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

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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Vicious cycle

I’ve been having some major problems accessing WordPress lately, and thus have not been able to post anything for quite some time. Having an ISP in the States totally sucks. Republic Studios is having no problem whatsoever with its Hong Kong-based server. Too bad it’s expensive and I’m cheap.

So here are the things that all my loyal fans have missed during my bloggy absence the past two and a half weeks:

– I watched the Superbowl at Hooter’s.
– I laughed when I heard about latest porn movie entitled “Stimulus Package.”

Yup, that’s pretty much it. Sad, huh? It’s mainly because after gorging myself to the point of unrecognizable bloat before and during the Chinese New Year (Coco curry, anyone?), I came to the conclusion that I needed to get myself back into some semblance of health. After wracking my brain for about 3 seconds, I pinpointed the exact element that was causing me to feel utterly blobular and useless: the sweet sweet nectar of Dionysus. It was time to stop drinking.

Drinking is quite simply the raison d’etre for the slow-cooking destruction of my body. In Shanghai, being a teetotaler is nearly unheard of. Alcohol is the crux of almost every social activity. After having drowned in this boozy sea for over five years, I realized that it had come to define everything that I do.

There was a mad, vicious domino effect that it set off every time I went out to drink. Drinking led to smoking, and of course it led to more drinking, and then more smoking, and then suddenly it was 3 AM and empty bottles were clinking below my feet as I shuffled off to some late night snacking that usually involved a lot of fried foods and cheese. Five hours later and the world kept its pace while I moved slowly against it, wasting away what is supposed to be the prime of my life by simply using this time to recover from the night before. There were so many “night befores” that I’ve lost count. And stomach lining.

Anyway, I cut myself off, have started eating lighter and better (though that kimchi-only diet turned out to be slightly disastrous), and am going to the gym every other day. Sure, it’s only been about three weeks, but at least it’s a start and I’m already adjusting to my divorce from cheese.

Unfortunately, this decision has rendered me completely incapable of being interesting. I discovered this during a recent birthday party I attended, where everyone customarily toasted each other every few minutes, and I was left drinking tea and imagining life as a large and lumbering Galapagos turtle. Workdays that used to end with a nicotine-infused dizziness and hacking coughs now end with me being in bed at 11 pm, listening to National Public Radio and staring longingly at the Hooters that is below my apartment. This is no joke. I’ve exited a vicious cycle of physiological degradation and instead entered a vicious cycle of complete and utter boredom.

So yeah, that’s why you guys haven’t been missing much.

Rice-A-Wrongy

A WTF moment when I came across the following paragraph from a Bloomberg piece on the famous Shanghainese establishment Jesse:

I personally consider roast fatty pork to be the pinnacle of Shanghai cuisine. It is to this city what the cheese steak sandwich is to Philadelphia or Rice-A-Roni to San Francisco. The incarnation on offer at Jesse’s is the best I’ve had.

Whether roast fatty pork (红烧肉) represents the pinnacle of Shanghai cuisine, a cuisine that includes the delicate yolk from the seasonal hairy crabs and the beloved dumplings (小笼包) that incite strong opinion no matter who the diner is or where he/she is dining, is clearly a debatable but valid point. The issue of Rice-A-Roni being the face of San Franciaco’s cuisine is, in my humble estimation, completely laughable. Somewhere, along the wharf, sourdough bread bowls are rolling in their baking pans.