This is the Foodie International expression for: “I can’t believe I’m about to put something that is still moving into my mouth.”
While visiting Shanghai, China (and by a small miracle) I scored one of the coveted tables at Jesse, the most famous, authentic Shanghainese restaurant in the city. There are two outposts of Jesse, referred to simply as “Old Jesse” and “New Jesse.” I dined at the original, since word on the street is that the difference between the two restaurants (same owner) is akin to a difference between heaven and hell.
The original Jesse is located on Tianping Lu, in the French Concession, identifiable by a small, yellow-lit sign and the handful of culinary devotees milling outside waiting for their table. The restaurant is unexpectedly small; a handful of tables fill the tiny space to the edges. There’s nowhere to wait but outside.
Though Jesse might be the most sought-after reservation in Shanghai, and frequented by dignitaries and celebrities alike, the ambiance is as casual as it gets. This is the thing that sets Jesse apart from so many buzz-driven hotspots; people actually come here to eat.
The bonus of brushing shoulders with your neighbors is that you get to see what they’re eating. Heads turn every time a new tray is carried into the room. Because everything at Jesse is freshly prepared, some popular menu items need to be ordered days in advance to ensure that the ingredients are in stock. There’s a feeling of community in this cramped, crowded room.
Even the act of ordering from the menu was exciting. I came armed with online recommendations from a few of Jesse’s devoted diners. Sharing my table was my pal R (who thankfully spoke some Chinese) and Dan from Detroit who was in town for business. We were all up for a real Shanghainese dinner in a city where it’s more convenient to stumble across Papa John’s or McDonalds than to seek out the local fare. I poured through the menu, pointing out various dishes to our waiter. In some instances he would nod, in others he would point to another similar dish and protest, “No, have this one. It’s better today.” I loved his frankness, and took his advice.
One of the most popular dishes at Jesse is the Xin Tai Ruan, sweet red dates stuffed with glutinous “sticky” rice. Though it’s an appetizer, it could easily pass for a dessert.
We also sampled a similar dish, the caramelized lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice. Shanghainese food has a reputation of being sweet, and these two sugary dishes are prime examples of this.
Another appetizer: shredded chicken with chili sauce, served cold and topped with cilantro and a pile of red-hot chilis.
And the Shocking! Sensational! dish of the evening: drunken shrimp. Any type of “drunken” food is a Shanghai classic. I ordered the dish based on a glowing recommendation. R asked me if I knew what I was getting myself into. By the menu description, I figured it was a type of sashimi. “No,” he said, “the shrimp are still alive.”
Alive? Given that this dish was one of the most popular at Jesse, and that R was laughing, mimicking crawling shrimp on the tablecloth, I decided to go for it. This was definitely the first still-living food I’d ever ordered, but in the wide world of culinary oddities you have to start somewhere.
These drunken shrimp are soaked in a rice wine to the point of total marination. They are alive, but barely. One way to look at it, it’s like ordering extra-fresh sashimi. Like any morally conscious eater, I apologized to each individual shrimp upon grasping it with my chopsticks. “I’m sorry!”
I took the first bite tentatively, afraid of a potentially violent woman vs. shrimp showdown.
It was easier than anticipated, and ten times more delicious than I could have imagined. I only ate the tail section, though the head is equally as edible. The thin, crunchy shell tasted like wine and was a perfect match for the sweet meat inside. I might have had more difficulty mentally dealing with the dish if it weren’t so incredibly tasty! I was hooked from the first bite. All I could think of while eating was that if my grandfather were alive, he’d want to know what in the world I was doing eating live bait. Maybe if I had known back then how good the bait was, I wouldn’t have spent so many childhood hours sitting on a dock, catching nothing. As sensational as it is, Jesse’s drunken shrimp is a winning dish.
“I’m sorry!” Crunch. “I’m sorry!” Crunch. “I’m sorry!” Crunch.
For those less likely to order food with the potential to escape from their plate, we sampled several vegetable dishes. Fried string beans with chilis (above) is a common menu item throughout China, but Jesse’s was the best I’d had. Below, steamed greens with chicken.
One of the culinary standouts of the evening was a gigantic bowl of fried chicken and prawns, smothered in red hot chili peppers. The concept is genius, taking that bucket of spicy KFC to a whole new level. Dig in through the thick layer of hot peppers, and pull out a perfectly cooked, juicy prawn or chicken. The spicy heat of the peppers soaks into each bite of the dish, without having to chew on the slightly hard, uber-hot peppers themselves.
The original Jesse is the must-do culinary experience in Shanghai. Do whatever is necessary to land a reservation, because it will be worth it.
Jesse (the original!) is located at 41 Tianping Lu
Reservations are mandatory. Call +86 21 6282 9260
2010 Mileage Total: 67489