We made our way down the Le Bar at the Shangri La Hotel, Paris, after watching the glittering Eiffel Tower lightshow from our terrace. Frederic, the wonderful executive assistant manager, had previously introduced us to Alexei at Le Bar, who had prepared for us our favourite seating at the bar, where we could observe the cocktail creation. Based on our requests (‘something strong, masculine and fruit-free’), Alexei invented for us the ‘Lady C Martini’ and ‘RB Manhattan’, which were quite powerful enough to whet the appetite and send us swiftly to the hotel’s Michelin starred Chinese restaurant, Shang Palace.
The dining room is quite stunning, with dark wood furniture and jade coloured engraved panels. There are several private dining rooms hidden behind patterned, golden screens and the main dining room is arranged around and between these screens and pillars so that each table is an intimate dining space. There are two ways in which one can enjoy the menu; French style, with the traditional ordering of courses, or Chinese style, where each dish is served as soon as it is prepared. Of course, Charlotte and I chose the Chinese style dining and were immediately drawn to one particular item on the menu – deep fried live crab with crispy garlic and chilli. Our waiter, Nicolas, was cheerful and helpful but we saw his smile turn to concern when we mentioned our interest in the crab.
“I should advise that this dish-” He leant forward conspiratorially, “There is a lot of fork work.”
Being in possession of a little Dutch courage, we were not to be deterred and assured him that we were well prepared for any ‘fork work’ that might be required. Having made some further selections from the menu, with the assistance of Nicolas, we sat back with a glass of Bollinger Rose Champagne and some chilled mushroom nibbles to await our first course.
We had selected a barbecued meat combination that consisted of marinated chicken with superior soy sauce, Cantonese-style roast duck and crispy pork brisket. The meats were all cooked to perfection, retaining all their natural juiciness, but for my favourite was the duck with its tangy plum sauce. Charlotte preferred the chicken, which had a great salty, crispy skin.
One of the pleasures of dining in this way is that each dish, though you know have ordered it, is somewhat of a surprise because you have no idea what will arrive next. It seemed to me that I blinked and in the next moment found myself confronted with an entire crab, beady-eyed and aromatic. We set to with forks and other provided utensils, finding the meat inside succulent and simply enhanced by the spices. In fact, the crab was so good that our efforts were doubled in excavating every crevice of the poor creature and devouring its delicious flesh. We were a little sheepish when Nicolas cleared the table but he explained that if the table cloth is clean after the meal, the guests must not have enjoyed it. While I suspect that he only said this to make us feel better, it certainly allowed me to feel dignified while three separate people scraped debris from our stained table cloth.
Fortunately, the next course was similarly excellent and caused us to forget ourselves all over again (although with less mess). There was pan-fried, Cantonese-style onglet steak with onion in its wonderful tangy sauce. The rare meat almost melted in the mouth and we hurriedly helped ourselves to it with our serving-chopsticks (our eating-chopsticks waiting nearby – oh to be ambidextrous!), each begrudging the other any tiny sliver over precisely half.
There is something fresh about authentic Chinese cuisine that, despite its depth of flavour, means it is not overwhelming. This complexity is often lost at the Chinese takeaway and, to be honest, at the majority of mid-range Chinese restaurants. I’m no expert, but having travelled around rural China, I know that seemingly rustic dishes can hold hidden delights. The next course, presented in an unassuming clay pot, was braised aubergine with diced chicken and salty fish. The sauce was rich and salty and the aubergine had a soft but solid texture. This was a really good authentic dish and possibly my favourite of the meal.
Our final course was wok-fried, minced pigeon with diced vegetables. It was served with lettuce leaves in which to wrap the mince mixture and a sweet, nutty sauce – described by Charlotte as a Snickers without the chocolate. This was a very light dish and the sauce was truly sumptuous, especially when it was smothered all over the virtuous lettuce leaves!
In place of dessert, having rather filled our stomachs with the savoury food, we returned to Le Bar to sample this hotel’s version of The Bespoke Black Book’s trademark cocktail, the espresso martini. I couldn’t help feeling that barman Quentin made much lighter work of these delicious drinks than we had made of our crab. However, the meal had been so good from start to finish that we were no longer able to be ashamed of our messy crab-flinging or our gluttony. This decadent feast made two things clear to me. One. Never be deterred by fork work. Two. If you want authentic Chinese food in Paris, the Shang Palace is the place to go.