I spent some time today putting together a concise list of my favourite Shanghai Eats for friends who are soon Bund-bound. Going over my notes and photos, I realised that somehow I had forgotten to write about Xin Ji Shi, my first real food find in Shanghai, and probably still my favourite eatery in the city.
I will now seek to correct this travesty.
I first stumbled into Xin Ji Shi while on a business trip to Shanghai back in 2006. It was a frosty February lunctime, and back then the glitzy F&B entertainment and retail complex Xin Tian Di (New Heaven and Earth) was indeed "xin". Many restaurant and shop spaces were still empty or else in mid-fit-out. I remember peeking into a restored but slightly dusty Chinese house, unsure if the sign outside meant that it was actually a restaurant. Yes it was, and soon my then-boss and I were seated at a round rosewood table with round rosewood stools. I fumbled my way through the Chinese menu and hoped for the best. Luckily for me, what followed was (in my opinion anyway) the single best meal on that expense-account-friendly trip, and also one of the cheapest.
Four years, the doubling of city subway network lines from 6 to 12, and a debut World Expo on home turf later, my parents meet Babs and me in Shanghai this past May as part of our 15-month round-the-world backpacking honeymoon. I'm eager to take them all to Xin Ji Shi, and mostly, I confess, to recreate that gorgeous lunch that girded me for the rest of that wintry day back in 2006.
But I'm nervous. Appetite for destruction in the name of progress is rife in China's cities. Did Xin Ji Shi age well? Did it still exist at all?
Much like China, especially Shanghai, it marched forward in a way that left me feeling ambivalent.
I'm glad I called to make a reservation, because it turned out they were fully booked for their prime dinner slots. We were to be seated at 8.30pm (luckily the Chinese eat early). Xin Tian Di is now fully fitted out and then some -- you have to elbow your way around to get anywhere, and the place is chockablock with ultra-stylish locals, corporate-suit and chinoed-cowboy expats and tourists alike. I could barely breathe on this humid May evening.
Xin Ji Shi, like the rest of the city, was spilling over with people. There are a lot more glass enclosure walls than I remember. Through the glass I see that many many many more people have now made the same discovery I did -- the restaurant now has 6 branches in Shanghai and has also expanded to Beijing, Hong Kong and Taipei. Disturbingly I also see the waitstaff joshing around, 2 waiters mock wrestling each other while their colleages stand around watching.
I am pleased to report, however, that the food at Xin Ji Shi is as gob-smackingly good as ever. Perhaps not as magical on a summer's night compared to a wintry day, but I think this is still the first place I'd send any of my friends visiting Shanghai.
Behold, reason number 1: Melt-in-your-mouth hongxao rou, pork belly stewed in a sweet-savoury red sauce. Let's just take a moment to enjoy the afterglow of that first mouthful, shall we?
And now to blow a little hot and cold, in the most delicious way possible. This smoked whole-chicken soup is so sweet and so light on the tongue but warm on the gut. I could eat this all day -- and God knows I tried, after everyone else had given up. If dining in summer, you might prefer the poached chicken marinated in Chinese wine, served at room temperature. But growing up in Singapore, I personally have been trained to chug nuclear-hot soup in equatorial heat.
Another hot and cold pairing: Dou miao (snowpea shoots) stir fried in broth with bits of ham and garlic cloves cooked until they are soft and gentle. I love the delicate sweet silkenness of dou miao and given it was that time of year where everything was budding, I was ordering it anywhere and everywhere I could. A lot of chefs in China tend to over-grease their dishes, but I'm glad the doumiao here was spared. Below: A cold just ever so slightly pickled crunchy cucumber salad, garnished with a pinch of punchy raw garlic. Absolutely lovely for summer -- I keep meaning to try this at home.
Deep fried frog buried in dried chili and garlic was crispy and hot hot hot, but it left my slightly food-squeamish Dad cold cold cold.
And to bookend the meal, another porky triumph -- coffee-flavoured ribs. Ribs-lips-everyotherbodypart-sticking goodness.
So the setting is nowhere near as rustic and cosy as it once was, and the once shy and eager-to-please waitstaff now tell you to order everything you might want on your first go "or else later there might not be any left". But in the end I take my lead from the stubborn, almost transcendental Chinese ability to concentrate only on their food no matter what else is going on around them, even if the food at hand is a cup of instant noodles, and the "around them" is an overbooked long-distance train. What more when the food at hand is a chunky morsel of pork belly or bowl of ambrosial broth?
P.S. If you'd like a copy of my Shanghai eats list, drop me an email at wenlin_soh (at) yahoo.com
Xin Ji Shi (Xin Tian Di)
Unit 4, Building 9, 169 Taicang Lu (by Huangpi Lu)
+86 21 6336 4746