When you need a Chinese cuisine stunner for the boss, this is it. This celebrated, fine Cantonese dining institution was founded in 1973 in Hong Kong and awarded a Michelin star in 2009 - though the star was cut in the 2010 list. Shanghai’s first branch (number 18 overall), located in the swanky IFC Mall, lays on the opulence, from chandeliers that seem to cover the entire ceiling to a phalanx of waitstaff in satin shirts.
As soon as you are escorted to your white-clothed table in the dining room (high rollers head for the private rooms) you are doted over by the staff. On one visit, before taking our order, our ‘squad leader’ handed out his name card to every diner with his mobile number handwritten on it in pen. Was he expecting a call in the middle of the meal - ‘hey, can you pour me some more tea?’ It turns out no such calls are necessary. This is a place where you take a sip of tea and someone shoots over to pour in one more mouthful; set one bone on the plate and it’s instantly whisked away.
The menu is extensive, expensive and filled with premium ingredients. Classical Cantonese cooking emphasises the natural freshness of seasonal produce and avoids heavy seasoning or sauces. The chefs here have it mastered, and every dish sings with bright, light flavours.
Lei Garden is famed for its long-boiled daily soup (you have to reserve it by phone), barbecued meats, delicate dim sum and high ticket items like braised abalone and poached lobster. The roast pigeon (108RMB/half) is lacquered golden brown and the flesh is juicy but not greasy, despite the fatty flavour. The suckling pig and crispy roasted pork are likewise stellar, both with crackling skins and yielding juicy meat.
A signature dish, ‘tofu ensemble’ (88RMB), takes its time coming out from the kitchen, our eager waiter explains, as the ‘thousand leaves’ of the razor thin tofu slices are painstakingly cut by hand. The dim sum dishes are ideal specimens, from the radish cake to crispy pork dumplings. The dumplings have a clean porky flavour, but still, 9RMB/dumpling feels a bit extortionate.
Tea is the best drink with dim sum. A candy-sweet fragrance accompanies every sip of guihua tea (39RMB/two people). At dessert, the almond soup (32RMB), a mixture of almond powder, sugar and egg white, coats the palate with an intense nutty sweetness with a finish of bitter almond.
Lei Garden’s beige and tan hued room with its plush carpet and bright lighting feels like a contemporary five-star hotel; there aren’t any intimate corners for dates. This is a destination for connoisseurs of Cantonese cuisine or simply anyone after refined food and scrupulous service - and preferably with an expense account.
Once you order a few chef’s specialties like lobster or abalone, you’re sure to float heavenward, but be warned - the sky’s the limit. For those more firmly earthbound: head to Lei Garden for a luxe lunch.