One of my favorite activities in China is sampling authentic regional food, such as the Shanghainese fare of Jesse Restaurant, a favorite among tourists and locals alike.
One of the great pleasures of traveling, to me, is the chance to sample the extraordinary variety of cuisines around the world. Some of the most exotic meals I’ve ever tasted were in Asia, thanks to Chinese friends who made sure I didn’t overlook any of the best dishes on the menu.
AUTHENTIC SHANGHAI CUISINE AT JESSE RESTAURANT
I’m savoring the memory of a whirlwind two-week “culinary discovery” trip of Asia with stops in Hong Kong, Taipei [Taiwan], Singapore, and Shanghai, organized by George Chen, the restaurateur behind San Francisco’s Betelnut and Shanghai 1930.
George’s latest project is China Live, an upscale Chinese food emporium (à la New York’s Italian Eataly), planned for SF Chinatown. (I’ll be sharing details on this highly anticipated attraction in an upcoming column.)
Our first restaurant stop in Shanghai was the “original” Jesse, a “hole in the wall” that draws hordes of locals and foreigners in search of traditional Shanghainese cuisine.
Our group of culinary adventurers included Stephanie Lawrence, Richard Miyashiro, Cecilia Chiang, George’s wife Cindy Chen, George Chen, and Jeanne Lawrence.
We didn’t want to miss the chance to dine at Jesse (Ji Shi), which many consider the best and most authentic Shanghai restaurant in town. What made it even better was being joined by 94-year-old Cecilia Chiang, the culinary legend and James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award-winner, who gave us a commentary on the cuisine while we ate.
I always advise that anyone in search of genuine Chinese food at a restaurant go with a Chinese friend or a guide who can select the specialty dishes for you. Otherwise, you may miss the best ones! With George and Cecilia at our table, we had no such concerns.
Located in the former French Concession, Jesse is a bustling, slightly cramped dining room on two floors with only a few tables. Reservations are a must!
Jeanne Lawrence, Stephanie Lawrence, and Cecilia Chiang. Chiang is credited with introducing Americans to authentic Chinese cuisine at her legendary San Francisco restaurant, The Mandarin.
China Live Partner Cindy Chen, Managing Partner Richard Miyashiro, and Marketing Director Doug Collister.
Much of the food in Shanghai now reflects the influence of other provincial cuisines. Authentic Shanghai cooking tends to be sweeter, is unlikely to contain garlic or scallions, which are considered too unrefined, and often involves wine, according to Chen.
“Drunken” chicken and similar dishes get their name from the fact that the ingredients are often marinated in Huangjiu, the famous Chinese yellow wine fermented from grain.
One of many dishes we sampled, the fried whole shrimp were super crispy on the outside.
Deep-fried eggroll with spicy sauce.
Vegetable-stuffed bean curd.
Fresh, in-season shelled peas.
Vibrantly colored purple amaranth with garlic, thousand-year-old egg, and ginger.
SIGNATURE DISH: OPIUM FISH
Jesse’s special Opium Fish must be ordered 24 hours in advance. A braised fish head covered in fragrant grilled scallions, it makes a beautiful presentation.
The waiter removed the ultra-thin local scallions, the size of American chives, to unveil a moist codfish head underneath.
The Chinese prefer the flesh close to bones, and the meat near the jaws (fish cheeks) is considered the most succulent.
The Opium Fish head, whose sweet glaze was reminiscent of Japanese miso cod, was everyone’s favorite. It’s called “opium fish” because it’s so addictive!
Stephanie Lawrence, Cecilia Chiang, and George Chen dig into the beautifully presented Deep Fried Chili Chicken and Prawns.
Dried peppers, which are fried until they burst, give a hint of spicy flavor to the perfectly cooked, juicy chicken and prawns. But we were warned not to eat the peppers themselves—way too hot!
Crabmeat with bean curd over Chinese greens.
Jesse is also famed for its Hong Shao Rou, red braised pork. “Red cooking” is a method of slowly braising meat together with ingredients such as soy sauce and/or caramelized Chinese rock sugar that give it a rich dark red-brown color.
The key ingredient in winter melon soup with salted pork is bean curd skin ribbons.
Crabmeat with crab roe-flavored tofu.
Noodles are part of China’s food culture. Toward the end of our meal, we were served bowls of thick, hand-pulled noodles, just in case we were still hungry. (We weren’t!)
One dessert was a bowl of candied kumquats. They are first bathed in hot water to tenderize them and remove the bitterness from the skins so they can then soak up a sweet syrup.
My preference for dessert was the crepe filled with sweetened red bean (azuki) paste, which the Chinese use like chocolate.
It’s a Chinese tradition to cap off a meal with watermelon, a refreshing palate-cleanser.
ANOTHER VISIT TO JESSE
With San Francisco/Shanghai restaurateur and wine importer George Chen, I returned to Jesse, taking along friends whom he could introduce to Shanghai cuisine.
Restaurateur George Chen, Shanghainese author and publisher Andrea Mingfai Chu, former Harper’s Bazaar editor Lizzette Pozzi, and American writer Jeanne Lawrence.
ROOSEVELT PRIME STEAKHOUSE
In Shanghai, George owns the American-style, clubby Roosevelt Prime Steakhouse (not to be confused with The House of Roosevelt, a restaurant on the Bund), where he offers some of the best steaks in town. Wine groups come to the restaurant for the atmosphere, and cigar aficionados puff contentedly in the cigar room.
Roosevelt offers American-style cuisine, but red lantern accents lend some Chinese character to the venue.
The interior is dark and warm, styled like a New York steakhouse.
Cecilia Chiang and George Chen (right) with Roosevelt’s chefs.
In the cozy cigar bar, patrons’ cigars are stacked in boxes from floor to ceiling—an excellent use of space and a nice design touch.
Foreigners are often surprised to discover that Chinese restaurant meals or banquets typically begin with an abundance of cold dishes. As soon as we sat down, George ordered eight tasty small dishes. (Eight is a lucky number for the Chinese.)
As George dines at Jesse often, he had already pre-ordered many of the specialty dishes; without his help, we would have had a far less interesting meal!
Clockwise from upper left: Red dates with glutinous rice, mushrooms with bean curd sheet, Jishi’s salted chicken, and braised wheat gluten.
As we couldn’t read the Chinese menu, clever Lizzette and Andrea whipped out their mobile phones and snapped photos of the dishes to show the waiter when they came for a repeat visit.
Drunken Red Crab & Roe, marinated in Huadiao, a variety of Huangjiu yellow wine: Connoisseurs favor the orange or red roe and they consider the crab a side attraction (though in my opinion, the crab is the main event).
Jishi’s salted chicken.
Braised Wheat Gluten (Kao Fu) is a well-known Chinese dish often used as a meat substitute. The gluten is braised in a sweet and savory sauce long enough to sponge up all the good flavors.
Sticky Red Dates are a popular appetizer or dessert. The red dates (also known as jujubes) are filled with mochi—soft, glutinous rice cake—and served in a sweet glaze.
I was amazed at the number and variety of dishes we tasted—too many to eat them all.
Crispy Stir-Fry Fresh River Shrimp were deep fried and served with a sauce George described as “sweet like candy.”
Jeanne Lawrence and Lizzette Pozzi admired the colorful presentation of the Deep Fried Chili Chicken and Prawn dish, smothered in layers of red hot chili peppers.
George Chen explained that Shanghai cooking tends to be sweet, and is often prepared with a brown sauce made of soy and sugar (not so pretty, but tasty).
One dessert was like sweet soup: small glutinous rice flour dumplings in a sweet broth made from fermented rice.
At the end of our meal, I noticed the neighboring tables were enjoying many of the same specialty dishes that we had ordered. George had made sure we didn’t miss any of the specialties of the house!
LOST HEAVEN RESTAURANT
“Have you eaten yet?” In China, this common, respectful greeting, meant to show concern for your well-being, reflects the importance of food in a country with a huge diversity of foods and preparation techniques.
The award-winning Lost Heaven restaurant brings together the cuisines of the Ancient Tea Horse Road, the thousand-year-old caravan trading route that passed through Yunnan Province.
Yunnan is home to 25 of China’s 55 officially recognized minority groups, a concentration second in size only to that in the Northwest Xinjiang province.
YUNNAN AND ETHNIC INFLUENCES
In China’s most southwesterly region, bordering Tibet, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, Yunnan province is one of the most exotic and beautiful regions of China. Tourists flock there for the scenery, coursing rivers, snow-capped peaks, fertile fields, and clean fresh air.
A mention of the Ancient Tea Horse Road that passed through Yunnan conjures up romantic images of mule caravans, tea traders, and stunning scenery. The Chinese tourism authorities have encouraged tourism along the Tea Horse Road, so it’s now possible to visit the ancient trade towns that line the route.
What, then, is Yunnan or Dian (its ancient name) cuisine? In this diverse region, it merges elements from many ethnic tribes.
For the most part, the food is braised, steamed, or lightly stir-fried. It consists largely of fresh vegetables and ingredients indigenous to the region, such as the wild mushrooms foraged from the mountains, wild herbs and greens plucked from the countryside, fresh potent chilies, fruits, and edible flowers.
The breadbasket of China, Yunnan Province maintains a strong agricultural focus.
Among Yunnan’s major crops are wild edible mushrooms, rice, tea, and flowers.
Lijian Market in Yunnan province sells wonderfully fresh produce.
The Market also offers abundant chilies, some of which show up in Lost Heaven’s dishes.
LOST HEAVEN RESTAURANT
Lost Heaven, a Yunnan restaurant in Shanghai, is one of my favorites. It’s especially popular with the expat community, which some say makes it touristy. But after several days of eating the rich Shanghainese sweet and sauced dishes, you are likely to crave its lighter fare.
Lost Heaven restaurant is housed in a three-story renovated 1920s-era Shanghai-style villa, on the narrow tree-lined street Gao You Lu, in the former French Concession district.
Arriving guests enter a courtyard where dramatic lighting and décor create an ethnic ambience.
On the ground floor of Lost Heaven is an intimate bar and lounge area with cushioned daybeds and Asian motifs, a perfect pre- or post-dinner spot.
Essentially a Yunnan theme restaurant, the eatery is decorated with folk art and cultural totems.
The distinctive Yunnan cuisine, ethnic décor, atmospheric music, and flickering candlelight make a visit to Lost Haven an exotic experience.
Photographs of landscapes from Yunnan province are on display.
There are also images of ethnic Yunnan peoples in traditional dress.
Upstairs, the high-ceiled, softly lit dining room is warm and welcoming, in hues of red with dark wood furniture and floors.
Architect Ben Wood.
One of Yunnan’s renowned products is Pu-erh Tea (red pu’er cha), a fermented dark tea, that is an ideal complement for the food as well as a digestive aid.
One evening, I hosted a dinner for some of my friends’ children visiting and working in Shanghai.
DISHES TO TRY
Lost Heaven just might change your view of what constitutes Chinese cuisine. It offers dishes that incorporate non-Chinese influences and ingredients—among them lime juice, coconut, palm sugar, cloves, turmeric, tamarind, and curry.
The mouth-watering specialties include Seven Spices Chicken, Burmese Tea Leaf Salad, Da Li-Style Chicken with chili and green onions, raw chrysanthemum leaves with sesame dressing, charred baby eggplants soaked in black vinegar and topped with crushed peanuts and slivered red chilies, crispy whole shrimp with citrus, and more.
Yunnan Wild Vegetable Cakes are a perennial favorite. Made from several types of Yunnan vegetables, the thin, crispy wafers are served with a lemon-and-tomato-based dipping sauce.
Lamb Samosas with mint-cilantro sauce.
The fruit-carving presentation is a work of art, as delicious as it is beautiful.
SISTER RESTAURANT COCONUT PARADISE THAI
Lost Heaven has three branches in China, and its Thai sister eatery, Coconut Paradise, has two. When I’m in the mood for Thai cuisine and especially when I desire an al fresco lunch, I head to the lovely tranquil garden of the local Coconut Paradise.
I enjoyed a meal here with Erin Walsh and Jane Huang. Erin, visiting from Hong Kong, has an incredible job leading philanthropy for Goldman Sachs in the Asia-Pacific region. One of the main projects is 10,000 Women, which funds and mentors women entrepreneurs. Jane is the wife of Academy Award-winning Chinese composer Tan Dun, best known for scoring the films Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.
Coconut Paradise Thai restaurant.
Jane Huang, Jeanne Lawrence, and Erin Walsh.
Jeanne Lawrence and Hong Kong-based Erin Walsh of Goldman Sachs.
Photos by Jeanne Lawrence.
*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.