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Jean-Georges's Asian Accent

Having a meal at superchef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's new restaurant, 66, is like traveling to Shanghai without leaving New York City. An admirer attempts to eat her way to an understanding of his intensely personal cuisine

Sometimes I think I can get inside Jean-Georges Vongerichten's head. After working as his editor at Food & Wine for six years, I understand how he grafts Asian flavors onto French techniques at both Jean Georges in New York and Vong, which has outposts in Hong Kong, Chicago and Manhattan. But now, after a few trips to Shanghai, he's started bringing French ingredients into Asian dishes. In February he opened the Chinese restaurant 66 in Manhattan, where he tucks foie gras into hargow (shrimp dumplings) and blends fresh water chestnuts with an ethereal shellfish mousse to create a shrimp toast that wouldn't be out of place at a Michelin-starred establishment. He's also planning to open a high-end French restaurant in Shanghai next year. What was so special about Shanghai, I wondered, that would convince Vongerichten to connect his two most recent projects to China?

When I went to ask Vongerichten this question at sleek, minimalist 66, he was having his picture taken for a French magazine. He stood in front of the Richard Meier—designed fish tanks flanked by several giggling twentysomething hostesses in slim Vivienne Tam pants. Another photographer, who had the next appointment with him, sat at one of the white laminate Eero Saarinen tables in the lounge, having long finished her ginger margarita.

While I waited my turn, I perched on a stool at the 40-seat communal table and tried to eat my way to an understanding of Vongerichten's latest endeavor. Instead, the dishes just raised new questions. Was the lacquered pork with a shallot-and-ginger confit that tasted like a jammy sauerkraut a nod to his roots in Alsace? What was tuna tartare doing on a Chinese menu? The seafood—the lobster claw steamed with ginger and Shaoxing wine, say, or the two-flavored shrimp, one half in a sweet-and-sour sauce and the other in a mayonnaise-like condensed-milk mixture—was so fresh and perfectly prepared that I wanted to send the entire F&W staff to the restaurant for a cooking lesson. Is shellfish important in Shanghai, too?

I barraged Vongerichten with these questions, but he only had one response: "You have to go to Shanghai," he said again and again. "You will understand when you go." (This seemed audacious, of course, but in the pre-SARS days also exhilarating.) I thought he was just being evasive, but he handed me a list of restaurants where he had eaten and contact information for the Chinese associates who were helping him open his restaurant there. Then he sent me on my way.

A New Asian Outpost

On my first day in Shanghai, Handel Lee, the 42-year-old Chinese-American developer of the Three on the Bund project, where Vongerichten's restaurant will open, had a car and driver waiting for me at my hotel. I'm used to walking everywhere, or at least taking public transportation, to get the feel for a city. But I was staying at the Grand Hyatt Shanghai in the Jin Mao Tower in Pudong, the new financial center across the Huangpu River from downtown Shanghai, and, as we circled the tower, the world's fourth tallest building, then ducked into a tunnel and merged onto elevated highways, I realized how sprawling the city is. Shanghai has an efficient new subway system, but everything is so far away from everything else that after a few days, I was grateful that the taxis are so inexpensive and the drivers so agreeable, especially since few of them speak English.

Some of my first impressions were as I expected: We passed alleyways crisscrossed by washing on clotheslines and people of all ages practicing tai chi in parks and along the roads. But the city was also far more cosmopolitan than I'd thought. Shanghai is the largest city in China, I soon learned, with 16 million people. Among them are tens of thousands of foreigners—Japanese, Koreans,

Taiwanese, Europeans and Americans. And to judge from the billboards advertising everything from Louis Vuitton and KFC to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats at the Shanghai Grand Theatre and the Thai-owned Lotus supermarkets, they're all here to do business.

That's what Handel Lee's role is: to help Westerners like Vongerichten set up shop. Three hundred companies of the Fortune 500 are represented in Shanghai today, and the city has attracted foreign entrepreneurs for centuries. By the early 1900s, the most important international banks, shipping lines and trading houses all had addresses on the Bund, a mile-long embankment of grandiose Western-style stone mansions along the Huangpu River. Despite the frantic rush over the past decade to bulldoze old Shanghai and replace it with skyscrapers, the Bund hasn't been touched. "The Bund is sacred ground for Shanghai," Lee said. "The government is obsessed with making sure it's developed right."

Lee took me on a hard-hat tour of Three on the Bund, a seven-story building with a baroque turret, Gothic arched windows and a Romanesque tympanum erected in 1916. Though the exterior of the building will remain as is, the postmodernist American architect Michael Graves is transforming the interior, designing an atrium surrounded by an Evian day spa, Vongerichten's restaurant, the Shanghai Gallery of Arts, a new Chinese restaurant called the Whampoa Club and Nobu Matsuhisa's latest restaurant. Vongerichten must have realized that his modern French food would appeal to the same international, affluent customer who'd want Chinese art and French beauty treatments in the same building.

The Eating Tour Begins

I went to Bao Luo first because it was Vongerichten's favorite restaurant in Shanghai. A bicycle repairman started Bao Luo with a few tables; it now holds 300 people in a tight warren of rooms. Polished granite is everywhere—on the floor and the walls—and even the lamp shades are made of stone. That may sound opulent, but in Shanghai the entrance to every hotel, office building, supermarket and subway seems to be made out of granite. There's no coat check; instead, you fling your coat over the back of your chair and someone slips on a green plastic cover stamped with the name of the restaurant. Groups of Chinese office workers crowd around tables, digging into mostly classic Shanghai dishes: wok-fried snake, eels and braised turtle. Something called Swiss steak—spicy beef barbecued with a mayonnaise sauce—is also popular.

Although the food was recognizably Chinese, I had never seen most of the dishes before. The cuisine of eastern China, including Shanghai, tends to be slightly sweeter than Cantonese cooking and less spicy than Sichuan. Because the city is located on the Yangtze River delta, the Shanghainese eat lots of freshwater fish and shellfish—river shrimp, crabs, frog's legs, turtles and eels.

Bao Luo's menu, which includes English translations, is as thick as a manual on how to build your own harpsichord, and about as useful. Like most places in Shanghai, the restaurant features a long list of cold marinated dishes, including smoked fish, bean-curd skin, jellyfish, salted chicken and drunken crab—raw crab marinated in rice wine, soy sauce, ginger and spring onions. You pick out the bits of shell and cartilage with chopsticks to get at the creamy roe and sweet flesh. All the vegetables are good, especially the stir-fried grass heads, a wild spring green. Nobody seems to order white rice, but the Shanghainese are especially fond of soup. Whenever I didn't order it, my waiter was sure to mention that I'd forgotten my soup and ask which one I wanted.

I knew one dish I had to taste at Bao Luo: a sweet-and-sour fish that inspired Vongerichten at 66. At Bao Luo the recipe is unrefined: The fish is deep-fried whole in a heavy batter and set in a thick sauce showered with carrots, peas and pine nuts. Vongerichten transforms the dish: He dips one side of a black bass fillet in a cake-flour-and-baking-powder slurry that fries up to a light, crisp crust. He tucks the pine nuts under the fillet and lightens and sharpens the sauce. Vongerichten saw the possibility in a dish that I would have otherwise dismissed.

Just down the street from Bao Luo, I found Guyi Hunan, a place that shows just how broad-minded the Shanghainese have become. A few years ago a chile-laden dish would have been unusual in Shanghai, but now fusion, Italian, Thai, Indian and fiery Hunan restaurants like Guyi Hunan are commonplace. The crowd in the room, decorated with black-and-white photographs of old Shanghai, is stylish and young—one Chinese guy had blond hair, another was using a cigarette holder. No one was wearing a suit. Hunan food is known to numb the taste buds with chiles—and indeed the pork ribs with chiles and cumin were incredibly tender and spicy. But not all the dishes at Guyi Hunan were wildly hot. The cold braised kabocha squash with lily bulbs, which have the texture of onion but not the pungency, was fresh and aromatic.

A Dumpling Lesson

The next morning I joined Jereme Leung, who will be the executive chef at the Whampoa Club at Three on the Bund, for breakfast at his favorite dumpling spot, Wang Jia Sha. Vongerichten has several versions of xiao long bao, Shanghai's famous soup dumplings, on his menu at 66, and Leung, who had spent six years as a dim sum chef, promised me this state-owned place served a classic.

Located on Nanjing Road, Shanghai's neon-lit shopping street, Wang Jia Sha, with its formica tables bolted to the linoleum floor, is the Chinese version of the Howard Johnson's in New York City's Times Square. White-capped ladies sit in the front window rolling out dough and pinching it around a pork or crab filling, both of which are enriched with bits of lard—the Shanghainese aren't afraid of fat. While Leung went to the counter to order, I slid into a yellow plastic chair downstairs. (Prices are three times higher on the second floor, which has waiter service.)

The soup dumplings at Wang Jia Sha are so juicy that you have to learn how to eat them or risk a dry-cleaning disaster. Leung demonstrated: First, dip a dumpling in black rice vinegar, which was set on every table in a teapot, and place it on a soupspoon to catch the broth. Take a tiny bite out of one side and suck out the hot liquid. Then eat the rest as quickly as you can. "Temperature is important with Chinese food," Leung explained. "Three or four minutes changes everything."

One of Vongerichten's aims at 66 is to turn out food that is fresher and lighter than the original Chinese. His crab dumplings, for instance, have flakes of crab instead of crab paste, a cleaner flavor and a serious hit of ginger. After tasting the delicious high-fat version at Wang Jia Sha, I decide that in fiddling with the meat-to-fat ratio, Vongerichten hasn't really improved on the original. He's just created an entirely different dumpling.

Wandering over to Wujiang Road, a pedestrian street lined with restaurants and snack stalls off of Nanjing West Road, I wound up having a second breakfast. The brick street's two-story buildings are a piece of old Shanghai, though I could see the skyscrapers looming behind them. The road is just a few blocks long, but the peddlers sell every conceivable kind of street food: skewers of quail and tripe, chicken feet, puffy steamed buns, chow mein with shredded baby cabbage and carrots, zifan (shredded pork and salted mustard greens in a roll of glutinous rice) and jian bing (a fried cruller wrapped in a crêpe).

At Xiao Yang Shengjian, the house specialty is sheng jian bao, pork-filled dumplings that are steamed, then fried, so they're crunchy on the bottom; sesame seeds and scallions are sprinkled on top. Four dumplings cost $2, and diners can take the chipped white enamelware plates to one of the communal tables either on the street or inside the restaurant. The chopsticks are wooden and stained with black vinegar, and you tear off toilet paper to use as a napkin, but this is dumpling heaven.

International Chic

A new outdoor pedestrian mall, Xintiandi is also a preserved bit of Shanghai, but it's far more upscale than Wujiang Road—it could be the template for Three on the Bund. Xintiandi escaped the wrecker's ball partly because Shui On, its Hong Kong developer, promised to restore the house where the Communist party was founded—paradoxical, since the new restaurants and stores are all privately owned, while previous regimes required that the state own all businesses. In the gray brick-and-stone 19th-century houses, there are art galleries, fashion boutiques, nightclubs, pâtisseries, a German brew pub, a place called Cheese & Fizz that sells French wines and the cheeses of French master ager Bernard Antony, and a dozen restaurants. One of the most popular is the Shanghai-style restaurant Xinjishi, which serves a delicious braised pork with brown sauce—equal parts meat and fat—and sweet, warm Chinese dates (small, wrinkled fruit that look like red olives) stuffed with glutinous rice.

Soahc, one of Xintiandi's newest restaurants, is a typically stylish tenant. Owner Lily Ho, a former Hong Kong movie star, placed a carp-filled pond at the entrance, so patrons literally cross a bridge to leave the city's noise and crowds behind. Inside, the two floors of dining rooms have high ceilings with polished dark wood beams and oversize booths. Silver-edged ebony chopsticks lie on elegant rests shaped like shiitake mushrooms.

The cooking at Soahc is Yangzhou style, a refined cousin of the Shanghai style. Yangzhou, a city north of Shanghai, is famous for foods cut with geometrical precision, so the cold appetizers are spectacularly presented: curls of marinated lotus root filled with pureed longan; braised pig's trotters formed into a terrine and served sliced with sweet vinegar sauce; delicate fans of crispy wo ju, which tastes similar to cucumber. If a businessman needs to impress a client with obvious symbols of extravagance, he can find plenty of dishes with shark fin and abalone, the Chinese equivalent of foie gras and truffles. But my favorite dish here, a soup, is distinctly less elevated: Yangzhou-style pressed bean curd, fine strands the width of vermicelli, served in chicken broth with julienned ginger and tiny heads of baby bok choy along with sweet river shrimp.

Return to 66

When I ate at 66 after I got back from Shanghai, I saw everything in a different way. I observed that 66 could fit easily into the mix of restaurants in Xintiandi. The family-style service seemed normal, too, after Shanghai. How odd it would feel to eat this food in courses and to share a table with fewer than six people. I'd found so many different kinds of cuisines on my trip—sometimes at the same restaurant—that the blending of Shanghai, Cantonese, Thai and French at 66 now seemed to reflect modern Shanghai. This time when I ate the lacquered pork belly, it reminded me of China, not France: It was braised in a soy-sauce marinade, just like at Xinjishi. And I understood that the tuna tartare was an homage to the raw drunken crab.

When Vongerichten stopped by my table to ask if I had any questions, I realized the trip to Shanghai had given me all the answers.

Published July 2003
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