When “A Bite of China” came out in 2012, it took China – and the rest of the foodie world – by storm. The beautifully shot documentary showed Chinese culinary artisans around the country, watching them pull whole lotus roots from the mud in Zhejiang and make steamed buns from millet in Shanxi.
Yunnan cuisine in particular emerged a star, as the program showcased what makes that region’s diet unique in China: its rich landscape and the artisans who produce goat cheese, cure ham and forage for wild mushrooms.
Gathering Clouds (Yunnan means “south of the clouds”) is owned by a young, Yunnan-born crew, some of whom cut their teeth in the Shanghai dining scene at Lost Heaven, the most famous and foreigner friendly of the Yunnan restaurants in town. The food at Gathering Clouds is mostly traditional, with dishes that pull influence from Laos, Thailand, Burma and the 26 ethnic minority groups that call Yunnan home.
To sample your own “Bite of China,” the Yunnan ham with matsutake mushrooms (云腿牛肝菌, yún tuǐ niú gān jùn) is a must-order. This plate is among the restaurant’s most expensive, but after you’ve seen what backbreaking work foraging for matsutakes is in the documentary, you’ll feel privileged to eat these mushrooms. The ham is cured with a potassium-laden salt harvested from wells near the sandstone mountains north of Dali. For a purer, less porky taste of the mushroom, order the specialty fried rice (云南牛肝菌炒饭, Yúnnán niú gān jùn chǎofàn).
The Thai influence is noted in the menu’s addition of pad Thai, a dish that food historians believe originally came from China, although this version is slightly spicier than your typical Bangkok version. We prefer to stick to the specialties of different minority tribes to get a taste of just how diverse Chinese food can be. The Hani, who hail from the Laotian-Vietnamese border in Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna region, fries chicken (哈尼族椒麻鸡, Hāní zú jiāo má jī) with green and red peppers and sprinkles it with white sesame seeds for a spicy take on a classic dish served the world over. From the Dai minority (a predominantly Burmese tribe), there are beef rolls wrapped in lettuce (傣家生菜包牛肉卷, Dǎi jiā shēngcài bāo niúròu juàn).
While the representation of Yunnan’s regional cuisine is reason enough to go, we look forward to nights spent on the sprawling balcony with glasses of fresh fruit juice (or a cocktail from the fully loaded Western-style bar). There aren’t many Chinese restaurants for al fresco eats in Shanghai, and Gathering Clouds may offer the most palatable patio in town. Located in the shiny new Xingfu Li pedestrian alley, alongside Anthologia and Taoyuan Village, Gathering Clouds is aiming for diners who expect excellent environments to accompany their dinners, and they’re nailing it.