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.