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Chinese restaurants in the NYC of my childhood went two ways. Some, conforming to American tastes, went pupu platters (oh, how you loved the blue glow of their Sterno), rumaki (scrumptious!) and chop suey (not bad), which had a loose connection to authentic Chinese cuisine.
Then there were those Chinese restaurants that zealously protected the integrity of their cuisine, imperiled by the distance from its roots. At Mandarin West in Chinatown, they served winter-melon soup in the melon itself, with wonderful nubbins of dry, salty ham, the rind carved elaborately into Chinese designs. At the time, you had no comprehension of the crazy labour and talent this required. You were simply charmed.
You remember the first dim sum to hit NYC at Bo Bo’s, the line to get in and their siu mai, har gow and hum bao that made you dopey with pleasure.
You remember a nondescript restaurant, no doubt subducted beneath Earth’s mantle by now, where they brought a large bowl filled with baby whiting, whole garlic cloves, ginger, scallion and chillies, into which they poured hellishly hot oil (carried to the table in a cauldron by two nervous waiters, the air above it corrugated by heat) that bubbled ferociously to the rim, endangering everyone, instantly cooking the contents within.
It is to these steadfast patriots of authentic cuisine that you’ve always been drawn. And it’s what you seek in Hong Kong, with its food under constant mutational pressure from the tastes of visitors and immigrants. You went to Shanghainese Wu Kong in Causeway Bay seeking this and were underwhelmed by the food, which seemed pallid. Unwilling to accept this as status quo, you cast your gaze upward to yè shanghai at Pacific Place. Various remarks online, combined with their sibling restaurant’s Michelin star, suggested it was a place of no compromise.
They hit you with a trifecta to start: crispy eel, sliced pork terrine served with Zhenjiang vinegar, garlic cucumber.
Ogden Nash wrote, “I don’t mind eels. Except as meals. And the way they feels.” But these eels were as uneely as could be, deep-fried, super crisp and candied. Actually, there was no taste of eel whatsoever. It could have been any protein in there. You liked them – crunchy as chicharrones – but the sauce tasted like molten lollipop and needed another layer or accent or something to make it sing. There was a bit of shredded scallion in a separate bowl. A large bouffant of shredded scallion on top of the eels themselves – like Uncle Padak does their fried chicken – would have been stylin’.
The cucumber serving was small, and though the menu only promised garlic, it would have benefitted from vinegar, soy sauce, maybe coriander or ginger, perhaps a tad of sugar as other restaurants do it. It was not ultra crisp, like shattered jade, which is your ideal. You suspect it was prepped too early.
The scrumptious pork terrine very much reminded you of glorious French jambon persille (ham and parsley terrine), which includes a good deal of vinegar and parsley in the mix. In this case, the vinegar (with garlic, you think) was on the side, which worked well. Something herbaceous either in the mix or as a garnish would have been welcome, perhaps coriander or, better yet, a chiffonade of shiso.
The soup dumplings were excellent, though you wish they had julienned ginger on top, as in the menu photo. The potstickers were a disappointment. You can tell a lot about a restaurant’s heart and soul from its potstickers. Their dough had an odd hint of sweetness you didn’t adore and was slightly stiff like cardboard, not supple. You wonder if they were frozen and defrosted or made elsewhere. There’s a caress from the dumpling maker’s hands discernible in a great potsticker – as with Little Chili’s, Lao Zhang Gui Dongbei’s or Wing Lai Yuen’s – that’s missing here.
They served their Peking duck in two courses. The first was just the skin with pancakes, and the second was minced duck meat stir-fried with bean sprouts. The skin was crisp and delicious. Their pancakes were made from batter and steamed, you think. This is not uncommon, but you don’t like them nearly as much as “spring pancakes” – rolled thin and blistered in a hot pan, toasty and chewy.
The second course, which you liked pretty well, oddly had no taste of duck per se. Actually, it looked and tasted like pork. You can’t conceive how the ducky taste was lost. In your view, the best way to serve Peking duck is by carving the meat with the skin into thin slices that you then place within spring pancakes along with cucumber, spring onion and hoisin sauce. Lao Zhang Gui Dongbei does this perfectly. Theirs costs HK$425, compared to yè shanghai’s at HK$580. For some perplexing reason, the total volume of duck and skin was significantly greater at Lao Zhang Gui Dongbei. Was your duck meat intermingled with other duck meat and portioned out? Doesn’t the Hong Kong constitution expressly forbid intermingling duck meat? You wonder.
Their braised beef rib with brown sauce was okay. Fork tender, it tasted exactly like brisket, ideal Seder food. Had it been smoked or charred, it would have been vastly more flavourful. Sichuan Lab utilises sous vide (with their brilliant 52°C duck breast), so why can’t yè shanghai? They could have smoked the rib, sous-vide cooked it medium or medium rare and then hit it with a salamander or blowtorch or put it in a Josper to char. That would have made a trophy dish to be proud of.
The wok-fried cauliflower and salted pork was delicious, though, to be brutally frank, the cauliflower was ever-so-slightly overcooked.
Th crispy prawns with chilli and spring onion were fine. There was a bit too much batter on the shrimp. They probably would have been better just dusted in rice or tapioca flour. The dish wasn’t close enough to its ignition point to thrill you.
Dessert was warm glutinous almond soup, a black sesame dumpling bobbing within. Tasty enough, you’d never again order the soup but would definitely order more of the scrumptious, jet-black sesame dumpling if you could. Your wife says she loved the soup and your taste lacks subtlety. You attempted a subtle comeback but couldn’t think of anything.
The interior of the restaurant is more handsome than elegant. The servers dress sharp and are attentive, though they’re not warm or personable (which is par for HK Chinese restaurants). While completely proper, they express no enthusiasm for the food nor make any attempt to make you feel welcome. Black Sheep Restaurants or Brut! could show them how to do this. You went with another couple, and the meal came to HK$1,570 per couple, which included several Tsingtaos and a bottle of Chianti.
Yè shanghai’s cuisine is authentic and technically proficient, no small distinctions. It delivers on a very complicated menu, which is impressive. But it lacks the perfect pitch of a truly great restaurant, often slightly sharp or flat in terms of conception, flavour and execution. What this restaurant needs is a chef with fresh eyes, a chef who can throw a cleaver that shaves the sous-chef and hits a target across the kitchen, to buff the entire operation.
The food is expensive, perhaps inevitable given its location below The Upper House hotel. You get significantly better food at vastly lower prices at Liao Za Lie, Lao Zhang Gui Dongbei, Wing Lai Yuen, Café Hunan, Hu Nan Heen and Sichuan Lab. An entire meal for two at Liao Za Lie costs less than yè shanghai’s braised beef rib.
Sifting through what you’ve written, you see that “good”, “fine”, “okay” and “tasty enough” are the main modifiers. They sum up the restaurant.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Overall value: 3
In order to review objectively, David Greenberg does not solicit or accept comped meals and anonymously reviews restaurants.
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