For this week's On the Radar, we've suddenly realized we're living in Asia. They make some pretty decent food here don't they? Let's find out.
1. Oriental House
What It Is: Modern Taizhou and western "fusion" cuisine in a slick, minimalist setting. Oriental House is an appeal to young, culinary curious Shanghai professionals with some cash to burn. Currently trending upwards with said crowd; people are texting all about it.
The menu here covers a lot of ground. There is a sashimi selection as well as some very conventional-sounding salads (Caesar, Quinoa, etc.). "Appetizers" are the core of the menu. You could build an entire meal with several of them, and dine tapas-style. That seemed to be what a lot of diners were doing on our visit.
A lot of what we ordered seemed designed specifically sharing in your WeChat Moments, with eating and enjoying as mere afterthoughts. A good example is the Quali [sic.] Eggs Stewed in Rum & Tea. It’s a fancy take on that popular street snack, the tea egg. They're served with a cutesy little fake baby bird with real feathers in a tiny wooden crate full of some unidentified, brown, gritty-looking material. Is it edible? You certainly wouldn't know by looking at it. As it turns out, it's panko breadcrumbs dusted with cocoa powder. Yeah, you could eat it, but you probably wouldn't want to. As for the eggs themselves, meh, they're tiny tea eggs, nothing special.
Attempts at "fusion" here are puzzling. East does not meet West simply by smothering mei gan cai rou (preserved vegetables with ground pork) with a creamy cheese sauce and throwing it under the broiler. And why would you garnish a savory dish with powdered sugar?
Dishes billed as Taizhou cuisine, like the Taizhou Fried Rice Noodles and the Taizhou Pancake Roll, are equally underwhelming, simply because the kitchen was too timid with their seasoning. Dim sum offerings like Pan-Fried Dumplings Stuffed with Wild Snapper, however, show some promise. They're adequately seasoned and look pretty on the plate, to boot.
Atmosphere: Casually fashionable. Full of nice-looking, upwardly mobile 20 and 30-something locals. It's dimly lit with a gray scale paint job and random brass accents. It toes the line precariously between understated and nondescript.
Damage: Plan on spending at least 150 per person, maybe 200 if you want to leave full and/or slightly buzzed. The bulk of the menu comprises easily shareable starters, which range from 19rmb for assorted roasted nuts to 148rmb for coconut garlic mussels. Main courses start at 88rmb for three lamb chops to 688rmb for a 400g Australian wagyu rib eye.
First Impressions: Your smartphone will probably have a better meal here than you will.
2. Xiao Lao Ga
What It Is: A small Shanghai-style noodle shop with a fairly standard menu: Not too many surprises here. La Jiang Ban Mian (spicy sauce noodles, 辣酱拌面), they tell us, is their house specialty. This being Shanghai, you get noodles topped with an oily, treacly sauce and cubes of dried tofu, pork, and preserved bamboo rather than anything remotely "spicy". They do a passable pork chop (炸猪排). The same goes for their cold wontons with peanut sauce (冷馄饨).
The food here is, at best, average, but noodles aren't really the point here anyway.
You see, as it turns out, Xiao Lao Ga is actually a not-so-subtle front for yet another "clandestine" watering hole. There is no secret Bat Cave lever to get in, either, just a well-marked black door and even a sandwich board outside advertising their buy-two-get-one-free happy hour deal that's available from 7pm to 9pm.
So they've missed the point of how a speakeasy works. We'll let it slide; the cocktails are decent enough. Offerings are conservative classics, like the old fashioneds, sazeracs, negronis, martinis, etc.
Atmosphere: The noodle shop harks back to Golden Age Shanghai with wooden furniture and black and white snapshots of old-time beauties like Zhou Xuan, all under the glare of fluorescent lights. On the other side of the backdoor, the place looks and acts the part reasonably well: dim lights, wood paneling, classic jazz in the background.
Damage: Noodles start at 12rmb, but you can spend as much as 28rmb. The "Spicy Sauce" noodles we tried are somewhere in between at 18rmb. Other dishes, like the wontons and the fried pork chop, are 16rmb and 12rmb, respectively. For cocktails in back, you basically have two price options: 85 or 95rmb, which, in spite of the decent quality, seems steep for this neighborhood.
First Impressions: Don't bother with the noodles. There are better choices in town. Just walk through the restaurant, politely ask them to open the door in the back, and get yourself a drink.
What It Is: In 1949, a young cook left Shanghai and started his small food stand in Taipei, selling traditional Shanghai street snacks like shengjian (fried pork bun), xie ke huang (crab shell bun, a stuffed puff pastry) and youdoufu xifen (fried tofu with glass noodles). Throughout the years, Mr. Gao has made his business into an empire, on a par with Din Tai Fung. Their main feature is qingshui shengjian -- made with old-school Shanghainese technique. Contrary to popular latecomer Yang's Fry Dumplings, the bun is fried with its fold facing upwards, and without adding pork gelatine. So the "knot" is thick, the bottom is crispy, and it's succulent but doesn't contain much soup.
Aside from shengjian, xiao long bao and xie ke huang, their A4 sized "soft-opening menu version 2" has various noodles, wontons, rice and stir fries, all took inspiration from both Shanghainese and Taiwanese cuisines. Printed on a kraft paper with English translations.
Atmosphere: The typical, more upscale dim sum place you will see at shopping malls. With mostly dark wood accents and an open kitchen where you can sit at the counter around it and observe how a dough transformed into a mantou. Crowded and busy at lunch time; you might need to queue up for 10 minutes if you come with a group.
Damage: You're looking at 48rmb for eight shengjian, 45rmb for eight xiao long bao, and 48rmb for a bowl of beef noodle -- not cheap, but the proportion is generous. Stir fries that have meat or seafood are usually around 58rmb to 90rmb. Desserts and pastries are from 23rmb to 35rmb.
First Impressions: Spelt as Gao-Chi instead of "KaoChi" in Taiwan, so far their menu isn't as extensive as their Taiwanese counterparts, and prices are slightly more expensive. However, they are the only place that serves Shanghainese street snacks in this fashion-forward shopping mall, and the food is clean, savory and has good quality ingredients. For example, their shengjian filling uses pork shoulder which has that nice tenderness and natural pink color. They are lightly flavored and definitely not as oily as the ones at Yang's. Their sautéed pork is a plate of sweet potato and pork slices embellish with diced jujube, covered in sticky brown sugar sauce, similar to the candied sweet potato people love to get at Dongbei restaurants, but much more delicate, certainly a must-try.
Gao-Chi might not warrant a special trip, but if you live nearby and want some clean and healthy Shanghainese breakfast food and stir-fry (and don't mind spending 50-100rmb to get it), Gao-Chi does its job well.