Shanghai is hot on its international dining scene, but when it comes to local eating the enthusiasm can at times feel lukewarm. Groups like Lost Plate
are hoping to change that, their 'food adventure' is designed to take dinner time off the beaten path and back to real grassroots dining.
Eager to get a true Shanghainese schooling, we saddle up for an evening tour with the group which features four restaurants plus a craft brewery in and around the Former French Concession. Groups are small with a maximum size of ten, and in our case includes two vegetarians.
Tour guide Nick Zhang, kicks off with a brief introduction on the history of the Former French Concession, as we amble over to our first stop of the night. The tour includes unlimited beer throughout, which appear in the form of bottled Tsingtao from a local off-licence – it’s nothing fancy, but it's cold.
The first stop of the night is a Shanghai staple: xiaolongbao. Where Zhang takes us back over a 1,000 years to when a soup-inclined emperor brought the bites down to the new capital at Nanjing. The dumplings are excellent, and come accompanied with potstickers for the veggies in our group.
Dumplings demolished, we wander down a quiet backstreet flanked on either side by antique shops. Our destination, is an inviting old gem which has reportedly been running in the background for decades. We’re left waiting while our guide negotiates a space in the tiny restaurant for our party of nine, but generous servings of pickled vegetables, salted pork and stuffed snail shells are whipped out in quick succession after we sit down.
Round two is a quick turnaround – Zhang tells we have a special date at table number three and can’t be late. We're led down a dark narrow backstreet towards a single neon sign, from where out pops Mr Yu – a true blue Shanghainese whose family has been living at this address for two generations. He invites us behind the neon sign to a cosy living room table set laden with steaming plates of cucumber and hongshao rou, freshly prepared by Mrs Yu.
This is no restaurant – the Yu’s open up their home to one table a night for a set meal of homemade Shanghainese fare (unless they have friends over, that is). This is a purely word-of-mouth arrangement and after dinner Yu leads us through to admire the beautiful colonial courtyard hidden behind his lane house.
Dinner with Yus is hard to top – especially considering substantial dinner is proving after three restaurants back-to-back. There’s still time though for a gut-bustlingly generous serving of congyou banmian and century egg congee at venue number four, an easily missable noodle shop tucked neatly away just off Huaihai Zhong Lu.
Dinner only partially demolished, we are invited to wash it all down with a final beer at a local craft brewery. It’s a trendy venue, and feels a little out of place in a tour that is supposed to be locally focused, but the pours are nothing to complain about and act as a nice distraction as Zhang arranges transportation for everyone on the tour to get home.
Lost Plate know how to charter an itinerary when it comes to local eating, especially for those who are visiting Shanghai for the first time and need a little help finding their bearings. The 400RMB price tag may admittedly be a little steep for foodies on a shoestring. Regardless, it’s something special – a personable experience that tells more about a city than bare-bone facts. Come for the menu, stay for the stories, skip lunch.
Duration: Approximately three-and-a-half hours.
By Sebastian Morgan