible 3” where Tom Cruise leaps off the Bank of China Tower. Care to know more? Let your stomach be your guide.

Shanghai is home to 20 million people and offers a range of dining options, from saucy duck served in a raucous hall to sea bass eaten a hundred floors up.

Typical of food in coastal cities, Shanghai cuisine is heavy on seafood, and uses plenty of alcohol and sugar as seasoning. Here are some choices, all within a 15-minute drive or a 20-minute subway ride from the World Expo venue, even Cruise might enjoy:

Noble House, with several branches in the city, specializes in seafood. I and my guest Bob Dodds, a former banker and wine enthusiast, dined at the outlet in the Babaiban neighborhood of Pudong District, inside a replica of an old Shanghai dwelling decorated with Chinese ink-paintings hung on the wall and meter-tall blue-and-white ceramic vases on tables.

The restaurant pays homage to fine dining during the city’s heyday in the 1930s, just before the Japanese invasion of China.

All seven dishes we ordered off Noble House’s a la carte menu were delicious. If we had to pick a favorite, it would be the so-called Superior Baked Cod Fish. The fish, served atop a flaky pastry crust, was brushed with a concoction of light soy and oyster sauce that was the perfect complement.

Our Xiaolongbao (which literally means Buns in Little Baskets), a dish of soup-filled dumplings that best represents the Yangtze Delta cuisine, was authentic and enriched with generous portions of crab meat inside their soft pastry skins.

Peppered Beef

The bottle of Great Wall 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon we ordered nicely complemented our savory black-pepper beef ribs.

A more common-man dining option is Laofandian, located near Yuyuan Gardens, a four-century-old Chinese-style garden and a 10-minute walk from the historic riverside promenade known as the Bund. We were seated in a large banquet hall adjacent to a wedding party and several drunken reunions. It’s loud, brash and crowded -- the perfect embodiment of Shanghai.

In the face of the rock-concert-like noise, I yelled our orders of Laofandian’s specialties like Steamed Duck with Eight Kinds of Specialties and the sweet-and-sour croaker.

Stuffed Duck

The food came slathered in thick, sweet brown sauce. Enough steamed duck arrived to feed a small village; the fowl was served Thanksgiving style, except it’s stuffed with glutinous rice mixed with savory ingredients like mushrooms and chestnuts. The dish was heavy, tasty and kept me amused as I tried to identify the eight ingredients in the stuffing outlined in the dish’s name. I found only six.

The croaker, which had an overpoweringly fishy smell that no sauce could mask, was a letdown; a better bet was the fried shrimp with soy sauce. I tried to order the Dongpo Pork, a classic dish comprising a Rubik’s Cube-sized block of belly meat in a sweet sauce, and gave up after I was told it would take an hour to cook. My ears couldn’t survive the noise that long.

For lighter cuisine, Shanghai also has a nice selection of dim sum eateries. Crystal Jade, originally from Hong Kong, is arguably the best. Its menu is full of tasty Cantonese standards such as har gao and siu mai.

Villas and Lakes

Shanghai’s Crystal Jade restaurant overlooks Century Park, a 140-hectare area with villas and lakes amid oriental and British-styled gardens, about 20 minutes by car from downtown Shanghai. There’s also an outlet in the fashionable Xintiandi area, where restaurants and bars are housed in refurbished red-brick Shikumen buildings from the early 1900s.

Expect an eclectic selection at Xintiandi. Paulaner Brauhaus brews its own beer and serves German cuisine ranging from sausages to pork knuckles. Tasty curries can be had at Simply Thai or sit down to the light flavors of Chinese standards at Zen. In the afternoon, sit outside of KABB and people watch with a do-it-yourself Bloody Mary.

For the best view in town, try the Park Hyatt’s 100 Century Avenue restaurant atop the city’s tallest building overlooking the Lujiazui financial district. I ordered a cheeseburger which was a bit dry and my companion had sea bass.

Neither was as good as the view. As we looked down from the Shanghai World Financial Center on the glistening sprawl of glass and metal, the city’s future seemed stretched before us.

Riverside Dining

For a glimpse of the past, dine on the Bund where century-old buildings that once housed HBSC Holdings Plc attest to the city’s history as a finance hub. The Whampoa Club, located at No. 3 on the Bund, offers the view and prices to match.

We ventured northward along the river to the Chinatown Club. The former Buddhist temple turned burlesque club is centered on a curtained stage featuring dancing girls, musical acts and vaudeville routines. Two floors of private boxes rise above the main floor, giving patrons a place to sit with a cold drink and digest their dinner.

It’s a wonderful way to end the evening. Just remember to hold the pour so you don’t overindulge and miss the World Expo.

100 Century Avenue, Park Hyatt Shanghai, 91st Floor, Pudong District, Shanghai, 200120; Tel: +86-21-3855-1428.

Gosney & Kallman’s Chinatown, 471 Zhapu Road, Hongkou District, Shanghai; Tel: +86-21-6307-7607.

Crystal Jade, No. 6-7 South Block Xintiandi, Lane 123, 2nd Floor, Xintiandi, Shanghai; Tel: +86-21-6385-8752.

Laofandian, 242 Fuyou Road, Shanghai 200010; Tel: +86-21-6311 1777.

Noble House, 679 Shangcheng Road, Pudong District, Shanghai; Tel: +86-21-5879-3179.

Whampoa Club, 3 Zhongshan Dongyi Road, 5th Floor, Shanghai, 200002;; Tel: +86-21-6329-1003.

The Bloomberg Questions

Cost? Tasting menus start from 698 yuan ($101) at Whampoa Club with three appetizers, six main dishes and a dessert; a four-course meal at Noble House and Laofandian cost about 400 yuan. Lunch sets at 100 Century Avenue cost 180 yuan; dim sum at Crystal Jade ranges from 20 yuan a plate.

Sound level? Quiet for all except for Laofandian; Laofandian can be deafening depending on how many weddings and drunken reunions are taking place at the same time.

Private room? Yes to all; some may charge minimums per person depending on the room. Chinatown has a 100 yuan cover for its boxes.

Inside tip? Book a room at least a day ahead to avoid waiting in the queue.

Date place? Yes to all except Laofandian.

Will I be back? Yes to all.

Rating? * for Laofandian and 100 Century Avenue; ** for Crystal Jade and Chinatown; *** for Noble House and Whampoa Club.

What the Stars Mean
**** Incomparable food, service, ambience.
 *** First-class of its kind.
 ** Good, reliable.
 * Fair.
 0 (no stars) Poor.

(Allen Wan is an editor for Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)