Lujiazui financial centre, home of Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai
Crispy Pomfret and Sweet Soy
The newly awarded Michelin-star chef Tony Lu says he enjoys stretching his legs beyond the confines of the kitchen. So as I join him on Yuyuan Road, we move at a brisk clip. Yet the sight of the chef striding purposefully is a familiar one for locals of this leafy Shanghai neighbourhood. Lu is something of restaurant royalty on this particular street where he runs three destination restaurants in heritage European-style villas, with a fourth establishment on an adjoining road.
'It wasn't planned. I just love these Shanghai buildings and kept opening new restaurants after buildings became vacant,' says Lu, grinning. It was the success of his landmark Fu restaurants – the first of which (Fu 1039) Lu opened more than a decade ago when he was only 30 years old – and his entry on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list that first saw the softly spoken Shanghai-born chef rise to international prominence. Lu was one of the first chef-restaurateurs in Shanghai to marry meticulously prepared local cuisine with a craft that honours the city's past. In Shanghai, chefs specialising in homegrown dishes rarely enjoy recognition beyond their kitchens. Lu helped to break the mould.
Across the river from where we are is Pudong, the futuristic heart of 'new Shanghai', where Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai opened its doors in 2013. Lu was the first choice to helm the hotel's signature Chinese restaurant, Yong Yi Ting, as Consultant Chef. It was a challenge Lu eagerly accepted. Three years later and Yong Yi Ting has won a Michelin star in the inaugural 2017 Shanghai Michelin Guide, thereby elevating the status of oft-overshadowed Shanghainese cuisine. Back on Yuyuan Road, Lu won a second star for his Buddhist-inspired vegetarian restaurant, Fu He Hui.
The foundation of Lu's cooking is set in local history. Prior to the first Opium War of 1890, and its subsequent forced opening as an international treaty port, Shanghai was a simple fishing village and its cuisine was similarly rustic, with sweet soy-based sauces and a predominance of freshwater fish and shellfish from the surrounding rivers and lakes. The dishes that define Shanghai cuisine today retain their bold, hearty flavours. They also reflect Shanghai's melange of cultural influences – the city is home to a large population of migrants from across China – and borrow heavily from the more refined Huaiyang cuisine of the surrounding Jiang Nan region (South of the Yangtze River), a fertile part of China referred to as the 'land of fish and rice'.
Yong Yi Ting’s Consultant Chef Tony Lu
The main dining room
An undisputed highlight of Jiang Nan cuisine is its insistence on seasonality and freshness of ingredients. As we hustle along to the neighbourhood farmers' market, Lu explains that Shanghai cooks tend to come here at least once a day to stock up on ingredients – which are often still flapping or crawling. Seasonal eating extends beyond taste and nutrition; it belongs to Chinese holistic wisdom. Different foods and combinations of ingredients are believed to naturally balance and fortify the body in accordance with the changing weather.
'I come here each season to see which new ingredients have arrived and to get inspiration for new creations,' says Lu, as he paces along the aisles, hands clasped behind his back, occasionally stopping to chat with a store owner or examine a sack of soybeans. He picks up a muddy stub of winter bamboo and explains how the soft conical spear is different to the hollow, crunchy spring bamboo. It adds texture and richness to long-simmered soups and is a cherished topping for noodles with pork, bamboo shreds and salted vegetables. Surveying a mountainous display of multiple varieties of dark leafy greens, he plucks out a flimsy 'short-legged' organic spinach from Chongming Island – 'It's the most tender and flavourful spinach in China,' he declares.
'All this is simply called tofu in English,' sniffs the chef, as we reach the beancurd seller. He gestures to dozens of different types of tofu, from pillowy white bundles secured with string to dehydrated rubbery brown squares, paper-thin sheets of beancurd skin and silken tofu that wobbles like blancmange. One of Lu's favourite dishes on the Yong Yi Ting menu is braised threaded bean curd and mandarin fish in broth – 'The traditional recipe uses prawns, but I felt the combination of the bean curd threads with mandarin fish was more sublime,' he says.
Elsewhere, a woman is lifting slithering eels from a bucket, deboning them with a few skilful flicks of a knife. 'They will be delicious braised with soy and scallions,' says Lu, salivating over another popular dish on the Yong Yi Ting menu.
Spices in a Shanghai food market
Chef Lu inspecting produce for his menu
These dishes are among those that helped earn Yong Yi Ting a Michelin star when, in 2016, Michelin published the debut edition of its world-famous restaurant guides in Mainland China. Of the 26 establishments awarded coveted stars, Yong Yi Ting was one of the few specialising in Shanghai cuisine to be featured. Somewhat controversially, Cantonese dominated the Shanghai guide. Lu – who, incidentally, speaks fluent Cantonese and cut his culinary teeth in Hong Kong kitchens before embracing his hometown's own cuisine – wasn't too surprised.
'In my mind, the Michelin Guide is undoubtedly the number one international standard for restaurants, although it is not surprising that there will be some controversy when a rating system invented in Europe is applied to a different culture – especially one which also has a long, distinct history,' says Lu, diplomatically.
'Overall, the development of Cantonese cuisine is more advanced than other Chinese cuisines, especially with regard to the Michelin rating system, which takes into account factors like food presentation, quality of ingredients and the wine list, for a total dining experience.'
Another reason why so few Shanghainese restaurants were included, Lu believes, is the impact of the mercurial business mind of Shanghai restaurateurs on the dining scene. 'Since the 1980s, Shanghai businessmen have tended to open huge restaurants with encyclopedic menus designed to include many different regional Chinese cuisines and dining trends, in an attempt to satisfy everyone,' he explains. 'As well as typical Shanghai dishes, you'll likely find Sichuan hotpot, Cantonese dim sum and even sushi and salads. For Michelin, this strategy is confusing.'
A server at Yong Yi Ting
For the past decade, Lu has taken a different approach to other restaurateurs. 'I wanted to present a better form of Shanghai dining, and that extends to design, ambience, service – all of which can also reflect our particular Shanghai style.'
Lu's culinary canon may be rooted firmly in Shanghai and the surrounding Jiang Nan region, but his dishes are often far from traditional. 'I'm driven to satisfy people's tastes, whether they have grown up with this cuisine or are international visitors having their first experience of Shanghai dishes,' he says.
In addition to his creativity, Lu is renowned for his considered and supremely elegant twists on classic ingredients, flavour combinations and presentation – but usually not all three at once. His style is subtle enough to remain authentic, yet it also feels uniquely modern and accessible. And his genuine passion for local produce and flavours translates perfectly for diners who aren't familiar with the exotic ingredients that he uses.
Braised threaded bean curd and shredded mandarin fish in broth
Lu's signature dishes at Yong Yi Ting are fine examples of the above. The restaurant's most popular dish, crispy pomfret and sweet soy, is a riff on a time-honoured Shanghai cold appetiser. The traditional recipe features freshwater black carp, a flat fish filled with fine bones that requires the advanced oral dexterity that the Shanghainese have honed over a lifetime, but usually confounds visitors with a mouthful of sharp spikes. Lu, however, replaces the black carp with ocean pomfret, which is enjoyably meaty and almost bone-free. Instead of presenting the dish at room temperature, as per custom, the fish is fried to order and served piping hot. The crunchy, sweet-soy skin yields to the light, succulent meat, and the crispy tail is delicious.
Preparing dim sum
Another convenient eating hack is incorporated into the menu's wok-fried Taihu Lake fresh shrimps. Most restaurants and home cooks use frozen, processed shrimps to achieve the required crunch. At Yong Yi Ting, fresh shrimps are delivered from the nearby Taihu Lake, whose cold waters are a source of delicious seafood, including the world-famous hairy crab. The shrimps are kept on ice to preserve the natural taste and freshness. In another departure from tradition, they are served with their tails intact, which adds a tint of pretty pink and makes them easier to lift with chopsticks and daintily suck out the meat along with the juices.
In the Yong Yi Ting kitchen
In the ShanghaiMichelin Guide, the judges reference Yong Yi Ting's excellent Lion's Head pork dumpling with crab meat in sweet soy sauce – a classic Shanghai dish, originally from neighbouring Jiangsu province. Lu explains that the meatballs are usually made from finely diced pork meat, which is then shaped into a ball. Most restaurants nowadays, he says, use minced pork, but this diminishes the lively consistency and taste. At Yong Yi Ting, the chefs revert to the former complex preparation – Lu demonstrates the skilled technique of thrashing the ball from one hand to another or onto a hard surface. This refines the texture and ensures it doesn't fall apart when cooking. For extra indulgence, hairy crab meat is added and the meatballs are stewed in a rich soy-based stock, beloved of Shanghai diners.
Stewed Lion’s Head pork dumpling with crab meat in sweet soy sauce
The chef's innovative modern interpretation of classic dishes is reflected in the entire experience at Yong Yi Ting, including the interior. The Shanghai Michelin Guide states, '…this tastefully decorated restaurant comes with a charming water terrace.'
Indeed, the main room and one of the private dining rooms open onto a pretty sunken garden that changes with the seasons and fills the angelic cream interiors with dancing natural light. The glowing white ceramic lanterns, scarlet and silk accents, and dragon motifs reference timeless Chinese design. As for the upholstered leather booths, steel bamboo installations and five-metre-high wine wall – which houses the restaurant's award-winning cellar of more than 500 bottles – they lend a smart, contemporary touch.
I didn’t feel pressure to get a star – that's doing your job well
Ceramic lanterns decorate Yong Yi Ting’s ceiling
Regarding his recent success, Lu is characteristically demure. 'I didn't feel pressure to get a star – that's just part of doing your daily job well. But there is definitely more pressure once you hold a star, as guests' expectations are very high. We are glad to receive one star, which gives us the foundation to develop smoothly and consistently into an even brighter future.'
Generally, he believes that Michelin took a brave but important step when it used Shanghai to enter Mainland China. 'I hope that the results will motivate local restaurant owners and chefs to see that if you keep ahead and improve your quality, service and other aspects, you can actually stand out on an international stage.'
Personally, this stellar Shanghainese chef has one clear dream: 'that more and more people will understand how precious our local culture and cuisine can be.'