On Nov 5th, the ChineseBites.com panel came together for the 9th Signature Dishes Tour dinner at Shanghai Élan Restaurant. Tucked inside Crystal Mall in Burnaby, this restaurant is known to locals for serving authentic Shanghainese cuisine. A slight departure from our previous biweekly dinners, I was looking forward to the diverse array of Shanghainese dishes we would be sampling.
The first dish was a plate of Chicken with Spicy Sauce 口水雞. Served cold, the chicken was quite good but the overall flavour was less impactful than I was expecting. Personally, I would have preferred the sesame oil based spicy sauce to have a bit more punch. The chicken itself was of good quality and was accented well by the herb garnish.
The second dish came in the form of the famous XLB’s or Shanghai Style Juicy Pork Buns 南翔小籠. I personally love xiao long bao and have probably consumed hundreds in my lifetime so can pretty confidently attest to the quality. The bao were the ideal size and weight and were served piping hot. With a bit of vinegar, I finished two of these delicious dumpling buns pretty quickly.
The third dish was a beautifully presented plate of Shanghai Jelly Pork 水晶肴肉. This is a dish we have had a couple times now on the CB Tour as it is a very popular starter dish. Personally, this cold cut meat is not my favourite but Shanghai Élan prepares it very well. The cold pork section was very clean and savoury while the almost clear gelatin component provided that interesting taste/texture contrast.
The fourth dish was a small heart shaped bowl of Wild Vegetable with Diced Dried Bean Curd and Pine Nuts 馬蘭頭香乾. Definitely my least favourite dish of the evening, this is not something I would order again. This vegetarian dish was not bad but was extremely simple and not something I’d go to a restaurant to have. Looking at the menu, there were one or two other vegetable dishes that appeared more substantial/interesting.
The fifth dish was a gorgeous offering of Cucumber & Jelly Fish with Sesame Oil 海蜇頭. While the cucumbers were delicious, the pieces of jelly fish unfortunately proved a bit tough for me. As I am used to softer cuts of jelly fish, this offering almost tasted like pure cartilage in my mouth. I am not sure if I just got the tough pieces but this dish was a bit difficult to consume and not that appealing flavour wise.
The sixth dish was a long plate of Stir Fried Shrimp 水晶蝦仁. In retrospect, I am not sure why we ordered this seafood dish as it was exceedingly simple but I still liked it. The shrimp were juicy and plump and the extremely humble preparation allowed the shrimp to stand on its own. Seasoned with a bit of salt and pepper, I thought this dish was pretty good but not something I’d order in a restaurant.
The seventh dish was a two part dish of Pan Fried Pork with Bean Sprouts in Crepes 京醬肉絲. About halfway through the dinner, this ended up being my favourite dish of the whole evening. The pan fried pork was well marinated and extremely tender. Paired with the fresh, hot crepes, I ended up making 3 delicious wraps. I cannot recommend this pork crepe dish enough and it was extremely well received by my dinner companions as well.
The eighth dish was Braised Potato with Eggplant & Sweet Pepper 地三鮮. I am not a big fan of eggplant but this dish was prepared quite well. The eggplant itself was not soggy and the accompanying peppers further accentuated the inherent sweetness of the purple fruit. I did not get a piece of the potato but overall a pretty substantial vegetable dish that would go very well with rice.
The ninth dish was Marinated Beef Wrapped with Pancake 撈餅牛肉捲. This meat wrap is a very traditional favourite so I was glad to see it part of the meal. The pancake itself was slightly crisp but still somewhat doughy. Overall, the roll was a bit salty but delicious with the marinated beef reigning as the obvious dominant flavour profile. A very good presentation of a popular dish, I would definitely order this on a return visit.
The tenth dish was an impressive platter of Sweet & Sour Rock Cod 松鼠石斑魚. For those familiar with the universally popular Sweet and Sour Pork dish, this dish was very similar. The rock cod itself felt very coarse and in a way I did not even feel like I was eating fish. I liked this dish but the heavy sauce must be taken in moderation as it is quite sweet.
The eleventh dish was a plate of Shanghai Fried Rice Cake with Shredded Pork 上海炒年糕. In the same vein as XLB or the meat wrap, rice cakes are so quintessentially Shanghainese that we had to order this dish. Personally, I prefer noodles over rice cakes but this dish was still quite good. The rice cakes are actually quite a mouthful if you get two or three in at once with that subtle gummy consistency. Some may find them strange to chew at first but you quickly get used to the unique texture.
The twelfth dish was a plate of Shanghai Fried Thick Noodle with Shredded Pork & Soy Sauce 上海粗炒麵. Being from Malaysia, this dish always reminds me of the very famous Hokkien Mee. With thick, soy marinated noodles and an assortment of meat and veggies, this noodle dish is definitely substantial. I actually liked this dish over the more traditional fried rice cakes as it was just easier to consume.
The thirteenth dish was a sizeable pot of Ham & Duck Soup with Fried Wonton 響鈴火腿老鴨扁尖湯. At this point in the dinner, I was quite full but still managed to put away a bowl and a half of this hearty soup. The ham and duck lent a definite saltiness to the cloudy broth which was delicious. The fried wonton and beans rounded out the bowl quite nicely.
The fourteenth and final dish was dessert in the form of Rice Balls with Sesame Seed Paste Soup 芝麻湯圓. This dessert was interesting in that it looked like some sort of fish maw or egg soup but turned out to be sweet. I did not care for the rice balls but the actual soup was refreshing and quite appetizing. A positive end to a very strong menu showing of great individual dishes.
In closing, ChineseBites.com dinners are always good and this Shanghainese showing was no different. Although there were one or two dishes I would not order again due to simplicity, the majority of the items we tried turned out to be very good. On a return visit, I will definitely order the Marinated Beef Wrap, the Pan Fried Pork w/ Crepes and the Ham & Duck Soup. With a couple bowls of white rice and a vegetable dish, this would be an undeniably memorable meal for anyone looking to orient themselves to the wonderful cuisine of Shanghai.