A few months ago I posted a dissenting response to a favorable review of Shanghai Dumpling restaurant--without ever having been there! I had confused Shanghai Dumpling (on Balboa) with a place called "Shanghai Noodle" (also on Balboa) where we had had a less than satisfactory meal. Apologies are in order for Shanghai Dumpling.
Having finally mastered the distinction between dumplings and noodles, I set forth for Shanghai Dumpling for lunch today, with the Gang of Four in tow. The G4 consists of four picky eaters spanning three generations of Shanghai women.
The five of us started with xiaolong bao (mandatory for me) and shengjian bao from the dumpling menu.The xiaolong bao was a valiant attempt, but fell short of the mark. The wrappers came close to the melt-in-your-mouth delicacy of good Shanghai xiaolong bao, and the amount of solid filling and broth was just right. However, we all found the filling lacking in flavor. I, in particular, found the broth lacking in both saltiness and the sesame oil tang which I associate with xiaolong bao orthodoxy.
The shengjian bao (listed as "pan fried pork bun" on the menu) were much more successful, winning near unanimous praise. These are Shanghai's answer to pot stickers, and are almost as beloved as, and even more ubiquitous than, xiaolong bao. Shanghai Dumpling's had the appropriately savory pork filling and crunchy browned bottoms, plus a quantity of satisfying grease which, if anything, erred on the side of cardiovascular correctness. Mrs. Soup, the lone dissenter, seemed to be disappointed on account of the last. Maybe she wants to do me in.
From the cold appetizers, we had the smoked duck leg and the "smoked" (actually caramelized) fish. The duck leg was a clear winner, lean and ham-like in flavor. Three found the smoked fish excellent, with my wife and I finding it overly caramelized and hard.
The main dish portion of the menu hedges on the restaurant's focus, offering a "one size fits all" approach (we didn't order the General Tso's chicken), but has recognizably Shanghainese dishes scattered throughout. We settled on "Soy-braised Fish Tail", something called "Shanghai Style Vegetable Delight" and Lion's Head Meat Balls. The fish tail, actually the rear portion of a well-fleshed fish, was liberally sauced with the brown sauce Shanghaiese call "red" sauce and chopped scallions, and yielded firm, savory chunks which everyone praised. The vegetable dish was peculiar, violating basic principles of Shanghai cooking by having too many competing ingredients. It was similar to a "Happy Family" type of dish found in Cantonese restaurants, but made Shanghainese through the inclusion of "you mi jing", liberal use of bamboo, and a red sauce base for the melange. The Lion's Head Meatballs were huge, nicely browned and spiced. Instead of sitting on a "mane" of greens, however, they sat in a pool of--you guessed it--red sauce. (Hey, what's not to like about "hong shao" cooking?)
With tea, steamed rice, and a lone bowl of somewhat disappointing savory dou jiang ordered by yours truly, the tab was under $60 for five people. The Soups came away pleased, and will probably be back to try more items, especially from the dumpling and appetizer portions of the menu.
Shanghai Dumpling Shop
3319 Balbao (at 34th).