Shanghai has been in a state of growth for years. With all the talk about the city’s inestimable cost of development and the daily encroachment of skyscrapers upon those with too-humble means, perhaps the biggest offender of modernization gets off almost scot-free: Shanghainese food. How can the native cuisine of a city teeming with excitement and living on the cutting edge be so darn dull?
That’s a statement designed to elicit some table-pounding, but after living here for nearly four years, I’ve realized that the problem lies not with Shanghainese cuisine (for the most part, anyways.) The problem is whatever passes as Shanghainese cuisine in the luxurious quarters where the well-heeled – and presumably well-fed – clientele congregate and commiserate over the lack of fine Chinese dining in our fair city, present restaurant excluded. Well, don’t believe any of it. You know how during every Academy Awards season, prestige pictures start popping up everywhere, sumptuously produced, acted, and screened with all the subtlety of goat cheese? That’s how I tend to think of the overly lavish, sickeningly overflavored Shanghainese benbang (“native to the land”) dishes that are consumed with relish by those who dare to believe in the myth of authentic Chinese food in Shanghai.
That’s also why I’m here to commiserate with you, dear reader, on the lack of fine Chinese dining in Shanghai – with one very notable exception. Pretty much everything about Old Jesse Restaurant sounds precious. Too precious. It’s snugly located on an unremarkably quaint street, with a wooden sign that looks like it fell out of an old Shaw Brothers kung fu flick. Inside, it’s small, hot and crowded, with a conjoining room that reeks of old money and VIP-only status. On the weekends, it’s nearly impossible to snag a reservation, unless your idea of dinnertime is either 4:00 or 11:00 p.m. (or if you know a guy named Mimo – that’s a story for another time, perhaps). Old Jesse’s food is your usual Shanghainese fare, with a presentation designed to grab your attention, so you can plunge into glistening piles of stewed pork fat (hong shao rou) and forget everything you once learned about fatty meat.
But what if, after descending upon a cold dish of bamboo-shaped dried tofu strips with mushrooms and cilantro (liang ban fu zhu), your tongue is bathed in an array of smolderingly accented flavors? So what if the remainder of the cold dishes you order – a magnificent eggplant vinaigrette (liang ban qie zi) that lights up your eyes and your tastebuds, a wheat gluten medley that tastes initially funky before revealing itself to be an offbeat masterpiece – are absolute knockouts? You don’t believe the myth of authentic Chinese food in Shanghai any more than you believe in the myth of home-styled Chinese cooking in Shanghai – because you know what real, down-home Chinese cooking tastes like, dammit. You know that it can’t be sophisticated without being phony. You know that it should be coming out of a kitchen that’s the size of a street stall – no, it should be the street stall – because how else could it be pure and lovingly made and unpretentious about its deliciousness?
By the time you’ve moved on to the lu yu – a steamed, tender perch with a sauce that, when sprinkled over your rice, immediately turns it from white to jasmine – you’re wondering what happened to the Shanghainese food you knew and were prepared to hate on for its preciousness on arrival. After all, the plate of clear rice noodles mixed with shredded crab meat and garlic vinegar (xie fen la pi) had all the requisite trappings of the prestige dish, including a hefty price tag and a color scheme that makes you woozy. I mean, seriously now, isn’t shredded crab meat pretty much the culinary equivalent of Cold Mountain?
It’s too bad, then, that the taste is so flippin incredible. It’s too bad because you thought you knew, and so did I. And Old Jesse Restaurant proceeded to let us down with the oldest trick in the book: by being everything you hate about something (in this case, Shanghainese cuisine, hype, Nicole Kidman whenever she decides to mug for an Oscar, and the fact that Old Jesse appears in the pages of the Lonely Planet – oh, the horror!) and having the audacity to be great anyway.
Old Jesse Restaurant
(not to be confused with New Jesse Restaurant,
which has the same namesake, but pales in comparison)
41 Tianping Rd. (near Huaihai Rd.)