My recent trip to Shanghai was my first visit to China. Walking along Nanjing Road East, a pedestrian-only commercial district where 21st-century high-tech buildings bump against 1930s Art Deco wonders, I encountered brightly-lit fast food emporiums with familiar names: KFC, McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Wendy's, Dairy Queen.
However, I didn't endure 14-and-a-half hours on a plane from Chicago to eat a fast food burger with fries, so I turned down a side street and wandered till I found an appropriate Chinese-y place to dine.
First stop: A Szechuan-style restaurant fit the bill for authenticity. The staff was gathered in a corner near a TV watching a Chinese soap opera. The chef wandered in from the kitchen, bare-chested and smoking. The menu, with glossy photos and English subtitles, offered all manner of duck -- spicy fragrant neck, delicious duck feet, glutinous duck tongue, spicy hot ducks head -- as well as stir-fried ox tongues, snake head hot pot, natural bean dregs soup, hot and spicy cooked gizzard's blood, brine pig's tail, sautéed old frog and palatable black fungus. Hello, China!
I stayed at the Fairmont Peace Hotel, an impeccably restored Art Deco structure built in 1929 (originally the Cathay Hotel), and the only accommodation I know with its own on-site historian. The hotel exudes an opulent nostalgia, especially in the Dragon Phoenix restaurant -- restored to its original glory with pale blue walls, lacquered red and gold square columns and a view of the river. The menu's traditional Chinese offerings include local specialties, like the avocado, crab and mushroom salad, and delicate Shanghai dumplings.
Dongtai Lu is an outdoor flea-slash-antique market crammed with stalls selling Communist era memorabilia (Mao statues, anyone?), old posters, paintings, vintage typewriters, lamps, jewelry, trinkets, musical instruments, T-shirts, chopsticks, clocks and crafts. Bargaining is expected. "Best price!" means they won't bargain anymore -- unless you walk away, and then they might.
It was here I found a street vendor selling what looked like an oversized wheel of pita bread topped with egg and vegetables. I don't think this was "dan bing," a street food I was told to find that I think is more like an egg on a crepe. Who cares? It was delicious.
Speaking of street food, you can't beat the selection of meats-on-a-stick grilling all over town. This vendor was set up in the French Concession, an area that sounds like a tent for crepes and café au lait at the World Expo, but, no, it's the section of town leased to the French by the Brits in 1846. It's a district where houses with shutters and mansard roofs populate shady plane tree-lined streets, with boutiques and restaurants, where the pace is slower than the bustling downtown.
The French Concession is also the place to find Lost Heaven, a highly recommended restaurant that lived up to the hype. Everything about Lost Heaven was seductive: the room with dark wood and red walls that soar two stories, the Buddha with multiple arms and hat sprouting tiny heads, the spicy, aromatic Yunnan food from an area bordering Tibet. And so my eat-a-thon continued with spring rolls in tofu skin with a tangy tamarind-cilantro dip, stir-fried broccoli with ginger and red chilies, Miao Tribe hot-and-sour prawns and pumpkin cake, light puffs of panko-crusted sweetness. I waddled out. Happy.
Shanghai cuisine isn't known for being spicy, but sometimes you gotta get some hots. So I headed to the Hunan restaurant, Guyi. Sitting beneath crystal chandeliers at tables set with crisp white cloths, I was handed a voluminous menu with snappy color photos and ordered by pointing. Chicken with fresh bamboo shoots, chilies and cilantro arrived in a cast iron wok. Purple baby eggplant and green beans with red pepper were eye-popping bright and packed with heat. And so I learned the word for beer: pi jiu.
Before leaving town, I lingered over high tea in the Fairmont's Jasmine Lounge where a woman in traditional garb played the guqin, a seven-stringed zither. The menu lists an impressive 13 pages of teas. (And only three types of coffee.) The tea tray held savory sandwiches, quiches, scones, jam, clotted cream, Madeleines, macaroons, mini-donuts, chocolate tarts, cake, fruit compotes, fruit salad and chocolate petit fours. Though tempted to remain in that retro-glam cocoon (where Noel Coward, Charlie Chaplin and other celebs have stayed), I kicked myself into gear and hopped a cab to the airport. Next stop: Guangzhou.