Can one space do both art on the walls AND food on the table well? Sounds like a tall order to me.
I picture artists as slightly emaciated beings willing to sublimate their poverty and hunger in order to paint a table of food rather than eat it. On the other hand, I picture purist food obsessives as willing to crouch on a stool or stand in line at a food truck in a dank, fumes-filled parking lot, if the food is sufficiently legend.
Shall the twain ever meet? Indeed they do, at Wu Li Xiang (Art Salon Restaurant) in Shanghai's old French Concession. Judging by the number of awards jostling with paintings for space on the walls (as per photo below), I suspect I won't be the first person to tell you this. (If interested, read this detailed review in Best Food in China and a pithy one in shanghai.unlike, for example.)
Besides their uber high-backed dining chairs, I enjoyed these geometric canvases more expected in a hip Korean bar -- twas an eye catching departure from the usual maroons and mustards of Chinois chic.
But I enjoy even more art of the edible kind, and so stopped paying attention to the paintings the minute the food arrived, served up by the owners(?), a couple of muscly t-shirted ponytailed dudes who could probably get away with their own Shanghai Ink TV franchise. Perhaps I really need to rethink my artsy crowd stereotypes.
And now to the food! In Shanghai it's usual to start a meal with a few small plates of room-temperature appetizers before getting to the hot mains. But each plate's smallness is deceptive. The little cubes of ground up salted egg yolk sitting atop a sweet-savoury green bean paste were a diabolical combination -- so rich it took only 1 or 2 mouthfuls to satisfy. For balance, we tucked into a bowl of chopped up soft and silken tofu, laced with tiny dried shrimp to prevent things from getting too bland.
Another great balancing act between delicate tints and bold brush strokes of flavour: River shrimp -- sweeter than their briny ocean cousins -- sauteed with ginko nuts; and tender duck slivers stewed in sticky sweet and salty sauce.
But the bold and the beautiful won out by the time we got to the main dishes. This braised whole yellow croaker, native to the waters around Shanghai, had wonderfully sweet and soft flesh but its many intricate bones require a surgical touch with one's chopsticks.
And finally, an imperial rendition of a bolognese sauce, made of crab meat, crab roe and salted egg. So rich it could bail out Greece. Amazing on steamed plain white rice. Bet it would be heaven on earth, mixed onto a bowl of blanched Japanese somen.
I'm not much of a wine expert, but I reckon the best (or at least most interesting) wine at Wu Li Xiang is their homemade huang jiu (yellow wine), made from fermented glutinous rice. (The Foochows make a red version of this rice wine, which I learnt how to make from my mother and grandmother earlier this year.)
Wu Li Xiang's huang jiu was smoky and much much much mellower and more flavourful than the shots of bai jiu Babs and I downed with newly found family in Guangdong. The best way to drink this is to have it warmed up, then sipped with food on a chilly evening.
On that note, a toast to Mum and Dad who hosted dinner, and our Shanghai host Nicholas for recommending the restaurant. And to the muscly mustachioed crew of Wu Li Xiang, for such a masterful exhibition of my favourite art genre.
Wu Li Xiang (Art Salon Restaurant)
Nanchang Lu 164
Between Yandang Lu and Sinan Lu
+86 21 5306 5462 (Reservations recommended)