December 24, 2009

Christmas in Shanghai day 2: dumpling day

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Got up and went for a late breakfast at the Changning Road branch of Yang’s Fried Dumplings (小杨生煎), which is a nice walk from the house.  I needed to run a few errands on my way there so it worked out well.  This is a pretty new branch, and not one of those that tourists would hit, so there was no line mid-morning on a weekday.

As usual I ordered one tael of four fried dumplings (生煎包).  I’m not a connoisseur and don’t profess to be able to detect the minute differences that is inevitable between branches.  Anyway, it was good for me.  The buns were very juicy as expected, and this time I remembered to carefully suck out the soup so didn’t have to repeat the squirting accident last time.  I thought the filling was a little bit more salty here, but the aftertaste of the pork was certainly sweet.

I also ordered a bowl of curry-flavored beef soup (咖喱牛肉湯).  Drinking curry soup doesn’t seem very Shanghainese to me, but I guess the same could be said of having curry beef brisket or macaroni in soup in Hong Kong…  Anyway, I wanted some hot soup to warm up and I achieved my goal.  There were some thin slices of beef in the bowl, and the soup did taste of beef and curry – with lots of coriander floating on top.  Honestly, though… the dumplings gave me much more bang for the buck, considering they’re the same price.

For lunch I decided to hunt down another xiaolongbao (小笼包) specialist.  There was a thread on Chowhound on various xiaolongbao places in Shanghai, and I’m making my mission to try out all the top spots by the end of this trip.  The Xingshan Road (杏山路) branch of Shangweiguan Nanxiang Xiaolong (上味馆南翔小笼) was pretty out of the way, although distance-wise wasn’t that far from the house.  I had to flag down 4 cabs before I found a driver who even knew the location of the street it is on.

The xiaolongbao part of the restaurant only has xiaolongbao and Shanghainese wontons on the menu.  I ordered a tael each of the pork dumpling and the shrimp and pork dumpling, and waited outside the kitchen while my order was being steamed.  As this is a self-service joint, I heeded the advice given on to grab some paper napkins and insulate my hands when I picked up the steaming hot basket with my dumplings inside.

As mentioned on Chowhound, the dumplings are casually tossed around because they are steamed in larger groups (maybe 3 taels per basket?) then moved to serving baskets.  This is especially true as I had two different types of dumplings, and my basket had two dumplings where one was on top of another.  And what’s with the extra piece of dough stuck to this dumpling?!  Definitely knocking points off…

The dumplings themselves were as I expected.  The skin was pretty thin, to the point where they were translucent.  Lots of pork juice inside, but somehow not up to the level of Jiajia’s in terms of flavor.  They’re pretty good dumplings in their own right, but I’m not sure if it’s worth the trek to get it.  There are better and easier alternatives in town.

I spent my Christmas Eve with a family I’ve known for more than 25 years.   Julia lives in Shanghai, and her aunt and sister Helen are both here for Christmas.  We met at Osteria, an Italian restaurant which was not very far from the house, but took me almost 50 minutes to get to thanks to the difficulty in finding a cab (I thought Chinese don’t celebrate Christmas?!) and the traffic jam.

I arrived half an hour late, and hurriedly ordered while apologizing profusely.   The ladies were enjoying some raw oysters but I decided to pass.  For starter I chose a bowl of gnocchi with Fontina, chives and red beet chips – in keeping with the dumpling theme of the day.  The gnocchi was not bad, and I could taste the sweetness of the potato.  The beet chips were sliced paper-thin and deep-fried, but were soggy by the time they were served.

I shared the antipasti platter with the ladies, which were OK.  For main course I had the osso bucco.  This was not so good.  They had given my plate to someone else, so the chef had to make a replacement in a hurry when the mistake was discovered.  I knew the chef was in a hurry because some of the salt he sprinkled into the sauce was still in crystal form…  Worst of all, they took out all the bone marrow!  The bone was completely hollow, and that is totally unacceptable!  One of the reasons for me to order osso bucco is the joy of either spooning or sucking out the bone marrow.  What a disaster…  The risotto on the side was made into a giant ball and deep-fried.  While mine came out golden brown and was alright, the other serving at the table was overdone – the ball was dark brown and completely dry inside.  Clearly the food quality is inconsistent here.

But what’s important is to spend this holiday with family (or close friends), so I’m glad we got together.  We skipped desert and adjourned to my friends’ place to play with their cats.

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