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Shanghai Dining

An Introduction to Shanghainese Cuisine
Shanghai Dining
From local dishes such as drunken chicken and soup-filled buns to the "numb and spicy" cuisine of Sichuan, and cutting-edge molecular gastronomy, dining in Shanghai is an adventure that reflects the city's juxtaposition of the old and the new.
By Emily Chu, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Roy Morsch/age fotostock
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    An Introduction to Shanghainese Cuisine
    An Introduction to Shanghainese Cuisine
    Chic Lynn restaurant presents a refined Shanghainese dining experience. This type of cuisine often uses alcohol in recipes, so you will find drunken chicken, fish, and river shrimp on the menu here, along with braised eggplant, stews, and noodles. Don’t miss the hairy crabs when in season from October to December. The more casual Xinjishi has several locations around town and offers classic Shanghainese dishes like kaofu bean curd, smoked fish, and addictive sweet and sour spare ribs—which incorporate another typical local flavor, created using sugar and soy sauce.
    Photo by Roy Morsch/age fotostock
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    Basket Buns
    Basket Buns
    If there is one food you must sample in Shanghai, it's the city's famous soup buns, or xiao long bao ("buns served in small baskets"). Din Tai Fung is the go-to place to savor these buns and their exquisite craftsmanship—by strict standard, each bun has 18 intricate folds. Take a small bite to release the steam and the soupy filling, then have the rest of the dumpling in one bite for a most memorable mouthful. Traditionally filled with pork, you can also order a more modern take on the recipe, including variations with crab roe and truffle. For an authentic experience, join the lines at Nanxiang Mantou Dian, inside Yùyuán Garden. Here, the way to eat their large-sized, single-serving xiao long bao is to sip the soup through a straw.
    Photo by Lindsey Tramuta
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    Shanghai-Style Vegetarian
    Shanghai-Style Vegetarian
    Vegetarian meals in Shanghai mainly consist of dishes featuring mock meat made with soya derivatives. Some of the best places to find these are at Shanghai's temples. Along with the Longhua and Jing'an temples, the Jade Buddha Temple also has a restaurant on its premises. End your visit to see the impressive reclining Buddha with a meal of imitation meats and tofu dishes. The 90-year-old Gong De Lin on Nanjing West Road has mastered the recipes for imitation duck and shrimp, along with other vegan options. Greenology, on the other hand, bases its concept on the five elements of Chinese philosophy (water, wood, fire, earth, and metal) and is an upscale eatery that serves local and sustainable organic ingredients. WUJIE, too, eschews the practice of trying to imitate meat, and instead offers beautifully plated, freshly made vegetarian works of art. Their desserts, too, are worth lingering over.
    Photo by Christy Campbell
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    Toast the Town
    Toast the Town
    Toast your visit at some of the best cocktail bars and lounges in the city, like the VUE Bar, perched atop Hyatt on the Bund. Flair, atop the Ritz-Carlton, is a top pick for its stunning views of the Bund stretch, along with electric sights of Pudong across the river. In the summertime, the bar's open-air terrace has an outdoor Jacuzzi waiting to be enjoyed. The trend of speakeasy bars has hit here, too, and Speak Easy does it justice with creative cocktails and tasty fingerfood. 
    Photo courtesy of Derryck Menere/El Coctel
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    Shanghai Spice
    Shanghai Spice
    The term mala that you're likely to see on Shanghai menus means "numb and spicy." And in Sichuanese cuisine, this is precisely the effect of the ubiquitous and fiery Sichuan peppercorn. If you're up for the challenge, order the spicy lamb dish at Spicy Moment—your tastebuds will be awakened after just one bite. Make sure to accompany your meal with white rice to help quench the fiery flavor. Food from the Western Hunan region, also known as Xiang cuisine, uses the more typical red chili to infuse spiciness into its dishes. The menu at Di Shui Dong includes the must-try cumin-rubbed ribs, along with steamed fish head in chili. The restaurant’s buzzy atmosphere and rustic charm alone make it worth a visit.
    Photo by Emily Chu
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    A Different Kind of Sweet Tooth
    A Different Kind of Sweet Tooth
    The Shanghainese are known for their particular sweet tooth, and while many venues serve Western desserts, the unfamiliar delights of Shanghai should definitely be taste-tested. WUJIE, a minichain of vegetarian Chinese-Taiwanese food, prides itself on desserts, like chocolate caramel macarons.  Chef Brian Tan's reputation as one of the top dessert chefs in Shanghai was established at the popular hoF Bar; his other venture, Tang Pin, places the spotlight on the pungent durian. Tang Pin's menu of Asian desserts is full of concoctions created with this love-it-or-hate-it fruit. (Confirmed haters can go for the classic Hokkaido milk custard.) Pirata nails the ice cream award with praline ice cream crepes. If you prefer, join the crowds at the Huoshan Road Night Market for some sweet bean curd after your meal. The silkiness of the tofu, combined with the sweetness of the syrup it swims in, is a light and satisfying treat.
    Photo courtesy of Tang Pin
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    High-End Culinary Experiences
    High-End Culinary Experiences
    Reserve a spot to participate in Chef Paul Pairet's multi-sensory, molecular gastronomy dining experience, Ultraviolet. This exceptional evening begins with your being driven to the restaurant's secret location; once there, each of the feast's 20-plus courses is presented with accompanying sights and sounds projected onto a 360-degree screen. There are only 10 diners served at a time, so do book early. In the hip Waterhouse At South Bund, designed by powerhouse architectural duo Neri & Hu, is Table No.1, helmed by Gordon Ramsay protégé Jason Atherton. This eatery serves modern European cuisine in a cool, relaxed vibe, introducing a new social dining / gastro-bar concept to the city. The wagyu sirloin is delicious.
    Photo courtesy of Scott Wright/Ultraviolet
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    Hotpot: DIY Comfort Food
    Hotpot: DIY Comfort Food
    Hotpot evokes images of everyone happily eating a warm meal together, and is popular during winter and over Chinese New Year. You select your favorite soup base, sauces, and ingredients, and then cook them all at the table in the broth. Popular chain Haidilao provides a huge array of ingredients, from the standard meats and vegetables to the more adventurous pig's blood and intestines. Their condiment buffet is also impressive. Little Sheep is a chain hailing from Inner Mongolia that has numerous locations around the city. Cheap, no-frills, and always busy, Little Sheep is probably the best place to tuck into a bubbling hotpot of lamb and veggies in a delicious broth.
    Photo by Christy Campbell
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    A Parade of International Fare
    A Parade of International Fare
    Shanghai is a melting pot of sorts for nationalities from around the world, a fact that is reflected in its dining scene. Haiku by Hatsune, in the former French Concession, serves California-style sushi creations such as spicy tuna rolls and their signature Moto-roll-ah. Little Catch introduced poke, the Hawaiian raw fish specialty to Shanghai. Nepali Kitchen was one of the first international restaurants in Shanghai. Its atmosphere, with paper lanterns hung across the rooms, is a big draw. Head to the second floor for casual cushion seating and devour delicious curries. Farflung tastes are increasingly available in the city: Ginger by the Park offers Middle Eastern and African dishes on a menu full of East/West fusion cuisine, and Pirata has a tapas list that reads like a culinary map of the world. Pho Real on nearby Fumin Road is famed for its authentic Vietnamese pho and banh mi, and down the road is Coconut Paradise, a refurbished lane house with beautiful garden seating that serves Thai favorites.
    Photo courtesy of Nepali Kitchen
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