ONCE known as “Paris of the East,” Shanghai’s links to France are plenty. There’s the former French concession, a mutual love affair with cafes and a connection to food that goes way beyond mere sustenance.
French restaurants are well represented in the city.
According to dianping.com, there are 108 French restaurants in Shanghai, most of which are fine dining establishments in Xuhui, Huangpu and the Pudong New Area. The average price of the city’s 10 most expensive French restaurants is 695 yuan (US$108) a person, according to the website.
Some of the restaurants feature world-class menus created by world-class chefs like Jean Georges Vongerichten, a three-star Michelin chef who opened Jean Georges a decade ago at Three on the Bund.
Etienne Dalancon, the general manager at Park Hyatt Shanghai who hails from France, says the attention to detail in a French restaurant is essential and a part of the culture, which respects artisans.
“Artisans are a big part of our cultural heritage,” says Dalacon, the organizer of the annual “Park Hyatt Shanghai Masters of Food and Wine” events that promote a French lifestyle in Shanghai. “They are a source of creation and inspiration. Manual work is hard, requiring a tremendous amount of time, learning and attention to details.”
While tradition is important, French cuisine most certainly allows for innovation and creativity. Culinary insiders say some big changes are occurring in Shanghai’s French dining scene. They say some French chefs are no longer following classic recipes exactly, nor importing ingredients from France because they are trying to express Chinese terroir in a French way.
“We have seen a radical turn and change thanks to smart and talented French chefs such as Paul Pairet (the restaurateur of Mr and Mrs Bund and Ultra Violet) and Nicolas Le Bec (owner of Le Bec), who have started sourcing the best ingredients in China based on their understanding of the local market,” Dalancon says.
Mei Ningbo, editor-in-chief at Vinehoo.com who studied wine in France, has seen the emergence of French bistros highlighted by Franck, which features affordable prices, a casual dining ambience and big portions ideal for sharing.
French dining culture is more versatile than ever and no longer limited to fancy restaurants. There are French bakeries, patisseries, wine shops with predominantly French vintages, cheese counters selling French cheese; and even a school teaching French cooking.
We explore some of the most impressive places in town, where guests can enjoy authentic French dining.
Although French wine is often criticized by Chinese wine insiders as over-priced, China imports more wine from France than any other country, according to a recent report by Vinexpo.
French wine is known for its expression of terroir, as well as its elegant style and balanced taste.
There used to be many wine shops in Shanghai featuring expensive French wines, but many closed after the central government launched its austerity campaign to cut down on wasteful spending by local governments and state-owned enterprises.
Casal is a two-story wine shop that opened in 2007 and is dedicated to selling affordable French wines.
“Casal comes from ancient Provence language, meaning cellar,” says Huang Yangdong, the owner, who spent five years studying in Provence.
The first floor has the wines while the second is a cafe that can accommodate around 70 people. Diners can gaze out at the tree-lined street or into the open pastry kitchen.
Casal has 200 French wines covering Bordeaux, Champagne, Rhone, southwest France and, of course, Provence.
“Provence is known for producing quality rose wine. We probably sell the most diverse French roses in town,” Huang says.
A highlighted wine includes Estandon, which is the oldest wine estate in Provence going back 800 years. A wine collection called “eight” is also popular. This fruit flavored wine has 8 percent alcohol content and is made with 70 percent dry white wine and 30 percent of fruit extracts such as cherry, peach, grapefruit and lychee.
Huang imports the wine himself so most of the wines range from 100 yuan to 500 yuan per bottle.
Casal Address: 428 Taixing Rd Tel: 5213-3291
French pastry is known for its layered structure, precision and complex flavors.
Le Reve, meaning the dream in French, imports most ingredients from France to ensure authenticity and quality. It’s run by Pascal Molines, a winner of the prestigious artisan competition Meilleur Ouvrier de France.
Try the chef’s signature cake named “subilite,” a layered chocolate cake made from four different cocoa beans to balance sweetness, acidity and bitterness.
Molines also adds some seasonal Chinese ingredients into his pastries, for example, osmanthus flavored chocolate and hairy crab filled macaroons.
Le Reve Address: 1/F, 88 Yuanmingyuan Rd Tel: 6329-0161
France is known for exporting great chefs due to its world famous culinary schools represented by Le Cordon Blue, the world’s largest hospitality education provider. Julia Child, American chef and food writer, is probably its most famous graduate.
Courses offered by the school cover cuisine, pastry, culinary management, hospitality management, gastronomic tourism, cheese and wine, as well as food entrepreneurship.
Its first school in China was opened in April in the Pudong New Area. So far around 200 students have applied for the French cuisine and French patisserie majors. They are tutored by three French chefs, according to its Chinese partner Shanghai Business and Tourism School.
The school is recommended to both professional chefs and food lovers interested in French cooking.
Le Cordon Blue Address: 2/F, Bldg 1, 1458 Pudong Rd S. Tel: 400-118-1895
An authentic French meal cannot end without a cheese plate. French cheese is known for its great variety and honestly reflecting terroir.
“How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” French general Charles De Gaulle in “Les Mots du General” said in jest back in 1962.
Famous Taiwan food and wine writer Lin Yu-Sen says that compared to wine, cheese expresses terroir more directly. For example, Roquefort cheese, which is made with sheep milk, has a distinctive taste that moves from mild to sweet before becoming a bit smoky and ending with a delicate salty flavor. The cheese is aged in large caves near Roquefortsur-Soulzon.
Some cheese shops in Shanghai target expatriates. Such shops assume customers are knowledgeable about cheese, which makes it difficult for many locals not accustomed to the dairy product to make a selection suitable for their tastes.
Try City Super, a gourmet shop known for sourcing food worldwide. A wide selection of cheese is displayed by country, and then specific regions within a country. The label includes a detailed flavor profile. Generally, the counter promotes a region each week with discounts on selected cheeses.
Shop assistants allow customers to taste before buying and will also offer wine pairing suggestions. Around 78 French cheeses are sold including Roquefort and Comte, which is matured for six months. According to City Super marketing manager Johnnie Huang, “Tome de Bordeaux,” a goat cheese made in the Loire Valley and aged in the caves of Jean d’Alos, is one of its signature cheeses。
“The exterior of the cheese is coated with rosemary, thyme, pepper and other seasonings when matured, which gives the palate a unique sensation mixing rich aromas and a milky taste. It’s even better if served with Syrah or Grenache wine,” says Huang.
City Super Address: LG2, IFC Mall, 8 Century Ave, Pudong Tel: 5012-0998
Some say the French word “bistro” dates back to 1815, when hungry Russian soldiers yelled “bystro” (a Russian expression meaning hurry up)” to French waiters after they occupied the city. Others say the word derives from an aperitif called bistrouille.
Regardless of the word’s origins Franck is the hottest bistro in Shanghai, having opened eight years ago. Owned by chef Franck Pecol, whose grandfather owned a bistro near Marseille, this small eatery is in an old lane in the former French Concession housing boutique stores and art galleries.
It attracts many French expatriates, which is definitely a good sign. Red leather sofas, a wooden floor and boutique style lighting creates a cozy ambience with a Parisian touch. A blackboard, written in French, lists the day’s dishes that chef makes based on available ingredients. Waiters explain each dish, from sourcing the ingredients to cooking techniques.
Foie gras, beef tartar and the fish courses are highly recommended. Franck’s hot chocolate cake and airy souffle make for a sweet ending to any meal. The wine list is highlighted by some small French wineries producing organic and biodynamic wines.