Last week we tried Shanghai Gourmet in downtown Los Altos. When we stepped inside, the host asked if we were there for take-out or to sit down. We passed the bar area on the way to a table along the way with bench seating on one side.
The room has subdued colors and decor with tables spaced a good distance apart and string concertos in the background. The staff provide a more formal style of service, assembling mu shu pork and peking duck in individual servings at tableside. There's also a full bar. None of the other diners were Asian. We were asked if we wanted the English or Chinese menus. I said that we wanted to order from the Chinese menu but would need some help with translation. The host pointed out that the first page of the Chinese menu - the cold dishes, noodles and xiao chi - was translated. It reminded us of other suburban Shanghainese restaurants --- Su Hong in Palo Alto and Dragon 2000 in Walnut Creek --- that rely on non-Chinese for their core business and must compete with service, ambience, and Americanized menu styling to lure them away from PF Chang's. We hoped that the authentic dishes would be their equal.
The cold dish, kaofu, $5.50, made a good start. The blocks of gluten were firm and spongey. This tasted more of sesame than shaoxing wine, but was still tasty. Maybe a bit too much boiled peanuts (skinned), yet the cloud ears were very high grade and the slices of bamboo shoot were completely fiberless and extremely tender. It was a small portion for the price.
I'd asked for the cai fan (rice with chopped Shangahi cabbages and ham), $6.50, to be served with the meat dish, but it came out second. We had a taste of it while still hot, then waited for the rest. The veggies were sparkling fresh and the cubed ham was nice and full-flavored. However, we like the version at Su Hong more that's cooked in a clay pot with fatty salt pork and a smoky crusty bottom.
We waited quite a while for the xiao long tang bao, $6.95, to be served. The waiter just plopped the steamer basket on the table. I took the lid off myself and left it on the bench seat. The first bad sign is that there was no billow of steam, then peering into the basket, four of the six dumplings were deflated. This had sat too long after the steaming was completed. I had asked the waiter for spoons, which he seemed to not understand. Now we knew why, these dumplings had no soup in them at all, making spoons unnecessary, despite being called "tang bao", soup dumplings. The skins were suitably thin, but the pork filling was too lean and bland.
Last dish was the hong shao tipang (red-cooked pork trotter), $16.95, recommended to us by the host. We had a long wait for this too and our server stopped by twice to tell us it would be coming soon. When he finally brought it out, he broke up the meat for us. Again, this dish was less than steaming hot and didn't have enough retained heat to warm our now cold rice. The spinach base watered down the brown sauce somewhat but it still showed well. The rind and fat were jelly-like and glorious. The meat was very smooth in texture, but was just a touch undercooked requiring some effort to pull from the bone. The tendons were still hard and not completely done.
With tax and tip, the total bill was $45, and too high for the spottiness of the food. I'd be interested in hearing from others who have eaten here to suss out the better dishes.
397 Main St. (@ First)