I'm afraid this is a slightly inadequate guide to Shanghai cuisine, as I'm not sure of the exact names of many of the dishes ordered. I've pieced together as much as I can from my photos, brief glimpses of the menu, and the internet. Incidentally the bilingual Chinese-English menu is a great read with explanations of the dishes and stunning photos.
I was asked to suggest a dish or two but otherwise my host did the ordering. For our party of four, she ordered a varied selection of small plates and some bigger dishes. Whilst the small plates might be viewed as starters, the dishes were brought out in no particular order.
The photo at the top of this post shows off that most famous of Shanghai dishes, xiao long bao (小笼包). These soup-filled dumplings need little introduction and whilst the XLB here weren't quite as good as those I had in Shanghai last year, they remain streets ahead of the stuff served in London.
I also enjoyed the pan-fried wonton (jian yuntun 煎云吞?) as did the rest of the table. Shanghai-style wonton pastry is quite different from the more familiar Cantonese-style and its more robust nature allows it to be pan-fried like a potsticker dumpling (guo tie 锅贴). The juicy pork and pak choi filling was different class and I'd love to see these on a dim sum menu back home.
Less successful was the sweet & sour spare ribs (tangcu paigu 糖醋排骨), which were served cold as is apparently customary. I would've preferred them warm. The fish & tofu soup was a bit bland and needed some pepper to lend it some flavour.
I'm proud to say that my one contribution to the order was the sautéed fresh river shrimp (清炒野生河虾仁). Some might say that having a whole page dedicated to this signature dish in the menu swayed me. And they'd be right. I loved the simplicity of this delicately cooked dish. Seasoned with a light hand, the sweetness of the shrimp shone through. Incidentally, other freshwater produce like river fish and hairy crab also feature prominently in Shanghai cuisine.
My other favourite was the braised bamboo shoots on a bed of watercress. I've seldom eaten fresh bamboo shoots and they were full of flavour. The just cooked watercress was also the perfect complement. I was less enamoured by the fried fish with pomelo, which was served with what can be best described as a kind of mayo. This dish committed the sin of looking better than it tasted and I suspect that it is a creation of one of the chefs rather than being traditional Shanghainese fare.
The last big dish was the crab & tofu potage, which I can tell you little about, as I'm not a big fan of bean curd. I nearly forgot to take a photo but it must have been good as the others devoured it.
What is Shanghai Cuisine?
The term Shanghai cuisine is a bit of a misnomer as it actually draws upon the culinary traditions of neighbouring Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. No matter what you call it, I haven't always been a fan of this kind of food, as I thought it was too sweet and oily. However, I was converted on a visit to a branch of Xiao Nan Guo in Hong Kong, where I was impressed with its elegant and refined take on this cuisine. I've been a fan ever since.
Other famous dishes that you might find in restaurants serving Shanghai food include red-cooked dishes like Dongpo pork (东坡肉), beggar's chicken (jiao hua ji 叫化鸡), drunken chicken (zuiji 醉鸡), squirrel fish (songshu gui yu 松鼠鳜鱼), Shanghai hairy crab (da zha xie 大闸蟹) and lion's head meatballs (shizi tou 狮子头), which I sampled on a previous visit to Xiao Nan Guo. If you like xiao long bao then I think you'll also like the lesser-known sheng jian bao (生煎包).
The smart and elegant Xiao Nan Guo isn't just my favourite Shanghainese restaurant; it remains one of my favourite restaurants in Beijing.
I dined at the Financial St branch but there are other branches in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong amongst other major cities.
Xiao Nan Guo, 3/F China Life Center, 17 Financial Street, Xicheng District, Beijing
小南国 北京市西城区金融大街17号人寿中心大厦3楼 (Tel: +86-400-820-9777)
Shanghai Cuisine in the UK
Sadly Shanghai cuisine isn't that common in the UK. Granted there are loads of restaurants across the land with 'Shanghai' in their names but that's usually a marketing ploy to lure
I remember there used to be an authentic Shanghai joint in London's Chinatown on the site of what is now Haozhan but I struggle to think of a restaurant that currently majors in this cuisine. If anyone does know of anywhere in London or elsewhere in the UK then let me know. By the way, I don't consider either Shanghai Blues in Holborn or Dalston's Shanghai as being authentic Shanghainese.