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December 13, 2009

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Yunnan treats, a la Mr Feng

THE off-street location of the Yunnan cuisine diner Southern Barbarian has proved both a blessing and a curse for proprietor Feng Jianwen. He's built a strong following of foreign customers who he suspects delight in the "secret" location but he needs a more obvious frontage to increase Chinese patronage.

So next year, another branch of Southern Barbarian will open in Pudong's Lujiazui area and Feng is targeting a boost to local business.

Southern Barbarian in Jinxian Road has been open for three years and is Feng's second restaurant since he arrived in Shanghai with his family from Beijing where he still maintains an interest in two fish and chips restaurants.

It specializes in the home cooking style of Feng's native Yunnan but he has eradicated the use of a lot of salt and cut down on the ferocity of the chilli by slashing amounts used in his dishes.

Feng has a rich view on life, the result of many years living overseas. Southern Barbarian (Nan Man Zi) - so named for what northern Chinese call people from the south - has been good to him despite its quirky location. More often than not customers have to queue for a table, despite the roomy two-story space.

The attraction is the genuine regional Chinese cuisine sold at reasonably cheap prices in a no-nonsense restaurant that reflects the owner's tastes.

Feng likes a beer and has become a connoisseur of many top international brewed varieties most of which are on the menu. He believes his cuisine works best with beer so if diners want anything other than a Chile wine - of which he stocks only three styles - they should bring their own.

The extensive menu of soups, casseroles, meat, fish and vegetables involves dishes all imbued with Feng's view of how Yunnan cuisine should be presented. "I'm not a chef, but I have very good taste in food," he proclaims.

Try the large plate of Charcoal-grilled Aubergine with Tomato and Chilli (18 yuan/US$2.65) for starters, the eggplant skinned and lightly grilled for serving with soy sauce. And the morsels of Chilli Beef on Toothpicks With Crispy Fried Mint Leaves (35 yuan).

Salt and Pepper Fried Yunnan Goat Cheese (28 yuan) is reminiscent of the Greek Halloumi fried cheese style and worked well with the combination of dishes selected, particularly the ultra-fresh Spicy Mint Salad (15 yuan) mixed with chilli oil and soy sauce.

The freshness and subtle tastes of the Wild Yellow Mushrooms with Peppers (52 yuan) dish sang of all that is good about the variety of the Chinese mushroom crop.

The starch hit comes with Crispy Potato-shred Pancake (16 yuan) which is a quilt of strands of finely sliced potato blanched in oil and continually turned on the fire.

The soft, delicate Barbeque Chicken Wings (25 yuan/2 pieces) are dipped in a special Yunnan spice mixture and coated in honey to enhance the color. A food competition judged them Shanghai's best - it's easy to see why as the flesh falls from the bone.

The kitchen buys fresh fish every day and the tender Barbequed Fresh Water Snapper (market price) peels easily from the skeleton in thick wads. It benefits from a house specialty Yunnan spices and chilli rendering.

The drinks list is a tribute to the world's craft beer industry, with lagers, wheat beers, stouts and ales from Germany, Belgium and the United States. Prices are around 50 yuan for 330 milliliter bottles.

The menu selection is guaranteed to expand in Feng's second outlet - he will retain the Jinxian Road operation - where he's already planning a bigger kitchen for "lots of new steamed and rice dishes and brunch food - the Yunnan sauce oysters will be the most popular in Shanghai."

But in the meantime, the Puxi Southern Barbarian should not be missed, particularly if you seek fresh, spicy food that is elegant in its simplicity and rewarding in taste. Booking is advised.


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