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February 21, 2010

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Grip of the Grape takes hold

GRAPE Restaurant has been a stalwart of both Chinese and foreign diners for more than 20 years, surviving the changes as its local environment has upgraded.

Located near the corner of Xinle and Xiangyang roads, it has withstood reinvigoration of the imposing Art Deco Mansion Hotel opposite and refurbishment of countless other eateries along the two strips as the neighborhood has washed its culinary face.

Most recently the nearby new Spring Coffee and Restaurant Bar, with its sparkling red decor, and 3 Top, with its avant-garde Asian fusion menu, gritty wine bar and expansive outdoor dining, have shown up Grape's more pedestrian mien.

But the customers keep rolling in, devoted to the value and quality of its honest food, the efficient service, a mix of stalwart Shanghai and Sichuan cuisine items with realistic prices and little flounce.

It is neither a wine bar nor does it have an extensive list of imported French, Australian or South American reds or whites so the name is incompatible with its intent.

But it does resemble the style of the recently reconstituted Cantonese diner Cha's in Sinan Road, both sharing a wide range of food selections and fare nostalgically reminiscent of a bygone era.

The menu is extensive and the priced items are clearly displayed with color photos and descriptions in English and Chinese.

Diners can opt for elaborate seafood clay pots and whole fish, exotic tripes, frogs, intestines and deep Chinese concoctions. Or they can stay with universally tried and tested favorites and be comfortable that what lands on the plate will not be a cultural conundrum.

On this unusually warm winter's evening, the appetite required staples rather than a saunter to the wild side of Chinese cuisine and Grape delivered.

The cold Shredded Dried Bean Curd with Minced Toon (8 yuan/US$1.17) is a personal favorite and didn't disappoint with its ability to refresh the palate and prepare it for the more substantial dishes that lay ahead. The young shoots of the hardwood tree vegetable toon blended ideally with the bean curd.

Sauteed Dried Chicken with Cashews (28 yuan) turned out to be the piece de resistance, the diced chicken bearing a subtle combination of sauces that, while sweet to taste, evoked a deep and subtle background vinegar presence.

Food habit

The choice of Sweet and Sour Pork (25 yuan) betrayed my recidivist Australian Chinese food habit and, in truth, was so-so as the batter in which the pork had been cooked was so thick that the meat was difficult to find. The sweet and sour sauce with red and green pepper slices, though, was up to the mark and satisfied this reviewer's Little Bourke Street nostalgia kick.

The mushrooms in the Sauteed Sliced Beef (28 yuan) were large stalked baby browns fighting for attention in the thick sauce. Their flavor was too subtle and the beef lacked distinctive taste but each was redeemed as they were chopstick-extracted out of the sauce.

In the perennial quest for dry noodles in Shanghai, the Fried Noodles with Vegetables and Meat (10 yuan) was a welcome stack and forgiven a tad too much oil, strands of choy too finely chopped and flecks of beef too elusive.

The Grape is a two-story restaurant with a small front room dining area but a deeper back area with bench-seat cubicles.

It evokes its longevity, with practiced staff, efficient kitchen, good food and professional management. It is what it is and, once you've found it, you'll be glad of it.

Dinner for two with continually topped up tea is around 100 yuan.

Address: 55 Xinle Rd

Tel: 5404-0486


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