June 23, 2015

Underwhelmed in Shanghai

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For years I have counted Tony Lu's restaurants among my favorites in Shanghai, visiting Fu1039 (福1039) or Fu1088 (福1088) whenever I have occasion to visit.  On this particular trip, many of my friends were out of town on my one free evening, so with just two of us for dinner, it seemed natural for me to choose Fu1015 (福1015), the (slightly) newer and more upscale sibling.  The restaurant serves only tasting menus, which meant that instead of the usual family-style dishes typical in Chinese cuisine, the two of us could have a decent variety of dishes in smaller portions.

My 2½-hour flight delay, a pretty common occurrence when one flies in and out of Shanghai and Beijing, meant I was half an hour late to dinner.  I arrived to find my friend waiting for me patiently, with some seasonal lychees (荔枝) on ice in the middle of the table.  These were incredibly plump, bursting with sweet juices, and I couldn't stop going for one after another...  So refreshing on a hot and sweaty day!

There are two set menus on offer, and we decided to take both and share the dishes.

Assorted cold dishes (精美冷菜四拼) - these are identical for the two menus, and come with four different items:
Kumquat with foie gras (金桔鹅肝酱)

Soft foie gras mousse at the center.

Vegetable in tofu pocket (野菜百叶包) - with finely diced Indian aster (馬蘭頭) and tofu inside, wrapped in a sheet of tofu skin (百葉).

Traditional Shanghainese smoked fish (老上海熏鱼) - a favorite since childhood. Yum.  Love the sweet flavors here.

Slow-cooked lotus root filled glutinous rice with rock sugar (桂花糯米藕) - another childhood favorite.

Soup course came next - arriving before we were done with our appetizers - and the two could not have been more different in terms of style...

Double boiled matsutake soup with wild bamboo pith (松茸炖野生竹笙) - very clean and clear, with very subtle flavors.

Hairy crab meat soup with mashed potato and tomato (蟹粉土豆浓汤) - I suppose the chef has decided to blend European flavors together with a very traditional Shanghainese ingredient.  Unfortunately I am not a big fan, since I don't really care for the combination of mashed potatoes and tomatoes.  For me it just seems like a terrible waste of hairy crab meat and roe (蟹粉).  They've also added some chili powder here to give it a kick.

Now come the main courses... which once again arrived before we finished our soups.  So I ended up asking the staff to hold off on our next dish.  Yes, Chinese restaurants everywhere operate on the same principle of sending out dishes at the pace dictated by the kitchen and not by the diner...

Braised cod with home-made sauce and sesame bun (香酥鳕鱼 酒酿干烧汁) - the cod was battered and deep-fried.  The sauce was made with fermented rice (酒釀) - a very classic Shanghainese ingredient - along with finely diced ham and bamboo shoots.

Braised prawn with chili sauce served with fried bun (辣酱烧明虾伴雪茄馒头) - pretty big prawn in a sweet and spicy sauce.  Pretty familiar flavors since mom cooks tiger prawns like this at home, although she doesn't add the chili or egg drops and just uses ketchup and tomatoes.

Braised sea cucumber and pork knuckle with soy scallion sauce (葱烧猪手辽参) - putting two very yummy ingredients together makes me happy.  I could never, ever resist pig trotters, especially when they've been braised until the skin (and the fat and collagen underneath) becomes very tender.  Yum!  The sauce was pretty sweet, and I was wondering if they used spices like cloves.

The spiny sea cucumber (刺參) was also nicely braised until it was soft and wobbly.  Very tasty.

Grilled wagyu rib eye with mushroom (火烤雪花牛肉) - FAIL.  Ummm... there's nothing Shanghainese or Chinese about this dish, and if I wanted to eat grilled rib eye, I certainly wouldn't come here for it.  I would forgive the chef if this was executed properly, but these sorry-ass thin slices of beef got cold very quickly.  And who the hell wants to eat cold beef, especially when the marbled fat starts to congeal?!

Braised pea sprout with maitake mushroom (舞茸菇扒豆苗) - having lived in Hong Kong for the last 20 years, I've gotten used to eating pea shoots (豆苗) during the winter and cooler season... therefore I was surprised to see them on the menu during the summer months.  But apparently they're cultivated year-round in China.

Braised shredded bean curd with shrimp in broth (大煮干丝) - shredded tofu (干丝) would always have a special place in my heart, since I was taught to eat it by my grandparents.  Simple pleasures.

Dim sum combination (美点双辉) - when they said "dim sum (點心)" in English, I assumed these would be savory nibbles like dumplings.  Instead we got a couple of sweet pastries...

Seaweed and cashew puffs (腰果苔条酥) -

Fanggao with date paste (枣泥方糕) - very, very classic Shanghainese.  Fanggao (方糕) is a little dry and hard, and generally pretty bland... so it's perfectly matched with a sweet paste inside.

Soybean milk ice cream with Shanghainese fried twisted dough sticks (豆浆油条) - my friend was so unimpressed with this that she shoved it back in my direction after a couple of spoonfuls.  I thought it wasn't bad... and this kinda reminds me of the way Alvin Leung from Bo Innovation takes traditional Chinese flavors and converts them into ice cream dishes.  They even use the same type of mini-casseroles (砂鍋)...

Home-made raisin ice cream with rum (朗姆酒葡萄干冰糕) - my friend didn't like this, either... and frankly, neither did I.  Again, if I wanted to eat rum raisin ice cream, I could have just gone to the supermarket and gotten myself a tub of Häagen-Dasz!

Honestly, dinner tonight was very underwhelming.  I've been a long-time fan of Tony Lu's restaurants, and this was the first time I've come away disappointed.  Most of the savory dishes were OK, and one was even pretty yummy.  But when I factor in the exorbitant price of RMB 800 per head and look at the ingredients being used, I can't help but feel a little ripped off.  OK, so I'm paying a premium for dining in an all-private-room restaurant, but I would have felt the same way whether there were two or ten of us in the room.

So how the hell did this place get to be No. 16 on Asia's 50 Best?  I can think of one theory.  Whereas Fu1039, Fu1088, and Yong Yi Ting (雍颐庭) in the Mandarin Oriental Pudong offer à la carte menus - forcing single or couple diners into ordering a handful of dishes, Fu1015 and sister vegetarian outlet Fu He Hui (福和慧) offer only set menus perfectly suited for travelers.  So when people who vote for Asia's 50 Best visit Shanghai - possibly traveling in small groups - these two outlets become natural destinations.

In any case, I won't be back here again.  If I ever have the urge to visit another one of Tony Lu's outlets, I'll make sure I round up a few more friends and hit Fu1088 or Fu1039 again... where I'll pay less and get better food.

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