On our last full day in China we planned a spontaneous day trip to Shanghai. Some of my team had visited on Tuesday but I didn’t go with them, as I knew they’d want to spend a long time wandering round the markets to buy cheap designer bags and watches and I was mainly interested in exploring the food side of the city (shocker I know!) 😛 I wasn’t sure if I would go at all because it had taken two hours to drive to the city where we were staying from the airport in Shanghai, but when I found out there were fast trains that arrived in less than 20 minutes (and costed only around $4) I thought it would have been a shame to miss out on the opportunity to visit especially given that the chances of me returning to China would be extremely slim!
I found it harder than usual to research good food places, since a lot of Google searches came up with Chinese websites or no websites at all, and there weren’t many reviews. A lot of the street names were also in Chinese and I knew I wouldn’t be able to use maps when I was there. I found a list of the best dumplings in Shanghai and out of all of the places on the list, Din Tai Fung stood out to me. They started out as a street stall in Taipei in the 1980s but there are now a number of branches across the world, mainly in Asia. The Hong Kong branch has even won a Michelin Award.
They’re most famous for their xiaolongbao – little thin-skinned dumplings filled with meat or vegetables and a fragrant soup. Apparently chefs have to train for three months before they can serve them up!
We had a little trouble finding the place. There are 8 branches in Shanghai, 6 on the East side of the river, but google maps claimed that there was one near the Bund, right by the riverside where so many tourists gather to take photos with the Oriental Pearl Tower and other skyscrapers in the Pudong district. When we arrived at the apparent location of the restaurant though, we couldn’t see it anywhere and a hotel receptionist (one of few people who could understand a few words of English) told us she didn’t know of any nearby. So we abandoned our search and headed across the river to another branch at the Super Brand Mall, making a quick pit stop at one of the many bakeries on the way. I went in looking for something small since we were on the way to lunch, but I couldn’t resist the soft squid double custard bun.. I demolished it in about five seconds flat!
The mall had plenty of places to eat, and a clear map with both English and Chinese shop names, so it was far easier to find. I have to admit I was shocked at how few people could understand basic English in Shanghai. For such a big and famous city, it was far less Westernised than I thought. In Kunshan, where we were staying, it was absolutely impossible to converse with anyone – even asking for the toilet or ordering from a menu was a mammoth task, but I thought that Shanghai would have been different.
As soon as we entered the restaurant, it was clear that it would be a far more fine-dining experience than all of the other Chinese restaurants around. It was modern and spacious, we were greeted politely and brought ice-cold water immediately. The waiters and waitresses, although still unable to understand more than a few words, were extremely polite and attentive. There were a number of smaller private-dining rooms and a larger room available for private hire at the back of the restaurant (that I managed to gatecrash by accident on my way to the toilet!).
Their menu consists of a variety of appetisers, stuffed buns, xiaolongbaos, dumplings and wonton soups. You can also get all of the usual fried rice and fried noodle dishes. We decided to order a variety of buns and dumplings. The buns come in pairs and the other small dim sum items can be ordered in 5s or 10s). Although clearly more expensive than dining elsewhere, the food was still incredibly good value for money – our whole meal came to around twenty pounds before service charge.
The buns were probably my favourite as they were so soft. In general, the meat versions were tastier than the vegetable ones but the vegetable dumplings were delicious. The pork bun was probably my favourite.
I can see why the xiaolongbaos are so popular. We tried the mushroom and the chicken ones. The chicken was well seasoned and it came with a deliciously fragrant soup, delicately encased in a thin skin. There’s a little laminated card on each table telling you the ‘traditional’ way to eat them – put the little dumpling onto your spoon, poke a hole in the skin so that the soup seeps out and add a touch of soy sauce, vinegar and ginger before eating. They’re definitely one-bite foods.. I tried to cut one in half (before realising they were full of soup) and it got very messy!
The mushroom one contained a variety of different mushrooms. There was no soup inside the dumpling but the mushroom flavour was very strong. It sounds like a silly observation since mushrooms were the only ingredient, but I find that some mushrooms are stronger tasting than others and these were very overpowering. I loved them but Marcus wasn’t a fan so I polished them off 🙂 They all come served in traditional bamboo baskets, arriving as they’re ready and stacked up high on the table to keep them warm.
The thing about not loving Asian food is that I can appreciate and enjoy certain dishes but I never want to eat it to excess. It’s not like pizza or cake where I will literally eat it until I’m going to burst. The food was lovely but had they brought more I wouldn’t really have been tempted to eat it. After our mains, I had a quick scan of the dessert menu but nothing really took my fancy. Like the main dishes, they had a variety of buns and dumplings stuffed with different fillings such as red bean paste, chestnut, taro and black sesame. I’m not a fan of the texture of red bean paste and none of the other flavours really appealed to me either and we’d already had a lot of buns and dumplings so we decided to head out into the mall for dessert. I had my second Dairy Queen in two days – an Oreo lava sundae, a (slightly disappointing) frozen yogurt (both in the same mall) and then headed across the road to IFC mall where I had a dark chocolate and cranberry bun with an iced latte at Baker and Spice!
Baker and Spice is another worldwide chain, though the offerings seem to differ greatly at each location. There’s one in Selfridges in London which doesn’t have a sit in area – it just offers a range of salads and cooked meat and fish, to be taken away in little plastic containers at restaurant-prices. This one was a proper sit in cafe, with a range of cakes and sandwiches on display, some salads and hot meals available and a wide range of coffees. It was one of surprisingly few places offering up Western foods such as scones, quiches and cakes as we know them (rather than the Asian-style light, fluffy cream cakes which taste like you’re eating air!) and it was very popular.
There are a lot of other cafes and restaurants in the IFC mall. On our list of places to go was Awfully Chocolate, which I was expecting to be heaven. In my head I thought it would be a big store selling everything amazing and chocolatey but in reality it was a little disappointing. It was just a small stall selling a small selection of cakes (a chocolate tart, a chocolate brownie, a typically Asian airy mousse-like cake) and a few truffles. There was one impressive looking mille-feuille cake.. but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have tasted half as good as it looked. I”m not usually a fan of mille-feuille as I prefer denser cake items than whipped cream and thin, flaky pastry but this one was a big cake made of thin layers of crepes sandwiched together with a mousse/cream filling.
Much as I’m a huge fan of their soft, sweet, brioche-like bread that can be found in abundance at any bakery or buffet, I’m really not a fan of their cakes. I think I once made one for my mum and I know that they’re widely available in ChinaTown in London but I find them far too light (if that’s possible for a cake!) – to me it tastes like a little like eating flavourless air, rather than a good slice of cake.
Overall, I was a big fan of Din Tai Fung and I’d definitely recommend it. There are hundreds of stalls along the street selling dumplings for next to nothing, but it was nice to sit down in a proper restaurant with good service and enjoy a more refined version 🙂