I’d heard quite a lot about the original (Old) Jesse, famous for its spot-on Shanghainese classics and its nostalgic environs (on an unassuming, leafy side street just off a busy former French Concession intersection). From the sidewalk, its handing placard felt almost saloon-like.
Ducking down through the door and descending the narrow stairs into the first floor dining room felt like walking into somebody’s house, even more cramped than my previous encounters with regional cooking at other hole-in-the-wall sort of places. Those joints, namely Little White Birch and Restaurant Art Salon, felt roomier and kitschier, respectively. Jesse’s bare brick walls and its steep staircase to the upstairs tables, squeezed together economically, breathe quite claustrophobically. Yet, by noon on a Monday, coincidentally the timing of both my visits, the place is starting to fill up, a few tables already mid-meal. The bare simplicity of the arrangements also recall a step back in time, as do the cabinets, faded china, and chipped claypots.
On both my visits, we chose dishes from the first page of specialties, mixed in with some random picks from the remaining pages. The first trip, we started with two cold appetizers, salted chicken and jellyfish in scallion oil. Shanghainese cooking features a heavy dose of sweetness, often in a soy sauce braise or stir-fry, and two of our next dishes – grandma’s pork with bamboo shoots, and stir-fried long beans and potatoes – both had this flavor profile. We also added a mapo tofu, because we wanted to see its Shanghainese interpretation and to have an element of spice.
The dishes were presented in supreme simplicity, and tasted delicious each in its way. The chicken was well-salted and its white meat tender. Personally, I love the consistency of jellyfish on the dryer, crunchier side, and the scallion oil version was just that. The combination of sweet, savory, and umami at the heart of the soy sauce and sugar braise goes exceptionally well with bamboo shoots and also with potatoes. The mapo tofu was expectedly mild (I didn’t notice any peppercorns, actually), but still a great accompaniment to a small bowl of rice.
On my next Jesse lunch, we gunned for a bit heavier of a meal, although we still started off with jellyfish (but the vinegar and cilantro version). Next we had taro boulettes in chive oil, which unfortunately had neither the texture nor the flavor intensity I was hoping for. Still, the fish head with charred scallions and chili king prawns with fried chicken more than righted the ship. The fish head was immensely flavorful, crisped skin and scallions contrasted with the salted fattiness of the collar flesh and collagen. I liked that the prawn heads were left for us, and that the fried chicken pieces had a good balance of meat and bone. We were busy enough with those dishes as it was, but still finished with a salted pork soup with bowtie tofu skin. My only previous encounter with this tasty soup was a take-out version I’d ordered on a sick day. With generous cubes of plump salt pork belly and crunchy bamboo shoots, the soup was a great sendoff back out into the Shanghai winter.
I quite liked Jesse. The menu is large for such a small outfit, but without being daunting. The first page of chef’s specials helps illuminate the must-haves, and the handful of servers were surprisingly helpful in recommending dishes and judging quantities, and responsive about the details like replacing dirty plates, ladling soup, and refilling the teapot. Perhaps I’m overselling it, but at many other places, you can hear the hesitation and on occasion the apathy when you ask for a recommendation. In these homier places, there’s palpable trustworthiness in the recommendations doled out by Jesse’s waiters or the Morimoto look-alike boss at Little White Birch. Our bill on the second go-around did add up, as we piled on a few of the more pricier seafood specials, but for its coziness and unpretentious experience, I would gladly return.
Jesse – 吉士
41 Tianping Lu (near Huaihai Middle Lu) / 天平路41号 （近淮海中路）