September 30, 2016

Thousand-year dead fish

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Tonight I finally had the opportunity to introduce Babu to my new Shanghainese discovery.  Well, technically this isn't 本幫菜 but Huaiyang cuisine (淮揚菜), but we'll ignore the technicalities here...  I was very happy to get confirmation that one no longer needs to be a member to dine at Jiang Su (江蘇薈), so I booked us a table for dinner tonight.

Marinated Indian aster (馬蘭頭) - this was a surprise... I never expected a place like this to serve up a classic dish using a heart-shaped mold... then decorate it with two halves of a cherry tomato and 2 little shreds of red cabbage... like putting arms and feet on the heart.  Anyway, compared to what we would normally see, this was definitely lighter in terms of flavor - with a lot less sesame oil mixed in... and seemingly a lower ratio of diced dried tofu.  The pine nuts were kinda nice.  We ended up getting a second serving.

Marinated celtuce stem with spring onions (香蔥萵筍) - I don't think I'll ever get tired of this, and neither will Hello Kitty.  We wanted a second plate, but were told they had sold out...

Nanjing salted duck (金陵鹽水鴨) - a classic dish that I don't really care for.

Stir-fried loofah with green soy beans (鮮毛豆炒田園絲瓜) - this was really, really good.  Loofah is one of my favorite veggies, so it's a no-brainer that I would love this dish.  The green soy beans (毛豆) were so crunchy, which is how you know they were fresh.  In fact I don't remember eating ones that are this crunchy, ever.  But the best thing about this dish was the sauce that everything was soaking in - made with pumpkin purée and fish broth that had a nice thickness.  Sooo yummy!

Phoenix tofu in claypot (鳳凰豆腐煲) - Hello Kitty loved this dish and wanted to have this again, thanks to the strong soy bean flavors and the firmer texture.  Babu and Mrs. Tigger didn't seem to care for it, though...

Stir fried finger rice cakes with shepherd's purse (薺菜炒手指年糕) - definitely not your average rice cake dish... Maybe it's the way they are cut, or more likely it's because the way the rice cakes are made, but they were definitely a lot more chewy (but not in a bad way) than most of what we see on the market.  I love shepherd's purse (薺菜), and they've diced it up real fine here.

Slow-cooked veal (炆火小牛肉) - wow... this was very, very nice.  The meat was extremely tender - almost like beef cheeks - and packed lots of flavors without being too heavy.

Yangtze Reeve's shad steamed in soy sauce (紅蒸長江鮮鰣魚) - for some of us who love Shanghainese cuisine, steamed Reeve's shad (鰣魚) has a special place in our hearts.  The fish is notoriously (or should I say ridiculously?) bony, and you really gotta love it even just to order it.  I hadn't planning on ordering it, but Babu saw the poster on the wall next to us, and she wanted it.  So we ordered it.  And we didn't read the description on the menu carefully enough...

When it arrived, neither Tigger nor Hello Kitty batted an eyelid.  They're not really familiar with Shanghainese cuisine and have no idea what to expect of this fish.  But Babu, Mrs. Tigger and I sorta stared at the fish in a mild state of shock.  Kinda like this:

Aside from the size of the fish itself - which was probably the smallest Reeve's shad I've ever been served - we were surprised to see the fish soaking in soy sauce.  Now, between the three of us, we've eaten our fair share of this fish - in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and elsewhere - and not one of us have had it with soy sauce.  Ever.  It has always been steamed with Huadiao (花雕) wine and some fermented rice (酒釀).  This looked like the Cantonese chefs in the kitchen went a little cuckoo...

Then there was the eye.  Babu - who only buys the freshest fish from the fishermen directly - took one look at the sunken eye and blurted out : "the fish looked like it's been dead for a thousand years".

I laughed so hard that I almost spat out the food in my mouth.  She was right, though.  Yes, we know that you never get a live Reeve's shad as you would other fish - restaurants only get them shipped frozen - but it still looked pretty sad.

Hello Kitty did what she does best - which was to do a search online about this type of steaming for Reeve's shad.  Apparently there are people who cook the fish this way, although no restaurant we are familiar does - nor would even contemplate such a thing.

We asked the staff about this preparation, and were informed that unlike other restaurants serving Reeve's shad coming from Vietnam, their Reeve's shad actually come from the Yangtze River.  (Although almost all the Reeve's shad these days are farmed and not wild-caught.)  We got a song and dance about the scales of their fish being smaller and softer, and that this was the preparation best suited...  Yeah... however you wanna spin it.  The soy sauce completely overpowered the flavors of the fish itself.  This was half of tonight's bill, and I would never order this again.

Incidentally, the alternate preparation was pan-fried.  None of us have ever heard of anyone pan-frying Reeve's shad, either.

Marinated organic radish (天水有機醬蘿蔔) - I still really like this.  So crunchy.

Noodles with spring onions and soy sauce (蔥油拌麵) - this was very much on the sweet side, and I'm kinda not used to it being so sweet.

Mini spring onion pancakes (迷你蔥油餅) - these baked bite-sized pancakes are nice and cute, but I still prefer to have this fried in lots of oil...

Eight-layered jujube cake (八層棗泥糕) - surprisingly these steamed cubes weren't very sweet at all, and were topped with some osmanthus.

Red bean soup with black glutinous rice (紫米紅豆湯) - this was the complimentary dessert, and was also a lot less sweet than your average red bean soup - partly because of the presence of the black glutinous rice.

I brought a nice little bottle for the occasion...

1970 Egon Müller Scharzhofberger Riesling Spätlese - a little green and grassy, with some petrol in the nose.  Some sweetness here still along with the acidity.  Nicely balanced.

Other than the disastrous Reeve's shad, I still really like the food here.  And it's pretty clear that the flavors here are much lighter and more delicate than your average Shanghainese restaurant, and that's a nice change.  Now that I know membership isn't necessary, I wouldn't mind coming back for more of their simple fare that would just be my comfort food.

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