Headed to Shanghai for any reason? Don’t miss the chance to snag a fantastic dim sum meal. This beloved Chinese sub-cuisine remains remarkably authentic overseas, but is quite narrow–relatively few of China’s time-honored dim sum specialties are on offer in the West. Yet fine restaurants serving Cantonese- and Shanghai-style dim sum abound in the city, and are infinitely deserving of a visit.
There are so many exciting things to do in Shanghai that your time will be limited–you need to know the best places. That’s why I spent two weeks casing the city’s best dim sum restaurants with Yu Bin, the smart and sassy translator of Night in Shanghai‘s Chinese edition. She nurses an obsessive interest in her adopted city, and instantly agreed to devote every lunch break, every day, to a prolonged dim sum crawl. Add one of these spots to your itinerary next time you’re in the city; you won’t be sorry.
Crystal Jade in Xintiandi is at the top of many diners’ lists–a place people describe as ‘expensive, but worth it,’ where you can’t go wrong. This outpost of a high-end Hong Kong-based chain attracts a a well-heeled clientele, and is jammed by 12 noon on a weekday. Dig in, and you’ll know why. Poached pork dumpling with chile in hot garlic sauce (2906) is a savory pork dumpling in an impossibly thin wonton skin swimming in deeply flavorful, spicy sauce spiked with garlic and scallions. As a huge fan of the wide variety of mushrooms foraged in the mountains of Yunnan (near Myanmar), I always melt when I see them on a big-city menu outside of that Province–and Crystal Jade’s Wild Yunnan Mushroom Dumplings did not disappoint. Outstanding fresh mushroom flavor was perfectly set off by contrasting the softness of mushrooms with the crunch of minced wild lettuce root and the thin, elastic rice-paper wrapper.
Deep Fried Tofu Skin Rolled with Fresh Shrimp (2012) –a very fine sheet skimmed off the top when boiling soybeans for tofu or soy milk–is stuffed with plump pink prawns and yellow chives (which I suspect carry the strongest onion flavor on the planet), all encased in a crisp skin thin enough to shatter at one bite. Clearly, the chefs at Crystal Jade are masters of textural contrast, as demonstrated in the homey-sounding Deep Fried Taro Dumpling (2017), an amazingly delicate bird’s nest of open, airy, crisp crunch surrounding a soft, smooth, very lightly sweetened ball of pureed taro. Everyone in the city seems to know the dim sum here is good, and it’s located in Xintiandi, the popular shopping/dining development, so reservations are a must.
Crystal Jade, Xintiandi, 2F, 6-7 South Block, Lane 123, Near Madang Lu. 6385-8752. Dim Sum service stops of 4:30 P.M., after which the focus is Cantonese dishes. Metro stop Xintiandi or South Huangpi Rd.
Should you find yourself on the east side of the French Concession, Royal China (with another branch in London) serves highly creditable dim sum in an upscale white-tablecloth setting. The pan fried prawn and chive dumplings combine sweet fresh shrimp with a powerful green punch of allium, and the har gow (prawns steamed in a rice flour wrapper) place with those served pretty much anywhere. But the real eye-opener at Royal China, for me, was the Almond with Hasma Puff. Hasma? I ask Bin. What is hasma? Oh, says she, as she studies the menu, that’s the tissue around the Fallopian tubes of a tree frog from North China. Whoa! We ordered it at once. I was on the edge of my seat until a pastry arrived that looked quite innocuous, a light, crispy puff with almond slices decorating its sweet-looking top. Inside, in a pleasant sauce best described as vaguely vanilla, there floated finely chopped, innocuous, flavorless bits of… you guessed it. Like so many unusual Chinese ingredients, hasma is believed to benefit your health–in this case, your lungs, kidneys, and skin.
Royal China, 1116 Yan’an Xi Lu, 3rd floor, Changning District. 6115-9628.
Yue 1525. Here is an outstanding dim sum restaurant that is not a tourist spot–located in a hotel, it’s filled with a quiet crowd more intent on the very rewarding menu than on conversation. The basic range of pastries is available, and well done, but what really shines at Yue 1525 are the more unusual dim sum creations. Drunken whelks came in their shells, crystal-fresh, nestled on a bed of ice, marinated to perfect toothsomeness in wine, salt, and a touch of fish sauce. Crispy pigeon–small, juicy, and flavorful–though very difficult to prepare, was perfectly presented.
But the standout dish,and one of the most memorable individual dishes Bin and I found during our entire adventure, was the beef ribs in wasabi. Meltingly tender short ribs met sweet peppers and scallions in a wasabi sauce, touched with wine, that was exactly the spiky touch needed to set off the luxe richness of the beef. Where has this combination been all our lives? Why don’t we use wasabi on beef? Once the initial wonder wore off, I realized Bin and I were witnessing something rather momentous–this was fusion. Fusion was at last sprouting in China, after millennia of almost all art forms being about perfection and mastery, not innovation and fusion. Globalization has finally broken that. Now that beef with wasabi is here, I think we can declare a game change.
Yue 1525, 1525 Dingxi Road, second floor, Changning District. 6225-8665.
Xian Yue Hien. When Bin suggested this restaurant, I was jolted back in time, because I reviewed it in 1999 for Gourmet Magazine. Set in a lovely garden for retired cadres (as you enter the restaurant, you may see old gents strolling the grounds), it was an excellent Cantonese restaurant back then, and it still is now. But one thing has changed–they now servedim sum during the day. Mango cakes and chive dumplings were delicious, and the textural achievement of the you tiao (crispy cruller) wrapped in cloud-soft rice noodle, then cut in pieces sushi-style, was unexpectedly impressive. But what we loved the most, and polished off smartly, was the hand-shredded sesame chicken: boneless, perfectly roasted, simply seasoned, aromatic golden chicken hand-pulled and mounded under a single sinful sheet of crispy skin, sprinkled with sesame. This is what every lady would like to have for lunch. Xian Yue Hien, Ding Xiang Garden, 849 Huashan Road. 6251-1166.
Fu Lin Xuan. Headed to Pudong side? There’s good dim sum there too. Fu Lin Xuan is in a big mall right next to the Pearl TV Tower, itself a sightseeing mecca which seems to land on most tourists’ short list. A little pan-fried cake of fragrant shredded taro, like taro hash browns, was a lovely restorative start to our brunch that day, followed by steamed glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaf. Okay, the plump leaf-wrapped triangle is a classic, one you can get all over America… but I’m glad we ordered it, because it was studded with hunks of succulent black chicken, and briny explosions of dried scallop. The pan fried chive dumpling (are you noticing a pattern here?) was also a cut above, with a crackling bottom crust and deep chive flavor. In addition, Fu Lin Xuan is known for its beef balls with worcestorshire and crispy pigeon. When you go outside, be sure to stop and gaze at the skyscraper directly opposite the mall entrance. It has classical style columns all across the ground floor, the second floor, third floor, fourth floor–in fact, columns decorate every single floor to the very top of the highrise. This is an insurance building, intent on projecting crazy strength. Ya gotta love Shanghai.
Fu Lin Xuan, 4th Floor, Super Brand Mall, 168 Lujiazui Xi Lu, near Fucheng Lu. Open 11 A.M.
Yu Bao Xuan. Due to a cascade of five-star reviews on the Chinese internet, we had extremely high hopes for this classy place just off the Bund. We were not disappointed. We were also not alone; the place was completely full on a rainy weekday, and even though we had reservations, we still had to wait in an outer lobby for a while before a table became available. Yu Bao Xuan (roughly House of Imperial Treasure) is a Singaporean chain currently boasting sixteen restaurants, two eateries, and three bakeries, with the seventeenth restaurant, in Shanghai, being the only one outside Singapore. (It also happens to be located on the same block where Thomas Greene, the protagonist of Night in Shanghai, lives in a ground floor studio apartment in 1937!) Yu Bao Xuan’s dining room, in a hundred–year-old heritage building, is magnificent, with ten-foot windows, deep carpets, and ceilings that seem to disappear into the stratosphere. Then they started bringing the food. Jin wang cui pi, crispy skin shrimp in rice paper roll, goes one step beyond the crisp-cruller wrapped in soft rice noodle served at Xian Yue Hien by substituting a very light and crunchy batter-fried shrimp for the cruller. The har gow were genuinely exemplary, the usual simplicity of extraordinarily fresh prawn flavor complemented by bits of diced bamboo shoot, and bright notes of scallion.
Though the name is a bit odd, the jiao yan jiu du yu, or pepper salt nine-stomach fish, is a sheer delight. Imagine pieces of tender, mild white fish as soft as egg tofu, as soft as a cloud, inside a thin crispy batter touched with fried garlic. But the most remarkable dish we had at Yu Bao Xuan was the liu sha bao, or floating sand bun. This pleasant, very slightly grainy yellow cake was lightly sweetened, but something about it was alien, unplaceable. “What do you think it is made of?” Bin teased. I tried every possibility, including flours made from beans and legumes and chestnuts. No. “Okay,” I said. “I give up.” “Duck eggs!” she cried. “Hard-boiled duck eggs, sweetened and pureed. No flour.” I had to laugh out loud; the floating sand bun was yet another classic Chinese artifice dish, crafted of one thing, made to look like something else.
Yu Bao Xuan, L402-403, Yi Feng Galleria, 99 Beijing Dong Lu, Huangpu District, 5308-1188. Reservations essential.