Food and drink are the two major driving forces in Shanghai. Business, trade and art are up there, but after a long day of business and trading or looking at art, its time to get a drink and bite to eat, and that’s where Shanghai’s extensive F&B scene comes into play. If food and drink are major driving forces in the city, then FEAST Food Festival is the showcase of some of the gems, if not the best options, the Shanghai food scene has to offer.
Happening every year around April, FEAST, organized by major events company Social Supply, is a massive festival featuring, you’ve guessed it, all the food you could only dream about trying on a tight budget like mine all reasonably priced and in one place for two days. While hardcore gormands might decide to go the two-day route, I decided it best, since I’m still pretty unfamiliar with the food scene in Shanghai, to take a day and see what there was on offer.
So off I went around noon, calling my Ningbo buddy – who had also recently moved to Shanghai and was making a name for himself in the city doing business training – to let him know I’d meet him there. Into Line 2 and, still slightly tired from the night before, cruising along to my destination at Nanjing West Road, where we’re getting dangerously into the more touristy areas of the city before hitting the massive throngs of people on the Bund, but just not quite. No, this is Nanjing Road, a former main thoroughfare of the old city that’s been (mostly) turned into a large pedestrian street with all the Western brands you could think of, their Chinese knockoffs, and food and juice stalls mismashed in between all while looking like a sterile fancy new strip mall just outside of Phoenix.
From there it was off the main road to a mall nearby, and, pretty much just a game of walking around searching for foreigners who didn’t look too much like tourists, but more like expats, because in Shanghai, while the tourists have their overpriced Chinese garden tea shops, knicknack shops, kitsch stores and, when all else fails, McDonald’s and the similar ilk, the food and drink festivals with the local chefs and personalities are the realm of the expatriate.
And, low and behold, after a week of crazy weather with rain suddenly popping into the equation after a sunny day last Tuesday, the sun was out and bright enough for Instagram-loving self-professed foodie expats to be happy with their shots on the 4th floor rooftop and terrace at Taikoo Hui Mall, where guests were whisked up an elevator and greeted by blaring pop music, an arena of booths filled with all kinds of meats, ingredients and smells, and an upper terrace and roof area with ample booze to keep the whole event going late into the night.
These foodies came out in droves, some just there to soak up the sun, others the food and drink, and yet others to take those aforementioned Instagram photos and, just for awhile at least, attempt to unleash their inner Anthony Bourdain but still manage to be too polite and say everything was delicious all while trying to sound smarter than they actually are.
Not that there was much to complain about at all, it was bright, the sun was out, the food was all delicious, and the concept of the festival itself is noteworthy. The thing I like so far about the Social Supply events I’ve taken part in, is that they’re about the people who are making the drinks and food, not about the brand or the restaurant. As with SIP, the big names are why people are coming to FEAST, and the names are driving the event because it’s focused on introducing these chefs and their amazing food, not just the restaurant they might be cooking at at present, since the F&B industry is so influx in a place like China, so having those names is something of a refreshing thing.
Up past the food to the terrace area where I met some friends from Ningbo, freshly arrived and partaking in cider and wine, as well as Mack Ross, former head bartender/owner of what was my favorite bar in Shanghai until its untimely demise, Tour, and current head bartender at the Nest, mixing up concoctions with Flor de Cana rum and the new out of the blue fernet on the scene, Fernet Hunter, a highly addictive lighter Austrian version of the spirit made famous by Fernet Branca, which may someday be used for shots, at least in Shanghai.
Winding my way through the options – which included big names like Chris Zhu (newcomer Bird), Kasper Elmholdt (Pelikan), Sam Norris and Jun Nishio (Xime) and more, I was drawn first to the word “foie gras” and “truffle” next to each other on a printed menu, under a booth with the names Bina Yu + Kim Melvin (of Chi-Q and Commune Social, who were working on a new joint project), so I decide to take a closer look. Since I’ve had good and bad experiences with foie gras, the only good stuff having come from at least one sushi restaurant in Ningbo, because all the other times I’ve had it its been cold or only cooked lightly, leaving this weird fluffy and cloying spongy texture with too much fatty flavor that just lingers and won’t go away. I decided to pass on that and instead opted for deep red fried octopus and something called black bamboo served with a dollop of mayo.
After heading up and getting a Swineapple cocktail (Fernet Hunter, lime juice, pineapple juice and ginger beer) which, when topped with a piece of fried Spam, was Mack Ross’ equivalent of the Swineapple dish in drink form, I was able to get a first bite of the octopus and black bamboo. In the words of Brazilian chef Alex Atala upon trying his first bite of caviar “Wow! I don’t know if I like this.”
The flavor of the black bamboo was interesting and grew on me. It was a sort of accompaniment to the savory fishy flavor of the octopus, mellowing it all out with a flavor that reminded me of dry burnt seaweed, only that it was actually really good.
Following the octopus it was onto offerings from Pol Garcia (La Maison) in the form of beef tongue in red wine sauce and a Cynar Spritz from Warren Pang of Bitter, a newly opened coffee and cocktail bar that sounds like Heaven on Earth for a bitter junkie like me. Cynar is one of my favorite Italian drinks, and I love the ways it plays with different proseccos that are used in the drink. When at Funkadeli months before, the prosseco used brought out an earthy anise flavor from the spirit, whereas here it was almost like drinking an alcoholic espresso.
While the beef tongue was good, each time I remembered that I was consuming tongue I kept focusing on the other flavors. It was light and tender, slightly overpowered by the sauce but yummy nonetheless, and whenever the thought of eating tongue came up I could take a few sips of spritz to wash it down.
Up next was a trip to the Juan Campos (Raw) booth, which had a line almost reaching to the bottom of the stairs, so we could tell what they were serving was good. From there, some Wagyu beef tartar and the best selling dish of the day, the Wagyu beef burger with foie gras. Ugh, more foie gras? I thought to myself. While I understand its a controversial delicacy, putting it on a burger seems overrated, and my tastebuds agreed, as the lightly cooked liver overpowered the beef so that all you got in the end was the texture of sponge and taste of goose innards, not always bad but in this case not so good.
Perhaps people were ordering it just for the Instagram post, “hey look at me I’m so fancy over here eating my mini foie gras burger” or maybe my palate isn’t refined enough for the likes of the Shanghai food scene just yet; maybe I’m just a pretender who doesn’t get it, I haven’t reached peak foodie yet. But, who am I kidding, it just didn’t taste good.
The real winners of the day were the tartar (the first I had ever tried), which was delicious, and also for some unexplicable reason made with Wagyu beef, something that would take a beef expert – or some snooty food critic – to recognize the taste, Lay’s chips covered in a sunny side up egg, cheese and fried Iberico ham from Ling Huang of Latin Woo, and, my personal favorite, another dish from Pol Garcia, a fried squid sandwich with cilantro and squid ink sauce. Yes, it was calamari fritti on a roll and my childhood, during which I had grown up eating nothing but fried calamari when my parents took me out for pizza, was relived again, only with the more adult addition of squid ink, which instead of drowning out the calamari like another sauce would, complimented it nicely.
By the time all these were done (had to share the Lay’s as they were heart attack inducing), I finished with another drink. As the sun was setting more people were coming out, and this being Shanghai, where only the prettiest foreigners come to play, they were all, of course, pretty people. Blues music played by a live local band blared on the loudspeakers from below, drowning out the conversations held between my friends and I, and so we decided to leave FEAST, bellies full and palates satisfied, a long day of food and drink at an end.
Of course, the one thing that kept bothering me the next day, after sleeping off all the greasy and fried and black bamboo goodness from the day before, was that foie gras burger. I just couldn’t shake it from my mind, like reliving one of those dreams where you completely fuck something up or you’re about to fall off a cliff, its just hard to shake. Thus, while writing this, I ordered some hangover food in the form of a bacon cheddar cheeseburger from Beef & Liberty, and wasn’t disappointed. The juiciness of the meat interlaced with peppery bites of real bacon and the welcome addition of onion relish were welcome, especially when paired with light and slightly sweet fries that didn’t taste like rotting potatoes.
A fitting food for writing about food, and enough to make me forget about the horror of foie gras on burgers. More octopus and black bamboo please, but please dear god hold the foie gras, the geese with thank you later.