We’ve sought a restaurant like this in Shanghai for ages: a welcoming neighbourhood spot with a bit of style, food you can trust, low prices and a no smoking policy. The homey Shanghai dishes are cooked with filtered water, quality oil and never any MSG. A few details distinguish this miniature dining room with a little lofted second floor from the average casual eatery, such as the framed glass window front and comfortable lighting instead of fluorescent tubes.
Jian Guo’s ever-present and smiling Taiwanese owner has lived in Shanghai for over a decade. She says she had a hard time finding Shanghainese food cooked with ingredients she could trust, so she spent a year testing recipes, hired a local chef and opened Jian Guo.
We like so many dishes here we could list almost half the menu. While the classic sweet dates stuffed with glutinous rice flour often taste like nothing but melted white sugar, the version here (18RMB) surprises with floral notes of osthmanthus syrup from the candy-fragrant local flower. ‘Deep-fried spare ribs with spices’ (22RMB) is actually boneless pork chop strips covered with diced red onion and scallions -- these are bites of salty goodness. Better still is the deep-fried duck leg (38RMB): chewy tender duck with super crispy brown skin and zero gaminess. ‘Yellow fish with scallions’ (58RMB for five fish) features yellow croakers fried crunchy and handsomely laid out on a bamboo basket under a blanket of whole fried scallions. This is worth ordering for the scallions alone.
In a city with a trillion ways to cook hongshao rou, Jian Guo’s version (58RMB) holds its own. Its sauce is neither over-sweet nor gloppy but has a rich depth and instead of a whole chicken egg, the pork belly chunks are braised with delicate quail eggs. ‘Soup with pig knuckle and yellow beans’ (32RMB), yet another classic on every Shanghai family’s winter table, is so rich with gelatin, the delicious broth is almost sticky.
Fermented tofu (22RMB), always a divisive food, like durian and preserved eggs, will have chou doufu lovers in love, and could even win over people on the fence. The innovation is the packaging of each cube of stinky tofu inside a gossamer layer of tofu skin before deep-frying it, creating a crackly outer skin akin to filo dough around the squashy, pungent centre.
We do meet lacklustre dishes. Shrimp (48RMB) cooked in the traditional shuijing or ‘crystal’ style are bigger than at many places but they’re bland, and they’re also not perfectly deveined. ‘Jiang-guo salted chicken’ (38RMB), a cold poached dish, is tender but boring. The ‘mixed greens with rice’ or caifan (18RMB) is too oily, though so tasty we’d order it again with a request for less oil.
For drinks, we guzzle the house ice tea (8RMB) which mixes black tea and winter melon teas in a delightful quencher. At dinner, the affordable Prosecco (198RMB) pairs well with Shanghainese cuisine, and our fizzing flutes of bubbly and tableside ice bucket, which might feel out of place at just any hole-in-the-wall, fit right in here.