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Step out to dine with the kitsch

AMONG the many obligations of being a good host in Shanghai is taking visitors on an authentic culinary experience. Always eager to impress, we often seek justification for choosing our city of habitat and are quick to give friends and colleagues a quick glimpse of the culture that surrounds us.

Our city is still on the path to reaching the same lofty, (some might say) snooty heights that other metropolises command, and taking clients or overseas bosses to dinner does not pack the same "face" cache as getting a table at The French Laundry or El Bulli at the drop of a hat. Instead, we seek to invite them to try a slice of China without getting their Ferragamos dirty.

The tourist trap plays a part in any modern civilization. These are establishments designed to entice the casual tourist and business traveler to pop their head in and leave with the "Been there, done that" T-shirt.

Here there is the dilemma of what facet of Shanghai do we wish to reveal. Do we go the glamor route, and take them to one of the Bund's or Xintiandi's finer establishments? Or do we go local, and sample Shanghai's much talked about cuisine?

Clearly someone got the memo that the latter was a profitable market to tap and we thus have Art Salon and it's newer spin-off, Cheng Cheng's Art Salon, the latter we visited recently.

Do Baz Luhrmann's epic flops keep you enthralled? Do you lap up Murakami's latest Louis Vuitton handbags? Then you'll love this place.

Pretty much everything in this spacious restaurant is for sale, right down to the bone china bowls and substantial chopsticks. The decor is an eclectic mix of immaculately-preserved junk - useless knickknacks from yesteryear. It's one thing seeing them in a museum, but to build a decor around them is just cheesy.

Given the joint's moniker, the art work adorning the walls is obviously the main draw here. It's a jolly good show, along with all the other contrived trappings, but not exactly stimulating enough to make you whip out your checkbook.

My criticism of Shanghainese fare is its one dimensionality - while the wonderful cuisines of China are a swirl of nuanced flavor, local dishes just seem to lack the punch of fiery hot Sichuan or subtle Cantonese.

The problem at this place is that the food, while significantly more refined than most other restaurants, is mostly overpriced. The cold jellyfish, a delicious play on texture, may have been worth 58 yuan (US$8.5) and the spiced aubergine, at 30 yuan, may have done the trick, but it was all downhill from there.

The spicy tofu was an insult for 58 yuan - the tofu may have been noticeably creamier than most cheap and cheerfuls, but the minced meat and gravy were too a la Bolognese for my liking. The house specialty prawns (58 yuan) were not very special, while the fried crab meat noodles (58 yuan) was a little too dry and could have done with less rigor and more sauce.

The standout dish was the crab legs with cucumber (the restaurant was out of asparagus that day/88 yuan), which balanced both textures splendidly, but, lacked the astringency that the asparagus would have provided.

The croaker (huang yu) soup (98 yuan) was, as informed by my dinner date, an authentic local dish, and was a marvelous pot of lip-smacking broth, albeit far too large a serve for two. None of the waitstaff thought to warn us against ordering too much.

The question of whether you like this joint was never going to be an issue of the food - the kitchen strives to do the best that it can while catering to the largest common denominator.

The concept of kitsch, while not a hot topic here, is all too apparent and perhaps it is best to leave it in the words of famed Czech writer Milan Kundera to explain. "Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession," the author of "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" wrote. "The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch."

The question, then, is whether it does enough for you.

Address: 30 Donghu Rd, near Huaihai Rd M.

Tel: 5403-6010


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