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Grape Restaurant (Shanghai, China)
||55 XinLe Raod,|
Reviewed by: Diane Jacob
Spring Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(1) page: 19
Published with the title: On A Menu: In Shanghai, the article is about coming back from China having had a wonderful time. My favorite city, of course, was Shanghai, since I heard about it my entire life. Even found the house where my mother grew up--that was very satisfying, especially because it is going to be torn down next year. Ate lots of preserved fruit while I was there--my relatives would be so jealous! My favorite restaurant in that wonderful city was the Grape Resturant, 55 Xinle Road; Shanghai, China; phone: 021/54040486 or 6472-0486. For the record, they take no credit cards.
Kept asking, what is Shanghainese food? No one seems to know. Chinese restaurants in this exciting city tend to serve an amalgamation of regional Chinese dishes. Chefs are said to like to use lots of oil, sugar and oyster sauce, but I did not find that to be the case. River fish is often the highlight of the meal, and hairy crab a specialty in winter. Shanghai is also heavenly if you are a carbohydrate addict, as dumplings, fried noodles, and baked and fried breads are everywhere.
Our criteria for restaurant selection in China was simple: a recommendation was best, but barring that, my husband and I decided that as long as the restaurant and restroom looked clean, and the food seemed fresh, we were game. A tour guide took us to The Grape and it surpassed our expectations. Located in the former French Concession, on a pretty street with leafy green French maples, The Grape has an extensive menu, first-rate service by a squadron of young waitresses, fresh and inspired dishes, generous servings, and inexpensive prices.
The restaurant is small and narrow, with bigger tables in the front, then another eight in a long, narrow room. The restaurant is bright and cheerfully lit, with a simple decorating scheme. Black Corian tabletops contrast against wrought iron dividers with designs in the shape of grape clusters. The dividers give the impression of booths and provide just enough privacy from other diners, who are both foreign and Chinese.
Now, on to the food. Tea and a few nibbles arrive first: crisp, preserved vegetables and salted peanuts. Our first trip was during a guided tour of the city. Our guide, Henry Hong, always stops at this place for lunch. After some discussion about what to order, he confesses his love for noodles and dumplings, and we emphatically agree. He orders a dark Chow Mien for three of us, studded with baby bok choy (but they do not call it that there); it comes with slivers of chicken. Next comes a single green onion pancake--not greasy, leaden or flaky as they are often found in US restaurants, but a single thin crispy layer, flecked with green onion. It covers the plate and is presliced, like a pizza.
Whole Mandarin Fish is a specialty of the restaurant. My husband and I are dubious about ordering it. Up to then we have consumed whole fish reluctantly and slowly throughout our trip, due to the many tiny bones we find in our mouths (and it is perfectly correct to spit them out on the plate). Their needle-like presence had affected our enjoyment. But this fish is blissfully bone-free. It has been gutted, filleted, deboned and cut into chunks, while kept in its original shape. Then it is deep fried, the head and tail reattached, and doused with tangy red sweet and sour sauce. It looks spectacular when brought to the table, and it tasts just as good.
Since it is winter, a Chinese client back in the US has urged me to try the delicacy of the season, hairy crab. Once I popped the shell off and cleaned the small crab, fluorescent red and orange meat awaits me. I panick and try to eat the scrawny legs first, but the guide admonishes me to start with the best part. So I dip the meat into a fragrant light sesame sauce, pop it into my mouth, and to my surprise, it has the consistency and flavor of a hard-boiled egg yolk. I eat it all.
From there, we feast on an irresistible salty heap of preserved vegetables, pork and tofu, all sliced into tiny strips and tasting surprisingly like the smoky green chilies of New Mexico. Our last dish is a plate of boiled dumplings, stuffed with ground pork, said to be a specialty of Shanghai. They are fork tender, yet do not fall apart. We eat them with a little black vinegar and chili oil. With all dishes demolished, our total bill is around $36. The Mandarin fish and the hairy crab, at around $7.50 each, have driven up the price.
My husband and I return for a light dinner a few days later. This time we order a platter of sizzling beef. The waitress brings a plate of raw beef and onions tableside, and dumps them quickly onto a hot cast iron platter, then covers the dish. A short time later, she unveils the cooked dish. The beef is soft and silky, and melts in our mouths, and the bed of sliced onions has caramelized, adding complexity to the dish. Another dish called Two Green Beans turns out to be a mix of fava beans and an unrecognizable green vegetable, cut in diamond shapes, kind of like a firm zucchini. It is a pretty contrast of dark and light green, firm and soft bites, and it is exceedingly fresh, just stir-fried briefly. Last are rectangles of neatly stacked deep-fried tofu, crisp outside and soft inside, drenched in sweet and sour sauce. The price for two for this meal is $8.50.
Dianne Jacob is an editor and writer in Oakland, California who runs an annual Food Writing conference. She also coaches people on how to write book proposals that excite agents and editors.