Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Vetting Bund Shanghai con't.: Four very different thumbs go up for New Year's Day dinner

Expect the worst, but hope for the best, we like to say in the U.S.

A couple of posts ago, I embraced Bund Shanghai Restaurant tentatively, based on the imperfect nature of the breakfast fare I tried and/or of my sense of taste, then impaired by a head cold. Last night the Spring Festival gave me an excuse to take a flyer on it for dinner with my personal review panel in tow, they being three generations of very picky Shanghainese women in the persons of my wife, Mother-in-law and step-daughter. Coming in cold, as it were, with them, I was prepared to be both disappointed and scorned, but happily suffered neither fate: we all loved it from first bite to last.

I ordered conservatively, with the intent of getting a read on how well they did the Shanghai classics. We started with kao fu, five-spice beef and salty duck for cold dishes, followed by Yan du xian (see post below). pan-fried nian gao (also de rigeur for a Shanghainese New Year's feast) and hong shao rou (red-cooked pork belly), always a potential show-stopper. We added onion beef (on the request of my stepfaughter, whose tastes have become somewhat Americanized) and gambled on something called "Seaweed fish" from the Chef's Specials menu which sits in a little holder on each table.

The kao fu came first, and my MIL, the toughest critic of the bunch, led the chorus of praises for Bund Shanghai's version, which featured kaofu cut into smaller diamond shapes than usual, blanched Virginia peanuts and donggu (Shitake) mushrooms. The Nanjing salty duck was lean and appeared to have been freshly cured, showing no sign of refrigerator burn, dry edges or other discoloration. It was as good as I've had at Xiao Jinling in Shanghai, famous for its Nanjing duck. The five-spice beef was lean and tender shank meat, subtly spiced, not overpowered by five-spice powder as is often the case.

Yan du xian, a soup that eats like a casserole, is considered by some to be the most indispensible part of a Shanghainese New Year feast. It is listed on the Bund Shanghai menu as "Boiled Bacon and Pork Soup" and contains (for symbolic reasons) both cured pork and fresh pork, winter bamboo shoots and tofu sheet knots (bai ye jie). Bund Shanghai's version was comforting, rich, and salty. Some might find it too salty, but "salty" is part of its name and of its aim. The nian gao ("Rice Cake w/Shepherd's Purse and Shredded Pork) was the softest I've ever had, almost of melt-in-the-mouth tenderness. I wondered if this was a misfire, expecting a little more al dente character, but the three women were wowed by it.

The hong shao rou ("Soy sauce-braised pork" on the menu) was as unctuously appealing as only red-cooked pork belly can be, and Bund Shanghai's version did not commit the error of being too sweet. Hard to believe, but the owner told us that the house's red-cooked pork butt (ti pang) is even better.

The onion beef was unexciting to me, but the stepdaughter loved it and took the leftovers home with her.

The "seaweed fish" probably got the coolest reception, partly due to its unfamiliarity and possibly due to the fact that it came last, after we were pretty much stuffed. It turned out to be yellowfish filets that had been dipped in a thin, seaweed-infused batter and deep fried, then arranged on the plate to look like fish. "Not very good," said my wife, as she reached for another piece of it. I thought it was fine.

We finished with jiu niang ("Small Mochi in Rice Wine Sauce," as the menu put it), complements of the house. I abstained, because this dish is too sweet for my tastes, but my wife had no trouble eating my bowl as well as hers.

We spent time talking to some of the staff and found out more about the restaurant. The owner has been in the US from Shanghai for 20 years, and is an attorney with a private practice. He actually opened the restaurant create a livelihood for recently immigrating relatives. (His mother is the cashier, and a sister is the hostess).

There are two dinner chefs at Bund Shanghai. One formerly worked at the Jin Jiang Hotel in Shanghai, and the other worked as a chef for the Municipal Government of Shanghai (official functions and the like). We chatted briefly with the latter and found out he is actually from Wuxi, Jiangsu province, which made him a hit with the girls, who are Wuxiren as well). Both chefs had worked at various restaurants in the suburban Peninsula area before he recruited them to work for him, a reversal of the usual direction for talent drain.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Yan du xian: Shanghai's Spring Festival comfort food

[Click on picture for source document and more pictures]

One of the first things I learned about Shanghainese people was that they all seemed to love a soup they called something like "EEE-tuh-shuh." It was something they might crave at any time of year, but was particularly important as a harbinger of Spring. It always contained both salted pork and fresh pork, and Winter bamboo shoots. Some versions, like my wife's, also contain bai ye jie, or knotted strips of tofu "sheet," and sometimes greens and bean thread will be added. It was some time before I figured out that "EEE-tuh-shuh" was the Shanghainese pronunciation for yan du xian (腌笃鲜). Here's how yan du xian was described in the only article I've ever been able to find in English, from a 2003 edition of the Shanghai Star:

With the Spring Festival (the Chinese Lunar New Year) drawing near, "Yan Du Xian" is again in the limelight. It was said that this course was the most necessary one on the dinner table.

Before 1900, peasants living in the suburban areas of Shanghai made their living by starting small businesses such as charcuteries. They raised piglets and sold the meat to the shop and the left-overs were usually cured into bacon which was hung high in corridors.

When bamboo shoots came out in the following year's early spring, local families took the bacon down and added it to some fresh meat and pieces of bamboo shoot.

The ingredients were placed in a large cauldron and cooked over a slow fire for a whole afternoon until it turned into a pot of delicious soup.

The pickling process is called "Yan" in the Shanghai dialect, the simmering is called "Du" and the fresh meat and bamboo shoots are called "Xian", giving the soup its name.

The usual recipe for this soup is first to stir-fry some ginger and shallots, add water and high-grade Shaoxing wine, boil the mixture then adddiamond-shaped slices of bacon, meat and bamboo shoots. Simmer on a slow fire for not less than two hours

Many festival foods in China are symbolic because of their names, which may be homonyms for, or rhyme with, the names for desirable things or qualities; since the pronunciation of words varies considerably among dialects, the symbolic importance of many such foods are not always transferable among regions and can sometimes be mystifying. The primal symbolism of yan du xiang, on the other hand, is fairly obvious, with the cured meat representing the previous year's bounty, and the fresh meat and especially the fresh bamboo shoots representing the promise of the new year.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Solid, Jackson! Shanghainese food comes back to SF Chinatown.

If you had told me a year ago that there would be a full-on Shanghainese restaurant in one of the most venerable locations for a restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown by this time in 2009, my reaction would be about the same as if you had told me we would have a black President of the United States with "Hussein" as his middle name. As it was once explained to me, most of the prime retail property in Chinatown is in the hands of the various Family Associations, networks of immigrants and their descendants from various parts of Guangdong province. First dibs on leases for good restaurant locations usually go to the Home Boys, who are inclined to serve up home cooking, which means Cantonese food.

640 Jackson Street was long the address of the Jackson Cafe, a Chinese and American (not Chinese-American) restaurant which sustained me in my salad days nearly 50 years ago. It was known for brusque waiters (including one who usually had a transistor radio glued to his ear, listening to a Giants game), local celebrities like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Lenny Bruce, and good cheap food from both sides of the menu. It eventually became "Jackson Pavillion," then "New Jackson Cafe," so you can imaging my reaction when it suddenly turned over as "Bund Shanghai" run by real Shanghainese people and offering a menu of real Shanghainese food. "Solid, Jackson!" (or something like that is what I said to myself). There hadn't been a Shanghainese restaurant anywhere near Chinatown for at least a decade, when one of the successors of Meilong Village/DPD gave up the ghost. It, even, was in the Kearny St. "Pale" as I call it, where non-Cantonese restaurants are tolerated, not on the hallowed ground of Jackson Street halfway up to Grant Avenue.

Bund Shanghai (known simply as "Shanghai Restaurant" in Chinese) opened on January 21, and I couldn't resist vetting the xiao long bao, of course, as well as a couple of my other Shanghainese breakfast standards, xian dou jiang and sheng jian bao. With the caveat that I was suffering from a head cold which somewhat impaired my tasting ability, here are my first reactions.
  • The xiao long bao were good, better than the mean for the San Francisco area, though not on a par with San Francisco's best (which are from a place called "Shanghai Dumpling King"). They were of the proper size and had the appropriate amount of "soup," but the wrappers were a touch too thick, and the broth slightly lacking in intensity.
  • The xian dou jiang (savory soy milk soup) was also good, but but not quite as good as the exemplary version at another San Francisco restaurant, Shanghai House (which serves up the best I have found in the Western Hemisphere). Bund Shanghai's version was well curdled, complex in flavor but neither salty nor spicy enough (but that could have been on account of my impaired taste buds).
  • The sheng jian bao (pan fried dumplings) were the biggest disappointment, partly because the Maître de said they were a house specialty. Like most American versions, they wimped out on the amount of pork fat in the broth, and they were barely browned on the bottoms instead of having the hell scorched out of them. They were fried bottoms down, not folded top down (Xiao Yang style) and garnished with sesame seeds. It's only fair to mention that I have yet to find a really satisfying serving pf sheng jian bao anywhere in the US.

I've yet to find anything earthshaking about Bund Shanghai , though there is still a lot on the "xiao chi" and dinner portions of the menu that I intend to check out. I'm inclined to cut the place some slack because it is a 15-minute walk for me; the other two Shanghainese restaurants in San Francisco (mentioned above) are an hour-long haul to the foggy Outer Richmond by bus, and, especially when it comes to breakast eats, it's all about location, location, location.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Say it ain't so: Molecular Gastronomy in China

"Smoke made of green tea rises from the smoked salmon and avocado roll. Shark fin in saffron soup comes in a transparent capsule. Rosy beads in bird's nest soup look like fish roe but turn out to be made of jam."

These words begin the lead paragraph in an article titled "Tech away restaurants" about Molecular Gastronomy in Beijing, a movement spearheaded, ironically, by a noted Beijing Duck resturant, Da Dong. "Molecular Gastronomy," in case you've been living, er, sous vide, involves pushing the physical and chemical processes that occur in cooking to extremes, using expensive laboratory equipment, and indeed sometimes contracting out to laboratories run by mad scientists for prepping the food. I've railed against molecular gastronomy in Western settings, because I consider it an anti-food movement and it saddens me to see grown men playing with their food. It may have a place in the culinary spectrum, but too often shows up as a bailout for creative bankruptcy. What Da Dong (which may be trying to escape its image as a "Johnny One Note" restaurant) and apparently other places in China with a front-runner mentality are doing to Chinese food strikes me as especially insulting. Chinese food is more art than science; in fact, I'd put it near the furthest end, culinarily, of the art-scientist spectrum. Putting it in the hands of the men in white coats but no white hats is to be party to a marriage as forced as the pun in the title of the bombshell China Daily article.

Besides, haven't the food chemists in China had enough fun with Melamine?

Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Won Lee Restaurant Sign: a wee bit of cultural justice in Florida

Somehow I missed this story as it developed (I don't always have time to read the West Volusia Beacon) but spotted it in a year end summary in the DeLand-Deltona Beacon:

In 1999, DeLand passed a sign ordinance requiring signs to meet more stringent regulations. The city gave out-of-compliance businesses a 10-year grace period, which expired May 2009. Won Lee Chinese Restaurant owner Seamus Poon asked commissioners to not make him take down the historic 1950s- style sign. Later in the year, the commission postponed enforcing the ordinance on the Won Lee sign and other nonconforming signs until 2013.

Through the magic of Google search, I was able to find this excellent article about the background of the skirmish, which includes the background of Won Lee's owner and the origin of his colorful name, as well as identifying a hero on the DeLand City Commission, Leigh (not Lee) Matusick, who took up Mr. Poon's cause.

Come 2013, I hope to be there (at an age respected in Florida) to argue for giving both the Won Lee sign and the name Seamus Poon Historic Landmark status,