Li Yi Ji ShangHai Bistro opened recently in Newark and is currently in Soft Opening. Mostly this seems to mean that the menu is limited and the staff even more so. This spot desperately needs to hire more employees.
As evident by this crowd waiting outside before noon on Sunday, the ex-pat Chinese audience has discovered the place in its first week of operation. You put your name and party size on the clipboard's list, and then wait until you're called. I had a 20-minute wait for a two-top. The process is far from orderly and some groups do a hostile take-over of newly vacated tables without waiting their turn or after being passed over a couple times. At least the staff have figured out not to seat parties until a server is available or the kitchen can keep up.
The printed menu has only four items currently. I tried to order them all only to be told that the potstickers and crispy pork pastry were not available. So I settled for just the two things left. Then I tried to flag down someone to bring me tea.
Shanghai style curry beef soup, $3.95, was a small bowl of nearly clear, thin liquid with a mild Madras curry aroma, little taste, and lots of fresh cilantro floating on top. Three thin slices of tough beef shank lurked under the surface. A couple sips was enough, serving as my main source of hydration until someone found tea pot for me.
Signature pan fired (sic) pork bun, 6/$7 aka sheng jian bao, are on every table. Two plates at a time come out of the kitchen on a continuous cycle arriving piping hot. They have a deep caramelization on the bottom side sealing the crimp and a sprinkling of black and white sesame seed and the teensiest bit of scallion on top. There's a distinct sweetness to the browned edge, perhaps some sugar aids the process. The first two SJB I picked up broke and lost their juices onto the plate. One had some juice inside, and the remaining ones had absorbed the liquid into the wrappers by the time I got to them. The pork filling is considerably leaner and cleaner tasting than the ones I've had at Shanghai Flavor Shop in Sunnyvale.
Looking around at other tables, I noticed that some had what looked like a small plate of smoked fish and others had large bowls of soup noodles with various toppings. My first server who took my order neglected to offer me anything else. I latched onto another server to ask her what kinds of soup noodles were available. The answer: chicken, beef, spicy beef, and shrimp. Progress! I asked for the shrimp noodles, not knowing if it would be in soup or pan-fried. This turned out to be a beautifully presented bowl of soup noodles with the delicate crystal shrimp served on the side, $10. Again, the soup stock was close to flavorless but had a faint briny note so perhaps a few fish bones and some kelp had been waved over it. And soon, I would feel an MSG flush coming on. Noodles turned soft in the hot bowl, Shanghai cabbage was ok, and the seasoned egg, nothing special. But those crystal shrimp were a wonder, so sweet and cooked on point with a bit of green onion.
On the way out, I snapped this pic of menu board that was aimed toward another table and out of my view earlier.
A mixed bag. I liked the sheng jian bao here though probably not enough to make another special trip. The execution of the crystal shrimp (xia ren) shows some real talent in the kitchen, offering a glimmer of hope for things to come. One other highlight was the hot sauce condiment that tastes of fermented bean paste, garlic and very hot red chile flakes. Service is pretty much non-existent at this point, but can be overcome if you're willing to be assertive.
Li Yi Ji ShangHai Bistro
39169 Cedar Blvd.