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March 1, 2011

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Where the chic meet to eat

ONCE there were quite a few home restaurants using special or "secret" recipes passed down through generations. Today few are left and they offer intimacy and home cooking. Nie Xin tucks in.

Zhi Jiahao is exacting when it comes to restaurants for very private meetings with clients and friends: It must be extremely quiet and discreet.

Accordingly, the 30-year-old sales executive chooses Yme Casa, a si fang cai restaurant, literally private-home cooking or kitchen.

"It's homey, casual and more important, very private; the food tastes like your mother's cooking," says Zhi of the intimate eatery on Wuyang Road in the former French concession.

It's a place with old Shanghai ambience for those in the know, where the chic meet to eat and business deals are sealed.

The term si fang cai has gained currency, but the genuine article is rare, or nonexistent. The traditional si fang cai in China were famous for serving very special and unusual dishes made using private or secret recipes.

Family Li Imperial Cuisine on the Bund serves dishes once prepared for the imperial family in Beijing. It honors the tradition of secret recipes but it's not in a private home. The original Li restaurant is in Beijing.

"Si fang cai today is home catering that features traditional family recipes in a setting just like home," says Gu Zhongchao, a member of the Changning District Food and Beverage Association.

Yme Casa, which opened four years ago, is typical of a small handful. The Chinese name, Jia Yan, means "home dinner."

The entrance is hidden among ordinary houses and a few boutiques; inside, it's like homey old Shanghai, with the dark period furnishings, draperies, silk bolsters and on the table colorful glassware and china.

"It's like visiting a close friend's home," says businessman Zhi, referring to the sofa, the small wooden tables and the shelf that displays pretty old dishes.

Four years ago, Zhao Yirou opened this private kitchen in a 100-square-meter house, with just one table. Her mother Madame Yu (Mama Yu) presides in the tiny kitchen. "It's not just a restaurant," says Zhao, who is in her 30s. "I'm trying to promote a lifestyle."

Originally, it sold fashion, accessories, decorations and furniture - all the things Zhao likes - and it had a single table in the living room.

"It started as a dual concept but gradually the si fang cai part became successful," she says.

Today it has five tables and serves no more than 16 customers at one time.

"Si fang cai is a first choice for overseas Chinese who have a special affection for old Shanghai, for artists who enjoy local culture and for officials and celebrities who need privacy," says Zhao.

"I want my customers to feel at home - it's easy, casual, not noisy and crowded," she adds.

She serves a set menu of Shanghainese food, known as ben bang cai (local-style cooking), all prepared by her mother and two assistants.

The three decide the menu, buy fresh ingredients at the market and prepare everything themselves. Mama Yu knows the likes an dislikes of the regulars.

Dishes feature seasonal vegetables and reflect various festivals, such as de Chinese rice pudding (ba bao fan) during the Spring Festival.

Yu serves the Shanghainese standards, such as braised whole fish with spring onions and Shanghai wonton; "lion's head" meatballs with hairy crab meat; and drunken shrimp with preserved plum. She frequently serves her own creations.

The minimum cost is 200 yuan (US$29) per person.

Zhao recalls a 78-year-old diner arriving on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival last year; he was returning from the United States for the first time in 65 years.

"Everything made him remember his childhood in Shanghai almost 70 years ago," says Mama Yu.

Quite a few restaurants call themselves si fang cai, and they may be large or small. "By my definition, si fang cai can only be a small, home restaurant," says businessman diner Zhi. "Some big restaurants do serve home-like food, but they are not authentic si fang cai restaurants."

Today's concept of si fang cai is very different from the original, says Jiang Jinling, a 75-year-old Shanghainese local. Traditionally, only the private kitchen that inherits an exclusive recipe could become si fang cai - mother's cooking is just homemade.

Royal secrets

Family Li Imperial Cuisine serves a set menu of what are said to be once-secret recipes.

The legendary Li Shunqing was Lord Secretary to the household of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) Emperors Tongzhi and Guangxu, and he oversaw security of the Forbidden City and the imperial kitchen. He supervised the eunuchs who tasted the food before the emperor, lest it be poisoned.

The imperial cuisine was lavish, mixing the best dishes of the Han and Manchu people, as well as other minorities, and Li became very familiar with it.

He recorded the menus and recipes, including ingredients and preparation. His "secret" cookbook was passed through generations and in 1985 seven family members opened the Beijing restaurant.

Today's Family Li Imperial Cuisine is said to be authentic, cooked according to Li's records.

At the very beginning, Family Li opened in a hutong (alleyway) only set one table each day and accepted only one reservation at least three or four days in advance. No order was allowed; diners just ate what the kitchen had prepared. In 1986, president of Merck Petroleum from the United States came to China on a project and tried Family Li, being the first foreign customer. Bill Gates, Jackie Chan and writer Louis Cha are also on the diner's list.

The restaurant in Shanghai that opened in 2006 with nine private rooms still feature Beijing food, such as smoked pork, well-stewed superior shark's fin with duck meat, deep-fried fresh scallops, fried egg custard, fried lobster with fungus and bamboo shoots in Beijing style, fried beef with chilli sauce and sweet and sour ribs.

The cost per person ranges from 600 yuan to 2,000 yuan per person. Since the dishes are meticulously prepared and cooked, reservations are required.

In a villa on Xinhua Road, the small Lanting restaurant is furnished with antiques, old paintings and calligraphy.

There is no menu. The chef prepares dishes requested by diners who call a few days in advance.

"The dishes are homemade, but nothing very special," says Wang Yikai who dined there twice. "But the ambience is quite good and the service is not bad. Guest can chat and relax on the couch after the meal."

These private-home restaurants serve local culture and nostalgia at the top of their menu.

"Many customers choose si fang cai for privacy, memories of childhood and feelings of home, which don't exist in big restaurants," says Gu from the food and beverage association.

(Tan Weiyun contributed to this article.)


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