Family feel: Grandma's 8 (main) and green 'n' red
This week your trusty reviewer ventures into old Shanghai - to a forgotten outpost of the French Concession, judging by the interiors at the new-look David's. The airy, whitewashed space blends a pinch of Provence with a bit of the Bund, and the fact that it's tucked down a laneway at the grungy end of Chapel Street adds to the pleasant surprise of discovery. David's has been a fixture in this neighbourhood for 15 years, first as a tea store and more recently as an upscale Chinese restaurant that's earned a one-chef's-hat rating for the past umpteen years. Last July, owner David Zhou decided to loosen the apron strings. He engaged go-to designers Hecker Guthrie (Bistro Guillaume, The Millswyn, Sydney's Ivy) to give the place a more casual vibe and dcor. They transformed it into a light-filled conservatory.
A wall of foundry windows onto the lane illuminates white walls, flooring and seating. Interiors are warmed up with potted greenery and unpolished cabinetry and bar shelving, the latter stocked with wine and tea tins. The black cords of Chinese lanterns form a web from the ceiling. A rear mezzanine room is darker and has more of a refectory feel. Noise levels in both areas are manageable hubbub rather than shouting match. On each table sits an assortment of bowls, teapots stuffed with chopsticks, a bottle of light soy and a pile of thick paper napkins. All the implements you need to tackle a Shanghainese feast. Zhou makes a virtue of emphasising that many of the dishes originate from old family recipes, so expect rustic country Chinese rather than imperial cuisine. He also warns the kitchen will deliver food as soon as it's ready, so expect plates to come thick and fast. Our starters all arrive in the same stint until we are eyeing off six different preparations and feeling only slightly daunted. There is drunk chick - "soft" chicken marinated in Chinese wine that is precisely as advertised, though the meat's a mite salty for some. Green 'n' red is a punchy mix of soy beans, chilli and bok choy that lends excitement to plates like the (not-so) spicy beef with pongy white radish. There is some debate that the DIY wrap of shredded duck and vegetables, while flavoursome, is no substitute for a classic Peking duck pancake. But we're in a Shanghainese restaurant, not a Pekingese one, and we wipe the plate clean, so the argument is academic.
DIY Shredded duck & veggie wrap
You can't eat Shanghai-style without trying the city's famed soup dumplings, xiao long bao. Here they're simply called steamed pork dumplings, which kind of undersells the pleasure of them. The meat inside is like a fat, firm bullet but plenty satisfying alongside the hot splash of stock and the pleasant chew of the pasta. They come with a trio of condiments - chilli paste, soy sauce and a pungent, nose-tickling vinegar - for optional extra oomph. The wine list offers a catholic choice, from $35 cheapies to Penfold's Grange for a grand, but the budget-conscious or cellar snobs can also BYO every night except Saturday. While we're on the subject of great value, the four of us pay just $135 - total - for a pretty lavish sharing menu of 11 dishes. But no dumplings, so we order them separately. Mains kick off with the so-called one-bite, soft-shell river prawns. To be accurate, some of them require two bites and have big spiky legs that scrape the delicate insides of the mouth. They're worth ordering just to watch whole-prawn novices grapple with the concept of eating the head and all. Grandma's 8 is an old recipe that Zhou's grandmother would make for special gatherings. Glossy dark-caramel in colour, it's filled with expensive ingredients - scallop and shrimp, chicken and pork, cashew and chestnut - combined into a Christmas-rich casserole.
Osmanthus & red bean Sticky rice pudding
Country comfort is a classic meat-and-potatoes dish of sticky pork belly with whole chats. But by this stage in our gorge-fest, there's little that's comforting about the prospect of tucking into whole spuds. Better to stick with the sliced pork, its dry flesh moistened by a crisp fat crust and lifted by a tangy ginger and light soy sauce. Against such complex flavours, a bowl of soupy tofu and field of mushrooms (enoki, shiitake and so on) underwhelms, as does the Buddha's fried rice with bok choy and egg. The set menu dessert is a moulded dome of rice spiked with red bean paste and sprawled on a spawn of sweet osmanthus. The most constructive thing I can say is that it tastes like it should be good for you. The delights of the menu far outweigh the occasional duds. And with its upbeat mood, keen pricing and newly schmick interiors, David's could well be with us for another 15 years. firstname.lastname@example.org Online
david's village revolution www.theweeklyreview.com.au/article-display/ Davids-village-revolution/5367
Eat this David's Country Shanghai Address
4 Cecil Place, Prahran Cuisine
Xiang Le Chen Hip pocket
$50-$60 a head with booze. Open
Lunch and dinner daily; $35-a-head weekend yum cha in two sittings 11.30am and 1.30pm. Expect queues. Highlights
Chinese comfort food, warm service, BYO. Lowlights
Some lacklustre plates. Bookings
9529 5199 www.davidsrestaurant.com.au We rate 6.5 out of 10