Lost Heaven Silk Road in Shanghai

Panda Express does not give you a proper view into the regional variety of Chinese cuisine. Like in any large nation, the cuisine of China has substantial regional differences. While in Shanghai this summer, I tried something I’m not very familiar with – the cuisine of Western China – at a restaurant called Lost Heaven Silk Road in the Jing’an district.

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Based on the cuisine found along the ancient trading route, the menu offers foods from Xi’an and Dunhuang all the way to India, Pakistan and Persia. The restaurant owes much of its interior design specifically to Dunhuang, a small city in Gansu Province in the northwest of China, famous for its hundreds of caves decorated with ancient Buddhist art.

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Our first dish was cold oat noodles, a specialty of western China where oats are more common than rice or wheat. The noodles were served with a slightly spicy sauce flavored with peanuts and were a refreshing start to the meal.

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There were many meat dishes, especially good were the lamb ribs. The meat was flavorful, tender and the sauces added a lot to the dish. The skewers pictured above had a nice spice rub with flavors of cumin prominent.

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We also had Xi’an rice noodles, which are flavored more by sesame oil and were more familiar as a Chinese dish.

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There were several vegetable dishes including this slightly curried okra dish that was not the typically slimy okra you might be familiar with. These would seem not out-of-place in an Indian or Pakistani restaurant.

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They also served so-called “Tang wei hu bing” buns, literally Chinese flavor foreign bread – pita bread stuffed with grilled meat and coriander. The flavors and style of more Middle Eastern cuisine was particularly noticeable here.

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For dessert we had a Kashmir style rice pudding. While nothing pretty to look at, the cardamom flavored pudding was pleasant.

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And a final sweet that left no doubt about where the far end of the silk road lies: baklava.

The restaurant is beautiful and the food is tasty. While one could quibble with its authenticity, I think they illustrate beautifully the reality that a lot of food is fusion, tracing the path of trade and migration and bringing together the ingredients, techniques and tastes of the people who make the journey.
Lost Heaven Silk Road
758 Julu Lu (Jing’an station)
+86 6266 9816
open for lunch and dinner daily
lostheaven.com.cn

Dining in Shanghai at Dadong

Dadong, a popular Beijing restaurant chain, opened their first branch in Shanghai to great acclaim.

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While famous for their Peking duck, the Shanghai branch of Dadong has also compiled a menu that features many specialties from Shanghai and surrounding regions. All of this with exquisite presentation and attentive service.

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The restaurant is located in a business tower adjacent to the Réel mall in the popular Jing’an district. The interior feels industrial but has many design touches that elevate it and add sophistication.

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Table settings are high-quality but playful. The menu is a nearly 100-page book with a different dish featured on each page with full-color photos that look like they have come from an art magazine rather than a restaurant menu.

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Dishes arrived at a rapid pace, almost without consideration to the limited space on the table. The first dish was a drunken chicken, marinated and served cold. The meat was succulent and tender, a refreshing start to the meal.

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The next dish was described as “pickled lettuce” but we decided this is a bit of a misnomer. They are pickles but I think they are pickled melons or gourds of some sort. Served with ground goji berries and fresh basil, this was a pleasant taste with a crunchy texture.

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The next dish was a tray of grilled, mashed eggplant with sesame paste – essentially, babaganouj, served on fried wonton wrappers. The flavor profile was not as strong as with a Middle Eastern version of the dish but it speaks to how there are some silk road influences in Chinese cuisine.

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A few minutes later, two chefs appeared near our table to skin the roast duck. The chef doing the cutting was supervised by a senior chef. The mahogany color of the skin was flawless.

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True to the authentic style, the skin was served with a thin layer of meat still attached. In Thailand, for example, the skin is usually completely separated from the meat. I prefer this traditional approach. Each diner had their own dish of nine accompaniments from hoisin sauce to white pepper to shredded green onion and daikon radish matchsticks. We could add these to the duck skin in fresh crepe-thin pancakes. Superb.

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Matsutake mushrooms stewed in spring water and served in a hot stone bowl. This was a let-down. While the mushrooms were nice, the broth tasted pretty much like spring water… and not much else. The faux-Christmas decorations also were off-putting. We should have just skipped on this particular dish.

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The next dish made up for it, though. These were oat flour rolls filled with Bolognese sauce and served with celery leaves. This is another “silk road” dish as oat flour is used to make noodles in western China, further along the historic trading route to central Asia. The Bolognese sauce also speaks to the influences that run both ways.

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A specialty from Suzhou, a region nearby Shanghai, is the squirrel-shaped deep-fried mandarin fish with sweet and sour sauce. The boneless fish is carved in a cross-hatch pattern, covered with egg yolk and deep fried. Afterwards, it is doused with sweet and sour sauce. This version was appealing although the sauce was a bit heavy and obscured the tender flavor of the fish ever so slightly.

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The next dish was a clever play on another local specialty, the lion’s head meatballs. A classic of Huaiyang cuisine which is found in Jiangsu province (of which Suzhou is a part), the lion’s head meatballs are oversized meatballs usually served with cabbage or other vegetables. One of the versions is served stewed in a broth. The clever play on this is that the meatball and broth were served “en papillote” on top of hot stones. A few star anise rested on the stones, releasing their spicy fragrance.

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The bags were untied in front of us, opening to reveal the pale pink meatball. If I recall correctly, our version was pork with crab meat. The meat was tender and very full of flavor, a delicacy that was as playful as it was flavorful.

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The next dish was thinly-sliced spring bamboo shoots sautéed with potherb mustard. This earthy dish provided a nice contrast to the meatball’s delicacy.

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A large bowl of stewed amaranth with mushroom slices and pear balls. This was a clever dish. The amaranth is a chard-like vegetable with an earthy flavor and a red color to the stems that tinges the broth a pretty pink. The pear balls add a sweet crispness that is a perfect foil for the earthy softness of the vegetables.

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To conclude the meal, we had a plate of steamed dumplings filled with “three delicacies”. I didn’t find out what those delicacies were but they were delicious. At this point, we were getting tremendously full and could have done with two or three fewer dishes.

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As we called for the bill, the server delivered a plate of fresh Chinese lychees nestled in a bed of ice with wisps of “smoke” from dry ice rising like the special effects in a martial arts costume drama.

Overall, Dadong proved to be a must-visit. And a must-visit with a large group, so you can try as many dishes as possible. If I had been dining with only one other person, we would have missed out on so many tasty things to eat. The attention to detail, presentation and overall service were impressive.

Dadong
Reel Mall
5/F, 1601 Nanjing Xi Lu near Changde Lu
南京西路1601号越洋广场5楼, 近常德路
Phone: 3253 2299
Open daily

 

Chinese food comes to Paris

While in Paris, we visited two Chinese restaurants, one that playfully combines flavors, ingredients and concepts and the other that tries to more faithfully represent X’ian style cooking. One is more successful than the other, based on our visits.

La Taverne de Zhao

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The first stop was La Tavern de Zhou, located in the 10th arrondissement near Place de Republique and Canal Saint-Martin. This tiny restaurant is reputed for its faithful recreation of Xi’an dishes. In fact, multiple websites and reviews crowned it one of the best Asian restaurants in the city.

We arrived without a reservation but were shown to a table. Service  was a bit haphazard – I don’t expect California-like friendliness but they did seem a bit dismissive. We worked our way through the French menu and selected just a few items, highlighted specialties.

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The first was the raojiamo, or griddled steamed bun with meat filling. In this case, the choices are pork, pork with chilies, or tofu and egg. We ordered one with the pork and one with the pork and chilies. They were tasty although we added more hot sauce to both as they were in need of more seasoning. Perhaps Parisian palettes are delicate.

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The second dish was liangpi noodles. The making of this dish is interesting. I found this description on SeriousEats.com:

“…liangpi noodles are made by first washing a wheat or rice flour dough in water until its starches are completely rinsed off. This starchy water is then allowed to sit overnight until the starches collect at the bottom. The clear water above is poured off, and the ultra-starchy liquid below is steamed until it forms thin sheets with a uniquely crunchy-but-soft texture.”

The version here was dressed with a sesame oil and black vinegar sauce with cucumber and bean sprouts added. It was tasty but overall uninspiring. From what I’ve been told by friends who have visited, Xi’an offers a lot of really interesting, flavorful food. Based on what we tried (which was admittedly just a limited selection of the menu), it isn’t worth your time to eat here unless you live in Paris and are really desperate for Chinese food.

Address:49 Rue des Vinaigriers, 10eme arrondissement
Hours: daily except Monday
Telephone:01 40 37 16 21 (Reservations accepted, walk-ins welcome)

 

Siseng

The second place we visited was completely different. I would dub it the “Little Bao of Paris” in homage to my favorite restaurant in Hong Kong, which served steamed Taiwanese buns made into various types of burgers.

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Siseng, located adjacent to Canal Saint-Martin, has both a similar menu and a similar vibe. The space is small and cramped. The music is good. The energy is high. In short, it is a fun place to be.

IMG_0958Despite (or perhaps because of) the tight quarters and busy evening, the staff is extremely efficient while remaining friendly. Service in English was welcomed and they were patient when we tried our rusty French.

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The menu is much less bao-heavy than at Little Bao. In fact, there really are only two types of bao burgers. The rest of the menu has only about a dozen items plus a good selection of drinks and cocktails. We ordered these fried risotto balls that were made with coconut milk and lemongrass, which were spectacular. The flavor was rich and aromatic.

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We also enjoyed a vaguely Vietnamese dish called the “bo bun” – the menu says “don’t hesitate to eat it all!” – which are rice vermicelli with a chopped beef in curry sauce on top. Lots of fresh herbs and vegetables come with it. Authentic? Hardly. But tasty? Absolutely. This was a fun dish to eat and had great flavors.

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For the bao burgers, we had them both. This one, the Kaï, was a marinated chicken breast breaded and fried in katsu breadcrumbs and served with a basil and coconut milk pesto and a red pepper confit and homemade coleslaw.  The meat was tender and flavorful, the breading light and crunchy. It was a good bao burger.

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The second bao is the five spice burger, featuring a beef patty marinated in Chinese five spice mixture, served with a caramelized tamarind sauce, tempura fried onions, confit onions, rocket and spinach. It was nicely cooked and flavorful. The bao don’t seem to hold up quite as well as I would like, but that’s quibbling about details.

Overall, I think Siseng is a bit more “Asian-ish” versus Little Bao’s solid roots. Despite this, I think Siseng is one of the more interesting places we ate in Paris and is on the “visit again” list for our next trip.

Address: 82 Quai de Jemmapes, 10eme arrondissement
Hours: daily except Monday
Telephone: 06 68 89 77 88 (Reservations not accepted)