Shanghai’s Dining Scene Snubbed

The recent release of The Miele Guide was another slap to the face of mainland China, and more specifically, the country’s economic hub that we call home. On the list of the top 20 restaurants in Asia, China squeaked in with a single restaurant (the Peking Duck emporium Da Dong in Beijing). As for Shanghai, well, our dining scene merited a grand total of zero accolades from the top 20 list. Add to that the fact that Michelin steadfastly refuses to walk its celebrated guide across the border from Hong Kong and San Pellegrino’s Top 100 restaurants in the world list ignored China completely, and we’re starting to feel a bit slighted.

Created in 2008 to “draw attention to the culinary richness of Asia as a region”, The Miele Guide’s 2010/2011 edition lists a staggering 450 restaurants in Asia between the covers of the slim tome. This year’s top 20 restaurants are heavy on Hong Kong and Singapore, with 11 of the eateries hailing from these two countries; Japan is practically absent with just a single restaurant making the grade, which shockingly serves French, rather than Japanese, cuisine.

When asked why they publish a book about restaurants in Asia,  The Miele Guide explained that they wanted to fill the void as “there is no credible Asia-wide restaurant guide which Asian food lovers consider a benchmark reflective of our region’s taste, culture and collective culinary standards.” Despite their noble efforts, the guide fails to celebrate the native foods of the region, especially when compared to celebrity chefs who have imported their European or French fare to the region.

Modern Lei Feng, a Chinese food blogger based in Beijing, notes Miele’s obvious oversight, saying, “Interestingly, for a guide so heavily focused on using ‘Asian standards’, the restaurants that serve up Asian food are relegated to the bottom half of the [Top 20] list and can almost be counted on one hand.”

In addition to the top level ranking of the region’s 20 restaurants, The Miele Guide offers a top five list for each individual country, as well as a list of unranked recommended restaurants segregated by city. Shanghai scooped up honours in the country-wide polling, with three of the five best restaurants in China (all Western – Mr and Mrs Bund, Jean Georges Shanghai and T8 taking third, fourth and fifth respectively in the rankings). A quick glimpse at the recommended restaurants (see box on page 2) shows an even more egregious error: no Shanghainese restaurants. If we take The Miele Guide at its word, the best Asian food Shanghai has to offer is Lost Heaven.

Objectively, one can estimate that the guide is a way for Miele to enter the market and garner brand recognition. As a home appliances company promoting the sale of ovens, perhaps cuisines that rely heavily on woks do not rank as highly on their list of restaurants. But for us, the real meat of the issue is Shanghai’s absence from the lists of great restaurants.

In truth, Shanghai’s (and China’s) dining scene is behind the rest of the world’s, at least according to the standards set by Europe. Although both M on the Bund and the recently defunct Laris received recognition from The Miele Guide’s  Top 20 list last year, both restaurants are conspicuously absent from the current edition and several industry insiders handily admit that no restaurant in Shanghai is deserving of a Michelin star yet, but that doesn’t mean China doesn’t have great restaurants.

Food blogger Siu Yeh recognises China’s culinary strengths, saying, “What we certainly enjoy when we’re exploring China is hunting for great hole-in-wall restaurants and more likely than not, they aren’t exactly star-worthy... A vast majority of affordable restaurants in China would probably fail the rigorous ambiance and hygiene tests [of Michelin].” Maybe a tour of the city’s best xiaolongbao is in order for the next edition of Miele?

But when it does come to Western food, 2010 has been a great year for Shanghai’s dining scene as new restaurants from alums of some of New York’s best kitchens have imported their culinary skills and are working with local ingredients to serve up some delightful eats. The handful of celebrity chefs who have thrown their names on restaurant awnings around town still pop in every couple of months to see the progress of their substitute chefs, but it’s the recent influx of young chefs who remain in the kitchen day in and day out defending the integrity of their dishes that will change Shanghai’s dining scene for the better. We’re still not Hong Kong – but maybe that’s a good thing.