Shanghai/Suzhou

>> Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In my previous China posts, I've gone over the largely generic tour food as well as perhaps the best meal of the entire China trip. In this next installment I cover Shanghai, which I consider to have the best overall food that I ate in the trip generally. I say this even though I did visit Hong Kong, so yes I am saying I thought the food in Shanghai was better than the food in Hong Kong (commence controversy and flaming).

Shanghai is mainly known for it's Xiao Long Bao (XLB abbreviated), and that was certainly on my list of places to try.

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao (Shanghai Old Street Location)
+ location/atmosphere
Δ food could have had more flavor

the restaurant contains a window where you can see all the people wrapping the XLB

photo of outside the restaurant
"9 star congee"
We stopped by Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao for "second breakfast" as it was on the way to Yu Garden and I remember it being featured on No Reservations. My first clue to something being wrong with the place was the lack of the line that I saw on the show when Mr. Bourdain visited.
The first thing we ordered was the 9 star congee, as it was one of those "must try" Chinese delicacies. I'll go ahead and say this was a bad one, but this still wasn't my favorite thing in the world. The 9 different flavors get muddled together and I can't say that I liked the combination either. I think this dish is supposed to be more about the different textures while still remaining a little sweet to give that sweet start to the morning.
pork and crab xiao long bao
For supposedly having crab, I felt pretty cheated by this dish. I didn't really taste any crab and the soup inside the XLB was pretty bland. On top of being under-seasoned, I felt the broth could have also been concentrated more.
view from Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao
What saves this location of this restaurant is the excellent view from the restaurant to Old Shanghai, specifically the view of the Old Tea House.

Old Shanghai Teahouse
As part of the trip to Old Shanghai, we stopped at the Old Shanghai Teahouse for tea ceremony. For a nominal fee, they mix 3 different types of tea in a tea ceremony for people to enjoy.
The Old Shanghai Teahouse is allegedly the oldest surviving tea house in all of China.

Xi Jia Hua Yuan (Xi's Garden) (Julu Lu location)
+ trendy atmosphere
+ good szechwan flavors
glass of hot water
Apparently historically in Shanghai there was something wrong with the water, so restaurants serve glasses of boiled water instead of ice water when it is ordered. I have no idea if the water issue still exists or if restaurants just continue to do this out of tradition.
Before the food arrived, I was thinking this was exactly the type of restaurant I would never go to myself as pretty much all of the clientele was female. I also didn't have very high hopes for the food...
fish cake with scallops, mushrooms, bacon, and snap peas

This was the restaurant's signature dish. The fish cake puffed up to be very light and airy and paired very well with the accompaniments. What was very surprising to me was that this dish was actually very refined. The seasoning was spot on and all of the added elements of the dish were textural contrasts to the main ingredient. The mushrooms had a spongy texture that absorbed all the sauce, the bacon had that nice crispy bacon texture, and the snap peas had the al dente freshness. All of these elements worked in harmony to have a very nice dish.
szechwan lamb boiled cabbage
This was a classic szechwan preparation of "boiled cabbage" with lamb. The dish contained lamb, napa cabbage, fried tofu, and glass noodles in a spicy szechwan sauce. Once again the seasoning of this dish was spot on. The heat from the peppers was also perfect as it was not overwhelming, but really enhanced the flavors of the cabbage mixed with lamb. In good szechwan cooking, the flavor of the peppers really comes through, and that was very apparent in this dish.
Date rice cake
This was considered to be another one of the dishes the restaurant was famous for. However, this dish didn't really work out for me since it was somewhat bland when held against the other two dishes. It's not to say that the dish was prepared poorly, it was just a bad pairing with the other dishes that had very bold flavors, while this was much more of the subtle flavored dish. I also don't know much about date rice cakes, but I'd venture to say this was overcooked a bit.
sesame "tang yuan"
For dessert, a sesame rice dumpling soup was brought out. The sesame is wrapped inside rice "mochi" and boiled in a sweet soup. This dish was again seasoned extremely well. It's very easy in this type of dish for the elements to be too sweet or not sweet enough, but the balance was achieved here.

Yang's Fry Dumpling (Nanjing Dong Lu)
+ Bourdain was definitely right about this place
+ Great rich broth in the dumpling
Δ Soups could have stood up to the dumpling more
If there was any doubt to this restaurant, the line quashed all of those as the place was this crowded at around 2pm local time. Yang's Fry Dumpling serves Shen Jian Bao (or basically friend XLB but a little larger)
Dumplings
There's only 1 type of dumpling at Yang's and when you order them they come 4 at a time. They are meant to be paired with...
tofu puff with beef soup
the variety of soups that the shop also sells. We chose to order the tofu puff with beef soup, which also came with a healthy dose of cilantro for good measure. This soup was largely forgettable and the flavor didn't stand up to the dumpling.
I fished the meat out of one of the dumplings just to show how much soup was in each dumpling. These dumplings were an amazing burst of pork flavored bliss while the skin of the dumplings has both the softness of the XLB and the burnt crunchy goodness. Even after having lunch at the aforementioned restaurant, I felt like I could pack away as many of these dumplings as they could throw at me.


As a side note, this location of Yang's Fry Dumpling sits on top of 85C bakery, which is an excellent place to get your dessert fill after eating. However, since we have 85C close by in Irvine, we went to eat a local Shanghai dessert instead....
I don't remember the bakery or the name of these cakes, but they came highly recommended by the tour guide. Supposedly these cakes are special because of the type of milk used to make them (but again I don't remember what type of milk they were). What I do remember about these cakes is they were extremely light and airy (and dirt cheap). They weren't overly sweet, and the cream was also extremely light, airy, and not overpowering.


Shanghai Savish (Jing'an Branch)
+ Good fusion of Chinese food with French techniques
+ Chinese dishes in ways I've never seen before
Δ Service could have been friendlier
Local Shrimp with tea
This was supposedly one of the signature dishes of the restaurant. The shrimp is cooked with tea leaves and then further mixed into serving bowls with vinegar. 
The dish is also served with tea that pairs with the shrimp. What was interesting with the tea was that the cups were magnetized and the pot dispenses tea when the cup is placed in the reception area and the magnet activates.
Personally I didn't really see how the tea paired with the shrimp, but the tea leaves in the shrimp really enhanced the fresh shrimp flavor. The shrimps were extremely tender and fresh and were cooked perfectly.
Gai Lan
When I ordered this, I expected the actual vegetables, but instead we got only the stems. While I would have been disappointed in other circumstances, these stems were cooked perfectly al dente and actually had an extremely concentrated flavor. By removing the outer skin of the gai lan and cooking al dente, the stems were extremely flavorful, but also retained the crunch for textural contrast. Overall a great vegetable dish.
1000 year egg dessert
For dessert, a 1000 year duck egg was backed into a pastry. While it's not visible here, this pastry was actually baked fresh to order, so it was still warm when they brought it out. This made the pastry extremely delicious.


Restaurant in Suzhou
+ Great broths/Sauces
Δ Could have had less salt in the dishes


Note: I never got a name for this restaurant as we parked in a private lot in the back and were ushered into a private dining room. Based on the layout of the restaurant it seemed like the back was actually the front of the restaurant and there was just no sign for a name. This restaurant was in the city of Suzhou as the tour took us there for a day.


Part of the Suzhou cuisine is that the food tends to be sweet; even savory courses contain sugar in some form. The tour guide explained that this was caused by the fact that the city wanted to differentiate itself from other cities even though it didn't have its own cuisine. Additionally, Suzhou is the most naturally fertile land in China, and there is a saying that even when there is famine in China, there is still rice to eat in Suzhou. The sweetness of the food was a method for Suzhou cuisine to show it's agricultural superiority.
Stewed Pork Belly
This pork belly was stewed until completely tender, and then the skin was crisped again in the end. This was an extremely enjoyable dish as was served almost as an amuse (since there was only one bite). The sweetness from dish came from the glaze on the pork belly
Egg Dumplings with Bamboo
My previous experience with the egg dumplings was to only eat them with hot pot. In this dish, those same egg dumplings (same filling) were used as the main ingredient in a bamboo dish. I found this dish to be interesting again as the softness of the dumpling was contrasted by the slight crunch of the bamboo. The bamboo was also extremely fresh, which added that taste of freshness. However this dish was oversalted, and everyone had to reach for the water glass after eating it. The sweetness from this dish was in the egg used to wrap the dumplings.
Fish Soup
This dish is supposed to be a Suzhou delicacy and we ordered it because we were "supposed to." IIRC, the "fish" is actually some offal portion of the fish, but I don't remember which part so I'll just leave it as fish for now. The cilantro in this dish was overpowering, which made it largely inedible. Additionally, the soup was thickened with some corn starch, which made it seem unnatural and unappealing. However, the flavor of the fish offal meat was enjoyable.
Sweet and Sour Fish
This was a local fish that was deep fried and topped with a sweet and sour sauce. The mix that topped the fish also included red bell pepper, corn, shrimp, and green onion. To be honest, I had very low expectations for this dish when I saw it because everything on the trip to this point in sweet in sour sauce had been horrible. To be even more honest, this fish was slightly over-fried. Fortunately, the fish was extremely tasty, and the vegetables were extremely fresh, which complemented the fish very well.
Pork Belly Noodles
While this bowl of noodles doesn't look impressive, it was probably the best dish on the table. The noodles were freshly made and the broth had a very rich flavor. The pork belly was almost like bacon in that there was some smoky flavor that found its way into the broth, enriching the flavor. If there is a knock on this dish, it was too salty, probably because the smoked pork belly contained salt, which was added to the broth that was already salted. However, the extra salt in this dish didn't prevent me from eating it, so it wasn't overly salty.


Jia Jia Tang Bao (Huanghe Lu location)
+ Great flavor in XLB
+ Good creativity of ingredients for XLB
Δ No Tang Bao
Δ Other non XLB dishes could have been more interesting
Δ Menu Selection


So despite the fact that there are a ton of deltas to this place, it was actually really good, and contained the best XLB that I had in China. The debate to best XLB in Shanghai rages between Jia Jia Tang Bao and Din Tai Fung. However, since there is a Din Tai Fung in Los Angeles, I decided that I would try Jia Jia Tang Bao in Shanghai.
pork and crab dumpling
When we arrived at Jia Jia Tang Bao, it was about 4pm in the afternoon. The only XLB they had left was the pork and crab dumpling. While this would be a fair comparison to Nan Xiang XLB, I would have liked to order additional mixes as well. Apparently the shop opens something like 9am to 9pm daily and when they sell out of a mix it is gone. If they sell out of everything, then they close early. On the day I went, it was Ching Ming Day (a holiday), and it somehow seemed to cause the restaurant to really sell out of the XLB faster.
The actual XLB were very well seasoned and had plenty of good tasting soup. The skins were hand and freshly made, which really enhanced the flavor. Additionally, the thickness of the skin was as thin as it could be while still holding the soup, which is always a bonus. These XLB packed a huge flavor punch thanks to the crab and I really enjoyed them.


We also ordered some sort of random filler soup that was pretty horrible and tasted as bad (or probably worse) than it looks.


Since we were at Huanghe Lu, that left the the door open for....
a repeat visit to Yang's Fry Dumpling!
At this location of Yang's the kitchen is open and visible from the dining room, so I took the opportunity to take a lot of photos of the process of making Shen Jian Bao.
There are large cast iron pans that are filled with the dumplings and a healthy dose of sesame oil, which the chef rotated around the pan to fry all the dumplings.
The dumplings are then covered to let steam. When they are completed they are brought out to a serving area where they can be served.
I was extremely happy with the food in Shanghai and would recommend others to go there. I also only scratched the surface of restaurants in Shanghai and didn't get to hit all the food spots, so I'd definitely like to return there in the future for more culinary adventures.

2 comments:

Gillion June 1, 2011 at 10:56 PM  

Have you tried dumplings and roast ducks? They are the famous and traditional Beijing dieshes. And also bird's nest soup? Its a delicacy in China.

Enjoy your days~~~

Gillion
http://www.geocities.jp/hongkong_bird_nest/index_e.htm

James June 2, 2011 at 8:50 AM  

Yes, I had a lot of different dumplings (mostly in Xian), but the ones we can get in the US (or make ourselves) were much better.

I had Peking duck at both Da Dong and Quan Je De. The Da Dong duck was much better and worthy of its own separate post. The Quan Je De duck was very forgettable, kind of like XLB from Nan Xiang XLB.

Haven't had the Bird's nest soup yet, but look forward to it someday. Also look forward to returning to Shanghai because the food there was excellent

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gastro bits is a blog that juxtaposes the geeky with the foodie; it is an attempt to be educational about food, yet entertaining at the same time.
None of the reviews are meant to dissuade you from trying anything by yourself, but simply to provide information for you to make a more informed choice.
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