Shanghai Restaurants: Heritage Buildings and Culinary Buzz at Sinan Mansions

  • Lounge seating at Kelley Lee’s The

    Lounge seating at Kelley Lee’s The

  • Hotel Massene

    Hotel Massene

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Above: One of 15 garden mansions at Hotel Massenet. Photo by Todd Anthony Tyler

A historical road is courting Shanghai’s smart set with an ambitious lineup of food and cocktails

By Amy Fabris-Shi

During Shanghai’s 1920s and ’30s glory days, Rue Massenet (now Sinan Road) in the leafy French Concession was a neighborhood of writers, revolutionaries, artists, and gangsters. Now, the former stomping ground of luminaries such as poet Liu Yazi and philosopher Feng Youlan—not to mention Zhou Enlai, whose postwar residence has since been converted into a museum—is emerging as one of the city’s most audacious lifestyle enclaves.

At the center of it all is Sinan Mansions, a collection of 49 stripped-down and rebuilt heritage buildings on the corner of Fuxing Road. The villas now sport brand-new pebble-dash facades, russet-trimmed sash windows, and peaked gables, while the narrow alleys, or lilongs, between them have been landscaped into pedestrian plazas dotted with art installations and sidewalk tables.

Shanghai Restaurants: Chef-owner David Laris at Yucca

David Laris at Yucca.

Despite the controversy surrounding the old neighborhood’s heavy-handed gentrification, Sinan Mansions is fast establishing a culinary buzz, with outlets by several Shanghai big guns. Leading the way is Australian chef David Laris, who has filled an entire three-story townhouse, No. 26F, with a quartet of gourmet concepts.

On the first floor, the Funky Chicken (86-21/3368-9525) rotisserie roasts its birds with tangy marinades like tamarind-barbecue and adobo-chipotle. One level up, accessed by an antique wooden stairway, the Fat Olive (86-21/3368-9524) is a mod-Mediterranean wine lounge serving Greek meze plates.

The mood switches on the third floor at Yucca (86-21/3368-9525), a Mexican “micro-lounge” done up in a kaleidoscope of mosaic floor tiles, fuchsia and aqua walls, and voodoo-inspired flourishes. Pull up a bright yellow barstool or sink into a sofa and sip a perfectly mixed martini while nibbling on quesadillas or chocolate-dipped churros. A hot-pink spiral staircase leads to a semi-private loft lounge. Laris’s pièce de résistance is 12 Chairs (86-21/ 3330-3920), a private dining room that seats a dozen guests. The sophisticated degustation menu here (it changes monthly, but courses have included foie gras–stuffed pigeon and lamb rack with black garlic puree, braised prunes, and Jerusalem artichokes) is paired with a selection of rare vintage wines from the adjoining cellar.

Shanghai Restaurants: Marinated-vegetable quesadillas at Yucca

Marinated-vegetable quesadillas at Yucca.

Across the courtyard, exuberant chef Eduardo Vargas taps his Peruvian provenance at Chicha (Block 33; 86-21/6418-0760). His downstairs lounge pours creative cocktails spiked with South American spirits (try the Peruvian pisco sour) accompanied by traditional piqueos, or small plates. But Vargas at his most raw and ravishing can be found in the candlelit upstairs dining parlor, where patrons choose from a seven- or 12-course set menu of piquant seviches, tiraditos (raw fish marinated in lime juice), causas (potato dump-lings topped with various meats), and other home-style favorites.

Shanghai restaurants: lounge seating at Kelley Lee’s

Lounge seating at Kelley Lee’s The Alchemist. Photo by Todd Anthony Tyler

Next door, mixology goes molecular at The Alchemist (Block 32; 86-21/6426-0660). This stylish two-story lounge, by American-Chinese restaurateur Kelley Lee, has a hint of chemistry-chic in its old apothecary drawers and atom-esque chandeliers. Australian bartender Ryan Noreiks delivers cocktails like the Yangtze River Tea—a sorbet-like concoction of Chinese baijiu, tequila, dark rum, and citrus served alongside a demitasse of spiced jasmine tea—and the Divine Aromatic, with gin, Aperol, rhubarb bitters, bruised pineapple, and Campari cotton candy. Thought-provoking bar bites include popcorn pig brain and smoked amberjack tartare topped with ponzu foam. If that sounds a little too eclectic, the third branch of Lee’s popular Boxing Cat Brewery (Block 26A; 86-21/6426-0360) is also on-site, serving house-brewed ales and pulled-pork sandwiches.

Flanking the dining precinct, tucked behind well-guarded gates, is Hotel Massenet (51 Sinan Lu; 86-21/3401-9998; no website). Shanghai’s most exclusive—or at least expensive—boutique property comprises 15 butler-serviced mansions that are rented en bloc for a cool US$5,340 a night. Two other villas on the manicured grounds host a French dining room and a Cantonese restaurant. Yet the most beguiling thing about this end of Sinan may be what lies across the street: a cluster of dilapidated houses, vacant and ivy-draped, that will soon be gutted for Sinan Mansions’ second phase of development. For now, though, they provide a nostalgic glimpse of the neighborhood’s not-so-distant past.

Originally appeared in the April/May 2011 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Sinan’s New Flavor”)

Update: Anniversary Events at Shanghai’s Sinan Mansions

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