New York pastry chef Pichet Ong grew up in Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore and has toured the world extensively in search of the best things to eat. With Fantasy Travel Week upon us, we asked our friend to write about one of his favorite cities in Asia.

Shanghai, the largest city by population in China, is my mother’s hometown, and I visit every few years for three simple reasons: the food, the architecture and to brush up on my Shanghainese, which can come in handy in taxicabs, at train stations and at many restaurants. When it comes to food, this energetic city has always been in a state of flux, with every major international cuisine well represented, including Italian, French, Japanese and, more recently, Spanish. And when it comes to Chinese restaurants, locals have always preferred Cantonese (think sautéed snow-pea shoots smothered in crab roe) over the omnipresent xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) as they consider it to be fresher, slightly healthier and more refined. With only six days in the city, traveling around the city via all modes of transportation, these are the 11 places to visit.

Ye Shanghai 
If there is a restaurant that makes me miss Shanghai, it’s Ye Shanghai, located in the historic Shikumen District, now converted into an entertainment complex called Xintiandi, a main attraction of the city. Some locals may consider this too chic or overlook it as simply a tourist spot. But after a decade of elevating Shanghainese cuisine and pioneering refined hospitality, this place is still serving some of the best sautéed river shrimp, Wuxi eel, cold chicken in rice wine, crispy tea-smoked duck and marinated local vegetables. All dishes are served in the style of dim sum, and much of the extensive menu comes in small plates, or half portions, with a collection of homemade sauces that should be bottled for retail. I must stress: Do not let the surrounding high-end boutiques and their affluent-looking clientele fool you. For the quality — and not quantity — this place is a delectable bargain. 338 Huang Pi Nan Road, Xintiandi

Fu 1039 
There is no sign announcing this beautifully restored colonial mansion — stumbling upon it when walking through the French Concession (an area of the city formerly occupied by the French pre-World War I) is part of the charm. Once inside, you will be blown away by the design: rooms outfitted with original tiles, old-world furnishings and art. The cuisine is deceptively simple, and classic Shanghainese, with dishes like smoked fish, marinated jellyfish, soy tofu with peanuts and sautéed crystal shrimp being standouts. I also like seeking out the harder-to-find gems like flour-dough soup or glutinous sweet rice-stuffed lotus roots. Their signature drunken chicken comes with a generous mound of finely shaved iced soaked in Shaoxing rice wine, even in the winter time, which is strangely and pleasantly harmonious when eaten with warm wine or tea. Their popular dessert of boiled-peanut ice cream is something everyone orders, but I much prefer the more traditional sesame-rice dumplings in ginger soup. 1039 Yuyuan Road

Try one of the chef’s original dishes at Art Salon, like this spicy crispy beef.

Art Salon 
This place celebrates modern Shanghai cooking to the extreme. Thought is put into every detail at this tiny tea house/restaurant, with its prewar design, antique and modern Chinese art collection and jazz purring on scratchy vinyl. Tipping to the old-school approach, no photography is allowed except for food. The familiar fare, such as pork belly in soy, steamed tofu with crispy baby shrimp and marinated bamboo piths with peanuts, is delicious. But also seek out the chef’s original dishes — which are all marked with stars on the menu — like spicy crispy beef and sautéed river shrimp in crab dipping sauce. You will go home with leftovers. 164 Nanchang Lu

Din Tai Fung
Twenty-first-century Shanghai is an epicenter of global restaurant brands, so it is no surprise that it is also home to six locations (so far) of Michelin-starred Din Tai Fung. Sure, there are many places you can get xiaolongbao and have a more seemingly authentic or local experience, but few can rival the freshness and consistent flavor here. There’s a special team dedicated solely to making them. Each location around the world features a local flavor, so when in Shanghai I would go for the hairy crab (in season). Other dishes, such as sautéed snow-pea shoots smothered in crab roe, crab buns and double-boiled chicken soup, are all outstanding. And don’t miss out on some of the best regional Chinese desserts, including osmanthus-flavored layered cake or the chestnut-and-red-bean dumplings, which go best with a pot of famed Pu-er tea from Taiwan. The best time to go is soon after doors open at 11 a.m., with my favorite location being Portman Branch at the Ritz Carlton. Shanghai Center, #1376 Nanjing West Road, dintaifung.com

Da Dong
Chef Da Dong may be China’s first celebrity chef, running many outposts of his namesake restaurant throughout the country. Entering a Da Dong is always a grand affair, complete with a welcoming from women dressed in traditional qipao, a wall of the chef’s product line and photographs featuring culinary luminaries such as Ferran Adrià and Joël Robuchon. But understanding the history of this iconic Peking-duck specialist, all 30-plus years of it, is key. To a world-traveling gourmand, many dishes may seem borrowed, but much of the eclecticism is evident in the encyclopedic menu — and definitely upon taste. There are many ways to eat Peking duck here. The tasting menu may include the addition of Chinese truffle shaving or a brown-sugar crust (a Beijing style), but you may prefer a more traditional preparation with different breads and condiments. Desserts read better than they taste, but in traditional Chinese fashion, you get the best seasonal fruit at the end of the meal as a palate cleanser. And yes, the Shanghai offerings taste as good as the ones in Beijing. Multiple locations, dadongdadong.com

Jesse
If you want to visit a typical neighborhood “fandian” (a traditional home-style restaurant in a multistory shophouse, where everyone speaks Shanghainese), try Jesse, which is the English for Jishi. With a couple of locations in the French Concession (the former French-settlement neighborhood), this is a local favorite of both the older residents and the hipster generation. The homestyle Jiangsu food is first rate, with many cold appetizers and sweet-and-sour dishes. Get red-braised carp, red-cooked pork knuckle, chili prawns and anything with hairy crab. Finish off the meal with great noodles and Jishi fried rice, which makes up for the lack of dumplings, or on a cold day, the winter melon soup. Service can be challenging as few staff members speak English. 41 Tianping Lu, xinjishi.com

Farine is a must-stop breakfast spot for your daily European pastry and coffee in Shanghai.

Farine
I personally can’t go a week in Shanghai without eating good European-style pastry and coffee — and with decades of colonialism and a sizable expat population in the city, there are many places that do it well. Chef Franck Pecol’s Farine is one of the newest and best. All products are made with top-quality butter, flour, chocolates and imported fruits. You can find this place by sheer aroma on the street, and as a bakery should be, everything is baked fresh and gets sold quickly. So go early for a Danish, quiche, milk bread or an excellent butter croissant. Their rustic tarts (made with raspberry, lemon and chocolate), madeleines and banana cake are also superb. This is definitely the place to go for a croque monsieur if you feel like taking a break from dumplings or noodles. And it all goes down great with a delicious cup of mocha. Tip: Coffee can be a splurge in China. Farine has a breakfast special for any cup of coffee and a pastry for a mere 38 RMB (about $6.25) — if you must have coffee every morning, this is a bargain. 378 Wu Kang Lu, farine-bakery.com

The Commune Social
It was a tough choice, but for my only non-Asian meal in Shanghai, I chose the Commune Social, a Mediterranean-style tapas bar from chef Jason Atherton, an English chef with an El Bulli pedigree and high acclaim throughout Asia. The sleek open kitchen serves many small egg dishes. I went for the crab omelet, which did not disappoint. All the seafood snacks are terrific, with highlights being sea-urchin toast, oyster devils, escargot croquettes and curried seared scallops. But the pièces de résistance are Kim Lyle’s intensely flavored desserts, which can be had at the dessert bar in a flight — crispy lemon meringue with cucumber sorbet, peanut ice cream with red fruit, and green tea cake with yuzu. This is a great option if you are visiting the Jing-an Temple or taking a break from shopping on Nanjing Lu. 511 Jiang-ning Lu, Jing-an District, communesocial.com

Spicy Joint
In regional Chinese cuisine, the other end of the spectrum from Shanghainese is Sichuan — and your best bet on that front could be Spicy Joint. The “mala” (a chef’s special blend of aromatics and spices, including roasted chilis and Sichuan peppercorns bloomed in oil) is at its full intensity with crunchy chicken-giblet skewers, catfish in hot chili oil and spicy lamb chops. A small plate of cucumber marinated in garlic makes an addictive palate cleanser. Some dishes have a local influence, too, such as spicy sliced rice cakes with shell-on river prawns and desserts such as glutinous rice balls in osmanthus-infused egg drop soup — which seems to be a requirement for any meal in Shanghai. Be warned: Eating here is not just about bringing the spice. As the name of the signature dish, “drool-inducing frog,” suggests, the aromas will have you salivating. Thankfully, this place is so busy that you can order your food while you wait for a table, but having a local cell phone is a must. 1028 Huaihai Zhong Lu, 3rd Floor, xinxianghui.com

Pair chef Jean-Georges’s classic Korean barbecue with farm vegetables and various delicious appetizers.

Chi-Q
Master chef-chameleon Jean-Georges Vongerichten arrived early to the restaurant-import game in Shanghai and has long known what the locals want. His pioneering restaurants have drawn inspiration from practically every East Asian flavor, but Chi-Q is his first and only (so far) restaurant dedicated to the cooking of Korea. With Bina Yu at the helm of the kitchen and help from author Marja Vongerichten, the team puts a bold spin on classic barbecue, with premium marbled meats and interesting culinary takes on charcoal-grilled farm vegetables (mushrooms are a must). There’s innovative banchan and addictive sweet/spicy/sour application across the compact menu, namely in silken tofu, crispy kimchi pancakes and kingfish sashimi with sweet soy, chili, avocado and sunflower seeds. Another high note of Chi-Q is Seani Lin’s ethereal Asian-inflected desserts: matcha cake with lime and wasabi, berries with ginger granite and a strawberry mochi sundae. I wish there was a Chi-Q in my hometown of New York City. Three on the Bund, 3 Zhong Shan Dong Yi Lu, 2F, threeonthebund.com

Yong Yi Ting 
An exquisite example of the merging of two of the most popular Chinese cuisines in high-end restaurants can be found at Yong Yi Ting at the new Mandarin Oriental in Pudong, on the other side of the Huangpu River. A quieter and thus more relaxing time to go is lunch, with a separate menu of dim sum served daily. One can order from chef Tony Lu’s inspired menu featuring regional pastries, such as fish spring rolls, taro cake with preserved sausage, truffle buns and egg yolk custard puffs, presented with fine details that can only be found coming out of luxury hotel kitchens. Small hot and cold plates portioned for two of steamed fish, congee and specialties like river prawns, whole abalone, smoked fish, homemade tofu, sea cucumber and braised pigeon are also available, along with an extensive menu of dessert offerings in true Cantonese fine-dining fashion. 111 Pudong Road South, Pudong, mandarinoriental.com

This post is brought to you by our friends at MasterCard Priceless Cities

 

Check out more Fantasy Travel Week coverage on Food Republic: