Richard Ekkebus, chef consultant at the hotel’s Fifty 8˚ Grill
Tony Lu, Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai’s Chinese chef consultant is shaking his head as he peers at me through his metallic red glasses. He is uncomfortable with the label increasingly being directed at him, of Shanghai’s ‘celebrity chef’. ‘I don’t have a TV show or drive a Ferrari; in China, a chef’s aspirations are more humble,’ says Lu. Despite the funky frames, he has an almost monk-like aura. In front of him, green tea steeps in a glass teapot and an elaborate incense burner puffs a sandalwood plume.
Lu took on his first high-end Shanghai-style restaurant at the age of 30 as a partner. Today, at just 37 years old, he oversees five acclaimed restaurants, one of which was named on Restaurant magazine’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2013 – the only Chinese establishment to be included from Shanghai. The judges described Fu1015, which is housed in a heritage villa styled to evoke a Thirties private Shanghai residence, as ‘refined without being overwrought or fussy’.
Wuxi-style steamed pork dumplings
When Mandarin Oriental was looking for a rising culinary talent to headline its signature Chinese restaurant, Yong Yi Ting, chef Lu was an obvious candidate. And in a bold departure from most hotel restaurants in the city, which tend to offer widely known Cantonese or Sichuan flavours, a locally inspired menu was the definitive focus.
Beyond its famous soup dumplings, Shanghai cuisine sometimes gets a bad rap, dismissed as overly sweet and laden with oily sauces. It can be so in lesser hands, and it bears remembering that China’s most cosmopolitan city was a simple fishing village until the early 20th century. Lu counts only about 20 dishes that can be authentically attributed to Shanghai; like the city, the food is a melting pot of regional and international influences, and is constantly evolving.
Fortunately, Shanghai lies within a fertile delta – known as the ‘home of fish and rice’ – and the neighbouring cities of Hangzhou, Suzhou, Shaoxing, Wuxi and Ningbo (where Lu’s grandparents hail from) have their own rich, culinary heritages. Lu calls upon all of the dishes in the region at Yong Yi Ting, collectively defining the cuisine as Jiangnan (meaning south of the Yangtze River).
Chef Lu calls upon all of the dishes in the region
Yong Yi Ting chef Tony Lu
Like many young chefs in his hometown of Shanghai, Lu entered the cooking business as a boy, with no greater expectations than to learn a trade and make a modest living. The job of a chef was traditionally considered a lowly one in China and, even today, chefs of the finest Chinese restaurants are rarely known outside their steamy kitchens. Tony Lu, though, is becoming a notable exception.
Lu credits his success to a perfectionist streak and ‘jumping from here to there’ without the traditional influence of a mentor, or shifu, as this gave him the freedom to forge his unique path. After years of working in Cantonese restaurants (Lu learned his fluent Cantonese in kitchens on the mainland), he was ultimately drawn to the cuisine with which he grew up.
For many of the dishes on the Yong Yi Ting menu, Lu stays true to their classical preparation, with an occasional use of creative license that wins over even the most ardent traditionalists. His light-of-touch approach enables the region’s exemplary freshwater fish and seafood, and plethora of seasonal vegetables, to take the centre stage they deserve. The more intense flavours – usually involving red-braised sauces rich with soy, star anise and orange skin – are carefully rethought to add extra zing, without drowning out the fresh ingredients.
The thick menu is initially a little daunting. There are 25 appetisers and 13 different soups alone, not to mention some of the more challenging ingredients for foreign diners, like sea cucumber and cordyceps. The latter is a type of parasitic fungi revered in Traditional Chinese Medicine for its medicinal benefits; it brings an additional dimension to a double-boiled chicken soup.
Our smiling waitress recommended prime season dishes and Shanghai ‘must-try’ favourites. The crispy pomfret, a tower of golden-fried fish pieces, is a rendition of a popular Shanghai household appetiser. Instead of the usual black carp, a river fish that is tasty but riddled with bones, Lu uses deliciously light pomfret, so that not a single bone disrupts the pleasure of crunching through the sweet-soy exterior. I devour it right down to the fried fishtail – which was not unlike a very tasty potato crisp.
Soy-braised black mushrooms and mustard greens
Braised boneless beef rib in soy sauce with hickory
A cold appetiser of soy-braised mushrooms with mustard greens contrasts with the firm black mushroom caps, which ooze dark soy juices as you bite into them, and the fingers of fresh green bok choy. Though seemingly innocuous on the plate, the leafy vegetables cut through with a surprising wasabi bite.
The braised boneless beef rib arrives on a clay plate looking deceptively dark and rustic. Lu’s play on Shanghai’s best-known dish – red-braised pork – swaps fatty pork belly with a boneless beef rib, braised for hours so that the meat is meltingly tender. A sprinkle of Lin’an hickories, a walnut-like kernel native to nearby Tianmu Mountain, gives a crunchy contrast to the soft flesh. The dish has a lighter taste than its appearance suggests, and pairs wonderfully with a gutsy 2009 Château Haut Barrail from Bordeaux, recommended by restaurant manager Terry Xiong.
Yong Yi Ting’s restaurant manager, Terry Xiong
Steamed hairy crab cream in a whole orange with Shaoxing rice wine
My visit happily coincided with hairy crab season. Local diners adore these tiny crustaceans that are harvested between October and December. Get past the hairy legs and finicky extraction process, however, and their delicate meat and rich nugget of bright orange roe are delicious. At Yong Yi Ting, all the hard work is done for you and the precious morsels are used in an entire menu of decadent dishes, such as chilled hairy crabmeat with vinegar jelly and ginger sauce, and steamed hairy crab cream in a whole orange with Shaoxing rice wine. I chose the rather non-traditional baked hairy crab soufflé of dainty filo pastry, delicately puffed to perfection and encasing a creamy crab-scented filling.
The wine bar at Yong Yi Ting, with an award-winning wine cellar of some 500 bottles that decorates the walls
Just like the food, Yong Yi Ting’s interior maintains a classic Chinese demeanour infused with fresh inspiration. There’s not a red tassel or a Lazy Susan to be seen; rather, a huge cluster of glowing white ceramic lanterns creates an arresting sight as guests pass through the restaurant’s bar area. Here, lining one side, is a five-metre-high wine wall that houses an award-winning cellar of more than 500 bottles.
Part of the dining room at Yong Yi Ting with its chain feature
The main dining room is a vision of soft cream with scarlet accents. Lattice screens and hanging strips of transparent silk, delicately embroidered with the crimson outline of a fire-breathing dragon, are stylistic nods to ancient Chinese culture. Slate walls, ochre leather upholstery and a feature of gold chains hanging from the ceiling add a touch of sleek modernism.
As for the seating arrangements and table settings, there are classic linen tablecloths for formal occasions and white marble-top tables for dining à deux – this is definitely a contender for Shanghai’s most romantic Chinese restaurant. A scan of the room on my visit revealed a mix of suited businessmen, grown-up family groups and stylish young couples dressed up for a night on the town. Larger parties are led along the VIP corridor, past gurgling water features and steel bamboo fronds, to reach eight private dining suites, some of which open to the garden terrace or private show kitchens.
Yong Yi Ting’s interior is classic chinese with fresh inspiration
By daylight, the sunken garden that is visible through soaring windows adds a different dimension to the dining room. But there’s a better reason to return during the day: since opening, Yong Yi Ting has earned glowing reviews for its dim sum – the full menu is served at lunchtimes.
A dessert of home-made ice cream with candy
The evening menu offers a sampling of its self-titled ‘Exquisite Dim Sum’. We tried the Wuxi-style steamed pork dumplings, a cousin of Shanghai’s delicate dumpling parcels, filled with a soy-laced broth and meat for an extra umami kick. And if you like to finish on a sweet note, you are in luck. Chef Lu’s Chinese-inspired desserts tend toward the indulgent – like the home-made ice cream that is flavoured with milky ‘White Rabbit’ candies and served with sugar-dusted doughnut sticks, a play on Shanghai’s popular local breakfast food.
As the perfect complement to Lu (an up-and-coming Chinese chef reimagining local cuisine in a fine-dining context), the hotel drew on the talent of a Michelin-starred chef from Europe for another of its dining rooms. A chef who has forsaken French finery for a return to the artisanal country kitchen. Welcome to Fifty 8° Grill by Richard Ekkebus, Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai’s European restaurant.
Chef Lu in the kitchen
The Dutch chef is no stranger to the gourmet spotlight, or to Mandarin Oriental. In the role of executive chef, he helms the two-Michelin-starred Amber at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong. His alluringly chic establishment was voted Best Restaurant in China in the inaugural Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in 2013 (taking the number four spot in Asia), and appeared on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for the third consecutive year. Chatting with the friendly Dutchman, he explains how an ‘itch’ prompted him to branch out for the first time in a decade and try something new in Shanghai.
Ekkebus describes Fifty 8° Grill as a ‘craft-driven spin-off of what we’re doing at Amber, that’s more “fun” dining as opposed to “fine” dining.’ It is not only a fitting approach for the upbeat personality of the city, but is also a necessary one, according to the chef, who notes the difficulties of importing quality French ingredients here for fine dining.
Fifty 8˚ Grill is “fun” dining as opposed to “fine” dining
A waitress at Fifty 8˚ Grill
This has not proved to be an inhibitor. ‘The fun dining approach means we can offer a more democratic dining experience using excellent local produce,’ says Ekkebus, who with his team has scoured local organic farms to source exciting produce. ‘There’s superb organic pork, fruit and vegetables. We even found a cheese-maker in Beijing who trained in France and makes excellent French cheeses.’
The Art Deco-inspired modern French restaurant Fifty 8˚ Grill, overseen by chef Richard Ekkebus of the two Michelin-starred Amber restaurant in Hong Kong
It is not by chance that Fifty 8° Grill is located on the lobby level of Mandarin Oriental’s Executive Apartments, as it is promoted as a relaxed, family restaurant – though there is no shortage of glamour: the elegant dining room recalls Shanghai’s beloved Art Deco legacy from its Twenties ‘Paris of the Orient’ era, while Merlot-tinted Chesterfield lounge sofas and zebra wood tables are offset by jaunty white-and-black-patterned marble floors, and there are flashes of chrome and cherry leather.
At the far end of the narrow room, a baker’s oven set into a stone wall emits the comforting aroma of freshly baking sourdough bread. Its toasty treats are delivered to the table soon after I’m seated, together with an Espelette chilli-infused spread.
To appeal to local tastes, Ekkebus has sought to bring back the concept of shared dining. ‘This creates a synergy on the table that is founded in Asian hospitality,’ he explains. Slabs of white marble and rustic wooden chopping boards arrive bearing Mediterranean classics, such as cured Tasmanian salmon gravlax and a hearty hunk of warm pork pâté. We tuck in, layering blinis with silky salmon and help-yourself condiments.
Rib-eye steak presented on a white marble slab
Valrhona chocolate soufflé
As the restaurant’s name suggests, the main event is the meat: 58 degrees, Ekkebus tells me, is the perfect core temperature for a medium-rare steak. The prime steaks are grilled over an open wood flame, which overlays a caramelised flavour, and served with artisanal butters and sauces – everything from seaweed butter to black pepper sabayon.
A sprinkle of sea salt was the only addition needed for the smooth-as-butter 600-day grain-fed Wagyu. This sought-after beef is imported from revered fifth-generation breeder David Blackmore, an Australian who raises 100 per cent purebred Japanese Wagyu cows. A tartar of beets and green apples freshens the palate after such meaty indulgence. But only briefly, as the Valrhona chocolate soufflé soon arrives. French restaurant manager Stephane Buliard advises me to plunge a scoop of cacao ice cream right into the hot soufflé pot. I did. It was heavenly fun dining, indeed.