Picture this: to one side of a rectangular white plate you find a seared escalope of foie gras, perched like a table top on legs of stuffed dates standing upright, and sprinkled over top with ginger julienned as thin as thread. At the other end of the plate there sits a small salad composed of baby greens tossed with a Japanese-inspired apple-based vinaigrette. Booze-soaked raisins and blanched chopped celery are scattered here and there, along with a generous drizzle of a citrus-based reduction. And all this has been put together for you at considerable expense in Shanghai, China, at the Whampoa Club, in the incomparably spiffy Three on the Bund.
Sizing up the confusing dish after a first bite I am reminded strangely of a time and place far away: Toronto, circa 1982, when fusion was the rage and everyone was into foreign, Asian flavours, even as interpreted by local white chefs who had never travelled any closer to the South China Sea than say, Spadina Avenue—like Greg Couillard for example. But this time the culinary kaleidoscope was pointed the other way.
Shanghai is a new city, and assertively the most Westernized and international civic centre in China. It is also the proud urban symbol of its economic success. And with the rest of the world now interested in a visit, and opportunist star chefs from abroad having pulled noisily into town to do business (say, David Laris from Australia, and before that, Jean-Georges Vongerichten from New York), a peculiar culinary free-for-all appears to have taken hold of the city’s most expensive restaurants.
For example, at the popular fusion restaurant T8, chef started me off with a Vongerichten-inspired foie gras brulé—sweetened with chocolate!—and then followed with a Sichuan lamb “high pie” that turned out to be a lamb pot pie spiked with enough Sichuan pepper to numb every palate in the restaurant. At the highly recommended Jade on 36, on the 36th floor of the Shangri-La Hotel in Pudong, my meal began with an amuse-gueule designed to enhance the appetite with the simulated consumption of a cigarette—a slender candied roll of wet foie gras mousse served in an ashtray, with fake ash as a dip—that I just don’t think would fly here. Chef there followed with a chopstick-friendly “bouillabaisse”—three gelatinized eyeball-shaped globules of the stuff, stuck to the plate with mayonnaise—and then a “calzone” of cod, wherein overcooked fish was slathered with tomato sauce and melted cheese. For dessert: a Nutella crème brûlée on a bed of . . . avocado purée.
The aforementioned foie gras at the Whampoa, meanwhile, was the inspiration of chef Jereme Leung, author of New Shanghai Cuisine. And lucky for him there is nothing old Shanghai about foie gras, or the locals would be spitting out instead of praising a dish that combined a seared escalope of liver served stone cold, sporting a schnitzel-like baggy sheath of something it had been dredged in, and paired with cloying syrup-soaked jujubes (Chinese dates) stuffed with glutinous rice dough.
Despite such travesties, the Chinese seem to like foie gras. Its taste, fattiness and price has in fact struck such a chord with them that they are raising their own (volume if not quality of Chinese production closely trails that of Quebec). I also sampled Taiwanese caviar, and even some rather expensive “Bordeaux-style” Chinese wine (thus far they do a far better job copying Western DVDs and designer purses). All the expensive Western-inspired food was intensely disappointing.
But as in so much of Asia, the street food of Shanghai is a delight. Their particular style of cooking tends to sweetness as well as an affection for pastry—very possibly a legacy of the European concessions. The Shanghainese are responsible for at least three of my preferred low-end Chinatown treats: potato-scallion pancakes (Chinese latkes, as I think of them), potstickers, and soup-filled dumplings. To me, Chinese steamed pork buns have always had the off-putting hue of Styrofoam packing; here, though, they sprinkle them with sesame seeds and bake them until they are as golden and crisp as a good croissant. Strolling through a wet market in the morning you can enjoy all these snacks and more, all washed down with a cup of spicy broth studded with soft tofu slurped through a thick straw, and be out of pocket for less than a dollar. And that is very much worth travelling for.