Eating in China: A Whirlwind Trip

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I'm one of those travelers who loves to get to know a place based on its neighborhoods and food, but I realize not everyone's this way. So during our first few days in Shanghai, I capitalized on my family's jetlag and unfamiliarity with the city and--relying on friend's recommendations and a little research--dragged them around on many a food adventure. Over the next six days we tasted everything from steamed buns to dragon fruit, and visited markets, noodle stands and higher-end restaurants. This is far from an exhaustive list. Instead, it's simply where we found ourselves eating, lounging, and drinking: a whirlwind visual tour in case you ever find yourself in Shanghai or Hong Kong with no clue where to eat. We did a little footwork for you.

Food Market
The Chinese don't eat dessert nearly as often as we do in the States. Many folks do tea after meals or a bit of fruit, but routine desserts aren't as common. However, sweet snacks are a different story altogether and markets or street-side stands stock sweet buns or dumplings. At the Food Market on Nanjing Road in Shanghai, my sister and I noticed locals lining up for a late lunch of simple noodles and dumplings, sweet snacks, whole roasted ducks, or breads and baked goods to carry out. Some of the most popular sweets were the red bean paste dumplings, black sesame dumplings, and small rice pudding patties topped with candied fruits. I absolutely loved both sweet dumplings, and found their relatively dainty size and subtle sweetness truly satisfying.

 sweet buns
food market
Wang Jia Sha, 805 Nanjing Road, Shanghai, China

M on the Bund

This is, by far, my favorite restaurant in Shanghai. While not the most inexpensive choice, I've never been to a place with such energy and excitement while still maintaining an utterly unpretentious and gracious vibe. Voted “One of the Top 20 restaurants in Asia” last year by the Miele Guide and “The Most Popular Restaurant in Shanghai” by Zagat two years back, M on the Bund is located in the historic 1921 Nissin Shipping Building, and overlooks The Bund, Shanghai’s most famous waterfront destination. The food's a bit tough to pin down: the flavors range from Middle Eastern to Mod Euro, but ultimately come off as really thoughtful, tasty, comforting food. You won't find fancy foam or precious portions. Instead, there are strong cocktails, beautiful salads, perfectly cooked steak and seafood, and beautiful Moroccan vegetarian fare. The roof terrace is vast; diners are seated outside overlooking the water and the teeming nightlife and energy of the Bund, but folks also bring their cocktails out and linger while waiting for their meals. It's all very romantic and intoxicating and almost otherworldly.

 m on the bund
7/F, No.5 The Bund ( corner of Guangdong Lu )
Shanghai 200002 China


T8 has a few kinks to work out with their service and this is another spot where the food is quite pricey, but the atmosphere is beautiful and it’s located in the Xintiandi area, known for food, fashion, and nightlife and perfect for an evening stroll or grabbing a post-dinner cocktail. There is a part of me that thinks T8 takes themselves a bit too seriously, showcasing your bottle of water like it's a fine champagne and crafting teeny, artistic appetizers. However, there's another part of me that loves the candlelit atmosphere with lanterns and bamboo furnishings, a bustling open kitchen and stunning floral arrangements. They bring out incredible warm bread baked in individual popover pans--I liked that, and the entrees were solid. T8 specializes in more contemporary, seasonal European dishes with Asian accents. From the cod with Chinese vegetables to the Wagyu beef burger and sensational fries, it was a nice treat after a long day of sightseeing. Skip the starters and appetizers, go straight to the entrees, and enjoy the atmosphere.

No. 8 Xintiandi North Part Lane 181 Tai Cang Road
Shanghai 200021 China

Kommune is the kind of place you'd adopt as your own if you lived in Shanghai. And sure enough, we saw many an expat, quite a few students, and a noticeably large Australian population congregated on the outdoor patio eating sandwiches, salads, fresh juices, pastas, simple entrees, and house baked cookies. Located on Taikang Lu, a bustling artist's enclave peppered with galleries, interesting shops, and numerous cafes and wine bars, this is one likeable joint. Do know that their portions are huge: the incredibly fresh Greek salad was enough for three, and the milkshakes could easily be shared with a few friends. I loved this place. It was a welcome respite from the bustling dim sum lunch joints we’d been frequenting. You can relax here, wasting away an entire afternoon drinking fresh juices or lattes (voted the best in Shanghai) while people-watching or making new international friends.

The Yard, No. 7, 210 Taikang Road
Shanghai, 200025, China

Yuyuan Gardens
The Yuyuan Gardens are one of those tourist attractions that you really should do while in Shanghai. They're also one of those things that, once you've seen it once, I'm not certain you need to brave the crowds and go again. Because there are some major crowds. In short, the gardens are an example of classical Chinese gardens and architecture. Surrounding the gardens are streets jammed with little tourist shops, candy stalls, and tea sellers. I admit it: this may have been my favorite part of the sightseeing venture. We obviously didn't really know much about the various candies, but we just chose some randomly. Their gummy candies are less sweet than the ones here in the States and they do nice sesame brittles and little pre-packaged egg pies with a variety of jammy fillings. Fun and kitschy if nothing else. Oh, and did I mention there's a Dairy Queen? Sometimes nothing tastes better than a blizzard.

 yuyuan gardens
In between Fuyou Lu and Middle Fangbang Lu
Shanghai, China

Street vendors
While in China, try some of the fruit that may be unfamiliar to you, including wax fruit and dragon fruit (not pictured here). Although some of our travel guides warned against buying fruit off the street, it's fine. Wash it and you're good to go.

street fruit

Intercontinental breakfast buffet
There are no words, really. My dad had stayed at The Intercontinental before and had described the breakfast buffet to us as "mind blowing: literally 60 feet long." I wasn’t thrilled. Visions of Vegas swam through my mind. I hate buffets. I also hate Vegas. But this may have been my very favorite part of our first day in Hong Kong. My dad was right: it truly is mind blowing (although I'm not sure it's 60 feet long). They cater to a variety of tourists here, so there are traditional Chinese breakfast items like congee, steamed buns, pickled vegetables and century eggs. There are also Japanese items like steamed eggs and noodles and there is your standard American fare: eggs and bacon, a pastry bar, and a waffle and pancake bar. What was so remarkable was how fresh and beautifully presented everything was. It didn't feel like an obscene all-you-can eat affair. Instead, it felt like you were carefully selecting very special pastries, local fruits, housemade jams, and trying breakfast items that aren't common back home. I'm a big yogurt and granola fan, and they had six different types of honey for your granola, a huge bar of seasonal fruits, ten different types of cereals, a huge variety of fresh jams and different yogurts and kefir. Add to that fresh juices, smoothies, strong coffee and international newspapers--I was a happy camper.

 Intercontinental brunch
18 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui
Hong Kong, 00000 China

Zuma is a modern Japanese restaurant with other locations in London, Dubai, and Miami. We came here to celebrate my sister's birthday, so it's definitely more of a special occasion or "last night in Hong Kong and you want to live it up" kind of place. They specialize in innovative food and a wide variety of housemade cocktails you won't find elsewhere. The interior is largely granite and glass, reminiscent of a Japanese garden with a large open kitchen, techno music, and warm lighting, and the food was outstanding. It's family style, so you'll want to order quite a few dishes and they bring them out as they're ready. Don't miss the spicy fried tofu, the dragon crab roll, and the house specialty miso black cod wrapped in a hoba leaf. Order dessert, too. My sister and I shared the green tea and banana cake with coconut ice cream, and it was the perfect end to a special meal. Before you leave (or while you're waiting for your meal), spend a little time out on the romantic terrace overlooking downtown.
The Landmark Atrium Level 5, 15 Queens Road
Central Hong Kong

Heichinrou is a very popular dim sum spot in the Times Square Building, a famous shopping center in Hong Kong. It was packed with locals lingering over a long lunch, and after our first bite we understood why. The food was fantastic--probably the best dim sum I had while in China. Don't miss the broccoli with garlic, fried bean curd, shrimp jaozi, or steamed pork buns. And while I know no one in China is looking to get famous off of fried rice, I loved the pork-fried rice at Heichinrou. It had little bits of pork, fried egg and green onion and came in sweet ceramic cups. Load up on Jasmine tea and get ready for your next adventure.

Shop 1003, 10th Floor Times Square; 1 Matheson Street
Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

I'm recommending Sabatini to you because it's so utterly odd I wouldn't want you to miss it--and, of course, the food is great. It's in The Royal Garden Hotel, and they actually have pseudo-table side Mariachi music…yes, in an Italian restaurant in the middle of Hong Kong. It’s strange but it kind of works somehow. Given that most of the diners were tourists and business clientele, they know pretty much any English song you throw at them (although I will say they weren’t familiar with Lady Gaga). Sabatini's food is your classic Italian fare, with a nice seafood and pasta menu and a lovely antipasto bar. The original Sabtini opened in Rome in 1952, and this is one of two other locations. There's only so many dumplings and barbecued pork a person can eat, so when you find yourself in Hong Kong and need a break, sometimes a big plate of pasta is just the thing. Sabatini does that well.
69 Mody Road, Tsimshatsui East
Kowloon, Hong Kong

Stands at Temple Street
Ah, Temple Street. This is the nighttime market hawking fake watches, handbags, and an odd collection of other items like batteries, fans, socks, baseball caps and the like. I think it's worthwhile to take a quick turn just to see it, and before you go, hit up one of the fruit stands at the far end by the food area. Here you can get a variety of local fruit juices and coconut waters. Nothing tastes better after slugging through the crowded, steamy market. Try both the young coconut and regular coconut--young coconut tends to be smaller and sweeter.


All in all, our trip was far too brief but we managed to pack it in, food-wise. I loved the variety, the spice, the unexpected cosmopolitan nature of many of the restaurants, and the graciousness of the chefs and waitstaff. I'm already compiling a list for a future trip when, perhaps, we can pack in more than a mere six days.