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January 10, 2010

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Bund harbors Hangzhou delicacies

THE concept of dining on the Bund now seems to be naturally associated with fine Western-style restaurants or luxury membership clubs in those historical buildings along the Huangpu River. But how about tasting typical Hangzhou cuisine at a reasonable price around Shanghai's landmarks? It is possible at Pichon, an elegant eatery tucked away in a back alley near the Bund.

With its Chinese name literally meaning "green hometown," the restaurant takes diners into the graceful and picturesque Hangzhou, from its interior decor to the carefully designed menu.

From my first step inside I was captivated by the encompassing gentle white colors which immediately soothed my mood from the hustle and bustle of the city. Neo-classical furniture mixes with traditional Chinese settings to give diners an elegant but comfortable environment. The beautiful tableware is specially designed for the restaurant (be careful, beauty has a cost and you'll pay a fine for accidental breakages).

Art piece

Allow me to indulge a little longer on the dining atmosphere which I usually care the least about when eating out as first and foremost always comes the food. To my surprise, even Pichon's menu looks like an art piece. It not only bears the dishes' names with a description, but also artistic pictures of the tourist haven, such as the West Lake and lotus ponds. As a total package, the menu does add special colors to the dishes and lures diners to give them a try.

My friend insisted to start with the signature cold dish Sliced Lotus Root with Sweet Sauce (18 yuan/US$2.60) which according to her is a touchstone for any Hangzhou-style restaurant. It seems Pichon's chef easily won my friend's heart through this test. The sweet lotus root left a fresh taste on my palate, while the glutinous rice stuffed in the lotus root tasted yummy, but not too sticky. What makes Pichon's product different from others is that the chef added small pieces of adzuki beans into the rice stuffing, giving the cold dish an amazing twist.

To contrast the sweet flavor, we picked Edible Fungus with Pickled Pepper (22 yuan) as the other cold dish. Presented in a simple way, the whole bowl of black fungus didn't grab our attention when it arrived. However, the crispy and light-hot taste of the vegetable immediately made it a winner. Thanks to the smart chef, the simplest seasoning successfully retained the natural flavor of fresh fungus, which according to traditional Chinese medicine theory is good for people's heart and lungs.

Boasting a home-style kitchen with all chefs coming from Zhejiang Province, Pichon's menu focuses on simple but delicate styles, not only in raw materials but also in ingredients and seasoning. These have prevailed in the Jiangnan area (lower reaches of the Yangtze River) for hundreds of years.

Handmade Fish Balls with Pickles (36 yuan) is recommended as one of the must-taste main courses at Pichon. The first bite of the fish ball immediately brought soft, smooth and succulent tastes to the palate. The sour but subtle pickle soup strengthened the delicate freshness of the fish.

When I traveled to Hangzhou last October, I had a chance to taste a special chilled chicken at a small hostel famous for the dish and still savor the memory of that exotic and intriguing flavor. So after spotting a similar Sichuan Pepper Chicken (48 yuan) on Pichon's menu, I picked it out of curiosity.

Though it tasted a little different from the hostel's version, Pichon's Sichuan Pepper Chicken was good enough to satisfy everybody at the table. Enhanced by Sichuan pepper, the salty and juicy slices of chicken delighted our taste buds.

An interesting story about the restaurant's name is that the owner is a fan of French wine from Chateau Pichon-Baron and adapted it for the eatery. Actually it's not a bad idea to pair Pichon's Hangzhou-style food with some fine wine. That's a charming fusion of East and West, just like Shanghai.


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