China, of course, enjoys the greatest food in the world, a cuisine capable of such subtlety and regional variety that French or Italian menus seem as one-dimensional as Hamburger Helper. A good Chinese chef can render pork kidneys into rare objects of desire, spin sea slugs into gold, or unlock the untold degrees of pleasure that inhabit a turnip or a stalk of celery. Chinese chefs make even bamboo fungus and gluten taste good.
But still, there are those among us indifferent to the pleasures of the Chinese dessert, the candied snow-frog ovary, the sugared haw, the bowl of sugary kidney-bean soup that often follows a Chinese meal. Osmanthus has its virtues as a sweet flavoring, certainly, but not quite so many as chocolate. Mung beans are perhaps less appealing than strawberry shortcake. As delicious as puddings thickened with dried bird spittle may be, they will probably not supplant crème brûlée on Los Angeles menus any time soon.
But beyond the mango cream and black-rice porridge and unspeakably exotic tong shui made with pearl dust and tortoise shell are the unlovely confections known as sweet-rice balls, marble-size spheres of pounded rice stuffed with payloads of ground peanuts, black sesame, or toasted seeds. As served at Giang Nan, a newish Shanghai-style restaurant in Monterey Park, these rice balls are orbs of pure, gooey texture, a miraculous, dense substance that seems only a molecular bond or two from collapsing into liquid, that modulates into little bursts of pure, sweet flavor as it oozes down your throat. You may have had decent sweet-rice balls before — Japanese mochi is a somewhat cruder take on the form — but the ones at Giang Nan, floating in a warm, tangy broth flavored with rice-wine lees the restaurant specially imports from Shanghai, are so much better that they might as well be from a different galaxy, where glutinous rice tastes better than apple pie.
Giang Nan is a tiny, bright café devoted to eel and fish tails and sautéed squash, hidden in the rear corner of a Chinese shopping mall that also includes a Chinese bakery, the spicy seafood at Best Sichuan, and a scattering of perpetually deserted Chinese boutiques. If you have been to enough Shanghainese restaurants, you could probably navigate your way through its menu by heart: braised crab with rice cake, preserved vegetables with bean-curd sheets, fried spare ribs crusted with garlic and sweet, caramelized soy. It has everything you could want in a modest East Chinese restaurant, including waitresses straight from the former Green Village, a chef just a year or so out of Shanghai, and an ingredient obsession previously unknown in Shanghainese restaurants around here. Shanghainese cooking is traditionally on the heavy side, dependent on long braises, sweet marinades and abundant quantities of oil, but the cuisine here is cleaner, lighter, than what you might find at more traditional local Shanghai-style restaurants such as King’s Palace or Merrylin.
A dish of pork, firm tofu and bamboo shoots, for instance, cut into precise matchsticks and stir-fried in less oil than it would take to lubricate a gnat’s bicycle, tastes of the pure, fresh flavors of its own mild ingredients, nothing more. Cold celery is carefully stripped of its strings, lightly poached in stock, and served cool and plain, moistened with a bit of sesame oil. Fish is minced to the size of rice grains and stir-fried almost dry with toasted pine nuts and perhaps a gram or two of scallion. If you are looking for cooking that smacks you over the head with strong flavors, Giang Nan is perhaps not your ideal restaurant. Even the giant braised pork knuckle, second cousin to the infamous pork pump — defatted, carefully degreased, simmered into sweet submission — comes across as delicate.
The yellow fish with hair seaweed, a dish of sliced filets dipped in seaweed-enriched batter and fried into seafood beignets, had seemed almost magical when I first encountered it at the old Green Village, but the version at Giang Nan may be even better, crisp, greaseless and unexpectedly fragile. A casserole of cured duck and taro served sizzling in a clay pot is pure, garlicky happiness.
The braised meatballs sometimes known as lion’s head, cricket balls of ground pork, are dense instead of fluffy, stalwart instead of delicate, formed around hard-boiled duck’s-egg yolks that seem to moisten the concoctions from the inside out, giving them the meaty presence of the traditionally fat-intensive lion’s head without anything near the mass. Salted duck yolk, which is probably the chef’s signature ingredient, also appears, shaved like Parmesan, in a weightless stir-fry of shrimp and tofu, and glazes an excellent cold, dried-soybean timbale that has the eerie, chunky appearance of a portion of Soylent Green.
The kitchen at Giang Nan is by no means perfect. Shanghai-style menus, even in Shanghai, tend to feature a scattering of Sichuan dishes much as a California restaurant might serve a quesadilla or two. But the spicy food here tends to be pretty sweet and mild, and you might want to look elsewhere for your ma po tofu or your shredded beef with hot pepper. Many of the sweet, heavy brown-sauce dishes that appear on every Shanghainese menu — yellow leeks cooked with a sort of murky eel marmalade, braised fish tail — are somewhat lighter but also somewhat blander than usual.
But the soup dumplings, with or without crab, are impeccable, the bean curd with ham is delicious, and the Shanghai spring rolls are nothing short of amazing, almost liquid under their shattering golden skins.
Giang Nan, 306 N. Garfield Ave., No. A-12, Monterey Park; (626) 573-3421. Lunch Tues.-Sun. 11 a.m.–3 p.m., dinner Tues.-Sun. 5–10 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $14–$25. Recommended dishes: degreased braised pork knuckle, minced duck’s-egg yolk with dried bean, salted duck with taro clay pot, fried seaweed with yellow fish, mini sweet rice ball in rice wine sauce.