September 17, 2009

Michelin-star Shanghainese?

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I had lunch today with a couple of friends, and one of them was craving some xiaolongbao after reading my posts about Shanghai. For people in the Central/Admiralty area without the usual club memberships, that means Shanghai Garden (紫玉蘭) - the restaurant from Maxim's Group which earned a coveted star in the inaugural Michelin Red Guide for Hong Kong and Macau.

We started with diced bean curd with minced preserved vegetables (嶄得來春樁小蔥拌豆腐). It's a refreshing cold starter, but nothing to write home about.

Next up was the main dish for today - the sauteéd crab with glutinous rice cakes and soy sauce paste (上海醬油蟹年糕).  This is usually one of my favorite dishes but unfortunately this one fell a little flat.  Not that it tasted bad or anything, but it just wasn't  exactly authentic.  Then I reminded myself that I was dining at a Maxim's outlet - where Cantonese and Sichuan dishes can show up on the menu of a Shanghainese restaurant.  What did I expect?

The carp fish and shredded turnip soup (揚子江蘿蔔絲鯽魚湯) was pretty yummy.  It's been a while since I've had this type of carp, but somehow mom never made use of this recipe.  The milky soup has the classic taste of ginger, spring onions and white pepper along with some rice wine.  I had some of the nice shredded turnip, but didn't end up touching the fish itself.

This particular version of stewed "lion head" minced pork balls with vegetables (杭州最頂好清燉獅子頭) wasn't quite to my liking.  I have to say that there's nothing wrong with the execution here, only a matter of preference.  I grew up with mom pan-frying these giant meatballs until they are golden on the outside, with a just a hint of toasty and burnt flavor.  The ones here were stewed in clear broth, and still have the sort of translucent color and texture you find with pork that's been cooked just enough to stay pink. My friends seemed to really like these, though...

We had half a dozen xiaolongbao (小籠包), and somehow I ended up having 3 of these... While these were pretty decent, they fell far short of the ones from Jiajia in Shanghai.  The skin was reasonably thin, and they were a bit soupy inside, but somehow the taste of the pork stuffing inside just wasn't quite right...

I was pretty stuffed so I passed on dessert.

Honestly, this wasn't a bad meal. Admittedly we didn't order any fancy dishes - just simple, standard fare one can find in any given Shanghainese restaurant - so perhaps there was never gonna be any "wow" factor.  But do I think the restaurant deserves its Michelin star?  Hell, no!  Maxim's restaurants are designed to appeal to the masses, and they have adjusted the recipes at all of their restaurants to suit local palates - hence automatically rendering them unauthentic in taste.  The Michelin people simply don't know what authentic regional Chinese cuisines taste like.  But then again, we've known that since the day the first guide went on sale, haven't we?

P.S. Towards the end of lunch we saw some flies buzzing around our table and trying to sample the carp on the plate.  Not something I expect at a Michelin-starred restaurant...

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