August 01, 2004

Shanghai Cafe


    In Manhattan -> Chinatown restaurants
    Cuisine: Chinese
    Entree Price: $3-7
    Address: 100 Mott Street, between Canal and Hester
    Phone: 212-966-3988
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Best bets: Steamed tiny buns, sticky rice in bamboo leaf, soups, anything with tofu

Keep in mind: No brown rice

Average entree cost: $7.00

In the middle of one of Chinatown's busiest blocks, Shanghai Café stands humbly, consistently serving up tasty and affordable fare. Fresh ingredients, a peppy atmosphere, and friendly if slightly brusque service make this casual up-to-date establishment a Mott Street standout.

Formerly Shanghai Gourmet, Shanghai Café caters to its own: Chinese patrons are always in the majority, and the large round table in the back is usually occupied by a boisterous group with superior ordering skills.

If you've eaten here before, it's almost impossible to sit in one of Shanghai's blond-wood booths and not order the first item on the menu, the steamed tiny buns. Filled with crabmeat and pork, or just pork (I recommend the former), these dangerously hot, broth-filled dumplings require concentration so as not to burn one's tongue, and to commit the senses to what is truly heaven in a dumpling skin.

Many a food critic has pontificated on the proper way to consume these little darlings. The key to a successful steamed bun experience is to spill as little of the rich and incredibly flavorful broth as possible. Place a dumpling (and cabbage leaf if you are so inclined) on a soupspoon, and pierce it with a chopstick. Puncturing serves two purposes: It allows the scalding broth to cool down, and it makes eating the bun less messy and awkward. Place a small amount of the vinegary, ginger-infused sauce that accompanies the buns on top of the whole concoction. When the bun is cool enough to eat (this might take longer than you think), slurp and eat away! Whether you're wont to nibble delicately at the bun or throw it back in one hot shot, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a warmer and more satisfying combination.

Shanghai's menu has much else to offer, and for $2.50 the sticky rice in bamboo leaf is one of the cheapest and tastiest treats I've eaten. Seasoned with soy sauce and a bit of sugar, the superbly glutinous short-grained rice is studded with succulent bits of slow-cooked pork that seem to disintegrate upon contact with the tongue. One of these savory triangular packages is the perfect accompaniment to a fresh, comforting soup like vegetable with bean curd.

Luxuriously silken tofu makes its way into a number of dishes and should not be missed. Utterly rich yet feather-light, Shanghai's tofu -- delivered fresh every morning -- is a close cousin to the homemade kind that Chinatown street vendors sell. It is a demanding task to eat the slippery white squares with the clunky plastic chopsticks the restaurant provides. You may even find yourself asking for, yes, a fork.

On a recent Sunday, I ordered the tofu and crab. Anticipating that the soft, vegetable-less dish would need a little bite, I asked for the dish with water spinach, a long green chute topped with a spinach-like leaf. A Chinese acquaintance introduced me to the lovely green, which I've only seen in Chinatown and rarely on a menu, including Shanghai Café's. Its crunchy texture and bright but subtle flavor improve almost any saucy dish. When the steaming dish arrived, the tofu and crab had a smooth, delicate flavor, but it came with a surplus of gelatinous sauce that detracted from the main event. As I had suspected, the crispy water spinach balanced the texture perfectly.

Shanghai Café's reliable, above-average food is likely to lure you back again and again. Even the most seasoned diners will find the siren song of steamed tiny buns impossible to ignore.

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Posted by at August 1, 2004 11:50 AM