November 8, 2009

Crabulous trip to Shanghai day 4: oldies are still the best

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I've been eating my way through Shanghai for a few days now, and I've got two more big meals to go... More hairy crab please!!  But first I would visit an old friend...

Jesse (吉士酒家) is my absolute favorite restaurant in Shanghai, and I try to come here on each visit to the city.  Josie and I met up with my childhood friend Julia, who also happens to love the restaurant.  She's a regular here and decided to order up a storm... five starters and a bunch of other stuff...

Salty steamed chicken (吉士咸雞) - not bad but the drunken chicken would have been more classic...

Mixed mushroom with beancurd sheet (腐竹熗蘑菇) - this is a classic dish here, with some sliced button mushrooms at the bottom, coriander on top and the whole thing soaking in a mix of chili oil and vinegar.  Pretty nice and light.

Wine preserved shrimps (吉士醉蝦) - this was one of the surprises.  I normally see drunken shrimp made with shrimps or prawns that are much larger, but this being Shanghai, one would of course use the tiny freshwater shrimps.  Some Sichuan peppercorns (花椒) are used along with the wine, adding some complexity to the flavors.  The raw shrimps were of course very succulent and sweet, much like Japanese amaebi (甘エビ).

Jellyfish with vinegar (老醋蜇頭) - a classic that never goes wrong.  Lots of coriander leaves that fragrance in the mouth.

Dates stuffed with glutinous rice (心太軟) - Josie ordered this coz she hasn't had this in a while.  Nicely done.

Stir-fried freshwater shrimp (清炒蝦仁) - Josie and I both loved this dish.  Even though I've had this dish countless times in Shanghainese restaurants all over, this particular presentation has got to be the best.  Leaving the tail on the shrimp was pure genius, as the dish no longer looked boring and the orange red of the shell added some much-need color.  The shrimps themselves, needless to say, were sweet and succulent as expected.

Stir-fried shepherd's purse with bean curd skin (薺菜百頁) - originally it was to be the classic combo of shepherd's purse (薺菜) with bamboo shoots, but they ran out of bamboo shoots (totally inexcusable for a Shanghainese restaurant, by the way...) so a substitution was made.  Pretty nice with some Chinese ham.

Then came my favorite dish - braised pork in brown sauce with bamboo shoots and cuttlefish (筍目魚燒肉).  Honestly, all I ever need is a pot of this and a bowl (or two or three) of rice, and I'll feel like I'm in heaven.  This was sooooo good... and yes, I kept picking out the fatty bits for myself as well as the cuttlefish.  We even added a couple of braised eggs (滷蛋) on the side.  As expected we couldn't finish it, so I packed away the leftovers to take back to Hong Kong with me.

Crab fat with sheet jelly (蟹膏粉皮) - not quite as good as the one from Xinguang (新光酒家), but still pretty tasty in its own right.  More crab meat and roe than the sperm...

Braised superior sea cucumber with shrimp roe (蝦籽大烏參) - the final dish and probably one of Josie's favorites.  This was to be the best sea cucumber we would have on this trip.  The texture was soft and just slightly springy.  The sauce was sweeter than the others, but at the same time thicker and richer thanks to the shrimp roe.  Best of all there was no trace of that medicinal taste that I dislike so much - the absence of which did not go unnoticed by Josie.

I was totally stuffed by this point, and would have appreciated if someone put me in a wheelchair and wheeled me out of the restaurant.  The staff offered us some glutinous rice balls with fermented rice (酒釀丸子) - which were supposedly really good here.  But I just couldn't...   and besides, if I had any room left in my stomach, I'd rather shovel in some more of that braised pork anyway!

Josie and I needed help digesting all that food, so we sat in a café down the road from the restaurant and sipped on double espressos.  After giving Josie a brief tour of the house, we decided to stroll a little more as we took in Shanghai.  We would end up walking the distance of 2 1/2 subway stops on the No. 2 line, finally giving our tired feet a rest while sitting at an outdoor table at Mr. Donut next to Le Royal Méridien at People's Square.  And yes, we both nibbled on a donut before dinner...

Dinner was another hairy crab feast, this time at Wang Bao He Restaurant (王寳和酒家).  This place was recommended by a couple of friends who now live in Shanghai, so I thought I'd try an alternative to Xinguang.

The restaurant was much larger and seemed much more popular with the local crowd.  There was a bewildering array of set menus on offer in addition to the a la carte menu.  We decided to pick the RMB 600 option which offered a single crab - the same price that our set at Xinguang cost us.  For each set menu there were a number of different dishes where the restaurant offers small portions for individual diners, allowing them to taste a wider range.

We had three small starters (風味三小碟), which were:

Marinated celtuce stem and ark shell - the celtuce (萵苣) was a little on the old side and I was able detect some fibers while chewing.  The addition of the ark shell (赤貝) was different.

Stir-fried freshwater shrimp (油爆蝦) - classic Shanghainese dish with these tiny shrimps.  Very sweet to the taste, and typically eaten with the shells.  These were pretty decent - not too oily.

Sliced abalone (鮑魚片) - this was a complete failure.  I don't understand the fascination with abalone - especially when all you taste is the salt.  Bleh.

Eight treasured crab roe soup (蟹粉八珍羹) - your typical starchy soup that includes many ingredients but only a bit of everything.  Not really worth finishing the bowl.

Crab meat creation (菊花映蟹形) - this was the first yummy dish in the set, as we weren't impressed with the few before. A pile of crab meat (and fish maw?) topped with an empty crab shell and "legs" made of carrot slices.  As one would expect, the yellow crab oil was the key ingredient that made the dish...for without it the crab meat would be simply sweet but without the complexity.

Stir-fried vegetable with crab roe (蟹粉扒時蔬) - the veggie was fresh and you could taste the sweetness.  Crab meat and roe on top was OK.

Crab roe soup with fish lip (蟹粉燴魚唇) - this soupy concoction had gelatinous pieces of shark tail (commonly referred to as "fish lip" in Chinese) along with the obligatory crab roe.  The tail bits are all jelly and full of collagen, and is essentially the poor man's shark's fin.  This was much more interesting than the eight treasured soup earlier...

Crab roe xiaolongbao (蟹粉小籠) - one single dumpling came in its own basket.  I shoved the whole thing into my mouth and got flooded by the pork juice.  Once I started chewing, however, I quickly realized that this was all pork and I couldn't even taste any crab roe...

Braised sea cucumber with crab roe (蟹粉扒遼參) - these are the spiny kind from Liaoning Province.  The texture was fairy chewy (meaning less cooking time) and it was pretty bland other than the medicinal taste.  The starchy soup was pretty tasty, though.

Abalone and mushroom with crab roe (蟹粉鮮鮑腩) - a big piece of abalone mushroom (鮑魚菇) and a slice of abalone in the same starchy sauce as before.  Not a great dish.

Baked puff pastry with turnip and ham (蘿蔔絲餅) - the taste was not bad but the stuffing was a little more solid and not as runny as I'm used to.

Finally the steamed hairy crab (清水大閘蟹) came.  They looked a little bigger than the ones we had yesterday at Xinguang, and the quality was pretty good.  This was pretty much the only item on the menu whose quality was on par with Xinguang.

I'm still slow with my crab, and I took my sweet time going through all the bits.  We decided to take pictures of the end result...two piles of crab shell!

As long as we were paying the same price for a hairy crab feast, there is no comparison between the two restaurants.  While Wang Bao He offered more dishes and variety, the quality was significantly poorer and some of the dishes were totally unnecessary.  Service was poor at both restaurants, with the staff bringing out dishes in quick succession as they are done in the kitchen.  The difference here is that there are more dishes at Wang Bao He, so you are under even greater pressure to finish what's in front of you.  And the staff tried to get me to pay the bill while my hands were still busy with my crab!

I don't think I'll be going back to Wang Bao He anytime soon... Sticking with Xinguang seems to be the wise choice!

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