New & Noted: Mi Xiang Yuan

What: Shanghainese dishes just like your nainai used to make
Where: Alley 358, 24 Huaihai Zhong Lu, near Madang Lu. Tel: 3366 4408

Why: For a taste of local food at its finest (and cheapest)

Longtang, the Shanghainese alleys that stand behind shikumen stone gates, are slowly disappearing from the city, demolished to make room for skyscrapers and apartment blocks. Along with the city’s traditional architecture, the alleyway cuisine is becoming a lost art – the tastes of childhood and simple, homestyle cooked meals are fading into a culture of fast food and imported flavours. Mi Xiang Yuan is reviving the city’s traditional fare with nourishing set meals of Shanghainese comfort food.

Hidden down a longtang just a couple blocks north of Xintiandi, the living room sized eatery has earned a loyal following from the area lunch crowd since opening just two months ago. Its traditional Shanghainese homestyle dishes, served at compellingly low prices, have proved so popular among locals that they’re already planning a second dining room just out the back door of the 20 seater restaurant.

Run by a team of cousins and uncles, Mi Xiang Yuan takes a certain familial pride in its food. They ship in organic vegetables twice a week and source other ingredients themselves, skipping the middlemen and heading directly to the wet markets and grocery stores every morning before service. Even their rice is noticeably high quality, a fact that inspired the restaurant’s Chinese name (loosely translated as ‘Fragrant Rice Garden’).

Set meals are the specialty here, and while English isn’t readily available at the moment, the picture menu above the cashier provides all you need to know in order to fill up. Try the house specialty lu rou fan (RMB 28). The epitome of Shanghainese comfort food, the dish is fatty pork stewed in a sweetened soy sauce-based broth for hours served atop a glistening pile of rice. Mi Xiang Yuan’s version comes with a sprinkling of pork floss – normally an ingredient abhorred by foreigners, but one that adds a surprisingly nice salty balance to the dish here.

We also sampled the rich yellow curry beef brisket (RMB 28), a dish that proved to be the perfect winter lunch. Musky with flavour and thick with hearty chunks of beef, potato and carrots, it warms you up right down to your toes – which is a plus at Mi Xiang Yuan, as the alley house can get a bit drafty.

During our visit, the sets included a wild vegetable and tofu soup, julienned potatoes with pickled chilies and bok choy in a thick gravy – more than enough for one hungry diner, although we could have eaten buckets of the crispy fresh potatoes and chilies with their vinegary kick. We also ordered wintermelon milk tea (RMB 7) to wash it all down. The recipes comes from a Taiwanese specialty that boils down the gourd typically found in soups with brown sugar than mixes it with milk and black tea – unusual to the foreign palate, yes, but one sip and your tastebuds will be intrigued and delighted.

Related articles:

In Defense of Shanghainese Cuisine

Syndicate content