Sunday, July 18, 2010

Shanghai - 點石斋小宴 Dian Shi Zhai Restaurant


It's an interesting name to begin with.  But as CG's wife E explains over a pretty poor phone line, Dian Shi Zhai used to be a comic tabloid in the old days of Shanghai..

.. and so the explanation for the boy and girl caricatures at the entrance, etched onto old-style glass.  So in literal terms, it's a comic dining party.  The joke ends there though.  As you enter, it's like visiting a middle-class Shanghai family home in the '30s.  There is eager anticipation as we walk up 3 flights of stairs to our dining area, and happily to a table by the window.  As you soak in the atmosphere, you can almost imagine what it would have been like 70 years ago..

Since it was my first time, and I got the privilege of ordering, I chose some Shanghainese staples to test the place out.  After all, it would be such an anti-climax if they don't even do the classics right.  

The appetizer of chilled jelly fish heads were competently done.  However, unlike most places which deliver it tossed with a vinegar-based dressing already, this version came separate.  Interesting.  Chinese eat jelly fish heads for texture - it's also more expensive than the body for its slightly softer crunch.  Jellyfish is tasteless and so it acquires the taste of whatever it's dressed with.  In more cases than not, it is served cold and with vinegar which is dressed up, in this case, with soya sauce and a touch of sesame oil.  The dressing is a little bit more salty than usual but nevertheless went well.  

The deep-fried little yellow fishes were excellent and while done to a perfect crisp, it had a slight sweet-finish marinade which made it even tastier.

  Perfect with the aged Hua Diao wine we ordered, if only our servers remembered to bring it timely without our reminders.  It is the middle of summer but on a rainy day, it was cool enough to still enjoy a smooth yellow wine which I like for its almost herbal qualities, and a very subtle alcoholic finish.  

Our favorite appetizer was the bean curd sheets, a Shanghainese specialty, which were done the thinnest I have ever seen but still retaining enough elasticity to lend towards a chewy texture and soaking up the clean flavors of simply sauteed Chinese mushrooms, and made fragrant with Chinese parsley and sesame oil.  So simple but so very well executed. 

Our first mains was the quintessential dish which marries both the fresh river shrimps and the flash-fried crab meat, painstakingly extracted from crabs in nearby local lakes.  The freshness of the dish is apparent from the extreme crunch from the prawns and the creamy flavorful crab mixture.  My only complaint is that it seemed to lack much taste - perhaps after the good appetizers - that I thought the ginger in the crab overpowered everything else and became inadvertently bland.

However, the shrimps were still a lot better than the only disappointment of the night.  Our lion's head in a similar crab meat mixture was awfully bland, and unfortunately did not deliver the expectations we had placed on this - yet another Shanghainese classic.

For fibre, I get my favorite local loosely-translated into chicken-fur vegetables.  I never got round to asking why they are such and can only imagine its the way they look when plucked.

To finish, the Shanghainese noodles tossed in simple scallion oil and made even tastier by the adornment of deep fried dried shrimps.  阳春捞面 or Yang Chun Noodles is definitely a flavorful staple which any Shanghainese should be proud to call his/her own.  Such a simple way to blend otherwise none-too-exciting ingredients together for a brilliant taste.  

Overall, I thought it a great place to enjoy a local Shanghainese meal that wasn't too oily at all, and especially great for people looking for a touch of the old Shanghai.  If you're lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the neighbor enjoying his shower, modest only through very frosted glass.  The only thing you might not like is that China still allows smoking in restaurants, and it's not a big enough place for the smoke to not get in your eyes..

徐汇区永嘉路 320号 
(No. 320 Yong Jia Road in Xu Hui District)
Tel: +86-21-54650270/1 

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