Sunday, 20 September 2009

Review: Xiao Nan Guo a.k.a. Shanghai Spring (Shanghainese), Beijing

Lion’s Head with Crab ?

Xiao Nan Guo in Hong Kong was the first restaurant where I enjoyed Shanghainese food. Before then, I found the cuisine too oily and sweet. I did like xiao long bao but I had somehow blanked out the fact that they were from Shanghai as I thought of them as dim sum. So I wasn't too gutted when the Hunanese restaurant in the Oriental Plaza we were planning to visit had become a branch of Xiao Nan Guo. The name Xiao Nan Guo means 'Little South Country' but since my last visit to China, they have adopted an English brand name, 'Shanghai Spring'

First impressions were strong and as I recalled from their Hong Kong branches, the interior was classy and elegant. The menu was very comprehensive and thankfully bilingual (although my guest provided fully comprehensive Mandarin back-up). The first dish to arrive was the XO vermicelli served in a clay pot and this was a winner. I loved the bits of dried shrimp (har mai) from the XO sauce clinging onto the mung bean vermicelli (fen si). I would have been happy if it was just vermicelli and XO sauce but the dish was topped with prawns in their shell. My only question is what makes this a Shanghainese dish rather than Cantonese ?
Next to arrive were mediocre pork & crab xiao long bao and a superb dish of watercress in superior stock. Even allowing for a bout of post-Din Tai Fung XLB snobbery, the fact that one of my bao was soupless and the lack of crab made this the low point of the meal. In contrast, the waiter's recommendation of watercress was spot on with a bonus of some type of mushroom too. After we put all this away, we waited............

.........and waited. We chased up the wait staff a couple of times, ordered more beer, grumbled a bit and then it finally arrived, 'Lion's Head' meatball with crab meat. 'Lion's Head' (shizi tao) is a famous dish which traditionally consists of giant meatballs made from fatty pork (the lion's head) served with Chinese leaf (the lion's mane). This is one of my favourite Shanghainese dishes and I've had a few different versions but none as opulent as this.
This bling version had brown crab meat in the meatball mix and was served in a rich sauce with white crab meat and egg white. To cap it off, it was served with my favourite vegetable, baby pak choi. Everything about this dish was great with the 'melt in the mouth' meatball, the rich sauce (that demanded extra rice to mop it up) and the perfectly cooked pak choi.

For once, I won the battle to grab the bill so I can tell you that dinner for two (with a couple of beers each) cost around RMB 330 (apx £30) - about half of which was for the 'Lion's Head'. To the best of my knowledge, there isn't a London restaurant that specialises in Shanghainese cuisine - if anyone does know of a place then please let me know.

Verdict: Saved at the last by the truly stunning ‘Lion’s Head’, Xiao Nan Guo or Shanghai Spring remains a great place to try Shanghainese cuisine.

Other Stuff: This classy chain originated in Shanghai but there are branches in Beijing & Hong Kong.

{Update Sept 2010 - click here for a more recent review of Xiao Nan Guo}


  1. Those meatballs look impressive! I originally had Xiao Nian Guo in HK on my restaurant list before taking it off. Shame about the XLB though...

  2. Helen - I have dreams about those meatballs.