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Shanghai Express 

Wednesday, Aug 25 1999
Maybe it's inevitable after writing about movies and food on a concurrent basis for a decade or so, but most of the restaurants I've been to lately remind me of a film I've seen five or six times, or one I really ought to see but haven't gotten around to yet. Or of an entire genre of moviemaking, of which this or that particular restaurant is the most visceral example. Sam's, for instance, is like a retro Howard Hawks comedy of manners and three-martini lunches. Julius' Castle is all Cary Grant sophistication, elegant banter, and deferential sommeliers, while xyz has Paul Verhoeven written all over it, don't you think?

The essential thing is that neither event -- moviegoing nor dining out -- has any connection with reality, and therefore captivates our imaginations and strikes deeper-down reserves of unconscious yearning. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone looked like Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney and brought us good, hot food on nice clean plates -- and was absolutely delighted to do so?

Which brings us to Shanghai 1930, a dark, sleek opium den of a restaurant just off the waterfront. Think Marlene Dietrich, think Leslie Howard in a crisp linen suit drinking one too many Singapore slings and losing his rubber plantation at the fan-tan tables. Think first-class railway carriages, strangers in a strange land, clandestine meetings by the roulette wheel between ruined contessas and American soldiers of fortune, the lounge pianist playing a little Harold Arlen while outside the natives riot in the streets and the last boat for Honolulu doesn't leave until midnight. In short, think Hollywood-style British colonialism.

Every movie star needs an entrance, and you can't help but make one at Shanghai 1930, breezing past the valets, through heavy double doors, and descending a sumptuous curved staircase to the dimly lit saloon below. (If you're the right sort of person you can pull a U-turn at the bottom of the stairs and enter the Guanxi Lounge, a private club redolent of well-humidored cigars, Ching artifacts, Bombay Sapphire martinis, and latent power.) The underground nature of the establishment adds a hint of mysterioso exclusivity to the bar area, where shafts of blue light create pleasing silhouettes out of exotic liqueurs and single malt scotches.

The restaurant proper is equally silky, saturnine, and attractive, with enclosing booths and pools of indirect light creating the sort of intime atmosphere ideal for intrigues of all sorts. A very hip jazz combo adds to the elegant ambience, and George Chen's seasonal menu features dishes ideally suited to the dangerously exotic feel of the place: silk squash with hairy soybeans ($5); blistered string beans with pickled radish ($5); braised whole croaker with chili bean paste ($22); beef with dried tangerine peels and celery hearts ($13); sun-dried abalone steamed under lotus leaves in an earthen jug with shark's fin and preserved scallops ($75). This last dish, known as "Buddha Jumps Over the Wall," requires 72 hours' notice to prepare.

From the long list of small plates -- including seafood custard with osëtra caviar ($8), fried kelp-wrapped sole with ginger aioli ($10), vegetables in a taro-weave basket ($12), and eel crisps with ginger shards ($5) -- we chose two items. The triple steamer ($11) features as fresh and tasty a selection of dim sum as you'll find in the city -- three stacked baskets of delicious dumplings. The variety filled with bittersweet greens is especially entrancing, although the dipping sauces are on the sweet and heavy side. No qualms about the Yiubao prawns ($8.50), however; they're big, spicy devils scalded in a wok with ginger, scallions, and wine and served up in their own deliciously edible-crunchy shells. "Hella tasty," explained my partner in dining.

The large-plate menu drips with exotica: chicken with fresh lily bulbs and fermented black beans ($12); cod with sherry and black and silver tree ears ($13); tofu with blue crab roe and rice wine ($10); lamb chops with braised chestnuts ($18); roasted pork belly with lotus buns ($14); chili-beef sauce poured over a puffed rice noodle tree ($12); Yunan ham with lotus root medallions and gwai hua honey ($14). The squab ($12) is a delicate, fragrant delight, smoked as it is over camphor and tea leaves; the roasted salt and pepper that comes with it adds a delightfully pungent accent. The old Shanghai lobster trap ($28) is a wonderful dish that, if simplified, would be even better: The chunks of crustacean, poached in clam broth, are dazzlingly sweet and fresh and do not need the goofy brandy spice glaze that's slathered over them. The delightfully crunchy fava bean accompaniment is a brilliant contrasting stroke, however.

It being my birthday week, arrangements were made for an appropriately incandescent dish: fried bananas ($6.50). As a rule I loathe bananas, but these flambéed examples were entirely inoffensive; the fruit's usual sickly sweet taste was crisped out of existence, resulting in a pleasantly bland, crunchy dish that even the sweet-toothless diner across the table found attractive.

The wine list features lots of chewy, heavy reds that would seem to be unsuitable to the menu's thoroughly spicy fare. But since we stuck to relatively light dishes, our bottle of Arrowwood pinot blanc ($60) was an excellent and complementary choice. The best actor of the evening was our waiter, Julius, who opened and proffered wine and ignited and served dessert with the grace and economy of motion of a skilled cardsharp. He exemplified the unabashed cinematics of Shanghai 1930.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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