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Middling midday meals for the middle classes
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By Aubrey Buckingham

One of the most perplexing questions faced during the daily grind is the eternal issue of lunch. While empires have risen and fallen over more pertinent questions than simply the choice of the midday meal, we, the aspiring middle classes of Shanghai, often find ourselves wrought with bouts of mental constipation over what to eat and where.

The ideal lunch thus involves a short trek somewhere and pleasant surroundings, preferably the antithesis to the gray offices we otherwise inhabit. Alfresco is welcome this time of year, food must be reasonably priced, the service swift and efficient.

Diners get all three elements at Justin Quek's Fountain, smack in the middle of Xintiandi. The Singaporean chef has already dazzled locals with both his La Platane French restaurant and his Villa du Lac Shanghainese establishment. With Fountain he captures another key sector of the Xintiandi walk-in market.

Some have criticized the Singaporean for leaning more toward the business side than the kitchen, but that's the nature of the beast, particularly with Xintiandi rents. At Fountain diners get value but they also get what they pay for, Quek and his team know exactly what to charge for every morsel. The best bet is to go for the daily special, which makes sense for both restaurant and patron. A Western and an Asian set lunch, each offering a small starter, a sizable main and a tiny dessert, goes for 90 yuan (US$13).

A recent Asian set offered a braised half pigeon, bean curd and rice - all very tasty and fresh, presumably because one or both his other outlets required a large order of the bird. Sporadic chef's specials, such as a crab meat pasta (105 yuan), enjoyed late one Saturday evening, got around the peril of having to serve seafood on a Monday while giving customers something interesting. The logic is faultless.

The menu also features a solid line-up of staples to keep regulars coming back. The club sandwich (75 yuan) is a great indication of the kitchen's skill, and the crispy chips more than made up for the tired salad. Quek even stays true to his Singaporean roots with perennial favorites like laksa and chicken rice. A word of advice - stump up the extra 20 yuan for the thigh meat.

Fountain is a Xintiandi eatery so the locale is polarizing and, perhaps surprisingly for Quek, the decor is neither one thing or the other. Some have questioned the purpose of the oyster bar, with local and French crustaceans, but who can deny it's something the tourist hotspot has been missing.

If Xintiandi is just too far, or perhaps you just loath and despise the area, then hopefully Dagu Road is more accessible and acceptable.

The unassuming Nova has been open for quite some time now, and it has attracted something of a cult following. The lunch deal is every bit as attractive at 88 yuan for two courses and 108 yuan for three. The fare, however, is not quite on the same par. The pea and asparagus soup was on the thin side, while the salmon quiche had crumbly, overly buttery pastry. It also lacked egg (sort of important in a quiche) and generally sullied the good name of tarts. One can only assume that for the chef the quiche was a "quicky."

The mains were alright in a bistro way that felt authentically French - also providing bang for buck but again nothing more. The creamy chicken breast on buttered rice filled the stomach, while the pan-fried steak was quick with tasty homemade chips and a passable pepper sauce - what more could you ask for? Presentation, however, would benefit from a little work.

A table on the deck, in the shadows of the looming Top of City apartments is preferable, but a booth inside is far from painful. Perhaps surprising again but in Nova the decor is effortlessly accomplished.

Ultimately, neither Fountain nor Nova will rewrite the form books, but if it's quality, reliable bistro fare that you're after and quick, there is a lot, lot worse.


Address: Unit 4, North Block, Xintiandi, 181 Taicang Rd

Tel: 6326-8800


Address: 418 Dagu Rd

Tel: 6340-1889

(Shanghai Daily May 23, 2008)

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