There are over 38,000 eating establishments in Shanghai. I'll give you a minute to let that number sink in.
OK, so maybe "eating establishments" is too lofty a term for a street cart with a furious wok and some dodgy animal bits, but you get my point. From deep-fried bumblebees to coddled morels, choices abound. I eat out here almost every day, it seems crazy not to. Everyone does. Dinner rarely costs more than RMB 80 ($12), and I have yet to have a bad meal.
I often have no clue what I'm eating (sometimes best not to ponder), but excellence abounds and I am constantly awed by dazzling new dishes ("Deep fried hibiscus buds?"), unheard of ingredients ("Excuse me, did you say starfish?") and confounding techniques ("How'd they do that steamed, fried, sweet, tangy, crunchy, tender thing?").
Shanghai, in food, right now, is the most exciting city in the world.
Now, I love pork fat and all things bestial. Desperate wriggling on the plate doesn't put me off, cholesterol threats don't phase me. I once loudly proclaimed in a restaurant in Beijing, "Bring on the testicles!" (They did.) But when wanderlista Andria Mistakos came to town and asked me to take her to my favourite restaurants, I opted to pass on the organs and take her to where I quite simply eat the most, Jujube Tree and Lucky Zen and Veg, both vegetarian joints.
Reason is, everyday eating and adventure eating is not the same thing, and the brilliance of Shanghai is that there are squillions of options in both. For day-to-day sustenance, Shanghai's plethora of fine vegetarian restaurants are just the thing. Great food; great healthy, exciting food.
Jujube Tree has been a Shanghai institution for years. It is the restaurant where I most want to spend a day in the kitchen, there's so much on the plate that I just can't figure out. I love the Sichuan fried mushrooms with a vinegary caramel sauce -- but how on earth did they slice the mushroom to form a long crunchy mushroom noodle? Menu favorites include tempura-like fried lotus root with chili powder, mapo tofu (soft custardy tofu cooked with lots of young sweet ginger and chili), pine mushroom soup with goji berries, sautéed watercress with morels and rice " soup," sweet stewed dark chestnuts with peppers, spongy braised tofu with a dark mysterious sauce whose texture is inexplicably satisfying to the chew, lots of simple braised greens and a smattering of mock meat products, which I usually sneer at, but here enjoy.
Meals are served with a hugely satisfying roasted rice tea and there is fine selection of fresh squeezed juices described with their properties; pear and lemon juice for "whitening," for example. The service is warm and cutesy: The servers have badges with names like " Seeking" and "Smiling" written on them, very different from a Sichuan joint I went to this week where the names would have been " Snarling," "Scowling " and " Why are you bothering me?" At Jujube Tree though, "Sweetness" prevails, and somehow they do a fine job of getting past my shocking menu Mandarin.
I find that I crave Jujube Tree at least twice a week. It has become my Shanghai soul food, food that gallops past flavor, nutrition and ambience and gets right to the heart of what a good meal is supposed to do: It simply makes me feel good.
Just across Shanghai's uber-fab Xintiandi district from Jujube Tree is my other local fave, Lucky Zen and Veg. My gorgeous friend Vivian Zhang bought me here and I am now giddily hooked.
Unlike Jujube Tree, this is not a chain, but a one-off local wonder that requires smart footwork to find. There is a small doorway on the street that opens to a desk with a happy hostess who points to a wooden staircase that leads to main dining room. The room is raw and zen, rough woods and silk and linen dividers. In short, the living room we all want. It has, in fact, become my second lounge. Chanty, incense-y music chimes, serenity in Shanghai.
The food! Really mind-boggling, and there are firm favorites: I love the pan fried bread with fennel greens, baby "shoots" with salted walnuts -- using Tibetan salt -- incredible silky steamed lotus root filled with creamy black rice in a chrysanthemum broth, fern root noodles in a tangy vinegar brine -- I can't even begin to contemplate a fern root noodle in the "what is it" and "how to" world.
When presented with a plateful of whole roasted walnuts in a sweet, cumin sauce, Andria let out a gleeful whooping "What!" It's so good that it's confounding. Who thinks of this stuff? How did the first chef figure out how to stuff a lotus root with black rice? Did he invent the wheel in his spare time? Electricity, peut-être?
The menu has helpful, cheery notes like "Sauce with Mild Spicy," "Numb and Spicy" and others, and the servers will tell you the health effects of each dish if asked. Walnuts, it turns out, are good for the brain.
Where Jujube Tree is a traffic jam with chilies blaring, Lucky Zen is a trickling brook. Even the Buddhist monks who come to both are of a different ilk: At Jujube Tree they bray raucously into their iPhones, at Lucky Zen they telepathically text. It's not a matter of one or the other, I love both.
For any of you who think you know what Chinese food is, think again. I have never seen food of this quality outside of China. I mentioned this to Shanghai chef friend David Yan who said "Well of course not! The great chefs didn't emigrate. Chinese food outside of China is made by entrepreneurial Chinese who had to do something to survive, and we can all cook."
Imagine plonking either one of these restaurants into New York, Sydney, San Francisco, ethos, eggplant and all, a veritable Buddhist bonanza. But until then, you're just going to have to come to Shanghai.
Lucky Zen and Veg is at 428 Madang Lu, a short walk from Xintiandi. Jujube Tree has four locations in Shanghai, one in Chengdu and one in Ningbo. My local is at 77 Songshan Lu, just off Huaihai Lu.