The thing I like about Shanghai Bistro over at the Paseo Center is that it looks quite elegant, but is actually quite cosy, making it the perfect place to lunch on your lonesome.
The primary idea behind this restaurant’s aesthetic is that of the city of Shanghai before either the Second World War or Mao’s Cultural Revolution: elegant, softly lit, and gorgeously carved wooden furniture finished with deep, dark stains. This aesthetic was supposed to evoke fin de siecle Paris for homesick Continentals who were doing business in China during the period. The resulting combination of Oriental and Occidental design [and cultural] sensibilities led to Shanghai’s moniker “the Paris of the Far East.”
Well, I’m not sure about the authenticity of the decor, but it does work in my book. But decor notwithstanding, let’s talk about the most important aspect of any restaurant: the food.
I started this particular meal with the taro puffs shown at the top of this page. These are quite delicious: the outside is perfectly crisp and crumbly and doesn’t feel greasy at all.
The insides are beautifully soft, oozy, and mouth-filling: think of the texture of really good peanut butter. The flavor of the taro was quite pronounced – an earthy, somewhat buttery taste – but did not overwhelm the savory pork-and-shrimp filling.
Compared to other taro puffs I’ve had of late, this is the best so far in terms of appearance, taste, and texture. So much, as a matter of fact, that it seems a crime to dribble even a bit of the accompanying hoisin sauce over it.
I was planning to order one of Shanghai Bistro’s rice bowls, but got sidetracked by the noodle offerings on the menu. That said, I ended up ordering the wonton and fish ball noodle soup.
Alas for me, I was more than a little disappointed. The thing about a proper bowl of Chinese soup noodles is that it should involve a flavorful broth. The broth in this case, I am sorry to say, was not flavorful at all. It was like sipping hot garlicky water faintly redolent with spring onion and ginger. That is not a good broth, in my honest opinion – especially for a Chinese restaurant! A proper broth for noodles involves rich chickeny flavors: hints of chicken fat and ginger, perhaps a hint of star anise or Szechuan peppercorn – flavors that were sadly lacking in this case.
The noodles and dumplings were nothing to write home about; indeed you can get a better batch of noodles and dumplings from places like David’s Tea House or Han Pao. But what saved this bowl from total obscurity were the fish balls. Unlike the flattish discs sold deep-fried and skewered by street carts, these fish balls are huge clouds of coarsely ground labahita fillet. They are firm to the bite and have a definite seafood flavor without too much in the way of fishiness. Seriously, I began to wish I’d ordered the fish balls alone.
I ordered the mango pudding [bo din in Cantonese] for afters. Now, I was expecting a quivering jelly-mold made with pureed mangoes. Instead, I got a fetchingly, disturbingly cute milk pudding made in a Hello Kitty mold and drizzled with more milk.
What the hey – ?!?
But cuteness aside, this was quite good. Not quite a traditional mango pudding, but the chewy milk pudding was generously dotted with nubbins of fresh mango. Custardy, tart, and cool, it was a good way to end the meal.
When all’s been said and done, Shanghai Bistro needs to step up its game in the noodles section of its menu. Otherwise, it’s still a good place to have lunch when you’re all alone.