How to Win Shanghai Restaurant Week

We’re in the middle of the 6th edition of Shanghai’s Restaurant Week. The event has evolved quite a bit since Dining City organized the first on 3 years ago. During the first Restaurant Week I was easily able to book some of the best restaurants in town: Sir Elly’s, Pelham’s, T8. Restaurants participating during those halcyon days really made an effort. I remember being served surprise courses (Pelham’s) and luxurious ingredients (Sir Elly’s) that made the relatively modest 258 RMB/person price tag a steal.

Subsequently, more and more restaurants started participating, and more and more diners started booking seats. Reservations at pedigreed restaurants like Sir Elly’s were snapped up right when booking opened. Some restaurants decided they were above the clamoring hordes of bargain-hunters who were not likely to patronize those establishments during the other 50 weeks of the year, and stopped participating. Others ratcheted back the effort and started offering unimpressive menus with cost friendlier (to them) ingredients. All the while dozens of mediocre and PR-hungry establishments were jumping on the wagon looking to stir up interest where none had resided before.

The landscape has become complex and filled with peril for those of us seeking the perfect marriage of a delicious meal at a worthwhile price. Being the veteran bargain-hunter foodie that I am, I thought I would put together a few rules that I always follow to ensure I maximize my hits and avoid as many misses as possible.

This, fellow cheapskates, is my secret to winning Shanghai Restaurant Week.

Tip #1 – Do your research

All the expat publications will give a heads up a month or so before the actual Restaurant Week starts highlighting popular participating restaurants. But you can go straight to the Diningcity website and take a look at their list. The restaurants won’t have menus up, but it’s good to have an idea of which of the top tier restaurants are available. Those restaurants will most likely be totally booked out by Diningcity’s VIP members, but a lot of them will be available that initial hour that booking is open to the general public.

Tip #2 – Move fast

Mark down the date and time the booking opens. Be in front of your computer ready to go. Premium bookings will go fast, so you have to be too.

Tip #3 – Go straight to the top restaurants

When the booking period opens and you go to the website for the first time, the list of restaurants will be organized in alphabetical order. Jump straight to the restaurants you had an eye on based off of your research. If you want to eat at T8 for instance, quickly scroll down to the “T” section and book right away. Scrolling down the list alphabetically wastes valuable booking time. You can always go back and cancel or change reservations after you’ve booked them, in case you follow Tip #3 and realize you aren’t impressed.

Tip #4 – Always read the menu

ALWAYS read the menu. Just because a reputable restaurant is available doesn’t mean they’re going to have a worthwhile menu. Also, for restaurants you’re not familiar with or places that are just recently launched, a potentially awesome menu can push you into their corner. While some restaurants make a half-assed attempt, new restaurants often want to make a splash and get butts into seats. The menu is the key to discerning who’s trying and who isn’t.

Tip #5 – Lunch is always the best deal.

I know this one can be tough for those who work far away from the city center or just cannot spare a leisurely lunch during the work week. For everyone else, lunch is by far the best bargain during Restaurant Week. Lunch reservations are easier to book because dinner reservations go so fast, and at a max price of 128 RMB you can find a ton of hidden gems. Fine dining establishments can’t really get away with skimping on their lunch offerings, so at minimum you can expect decent quality at a place like T8 or Restaurant Martin. Maison Pourcel has a three course lunch that would be worth twice it’s price. And don’t forget to ask for more bread.

Main lunch course at Maison Pourcel

Main lunch course at Maison Pourcel

Tip #6 – Avoid Western restaurants run by non-Westerners

This is a basic rule I follow, not just during Restaurant Week. A French or Italian or Spanish place run by Chinese management is a minefield: you can tiptoe your way to a good meal, but you’ll probably end up getting ripped to pieces. The probabilities of paying 258 RMB a person and getting tiny portions of unimpressive dishes are very high at these types of establishments (I’m looking at you, de Canto). I hate generalizations but since I’m in the country of generalizations, what the hell.

Tip #7 – Hotel buffets are your friend

Every year there are a few hotels that want to get in on the fun, and offer up their buffets for Restaurant Week. Hotel buffets have a low profile because the general public avoids them and no food writers really write or blog about them. However, booking one at the 168 RMB price point is a cheapskate’s dream. We booked the buffet at the Hilton Honggiao last Restaurant Week. The hotel was fairly new and it’s a major hotel chain, so we went in knowing there was a minimum bar of quality they would meet. We were greeted with a raw oyster bar, fresh sashimi station, and steamed lobster tails. For 168 RMB (+15%). What a steal.

Armed with these tips, you greatly exceed your chances of securing a meal at a quality establishment at a very good value. A 258 RMB meal at CAPO will be 10 times better than a 258 RMB menu at La Finca, so knowledge up kids!

Here is the starter we had at CAPO last Friday

Here is the starter we had at CAPO last Friday

Lives Changed Forever

In the past few weeks tragedy has befallen our house, and April and I have yet to recover.

At home, we’ve subscribed to a broadband cable service that pipes in programming from Taiwan. As with all things in China, I’m not sure how legal this service is, but for many expats paying a few thousand RMB a year for a similar cable box or a satellite dish is the only way to get programming from their home country. The company we’re paying is a third party that either does or does not have a formal agreement with the cable provider in Taiwan, so from all appearances it looks like they have no real say over the shows and channels that make up that package.

Anyway, for over a year since we started paying for this service, basically the only channel we ever watched was Food Network Asia. Essentially a food porn channel for the two of us, I loved the shows that documented unbelievably delicious food from back home that made me question my decision to live in Asia. April liked re-runs of a show called Unwrapped, which ran on the US Food Network in the middle of the last decade, and which gave us behind the scenes access to the factories of many popular brands. Also, Alton Brown and Ina Garten.

The Food Network Asia was comfortable in its own skin as the ugly half-sister of the US Food Network. In addition to Unwrapped, most of its other shows were also re-runs. But food porn is timeless, and it was a comforting (albeit hunger-inducing) bedtime story right before sleep.

Then one day last month we were horrified to discover that our favorite channel had been replaced by an illegitimate, bastardized poseur called the Asian Food Channel. Instead of Alton and Ina and Giada, our television was now filled with aliens from a foreign food land, instructing us in thick Malaysian or Singaporean accents on how to make Indonesian dishes that I have no interest in learning. Food Network gave us American comfort food drenched in cheese and grease. This ungodly excuse for a replacement now gives us Martin Yan doing his shtick in the rice paddies of Malaysia and making staid, 90’s era dishes. We loved Iron Chef and Chopped because they showed us professionally trained chefs doing their craft. AFC has a 25 year old kid named Donal Skehan who has never been formally trained but now has his own cooking show, which is so elementary and basic that when I first came across his show Kitchen Hero was waiting for stuffed puppets to appear and sing along in the background.

As my friend Viv, whose cable box succumbed to the same food channel apocalypse, beautifully put it: “AFC only has pussy shows.”

We never watch AFC anymore. We haven’t been able to replace it with anything else, so there’s this big gaping hole in our lives. Being an expat in China means that I don’t have many options. I could find another 3rd party company that may carry a bundle of channels that still has Food Network, but I paid a hefty renewal fee a few months ago for my current services and am stuck with it for the time being.

I suppose if there’s anyone out there who still has our favorite channel…maybe you could invite us over every now and then? We can bring homemade salsa that we learned how to make from watching Alton Brown!

Octoberfest in Taipei

Well, not really. When April told me her uncle wanted to treat me to sashimi and beer during my quick 2-day jaunt through Taipei to take care of some family business, I quickly agreed. Her uncle is an adorable old man whom we hosted in Shanghai last winter. He spent most of that week in Shanghai devouring meals of all shapes and sizes and origins, followed by thanking me vociferously for feeding him so well. Letting him foot the bill for some fish and brews seemed fun and harmless. I was sure I would be able to get back home early and rest enough to catch my 7 AM flight back the next morning.

And then the beers arrived:

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These were not only steins with two comically small handles on each side. These were messengers sent from the underworld. These were Indian idols of destruction. These were Boeing 747’s of despair. My face was rendered the color of overripe strawberries within 5 minutes.

And they were absolutely awesome. Thanks April’s uncle for the 20 leaks I took that night!

Eats: Gumbo and Dr. P

We stopped by DAFF this past Saturday and we’re pleasantly surprised at the available food options. Lots of delicious looking homemade cakes and pastries, along with a super nasty churro stand. Had my first Dr. Pepper in years and some non-spicy homemade gumbo furnished by a bro from Detroit. Glad to see expats taking root and selling stuff here you’d never find 5 years ago.

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Mind of a Chef

David Chang has a show on PBS! Awesome for all you foodies out there. Below is an excerpt where David talks about eating raw ramen when he was a kid. This is exactly what I used to do, except instead of sprinkling the flavor packet on top of the ramen, I’d eat that raw (or give it to my dog Sunny) and actually SELL the flavor packets individually to my classmates in junior high. They’d go as high as $2 for a single flavor packet, which I taught them to sprinkle on their palms and lick. My most popular flavor was the Tongyi Beef Noodles that my parents used to get at the Taiwanese supermarkets in the suburbs of Los Angeles. So yeah, this brought back memories.

Watch The Mind of a Chef, Episode 1: Noodle (Excerpt) on PBS. See more from The Mind of a Chef.

Crabby Days are Here Again

Had my first hairy crab of the season last night. April’s parents were in town and she wanted to treat them to some delicious crab, so she ordered some from a delivery service and we had them with some nice yellow wine, beer and home cooked beef noodle soup last night. Then I fell asleep on the couch and dreams about being boiled alive in a stainless steel pot. I remember that it was very painful in my dream. Can’t wait to have some more as hairy crab season continues.

Cityweekend Contest results: I lost

A few weeks ago Cityweekend.com posted an online contest for its readers. The commenter who gave the most creative response to this question would win a 1,000 RMB voucher for Mr. and Mrs. Bund, one of my favorite restaurants in Shanghai: “What would you order for your last meal?” After some online shadiness that saw the website keep pushing back the end date for the contest and delay its announcement of the winner, they finally announced that the winning post was this:

As I have for much too long (almost 3 months…) been cursed with a medical condition that makes it difficult for me to chew, I could almost kill for a really crunchy sandwich with salmon, fresh crispy salad, tomatoes, cucumber, onions, perhaps a bit of fresh basil, some homemade pesto and well, did I mention the really crispy scorp of the bread? Well, of course killing someone for a sandwich like that would probably render me in the situation of choosing my last meal. As I had just eaten a crispy sandwich, I would now instead go for a juicy steak with just slightly fried, garlic broccoli, some really crunchy fresh and mixed salad leaves and maybe just with some added freshly garden-picked asparagus with a wee bit of vinegar-lime dressing and a big loaf of whole grain bread to go with that (could we make that with a big fat slice of brie, just because we can?!). To finish off I would go for caramelized bananas, chewing away as the caramel crust would get even harder. No fancy gourmet needed, when all you really want is to chew!

Here was my submission, written at about 2 AM in the morning before my trip to Qiandao Lake:

So it’s my last meal. Ever. How seriously depressing.

I don’t want my last meal to be some glorious gastronomic gorge of epic proportions; the last thing I want is to leave this world suffering from stomach acid. Yes, there are so many things in this world that I have to eat with my eyes closed because they taste so damn good, but why spend my last moments being reminded of all that I’m never going to experience again? Instead, I’d like my last meal to be a journey through my own relatively short life. I want every bite, every taste to be a memory that I can grasp and hold tightly. I want the meal to last a generation in my dreams.

Let’s start off with a bowl of pink cereal milk. You know, the sugary milk that remains after you’ve eaten all the dried marshmallows and artificially colored corn puffs. This was the food of my childhood, lifted up by both hands and poured down my throat as my mother was packing my school lunch.

Next, how about salty, buttery popcorn and a small plate of nachos drenched in watery, processed cheese sauce. The cheese, not so great. The profuse sweating, not so great either. But the girl reaching over to hold my hand during the middle of that movie made the butter on that popcorn taste like ecstasy.

After that, let’s go with some albacore nigiri and some ikura (salmon roe) on a small bed or vinegary sushi rice. Each taste will remind me of those times my bone-tired dad would take my brother and I down to Japantown for our monthly sushi ritual. He always said the best sashimi he ever tasted was in California and not in Japan. I always said the best I ever tasted was with him.

How can I not have one thick slice of pizza from the pizzeria down the street from my dorm? The place was called Fat Slice for a reason. A greasy, oily, delightfully large slice of cheese-covered dough for $1.50 at 3 AM in the morning during Finals week…and midterm week…and any other day of the week. Man, I sure was productive in college. And fat, too.

Now we’re getting a bit more…mature. How about the lobster ravioli from that first ever visit to a fancy French restaurant? The one I took that very special person to after my first paycheck after graduation. Who knew that a simple pasta dish could taste so rewarding, so hard-earned. I’ve since had ravioli that tasted better on the tongue, but never one that felt so good going down.

There is no question what dessert is. What sums up my years in Shanghai better than the local treat than the warm and sweet fermented rice (酒酿)? For a city drenched in alcoholic decadence, there is something fitting about a wined Chinese rice porridge that is a testament to the unique Shanghai mix of tradition and partying. Leaving the Earth with the taste of sweet rice wine on my tongue doesn’t sound half bad at all.

So there’s my last meal. And if the fates are cruel enough to allow only one dish, may it be a dry and flavorless pizza from Melrose. I’d want to kill myself after that anyway.

Sigh. I guess I’ll have to save up for another taste of that fabulous tartare.

Shandong breakfast pancake

This is what I had for breakfast today, around the corner from my office. She starts off by slathering wheat dough on her gas powered griddle, then smoothing it out and letting it crisp. In the meantime, she cracks an egg and spreads that out as well. She then tosses on some chives and green onions, evens everything out, and folds the now pancake over before applying some tangy sauce and dropping in a crispy dough cake. Not half bad. Total for one = 2.5 RMB ( about 35 cents USD).

Pretty sweet photos of Kelley and Raffe

Tobias over at SixSixty studios created some pretty sweet photographs of Kelley Lee, Eduardo Vargas, Raffe and the rest of the players of their combined Shanghai restaurant empire. From the photographer’s website:

Kelley & Eduardo are two of Shanghai’s best known restaurateurs among the expat scene. They (along with their managing partners) decided to create this booklet which highlight’s their restaurants and wanted some creative images to go along with each concept. This was riiiiight up my alley!

This one of Raffe and Kelley is my favorite:

Well done guys, just one of those cool things to have for the rest of your life.