After a walk through yet another monotonous mall, the unexpectedly graceful space of Madam Zhu’s Kitchen brightens and refreshes the senses. Sichuanese owner Zhu Rong formerly worked in an art gallery, and an artful, precise style is illustrated in the Shanghai-Sichuan restaurant’s new location, their second in the city. There are inlaid terrazzo floors, brick walls, marble-topped tables and stained glass windows in gem-like Art Deco shades. Curved sofas line the room, with art books displayed on top of the vintage furniture. Servers, in starched white, are emphatically polite and responsive.
Zhu Rong launched her first brand, Yuxiang Renjia, an upscale Sichuan restaurant in 1998; it now has 13 branches in Beijing and Shanghai. The long menu begins with roast duck – cooked by a former Ya Wang chef so you know it’s the real deal – and runs through local and Sichuan classics with a few fusion detours.
The catfish in spicy oil (shuizhu nianyu, 88RMB), which is also on the menu at Yuxiang Renjia, is less lacy and fragrant here, but has a robust fire from greater numbers of numbing Sichuan peppercorn, and plenty of crunchy mung bean sprouts.
Cold scallion oil chicken (28RMB) is light and summery, while crispy pig trotters (58RMB) are spicy and pungent. A unique vermicelli with flying fish roe and handfuls of scallions (58RMB) is served in a cast iron pot – the bright orange noodles disappear quickly. A signature tofu and mushroom dish (38RMB) is less welcome; the homemade tofu, made with egg, tastes like a watery omelette. Lion’s head meatballs (38RMB/each) redeem the kitchen; they are light in texture, rich with roe and crab, and float in a soothing broth.
Everything is served in charming blue and white pottery, while fresh plants and flowers enliven the room. The lighting feels like natural daylight. Zhu Rong has said she hopes diners will feel like guests in her own living room, lingering over their meals, and she’s brought that atmosphere to life here.