I’ve had quite a few people tell me that Jesse 老吉士 (41 Tianping Rd; 天平路41号) has the best Shanghainese food in the city. When Austin and Garrett Hu told me that Jesse was the restaurant they always take out-of-town visitors to, I had to try it. In my perpetual quest to be BFF’s with Austin and Garrett, I somehow convinced them to arrange and invite me to a group outing at this iconic establishment (I am officially one step closer to BFF-dom).
Jesse is a tiny restaurant and definitely requires reservations. There are two rooms that can fit four tables each. I witnessed walk-ins promptly get turned away. I’m so glad that I went with Austin and Garrett because they knew exactly what to order. With a party of nine people, there was a cornucopia of dishes, including three specials that require 24-hour notice.
I apologize now for not knowing the name of every single dish. This is what happens when you let the regulars order and you just sit in awe of them. We started our meal with a bevy of cold dishes like the mixed mushrooms with bean curd sheets, kumquat skins, beef tendons, smoked pomfret, braised duck, sweet and sour pork, and red dates stuffed with glutinous rice.
I loved trying so many different things and all of the cold dishes were good. I definitely found myself turning the Lazy Susan and reaching for the mixed mushrooms with bean curd sheets, smoked pomfret and dates with glutinous rice multiple times. The smoked pomfret was tender and surprisingly not dry. It’s a popular dish in Shanghai and it’s really easy to get wrong, but Jesse definitely serves it so right.
If you’re going to eat Chinese food, you might as well go big or go home. That means partaking in huang jiu 黄酒, Chinese yellow wine. Part of the charm of Jesse is watching the waiter serve the huang jiu. He presents the wine heated in a blue and white porcelain bottle with a cork stop. It is then gingerly poured into a small pitcher and doled out in tiny tea cups. Huang jiu is meant to be sipped slowly and it definitely helps cut the sweetness of Shanghainese food.
Chinese people always say that food in the north tends to be salty while food in the south tends to be sweet. Even though I lived in Beijing for a year, I didn’t quite believe that Shanghainese food is truly sweeter. I think my palate was already used to it. However, Jesse made me realize just how sweet the local food is. Many of the dishes are braised in that sweet soy-based sauce that made me crave more of my huang jiu/cold beer.
For our main dishes, we feasted on fried shrimp, fried spicy chicken, eggplant cooked in a casserole dish, stir-fried river shrimps with peas, soft tofu with crab roe, red braised pork, vegetable rice and much more. I had too many favorite dishes. One of them was definitely the soft tofu with crab roe. The crab roe added that creaminess to the sauce without giving it a fishy taste and the tofu was like little soft pillows in my mouth. While I should have waited to complement the dish with some Chinese vinegar, I was just too impatient and swiftly polished off my bowl in about two bites.
The fried shrimp were absolutely incredible. You popped them into your mouth whole and just crunched away. While the shrimp were crispy on the outside, there was still a sweet sauce that would surprise you with every bite. It was like eating a plate full of candy (I found myself eating them probably just as quickly as I eat candy).
I am obsessed with eggplant in China. The variety is different than in America and as Austin explained: Chinese eggplant is skinnier, less bitter, less fibrous and holds flavor better. Side note: I could literally listen to Austin talk about food all day. It is absolutely entrancing. I’ve already proposed to Garret that they should start a podcast. Jesse’s eggplant dish is definitely a must-try.
With so many dishes having that wonderful sweet soy-based sauce, I’d also recommend that you get the vegetable rice to soak up some of that sauce goodness. The savory vegetable rice complements the sweetness, leaving your palate well-balanced.
The true gems were the three dishes that require 24-hour notice: 1) fish head with scallions, 2) pork trotter stuffed with 8 treasure rice and 3) giant pot of chicken soup.
While I know it probably doesn’t look like much in the photo, the cod head with scallions may have been my favorite dish of the night, partly because I had never had fish cooked this way before. When you touched your chopsticks to the fish, the flesh would effortlessly fall apart. It was tender and buttery (like BUTTA). I liked that the slightly fried green onions didn’t overpower the taste of the naturally sweet cod. My tablemate next to me explained how different parts of the fish head had different tastes and textures. Upon learning this information, I promptly felt like a 5-year old digging for treasure using chopsticks as my scavenger tool.
8 treasure rice can be savory or sweet and Jesse’s version is a beautiful sticky rice filled with dates, dried scallops, mushrooms and so much more. Austin explained that you can pre-order the 8 treasure rice stuffed inside duck or a pork trotter. He definitely prefers the pork trotter and I can see why. Steaming the rice inside the fatty skin seems to the make the rice that much more flavorful and rich. I loved how it was the star of the night and the entire table started taking pictures like paparazzi chasing down Britney Spears.
We finished our meal with the chicken soup, which was served in a giant clay pot. There’s something so deeply satisfying about ending a meal with soup. I love how it warms your soul and it helps you digest your meal. This soup was perfect because it was just a simple, clear broth with a few Goji berries sprinkled in. You truly got to appreciate the chicken flavor and the whole table talked about how this was the exact soup we would all crave if we felt under the weather.
It was such a fun night and I really want to thank Austin and Garrett for introducing me to their friends and hosting a delicious meal. I had a great time meeting like-minded people who adore food as much as I do. Plus, I was introduced to two lovely ladies who each started Vantage Shanghai magazine and UnTour Shanghai (food tours in Shanghai!)– very worthy causes that you should check out.