Second only to Chinese New Year, the Mid-Autumn Festival is an important festival in the Chinese calendar dating back centuries, originating as a celebration of the Goddess of the Moon and of the Harvest.
Falling on September 27th this year (tomorrow!), it’s a tradition meant to reunite family and friends much in the same way Thanksgiving is celebrated here in America, often involving tea and delicious mooncakes eaten while watching the moon from a high vantage point.
It’s a beautiful and magnificent holiday that has finally made its way to Chicago, thanks to the incredible team at the Peninsula Chicago’s Shanghai Terrace!
I have long had a well-documented love-affair with the various restaurants at the Peninsula — remember those insane ice cream sundaes at Pierrot Gourmet or those delicious pastries at last year’s Christmas Afternoon Tea? — and yet I’ve never actually eaten at Shanghai Terrace until their Mid-Autumn Festival media preview dinner.
Voted as the best Chinese restaurant in Chicago by the Zagat Survey, the decor is inspired by the 1930’s with a comfortable and warm vibe that feels more intimate than the Peninsula’s other Chicago restaurants. Our evening began with a few lovely cocktails on the patio — a lush, vibrant terrace overlooking the busy shoppers along Michigan Avenue below. Once we made our way inside, the real celebrations commenced! Isn’t the decor positively charming?
I began with this lovely Green Tea Mojito (you know how I love anything green tea flavored!) that made a refreshing and bright compliment to the dishes we were about to fall in love with. Shanghai Terrace’s Mid-Autumn Festival menu consists of six-courses of various Chinese specialties ranging from soups to rolls to prawns and everything in-between!
We all couldn’t wait to get started!
Our first course was a Shanghai trio of shrimp spring rolls, crispy crab wontons, and vegetable dumplings.
The second course consisted of this crispy tofu with garlic, green bean, and onions for the vegetarians. And this Peking Duck roll with cucumber, scallion, and hoisin sauce for the meat-eaters. Our third course was this simple but elegant bowl of Abalone Seafood Soup consisting of shrimp, scallop, bamboo mushroom, and spring onion.
This stunning fourth course is Shanghai Terrace’s Steamed Tiger Prawn with garlic sauce, seasonal vegetables, and coriander soy.
It made for a beautiful presentation and an even more beautiful dish. I could easily have consumed several more portions of this — the balance of lightness and savoriness was addicting!
But then my favorite savory course arrived!
These are Shanghai Terrace’s Chili Prawns with asparagus, wasabi, and sweet chili.
Who doesn’t love a gourmet take on fried shrimp? The shrimp were plump and juicy, not overcooked, while the sauce was well-balanced — the kind of sweet ‘n spicy blend you find yourself discretely licking off your fingers because you wouldn’t dare waste a drop.
AND luckily enough these delicious prawns are on Shanghai Terrace’s permanent menu so we can all go back and get our fix after the Mid-Autumn celebrations are tragically over.
Why do I say “tragically over”?
Because you haven’t yet experienced the best and most delicious part of the Mid-Autumn Festival… Peninsula’s legendary mooncakes!!
These cakes have become a passionate new obsession for me and hopefully after learning a bit more about them, you’ll understand why!Before our final dessert course, Chef Elmo Han gave us a fun demonstration of the process behind the making of these legendary mooncakes, each of which is made individually by hand at the Peninsula.Traditionally made from heavy lotus paste and duck egg yolk, Peninsula’s mooncakes take on a more modern adaption reminiscent of a shortbread cookie stuffed with egg custard (you know how I love a good shortbread cookie).We begin by kneading our shortbread crust…And flattening it out into a thin circle.Which is then “stuffed” with bright orange filling.Next comes Peninsula’s special mooncake paddle.
Which the mooncake is pressed into as firmly as possible (to ensure that the beautiful pattern is properly imprinted on the cake).Once pressed in place, the paddle is whacked three times on the table: on the back, on the left side, and then on the right side. One fourth and final whack on the front side and out comes a delicious mooncake, ready for the oven (they bake in less than 10 minutes!).
Can you believe they repeat this process for each and every mooncake they make? I always appreciate it when craftsmanship and artistry play so much into culinary traditions.
Don’t they make for a stunning display?I could eat them all in a single sitting without being ashamed.
They really are mind-blowingly delicious!And very elegant in one of the Peninsula’s stunning mooncake gift sets (available through the 27th — RUN, don’t walk).
And so our final dessert course for the evening consisted of this lovely, fruit-topped red bean pudding…and, of course, one of Peninsula’s very own mooncakes.
Just look at that gorgeous morsel! I’m making my mouth water just attempting to type out how delicious these are! So crumbly and rich in a way that melts in your mouth instantly. And sweet without being overly so.
I know I talk about how addicted I am to many of the dishes I try here in Chicago — what can I say? I LOVE good food.
But these mooncakes are a particularly obsessive addiction for me being magical in their meaning, exquisite in their flavor, and prepared with the kind of luxurious attention to detail I’ve come to expect from the Peninsula.
After tomorrow I’ll be anxiously waiting until September 1st when the Peninsula offers these again — that is unless I can persuade (ahem, beg) them into divulging the recipe with me (as far as I’m concerned, any day with a mooncake is a good day). They really are a magnificent tradition intended to signify the meaning behind the Mid-Autumn Festival: completeness, unity, and, above all, family.
Before we left for the evening the incredible staff at the Peninsula gave us a tour of their newly renovated 15th floor. Each room has multiple Samsung tablets and remotes to control and customize your experience, not to mention beautiful new floral wall motifs (some of which are even embroidered by hand).
The renovations make these rooms the most high-tech in all of Chicago — well worth booking for those looking for one seriously fun yet elegant stay.Each of us left the dinner stuffed, amazed, and with a new fluffy friend: the Peninsula’s mascot teddy bear, Peter. Isn’t he charming? Apollo (our pug) certainly thought so but luckily I managed to save poor Peter before an untimely decapitation.
The Peninsula will be offering Mid-Autumn dim sum, AfterMoon Tea in the Lobby (a must!), and even a Chinese-style massage in the spa through tomorrow. If you’re looking to experience something new and unlike anything else you’ve done in Chicago, head to the Peninsula — if only to try your first (or latest) mooncake.
The experience is truly unique and unforgettable — I know I will be dreaming of those mooncakes for many years to come!
Note: While this meal was complimentary, all opinions are decidedly my own — most especially my comments on those obsession-worthy mooncakes.