WHEN it comes to eating lobster in Shanghai, the crème de la crème are from Australian seas.
Australian lobsters are a specific species and differ from their American counterparts in both taste and appearance. While a Boston lobster has two claws, Australian lobsters have no claws at all. But what they lack in claws, they make up for in large amounts of tail meat.
"People really like the tail meat," says Dieter Stamminger, chef de cuisine at Hyatt on the Bund.
Australian lobsters also have a softer texture and sweeter taste due to coming from a warmer climate. Michael Leibl, executive chef at Hilton Shanghai Hongqiao, says lobsters, sometimes referred to as the "king of seafood," from colder waters are generally firmer, with a harsher taste, while lobsters from warmer waters are softer, sweeter and more buttery.
Stamminger says Australian lobsters can taste fishier and saltier than other varieties, because in the warm water, lobsters absorb more of the salt water.
The taste is, unsurprisingly, affected by what the lobster eats. In warmer waters, the fish the lobster eats decompose faster, making the lobster taste sweeter. But in colder waters, the lobster's dinner stays fresh longer, making the lobster taste "more harsh and more masculine," according to Leibl.
Restaurants offering Australian lobsters import them fresh and store them in fish tanks until the very last minute, when they are removed and cooked.
Whether Australian lobsters or Boston lobsters are better comes down to personal preference, says Stamminger. But some dishes, such as the following, are just better with Australian lobster.
Deep-fried Australian lobster with salt and pepper
950 yuan plus 15% service charge. Price is seasonal, so subject to change
German Executive Chef Leibl puts a traditional Chinese take on Australian lobster. He begins by cutting the lobster into chunks with the shell still on, dusting them with flour, and deep-frying them in oil at a medium temperature. The lobster is cooked so the outside crispens while the inside becomes half cooked. Then the oil is taken out of the pan, and the lobster is fried with garlic, pepper, salt, spring onions, bell peppers and five spices until the outside is caramelized.
"You want to protect that morsel that's inside, make sure it's kept moist and juicy and give it that caramelization," Leibl says.
He recommends it served with a Reisling that isn't too sweet and capable of standing up to the strong flavors.
Lobster trio (slow-cook, braised, steamed)
288 yuan, plus 15% service charge
Leibl's more innovative lobster dish features lobster cooked three different ways as an appetizer. He uses a smaller lobster, around 250 grams, and cuts it into three pieces. One piece he steams with glass noodles. The second he deep fries, making it spicy and sweet. The third is coated in orange glaze, and blanched in medium-hot oil, meaning it cooks slower and there is less dilution of the lobster's flavor.
Diners can also choose to have a whole lobster cooked in the way they choose. The lobster is brought to the table live, and then diners can choose from a variety of options, including baked, steamed, fried or poached. Leibl recommends having it with pepper salt, or having it steamed which lets the distinctive lobster flavor speak for itself.
Venue: Yue Xuan (Chinese restaurant), Hilton Shanghai Hongqiao
Address: 1116 Hongsong Rd E.
Fried lobster with steamed egg in Shaoxing wine
(980 yuan net. Price is seasonal, so subject to change.)
The Shanghai Marriott Hotel Pudong East in Jinqiao Biyun Community puts an unusual twist on its Australian lobster.
A broth is made from the lobster claws, then seasoned with eggs and Shaoxing rice wine. The steamed mixture is then poured onto a plate.
Pieces of lobster seasoned with salt are placed on top. Finally, the dish is topped off with crab roe and blanched broccoli.
The Marriott's executive Chinese chef, Tsoi Chiu Fai, who has 30 years' experience, created the dish for customers who don't want to fuss with the shell.
"I came up with the idea to take the lobster meat out and cook with other ingredients, which makes the plate setting even more fascinating," he says.
"The combination of lobster, eggs and Shaoxing wine provides a fresh taste that maintains the natural flavor of the lobster," he says.
Paired with the dish, Tsoi recommends a Banfi Col di Sasso IGT from Italy.
If the steamed lobster isn't your cup of tea, the Marriott hotel offers a range of other lobster dishes, including lobster jelly in Chaozhou style, lobster with assorted vegetable salad in vinegar sauce, lobster in superior broth and lobster dim sum.
It's no surprise the Marriott is decked out in lobster dishes - after all, Tsoi has even published a lobster cookbook, which has become a must-read for Hong Kong chefs.
Venue: Shanghai Marriott Hotel Pudong East
Address: 15 Xinjinqiao Rd, Pudong
960 yuan for two, excluding 15% service charge
Hyatt on the Bund serves up a rich Thermidor, a classic French dish invented in 1894 in Paris. Chef Stamminger, who began training 15 years ago in his native Austria, says he keeps the dish true to its original. "There's no need to change too much," he says.
To make it, he boils the lobster and takes the meat from the shell. He mixes the meat with a creamy mushroom sauce made with cognac, and puts the mixture back into the shell and pops it into the oven. The dish is then served with hollandaise sauce, made with tarragon, and topped with Parmesan cheese.
"It's for a special occasion - it's really a celebration dish," he says. And he says the flavor of the Australian lobster suits the Thermidor perfectly. Stamminger recommends it served with Austrian wine, especially Di Vollnendung Chardonnay from Krug.
He learned the dish in his homeland where it is also famous, and cooked it in Chicago, where he later worked. Stamminger has spent 15 years perfecting his lobster-cooking technique, working at a number of restaurants, including a stint with famous British chef Gordon Ramsay in Tokyo, Japan.
Stamminger is a big fan of lobster, which is clear when one looks at the menu. He also serves a newly released lobster risotto (210 yuan) and a lobster bisque (160 yuan). For the lobster bisque, the crustacean is flambed in front of diners as they sit gazing out at the river and Pudong.
"It's fun to watch, and it's just nice when you see how your food is prepared," says Stamminger, who likes interacting with diners while he cooks in front of them. Lobster can also be served grilled, steamed or cold on ice for a Sunday brunch.