San Francisco has a deserved reputation for excellent Asian restaurants, but a void was felt when the Shanghai-style restaurant Fountain Court on Clement closed, famed for its exquisite soup dumplings alongside many other dishes.
Although its premises and menu may be smaller, Shanghai House on Balboa, which opened last year, will thrill both aficionados of Shanghai cooking and those new to it.
As far as I'm concerned, the more really is the merrier at a Chinese restaurant, so you can sample and share lots of dishes. Calvin Trillin often insists on bringing a Chinese-speaking friend with him when he visits Chinese restaurants — or, failing that, a card printed with the Chinese characters for "Bring me what they're having at the next table." But everything we had at Shanghai House was so good, so fresh, so interesting, that we felt we could order off the menu with impunity — and without translation.
I was surprised by the smallness and brightness of Shanghai House, which shone like a lighthouse beacon on its dark block, right across from the neon facade of the Balboa Theater. The immaculate, white-painted room looked like it could seat about two dozen diners at its small wood-topped tables; three of them were quickly pushed together for us. Alcohol is not on the menu, so if you'd like wine or beer and forget to tote it along, there's a market next door that yielded up a couple of bottles of decent California white. A corkscrew and pottery cups materialized at the table.
Be forewarned: There are two separate menus. The first menu I opened offered hot and sour soup, mu shu pork, and kung pao chicken; all things I enjoy, but not what we were there for. The second menu hit pay dirt. Headed Dim Sum on the left, with Shanghai Steamed Baby Dumplings right up top — ten for only $5.25! — and Shanghai Specials on the right, it offered dozens of captivating dishes at equally intriguing prices mostly ranging from $1.50 to $11.95, with only a few above that, including $18.95 for a couple of pork dishes which have to be ordered in advance.
We started with, of course, the steamed baby dumplings (aka soup dumplings, or xiao long bao), green onion pancakes, and what was described on the menu as silver threaded roll. When I saw "steam or fry" after it, I asked for fried, hoping it was like the fried bread I loved at Lake Spring, my longtime favorite Shanghainese restaurant in Monterey Park.
It was indeed like the bread, although an even better rendition: layers of soft folded dough under a crisp brown exterior thinner than an eggshell, here served with a superfluous-to-my-taste bowl of sweetened condensed milk to dip into (or not). The green onion pancake, cut into triangles, was a little doughy, but we were happy with the soup dumplings, resting on limp cabbage leaves in the lidded bamboo steamer so their fragile skins wouldn't tear and leak their precious broth when lifted out. The ground pork filling was light and tasty, a lovely foil for a touch of the accompanying vinegar-and-soy sauce bright with threads of ginger.
I'd already ordered ahead the salt-and-pepper pig's knuckle (when I asked if there were any other dishes that needed to be requested in advance, I was told no, but the menu also lists pig knuckle with brown sauce, seasonal roasted carp with green onions, and carp fish and turnip soup as items that must be preordered). Our ordering reflected the fact that one among us was a vegetarian. With him in mind, we had the mild, slightly sweet mushroom and winter melon in clay pot, with exceptionally flavorful melon, a refreshing interlude between the dim sum and heavier dishes — though I looked longingly at a soup called ham, fresh pork, and bamboo shoots in casserole. Next time!
The dish called vegetarian goose (which appears on many Chinese menus, in restaurants vegetarian and otherwise, and in many different preparations), here is assorted mushrooms in flaky puff pastry, trickled with a thin, dark, salty sauce. It met with great acclaim: It could have come from a French kitchen. Sautéed fresh shrimp was just that, curled pink babies, sweet and tender, a little bland on their own but improved mightily by a bath in the bowl of vinegary sauce that accompanied them. The braised fish with wine sauce was impossibly delicate — in fact, everything had a real delicacy of touch here, making me wish I had dined at the famed (and now vanished) Wu Kong in the Rincon Center, former home of this restaurant's chef, Kam Yuen Lu. The fragile white fish filets floated in a fragrant, slightly thickened, pearly sauce of Shaoxing rice wine. One Shanghai House regular among us insisted on ordering dry chicken wings from the Cantonese menu, described as being deep-fried in batter with garlic, ginger, and roasted red peppers. The succulent, sticky disjointed wings bore no trace of batter, but instead a crackling sweet glaze of molasses and soy.
The Cantonese menu also yielded a plate of impeccably fresh, crisp dry-sautéed string beans, slightly garlicky, with a touch of mild Chinese pickle sauce. Off the menu, we requested baby bok choy, also simply wok-tossed with a bit of chicken broth. These served as vegetal foils for the dazzling pig's knuckle, an unprepossessing brown leathery-looking lump on the plate. The leather proved to be pigskin that had become whisper-thin and crunchy, as addictive (but tastier) than potato chips when cut into strips, under which is tender pork that turns to shreds when you simply look at it hard. A garnish of bright-green fried seaweed adds crunchy texture. It's an amazing dish. Equally remarkable were the prosaically titled braised meatballs with vegetables — sometimes seen under the more romantic moniker of lion's head — actually five or six nice-sized meatballs in brown sauce with bok choy and bamboo shoots. Under a thin crust, the balls were unusually light and airy, almost mousselike in texture.
I was less enamored of the unusual stir-fried Shanghai rice cake, served with thin noodles and vegetables. The sliced cake had a chewy, gelatinous texture, and little taste. I was also not fully convinced by the green onion with dry shrimp braised noodle; there were plenty of onions and noodles, but not much more. Certainly there was no hint of shrimp.
For a sweet finish, although we'd eaten almost to the point of pain, we tried the long, barely sweet crullers called Chinese doughnuts, which, as well as the fried bread we'd started with, were testament to the kitchen's skill: light and almost greaseless. We also had a dish called sweet sticky rice ball in rice wine, soft dumplings filled with bean paste floating in an extremely alcoholic sweet broth.
Five of us had enjoyed a feast for about $30 per person, tax and tip included. (Caveat emptor: Shanghai House is cash only, but, as with the convenient source of alcohol, there's an ATM less than a block west.) Top candidates for a future visit, given the perfection of most of what we had: cold plates of drunken chicken, five-spice smoked fish, spicy beef, stewed pork with vegetables, the order-ahead pig knuckle with brown sauce, steamed fish with black bean and chile sauce, and the irresistible, slightly mad-sounding crab's "chevllenge." Why did I not ask what that was? I think I was too distracted by what was on my plate.