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Shanghainese food is my favorite cuisine. It’s very nuanced, while Beijing food is a little heartier. Shanghai has rivers and oceans, so its food is coastal. Old Jesse (41 Tianping Road, Xuhui) is my favorite sit-down dinner restaurant in all of China and one of my top five in the world. Call a concierge to get you in. Downstairs is where you want to be; it’s really intimate — you feel like you’re in a Wong Kar-wai film.
Start with soup: Yan du xian is a very famous Shanghainese soup; you get tofu knots, ham hock and pork-bone stock. Shanghai uses vinegar, wine and sugar very well. Those are the trademarks, and you want to hit those flavors early.
Shanghainese also does really well with small cold plates like pickled jellyfish, crushed cucumbers, sliced pig ears and kaofu, which is braised wheat gluten. It sounds weird, but it’s really good Buddhist food. Do shellfish as a second course; if you’re in season for Shanghai hairy crab — roughly September to November — you’ve got to do that. The burnt-scallion codfish head is the signature dish at Old Jesse. They will not tell you how they make it, but I figured it out because I was like, “I need to eat this without flying to Shanghai.”
I would get into some alcohol: Drunken chicken is a big Shanghainese dish. Then some fried dishes, like stir-fried eel, which is a very famous dish in Shanghai. Then, to finish, something big and succulent and sweet, and that’s where the braised pork belly and shanks come in. Red-cooked pork is fantastic in Shanghai.
Lion’s head meatball is also a seminal dish. I would get that at Fu 1088 (375 Zhenning Road, Changning), which is a very popular, very high-end restaurant. So is Madam Zhu’s Kitchen (889 Wanhangdu Road), which has a good, kind-of nouveau take on a lion’s head meatball. What also stands out in Shanghai is pan-fried dumplings, which I like to do for breakfast. They’re a bit more rough-and-tumble than soup dumplings, but there’s still a lot of skill in making the dough and pan-frying and steaming them.
In Beijing, I have one really good pick: DaDong (multiple locations). A lot of Peking duck places go for a darker, almost mahogany skin, while DaDong does a golden skin. They use lower heat and take more time to cook the duck, and you can literally peel the fat and the skin apart from the protein fibers. I’ve actually lifted the skin up to the light, and it’s translucent. When you bite into it, you can feel every spell of oil just crushed lightly under your teeth. It’s one of the top five bites of food I’ve ever had in my life.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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