US west coast editor Elyse Glickman and correspondent Derek J. Poirier compile this handy guide to Shanghai, one of the world’s great urban destinations, balancing high fashion and street chic, luxury and history
photographed by the authors
Elyse Glickman is US west coast editor of Lucire. Derek J. Poirier is a guest correspondent.
Shanghai is a fantastic city of contradictions, with much more to it than just “old” and “new”. Ming Dynasty palaces juxtopose Pudong’s mag-lev trains and futuristic architecture, where the Oriental Pearl Tower stands out like an exclamation point. Furthermore, the city has a rich history that predates the days of European colonialism that left its architectural marks on the Bund and the former French Concession.
These contradictions are precisely what make it one of the most uniquely alluring cities in the world.
Dim sum and then some
Street food is as en vogue among the jet-set as fine dining. Therefore, a night market visit or lunch at a local dim sum café is going to be on the to-do list. On the other hand, unless you already know a local, there’s the rub of where to find the good ones. This is where UnTour Shanghai comes in handy. Started by Americans Kyle Long and Jamie Barys, tour participants are transformed into local food experts with such specialized experiences covering traditional breakfast foods, dumplings (which includes a cooking class to roll your own) and night markets.
We opted to begin our visit with UnTour Shanghai’s Dumplings Delights Tour in the former French Concession. Though dumplings are everywhere, we found the tour excellent way to be introduced to some of Shanghai’s best, at four distinctly different but very authentic local spots. Street Hawker Potstickers offered up very flavourful pork potstickers all made by hand by centuries-old traditions passed on from one generation to the next. (Had we been casually walking by, we would have completely missed this place!). The second location, specializing in Nanjing soup dumplings (delicate, flavorful dumplings filled with piping hot broth), was quite an education. The art to eating these dumplings is to bite into the side of the dumpling, pour the soup out of the dumpling into a spoon, then sip the soup and eat the dumpling.
The third venue, broken up with long walks through the very picturesque former French Concession, was the Harbin Dumpling House with its boiled dumplings and tofu salad. Although the dumplings at the Harbin Dumpling House looked familiar, the quality and flavour complexity was excellent and superior to comparable spots in the US. The home-made tofu was also excellent, resembling more the flavour of an unusual vegetable than resembling tofu at all. We also stopped at a location that made sublimely delicious, crunchy wraps. The “shell” was a rice paper grilled then lined with a sweet but flavourful chili paste, garlic and egg, then rolled, cut in half and served wrapped in wax paper. Not surprisingly, they were the favourite offering among several of our fellow travellers on the tour.
The busy morning concluded with a lesson at the Chinese Cooking Workshop, where we made our own Shanghai-style dumplings from scratch with the help of a very skilful instructor. Staring down at a pile of flour and eventually turning it into authentic Shanghai-style dumplings was an intimidating proposition but with the expert direction of our teacher, we all successfully made delicious dumplings, which we promptly devoured!
In terms of fine dining, we found western restaurants do much to help Shanghai earn its reputation as a global culinary leader. Though the Roosevelt House gets a lot of attention for its extensive wine library and noble lineage, French chef Paul Paret’s Ultraviolet and Mr & Mrs Bund have made many best-in-the-world restaurant lists because of the adventurous way Paret’s crew fuses locally sourced ingredients with European techniques to get dishes and dégustation menus that defy genre. The highlights included an excellent fois gras with apples, a delicious savoury salad and a very well executed bone-in rib-eye steak. This is sophisticated French food served in a hip, casual atmosphere.
Three on the Bund, meanwhile, expands the east-meets-west thing into a multi-dimensional dining adventure. You will find Italian (Mercado), Latin American (Unico), Korean (Chi-Q) and Traditional French (Jean Georges) restaurants, made completely new by the fact while dishes at each place remain faithful to their recipes of origin, they take on a new personality with the use of local ingredients. The mixology at all venues is particularly inspired, especially with Unico. If you happen to be in the former French Concession, you will want to check out playful bites and cocktails at Liquid Laundry, founded by Los Angeles native Kelly Lee, or kick back at the Union Trading Company founded by Texan Luo, who started at Lee’s venues before putting up his own shingle.
Like most major world capitals, Shanghai has no shortage of museums, and they run the gamut from world-class collections to pop culture-kitsch. The same is true for historic sites and temples.
Whether you are staying two days, a week (as we did) or a month, there are essential cannot-miss places that not only satisfy a history and culture craving, but also provide a foundation on which one can build a customized experience. Of course, there is the matter of getting to these places. It can be daunting in a city of this size, especially as English is not necessarily spoken everywhere as it would be in Hong Kong. Thankfully, its efficient subway system (with fares ranging from 40¢ to about $1 each way), shockingly inexpensive cab rides (made manageable with direction cards provided by your friendly hotel concierge), and a remarkably competent network of Über drivers will take the fear out of logistics.
The Shanghai Museum, nested in People’s Square, fits nicely into the “if you have time for only one museum” category, with its comprehensive array of anthropological displays, coins, jade, ceramics, textiles and decorative arts. Four neatly organized floors make exploration of the museum a pleasure, even on busy afternoons. The Jade Buddha Temple, meanwhile, fits the “if you have time for only one temple” slot with its maze of beautiful buildings, statues, historic artifacts, and a vegetarian restaurant with every kind of fake meat you can think of—and a few you can’t.
The Shanghai Old Street, City God Temple and Yu Yuan Garden, all in the Laoximen neighbourhood, are best enjoyed in the early morning before fleets of tourists and vendors descend. The ornate architecture with bold swaths of red and gold of the Ming and Qing Dynasties almost frame the City God Temple and Yu Yuan Garden. Yu Yuan, a former private home, embodies the ultimate relationship between man and nature. Buildings and statues cleaving together with trees, rocks and caves in unpredictable ways.
In Pudong, the Oriental Pearl Tower not only anchors the area’s Disney-esque landscape, but it also draws Disney-esque lines for its observation decks, restaurants, Game City floor and roller coaster. However, the Shanghai History Museum at the base of the tower is worth the ticket-line queue. It brings the city’s history vividly to life using low (dioramas; wax figures) and high-tech (holograms) means. There’s also an interesting array of classic cars at the museum’s entry as well as dumpling vendors right in the middle of the exhibit, where the 19th and 20th centuries flow together.
The French connection
The sheer size of Shanghai ensures that there are no shortages of opportunities to walk long distances. The former French Concession in its entirety is great for walking, with tree-lined streets, Chinese and European architecture and many shopping districts. Getting lost in this section of the city will almost always yield an unusual find; a building with interesting architecture or a unique coffee shop with expats from around the world (who all happen to speak English fluently). The Xujiahui section is home to the Shanghai Library and the former residence of Madam Soong Ching Ling, fascinating for the way her personal effects underscored her adherence to her political philosophies and her influence on her contemporaries outside of China.
Between the storefronts in the most expat-heavy areas, look for signs designating the homes of other Chinese leaders and intellectuals from the early 20th century. Some of these residences are also open to the public, and their yards used for performances and craft fairs. If you really get ambitious, you owe it to yourself to seek out the Propaganda Museum, in the basement of a tower within a large apartment block. If you do this small museum right, you will be captivated for hours, not just by the display of ‘Shanghai Girls’ advertising posters of the ’20s and ’30s, but also the way the politicized posters capturing depicting both Chinese and world events through Chinese eyes in every decade of the 20th century—including the American Civil Rights’ movement.
Shopping neighbourhoods within the French Concession include Xintiandi, whose lush tree lined streets have a Parisian sensibility. Tianzifang, with its tight alleys of craft stalls and elegant shoebox-sized boutiques, features the work of young designers vying to be the next Shanghai Tang. There’s even a cat café where you can make a new (four-legged) friend. Brocade Country, owned and operated by sisters Dawn and Yienzi Li, is a destination for its Balenciaga-reminiscent bespoke women’s clothing, housewares and jewellery.
The former French Concession is also where we found the most interesting and “local” nightlife. We knew the nightlife in Shanghai is a late scene, but decided to head out on the earlier side to explore some of the French Concession at night. When we arrived in the area of the nightclubs at 9.30 p.m., we found a local Italian café to relax in and do some people-watching. Without trying too hard, we fell into conversations with several expats from all over the world who knew the nightlife scene well and invited us to join them for late-night revelry. We also got confirmation that Shelter and the Apartment were good choices, and opted to stick to our original plan.
Shelter is a nightclub in a converted bomb shelter. The entrance, a nondescript stairway, looks like it leads to the basement of someone’s home. The stairway leads to a very long underground tunnel, which eventually opens up to several large rooms. The largest room has a DJ spinning intense techno–club music. There is a large bar area in this room. Behind this main room are several lounge areas that in the past were clearly areas where food and supplies were stored. This was definitely one of coolest and most unusual nightclubs we encountered in our travels.
After spending time at Shelter, we made our way to the Apartment, decked out with several rooms resembling apartments from different parts of the world. We were drawn to a room that resembled (loosely) an apartment in New York with its own bar. An excellent African-American singer performed covers of western songs you would typically hear in an upscale bar or club in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. If it weren’t for a big itinerary the next day, we could have danced all night.
Comfort and joy
The Peninsula Shanghai—though built in 2009—embodies the “grand hotel” spirit of the 1920s and ’30s. The hotel executes its dwellings, restaurants and amenities with so much refinement and flair that it is almost impossible to believe it actually opened only about a decade ago. We had the opportunity to stay in a Grand Deluxe River Room, perfect for informal entertaining with its beautifully appointed living room, second bath, posh furnishings and epic views of the Bund and Huangpu River. In the private bedroom quarters, the beds are flawlessly attired, the bathroom indulgent and closet almost a retreat space in itself. The Peninsula Suite turns things up several notches. Its expansive space is bespoke-tailored for cocktail parties and board meetings, while its private quarters bedecked with inlaid mosaic furniture and a jade bathtub is jaw-dropping.
The service at the Peninsula is flawless, with staff anticipating guests’ every need every time you step off of the elevator. The public areas, meanwhile, have a delicious “exclusive” feel, from the lobby dining area with its sweets heavy afternoon tea and breakfast (don’t miss out on the duck egg crêpe filled with duck confit), to their sublime restaurants overseen by Chicago-born executive chef Terrence Crandall. He takes pride not only in his craft in the western dining options, but also his rooftop garden, world-renowned French-style pastries and sublime Cantonese dining at Yi Long Court by a team of generations-trained Chinese cooks. Our tasting menu at Yi Long Court was a revelation in that we found the Jiang Nan cooking style to be surprisingly light. The seasoning enhanced the natural flavours of the ingredients.
For those who like formal tea service, the Peninsula Shanghai also offers a tea service in afternoon from the 1930s’ art-déco-inspired lobby restaurant. The tea service is bit different than a traditional British service, which highlights the savoury tea sandwich and scone offerings. We learned this tea service appeals to the Chinese’s interest in sweets. The top layer is a generous offering of sweet desserts including macarons and small cake bites. The second tier has sweeter-than-usual scones, and the bottom tier included several excellent savoury sandwiches.
Given that Pudong is a bustling business hub, the Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai is modern luxury at its finest. While larger and more sprawling than some of its counterparts in other cities, it maintains a boutique-y intimacy as well as sharp, on-point staffers. There’s also a fantastic executive club taking up the second level worth the extra investment for suites that allow for entry. This sacred spot features freshly prepared food most of the day (including a particularly civilized late afternoon tea service and excellent cocktail hour bites), office amenities, and a cozy reading area. The contemporary suites, outfitted with Shanghai Tang bath amenities, sumptuous bedding and postcard views, epitomize the hotel family’s zen approach.
The property also features Yong Ti Ting, which showcases excellent Shanghainese and Jiangnan-style Chinese food. The tasting menu here began with a dim sum and barbecue combination (including a steamed shrimp dumpling with bamboo shoots, a deep fried spring roll with red king crab meat and coconut milk, crispy pork belly and BBQ Jiang Su Kurobuta pork). This was followed by delicate double-boiled sea conch soup with assorted mushrooms and red dates followed by pan-fried sliced cod in a light soy sauce and wok-fried beef cubes with asparagus, lily bulbs and garlic in a black pepper sauce.
The Aroma Garden Lanson Place is a fantastic alternative for extended stays in Shanghai—and for people who love to cook and entertain. Its apartment style dwellings include a fully loaded kitchen and generous living room, elegant Scandinavian-meets-Asian æsthetics and a convenient location near the Yu Yuan Garden metro station. It also has a smart breakfast room–lounge offering a daily continental breakfast, computer terminals and a nice place to stage an early-day meeting with colleagues or neighbours. The rooms are serviced daily, and the front desk staff is always on hand with helpful and timely concierge services.
China Eastern Airlines offers convenient, non-stop service to Shanghai from several gateway cities around the world. We flew business class to and from Los Angeles in their new 777 ER service. The service was world-class. The lie-flat seats, entertainment offerings and service were all on par with the finest airlines in the world. The catering from Los Angeles to Shanghai was superb. We found the ling cod offering for dinner was as good as any fine restaurant in Shanghai. While it should be noted the food offerings on the return flight did not match up to the incoming flight, we feel this will change as CEA ups their game in bringing people from the west to their airline. The wine selection was excellent on both flights as was the in-flight service. •
Essential Cultural Highlights
Contemporary fine dining and cocktails
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