City dishes up chic treats and spicy delights

The speed at which Shanghai changes is breathtaking, even to the most passive observers. And as the city charges forward, so does its dining scene.

Restaurants evoking the past and present are crowding into a city fast building a name for itself as a sophisticated dining destination.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Chinese food sector.

The name of the game is now private dining, a practice that the Sofitel Jin Jiang Oriental Pudong has tapped into with the opening of what has been billed 'Asia's first exclusive VIP restaurant dining concept'.

The hotel recently converted its entire 41st floor into 10 private dining rooms, capable of handling eight to 20 people each. All have spectacular views of Shanghai's dramatic skyline.

Executive chef Fan Ming-qi, who prepared the famous One Table banquet for 20 world leaders attending the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum 2001 in Shanghai - cooks up dishes for anywhere between 150 and 550 yuan (HK$141 to $517) a head, including delicacies such as Jadeite chicken mousse soup, Jinjiang roast duck and Fried fillet of cod with matsutake mushroom.

A little more down to earth on the other side of the river in Puxi is another private dining option at the Shanghai Classic Hotel in Yu Yuan Gardens. Quintessentially Shanghainese cuisine, a favourite here is Hai Shen (sea cucumber).

Ideally located for a stroll through Yu Yuan Gardens to the Cha Guon (Tea House), this busy eatery is a bit of a tourist trap, but well worth a visit - even if just to try the famous Sha Long Bao (Shanghainese pork dumplings). You'll see the queues long before you catch sight of the vendor.

If you tire of sweet Shanghainese food, look no further than the entertaining Pian Liam (Changing Faces) Restaurant (1676 Hongqiao Road, 021 6270 6668), which serves spicy Sichuan bites by the truckload.

At 100 yuan a head, this eatery has to be one of the unsung heroes of the dining scene. Make sure you get there by 7pm to catch the mesmerising one-man operatic dance performance, which includes a fire-breathing finale.

The food served at this restaurant is appropriately hot: Shui Zhu Niu Rou (Beef in spicy soup), Sha Guo Ya Yu (Ya fish in hot oot) and the fearsome La Zi Ji (Deep-fried spicy chicken), featuring one of the hottest flavours known to man. Affectionately and delicately called Hua Jioa (Flower Pepper), it is the most unique, mouth-numbing dish you are likely to sample.

Shanghai isn't only about Chinese food, however. Superb restaurants offering international cuisines pepper the city.

Among them is the recently opened The Door Restaurant and Bar (1468 Hongqiao Road, 021 629 53737) - a chic, sophisticated venue that has been packed since it opened.

The main restaurant on the top floor is set in what can best be described as Germanic hall meets Art Deco and Asian motif. Difficult to imagine, but the offering of Asian and French cuisine is proving irresistible to the hoards eager to try out the latest thing.

'Business is good - about half foreign and half Shanghainese,' says assistant manager Heidi Zang.

The highlight here is the entertainment - with forward booking essential on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, when the New World band play their unique blend of music with traditional Chinese instruments.

While The Door has done an amazing job of creating an authentic antique interior, for the real thing put your head into La Villa Rouge (811 Hengshan Road, 021 6431 9811) in the French Concession.

Originally called the Little Red House, it used to be the site of a French recording studio in 1921 before it was taken over by music giant EMI in the 1930s. After extensive renovations, it opened last year and is an ideal stop for classical dining with a French/Oriental menu.

There's a reasonably-priced daytime menu too.