Vast in size yet surprisingly small in feel, Shanghai is a city defined by its neighbourhoods. In 2016, my base was in the French Concession and I found it sleepy, dreamlike almost, compared to what I had expected from Mainland China city. Service culture in Shanghai I found to be a bit timid. However, that observation strictly applies to the ex-pat places I visited. I took a lone walk through the back streets (leading up to the Bund), and stopped for some snake blood, service there was very interactive. Scallion pancakes are popular, as are Shanghai dumplings that pop and burst in your mouth. Most memorable dish I had was a glossy mushroom dish with cloth like textures. There’s a burgeoning art scene in Shanghai, fantastic artists and a vibrant youth that are experimenting with the new and the old. Shanghai for ex-pats, is Hong Kong’s, older, more sophisticated sibling.
EAT & DRINK
Xixi Bistro, French Concession
Xixi is easy to pass so you’ve got to look out for the two Chinese lanterns hanging above the door. Enter through a colonial Shanghainese hallway and push through a secret door to walk into the restaurant. Décor is in the style of an eccentric aunt’s study or boudoir: slightly mad but glamorous. Cherry wood antique cabinets, William Morris-esque wallpaper, 1930s artwork and literature are spotted across the restaurant. The menu is Sino-Italian, an impressive combination. Dishes that stood out were the steamed mussels and the tuna tartare. Many recommend the Pumpkin Jiaozi but I found it a bit meh. The saltiness of the bacon didn’t come through enough for me but you can appreciate the precision of the technique and that it was obviously created by someone very skilled. Service style is a lot more confident than other restaurants I had visited in Shanghai. However, there was still no real interaction or description of the menu.
*Unfortunately, this restaurant is now closed
Commune Social, Jing-an District
The smaller of the two Jason Atherton restaurants in the city, Commune Social is a small tapas restaurant located in an old building that has undergone a transformation by award-winning Shanghai design firm, Neri & Hu. Moodily-lit, like most of Atherton’s restaurant, it draws in a crowd of young expats, the artsy and fashion folk. Who inevitably will be more than happy to share a few delicious yet small and expensive dishes. I however, would have preferred to of left with having at least one dish to myself. Often is the case when going to a tapas or small plates restaurant with a group, you don’t get to try dishes in all their glory. Surely if a restaurant is based on this concept of sharing, then all should have the opportunity to get equal parts each or at least for dishes not to be so extortionate that you can get more than a few bites. I’m not a sharer. Simply because I have a low-tolerance of how other people eat and appreciate their food, especially if it’s different to me. Basically, go to Commune Social in a small group, despite it sounding like the place you take a gang of mates, and be prepared to spend some money.
Little Catch, Former French Concession
This hole in the wall doubles up as a fishmongers and poké joint. No bigger than a kitchen walk-in fridge, this was the first place I tried poké. Opened by Wenyi and Jiayi who come from families that have been in the seafood industry for generations, had the foresight to transform part of Jiayi’s dad’s business into something that tapped into the younger generation. I think I was in Shanghai before the label ‘millennial’ caught on but now understand that Little Catch most definitely embodied that label. I had lunch three days in a row at the Urban Fishmonger & Poké Shop. Fresh, like really fresh fish, textures are bouncy, meaty, and almost electric tasting fish roe, it’s all so invigorating and feels good. Little Catch have now expanded and have a website, which at the time I visited they had neither. The concept made such an impact on me that when returning to London and working on a new project (Ahi Poké), there seemed so much to explain and educate the London market on about seafood and it’s ultimate versatility when understood and treated with respect. I had a sushi moment. All I’m saying is go and seek a Little Catch out when you’re in Shanghai.