by Telegraph Luxury Travel Editor and John O'Ceallaigh from The Telegraph, February 17, 2017
By one measure at least, fine-dining Cantonese T’ang Court in the Langham Shanghai hotel can claim to be mainland China’s best restaurant. The first (and so far only) mainland Chinese edition of the Michelin Guide recently named what its inspectors judge to be Shanghai’s best eateries, and it was T’ang Court that was the only one in the city - and so country - to be awarded the coveted three-star ranking for 2017.
Epicureans who have already experienced many of Europe’s three-star restaurants can expect a markedly different experience here. Having worked in close collaboration with the team at the Langham Hong Kong’s own T’ang Court (itself having held three stars since 2009), executive chef Justin Tan has created an authentically Cantonese menu that is markedly more complex than those found in the vast majority of the West’s multifarious Chinese eateries.
My own tasting menu included a watery double-boiled fish bladder soup with sea whelk, the small bowl holding my serving standing in a broader container of liquid nitrogen that evaporated to reveal a bed of pink rose petals. I dined earlier on a platter of canape-style Chinese delicacies including marinated sea conch; the chef’s later dissatisfaction with that day’s consignment of wagyu beef saw it replaced on my set menu with slivers of pan-fried scallop served battered and compressed like a pancake.
Throughout, Chinese wines including a robust Legacy Peak from Ningxia Province were served alongside more recognisable New World labels, and the restaurant’s signature dessert - an almond tofu pudding with a swan-shaped pastry - provided a kitsch finish.
Some incongruencies proved disconcerting, though. Given its stature, I had expected the six-table a la carte restaurant to be at capacity all night; instead it was never more than half full. Locals prefer to hire out T’ang Court’s nine elegant private dining rooms (handsomely finished in maple, pine, padauk and bamboo) and eat as a large group; simple and pleasant though our surroundings were, with the restaurant’s double-height windows covered by long lace curtains, we felt exposed in so quiet and small a setting.
A different approach to service, too, proved unexpectedly entertaining. Though the team was faultlessly polite and eager, I was surprised when one unfinished dish was taken from me (to be returned later), because the chef was eager for me to try my subsequent course the moment it was ready. Though I typically find Michelin’s ratings an accurate barometer of a restaurant’s quality, on this occasion T’ang Court’s supposed status as Shanghai’s best restaurant seemed surprising and unconvincing.
For those curious about authentic Cantonese cuisine it’s nonetheless a good place to eat, and the hotel more generally is impressive. In Xintiandi, one of the city’s most fashionable districts, it is surrounded by well-regarded bars and restaurants, stands near the unmissable Shanghai Museum and is well-placed for explorations of the French Concession. Amber-hued and spacious, rooms and suites impress too, and a basement pool - always empty during my visit - and extensive club lounge round out the facilities nicely.
And Michelin’s arrival has brought renewed attention to other established fine-dining destinations in Shanghai, too. On the Bund, the Peninsula Shanghai hotel’s Sir Elly’s and Yi Long Court restaurants were awarded one and two stars respectively. Designed to resemble the elegant 1920s home of a prosperous Shanghainese business man, the latter is beautifully finished with tasteful art deco-style furniture, dark wooden panelling and the occasional striking example of modern Chinese art; window seats there face either the Huangpu River or the former British Consulate and its surrounding gardens.
Lively in the main room despite the restaurant offering a number of elegant private-dining spaces, it was here that I had a superb lunch comprising a succession of beautifully presented dishes. Steamed grouper was served simply in a light soy sauce; a complex, delicious crab meat and roe soup was tempered with bamboo fungus; stir-fried beef was lightened by a cai xin and fragrant oyster sauce garnish.
It was a standout experience in what in most respects is an exceptional hotel. Set on the Bund, its refined river-facing rooms offer some of the most magnificent views in the city - seeing Pudong’s cluster of teetering skyscrapers erupt in a blaze of neon each evening was wonderful. For those residing elsewhere, a similarly remarkable vista can be admired from Sir Elly’s Terrace, the hotel’s 14th-floor rooftop bar.
But perhaps Shanghai’s best restaurant view is one that doesn’t take take in the city at all. Awarded two stars by Michelin, Ultraviolet is unlike anything else in the country. Set in an featureless, windowless room on the outskirts of central Shanghai, it is in fact kitted out with a technical rig and projection system so advanced that each course is served in an entirely new environment. With the walls a canvas for the projection of a bucolic idyll, 10 diners might tuck into a gourmet picnic as birds apparently sing and the scent of freshly cut grass fills the air; later, a chill might cut through the room as the party surveys an Alpine scene and enjoys ice cream.
It’s a remarkably immersive experience devised by visionary French chef Paul Pairet, who has somehow devised a 20-course fine-dining menu that is as impressive as this incredible setting, and an unforgettable showpiece for the culinary diversity offered by this metropolis. Though there may be some differences in how European and Chinese consumers judge the addresses most lauded by Michelin’s inspectors, there’s no question that Shanghai is an impressive, and frequently surprising, dining destination.
Rooms at The Langham Shanghai cost from CNY1,650 (£195) per night; dinner-time set menus at T’ang Court cost from CNY928 (£110). Room at The Peninsula Shanghai cost from CNY2,798 (£325); dinner at Yi Long Court costs about CNY500 (£60); dinner at Ultraviolet costs from £465 to £700.
This article was written by Telegraph Luxury Travel Editor and John O'Ceallaigh from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.