Trends in dining in Shanghai are just like fashion, coming and going at an incredible rate.
People can still remember how popular spicy crabs were three years ago, and xiao long xia (small lobster) that has just been sacked as the city's favorite dish.
Nevertheless, there has been a recent wave of areas built for fine dining. Following in the wake of Xintiandi, more stylish complexes that mix fashion and food are springing up, headed by M on the Bund, Three on the Bund and the up-coming Bund 18.
Many restaurant owners are discovering the value of old buildings and are restoring their lost luxury to attract diners who are reminiscent and fond of quiet and private places.
The newly opened Secret Garden arrived with the recent trend. Situated on Changle Lu, the restaurant and bar has a Chinese name with similar pronunciation - Cang Le Fang (a place which provides happiness). Built in 1928 in the French Concession, the English-style villa was the only one of its type built by a Chinese in the area at that time.
The decoration inside may remind you of some other places in the city and according to General Manager Lee Waites, it has absorbed different elements from other entertainment venues in town. You cannot tell whether it belongs to a specific Chinese, Western or Southeast Asian style but you can detect details from each here and there.
The restaurant's owner must be a lover of antiques from thousands of years ago and old Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s. The menus are designed like ancient books.
A lounge inside is decorated with old household items, like a piano, sewing machines and white crocheted table cloths. There are 10 dining compartments, each of which has a unique decor.
Few can imagine it's a Cantonese restaurant. During the day it offers set menus and afternoon tea with Cantonese dishes and dim sum at reasonable prices. For dinner, the restaurant provides shark's fin, abalone and other select and expensive Cantonese food. The prices help to bring in a range of diners, but in the evening Secret Garden has a member-priority policy.
But for me, afternoon is the best time to go because the sun's brilliant rays find their way into the main dining area and you can also sit outside in the garden.
The food I ordered was not in a specific Cantonese style, instead, it was more Shanghainese, a little oily with intense flavors.
An innovation that is obviously a fusion of Chinese and Western cuisines is braised crab meat and roe, served with butter-topped toast. Dabbed with tasty crab meat paste, the crisp toast is a new but funny taste.
Other signature dishes include braised cod with a splash of rum and sweet and sour eel on potato chips.
There is a wine cellar on the first floor where people can sit and sample the wines before a bottle is opened.
333 Changle Lu (by Shaanxi Nanlu)
(Shanghai Star December 2, 2004)