When thinking of Shanghai's rich history as a cosmopolitan city back in the 1930s, it is heart warming to see an old favorite resurrected and given a modern touch.
HFZ Gourmet and Lounge is probably the best restaurant to have opened this summer. Located on the fourth floor of Red House on busy Shaanxi Road S., the contemporary French dining establishment faced stiff competition from some other high-profile launches the past few months.
HFZ, or Hong Fang Zi, which literally means "red house" originally opened on Huaihai Road as Chez Revere in 1935. In 1940, the place was renamed Chez Louis. Following the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Hong Fang Zi moniker came into existence. It was said that the name was a suggestion of Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), the legendary Peking Opera star of the time.
Present-day Shanghai owes much to proprietor Yann Mandigou for bringing this local classic back from the dead. Not to be confused with the current Hong Fang Zi on Huaihai Road M., HFZ Gourmet and Lounge is in a league of its own. The black interior with dark tables seats around 120. The eclectic red ornaments that adorn the walls and classic cutlery are French chic at its best - understated class that induces a smart-casual dining environment.
The garden balcony overlooking Changle Road was the best spot to be during the June opening party, with its inexplicable aquarium and view of the French-style houses in the immediate vicinity. Shaanxi Road has a high-concentration of low-rise buildings, and has to be one of the only places downtown to be able to look around without a towering skyscraper looming.
The food is purely inspirational. Best described as creative contemporary French and international cuisine, the fare complements the decor perfectly with its simple, refined and imaginative presentation.
The summer set lunch was a steal at just 88 yuan (US$11) for two courses and 108 yuan for three. The vegetable and beef consomme terrine was delicately prepared, and was just as refined on the palate to prime the taste buds for what was to follow. The gazpacho (42 yuan) was also tasty - a refreshingly cold tomato soup that hails from southern Spain.
The daily chef's special of grilled veal in a light mustard sauce was outrageously simple - not only pleasing to the eye but also the stomach.
They say the French do not tend to get fat, and a lot of this must stem from their reluctance to over-eat at lunch. The portion of tender veal with a small helping of shallots, broccoli, carrots and baby potatoes was just enough to leave you wanting more.
Special mention must be made of the ravioli stuffed with prawn and basil (62 yuan). The pasta was just right in terms of thickness and texture, while there was a generous chunk of prawn squeezed into each parcel.
Dessert continued the theme of simplicity. The almond peach tart caressed by vanilla ice cream was the pastry chef's daily creation, while the lemon meringue (60 yuan) has established itself as a firm favorite - and rightly so.
Christophe Jean is responsible for such tantalizing fare. The Frenchman said he was drawn to Shanghai to live out a "moment" in his career. A chef's profession often involves years of travel as they scour the globe to draw from a universal pool of knowledge and experience.
"The (restaurant) business in Asia is interesting, and customers (here) are more open to new ideas," said the Bordeaux native. "Here I can observe Asian techniques and practice my skills while giving customers what they want."
When asked about the attention to detail applied to the immaculate presentation of each dish, Jean explained that it was something he had to pick up in Asia. He said diners in Australia and Asia are much more picky, and demand that their food must look good as well.
Chef Jean oozed confidence as he spoke, just as the rest of HFZ did. Walking into the restaurant, sitting down, speaking to the well-trained waiters; one feels comfortable that the property knows what it is doing, and that their meal is in safe hands.
Address: 6/F, 35 Shaanxi Road S.