I hadn't been to Shanghai 1930 since the early days (1997 or 1998) when my wife and I were not terribly impressed with the two entrees and a soup we shared for what seemed a daringly high price. In more recent times, it has gained a glowing review from Patricia Unterman and a spot on a Chronicle Best 100 list, so when my office scheduled an affinity group lunch with an international theme, I pointed to Shanghai 1930 as an alternative to another Slanted Door meal.
It was given to me to tweak the menu. I Shanghaied the $21.95 pp set lunch menu and added xiaolong bao (try and stop me!) as an appetizer to accompany the now-obligatory lettuce cup, which S1930 fills with minced duck. For the mains, I substituted Lion's Head Meatballs for the Twin Mushroom Chicken (which is made with chicken breast) but added a Beggar's Chicken (24 hour advance notice required). I also substituted Dragonwell Shrimp for Kung Pao Prawns and let stand the "Crispy, Chewy Sichuan Beef" (out of curiosity) and the Pea Shoots Braised in Shaoxing Wine which, to its credit, Shanghai 1930 includes with all set lunches. I also added a standard order of "Buddha's Golden Picnic Basket" (eight vegetables in a potato noodle basket) for the lone vegetarian in the group, and the establishment came up with vegetarian soup, vegetarian spring rolls and doufu cake with spinach as substitutions for her soup and apps.
The included soup was a somewhat eccentric hot-sour soup, pale in color and loaded with tofu, shrimp and scallops. The heat came from ground peppers; although there was evidence of red pepper flecks, it also seemed to have had a healthy dose of white pepper, and only a whisper of sourness. Odd as it was, it was not at all cornstarchy, and a good soup.
The lettuce cups, served with a hoisin sauce to add, were like an Adkins Peking Duck app. In fact, I suspect it was Peking Duck (which is on the menu) doing double duty.
The Xiaolong bao were a pleasant surprise, being in the same league as Shanghai Xiao Chi's and Shanghai Dumpling's. The wrappers were a bit of on the chewy side, but the filling was the right texture, and Shanghai 1930 had the complex flavor of traditional Shanghai XLB absolutely nailed, which is not an easy task.
Of the main courses, the "Crispy, Chewy Sichuan Beef" was the biggest disappointment for me, though some of the others liked it a lot. It was shoestring-wide strips of beef cooked to a hard crisp like overcooked bacon, served in a Sichuan peppercorn sauce which seemed to have precious few peppercorns in it; it seemed like something one would eat out of the bag while watching a football game.
The Beggar's Chicken was a big hit with the group, de-shelled with a hammer and carved tableside. It was savory enough, but to me it it's just another kind of stewed chicken without grandma's biscuits and gravy.
The Dragonwell Shrimp was a good version, with the green tea flavor discernible, but the portion size was a little small. I got exactly one shrimp, and it didn'tseem that anyone was hogging them.
The pea shoots were fresh and done just right, and were appealing to those who (like me) don't usually like cooked leafy greens.
Dessert was a bean paste stuffed "crepe" which was blessedly not very sweet at all.
The service was prompt, efficient and friendly, and the venue is attractive, as you will know if you'e even been there for a drink. We were given the "semi-private" room, but with the curtains open and the main dining room about half full on a Monday it was almost pin-drop quiet.
Shanghai 1930 is not Lao Zhengxing, but it's not P. F. Chang's either. It's not a place I would go for hardcore Shanghainese food on my own dime, but in an expense-account world of Yank Sings and Slanted Doors, it has merited some serious bragging rights.
133 Steuart St.
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