Jonathan Gold Reviews Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village
Let's get this out of the way: Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village is the most ambitious Chinese restaurant to open in Los Angeles in a decade — maybe ever, if you don't count Hong Kong–style seafood palaces. Its walls are covered with crushed red velvet, and its black velvet banquettes are studded with tufts of glass cut to sparkle like rhinestones under the many, many chandeliers. There is polished wood and rich fabric everywhere you look in the warren of dining rooms, which you may remember from the couple of years that Green Village occupied the space. The crimson good-luck banners outside the restaurant are as numerous and as closely spaced as the flags of all nations outside the United Nations, and late-model Mercedeses clog the parking lot.
But when you accidentally stumble across this place, and you are kind of into Chinese food, what you are struck by is the magnificence of the restaurant's menu, a thick, glossy document stuffed with glistening pictures of spiked sea cucumber, elaborately produced photo essays (in Chinese) on Shanghai neighborhoods and old movie actresses, and more dishes than the human mind can contemplate. It is the Chinese restaurant menu equivalent of a September Vogue, except instead of models, there are crabs and stewed pig's trotters and fried abalone, reproduced in nearly pornographic detail. To hell with dinner — you may want to just curl up with the menu and a snifter of Courvoisier.
There are crabs fried with chile and garlic, translucent lozenges of bean starch with crab meat, broad beans sauced with stewed scallions, and local cod gently steamed with ginger and garlic. A striking dish translated as "double tubes of squid" involves a whole, red-cooked creature sliced and arranged into a tableau of twin towers with tentacles poking from their midst, decorated with a single flowering garlic chive — I'm not sure I've ever had better red-cooked squid. Jellyfish with aged vinegar somehow attains succulence, heightening the complexity of the vinegar.
If you go to the restaurant several times, you eventually will end up with "braised three strings," as much because the menu photograph makes it look like Cousin It as for any other reason. And while the construction may be a little alarming on the plate — it really does look like Cousin It, with a mushroom cap for a beret — by the time you disassemble it into slivers of ham and chicken in the serving bowl, in a puddle of ultraconcentrated chicken broth, you probably will have fallen in love.
If you have a problem figuring out what to order from the enormous menu, you could do worse than to start with some of the restaurant's specialties, which are numbered 1 to 10 early in the book — probably skipping the shark-lip casserole and the expensive abalone dishes. The one dish on everyone's table is the Old Alley Pork, apparently named for a Shanghai street-vendor specialty: crocks of gorgeous, burnished chunks of braised pork transformed into pig candy, one piece of which would be sufficient to sustain a small family for a week. You will want an order of the smoked fish, a braised, smoked and fried preparation that likely has made it onto every Eastern Chinese menu in the world, but never this crisp or light. If you're into that sort of thing, the braised chicken feet in abalone sauce are as soft and juicy as a lover's tenderest sighs, and the casserole of crab roe is suave.
If the first phase of Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley was fueled by emigration from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the second by relatively less affluent emigres from northern China, the opening of Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village seems to mark the entry of full-blown Chinese capital into the game — a gilded, cosmopolitan restaurant that is a full-fledged fourth location of a prosperous chain in Shanghai itself.
Perhaps because the restaurant's lineage is so direct, its cooking is not altered to suit the Western palate, and many of its most stunning effects may whiz straight over the heads of diners not actually raised in eastern China. Even if you are inclined toward the elusive pleasures of bitter melon, for example, a warty vegetable that when braised can achieve a kind of lush, almost decadent lusciousness even while retaining an aftertaste harsh as 10 strokes of the lash, you may be alarmed by the crunchy stir-fry of the vegetable with complexly acerbic lily root. I tried to like the combination, and even admired it in an abstract way, but in the end I was defeated. The curried crab — one of the 10 specialties — had funky, bitter overtones that also were a bit too much. The soup of duck and bamboo shoots looks on the menu to be the best soup in the world, but in the flesh, it is gray and bland.
Still, the number of truly great dishes here is vast: lean, steamed chicken dressed with scallion oil, green beans toss-fried with chunks of dried seafood, a caramelized pork shank that collapses at the touch of a chopstick, and enormous Japanese eggplants, nearly as long as your arm, cut into ultrathin slices and steamed to softness under a blanket of slivered chiles. The soup dumplings, xiao long bao, are more deeply flavorful than any in town, although they may spurt less vigorously than the versions at Din Tai Fung. The pan-fried pork buns, sheng jian bao, are nicely browned on the bottom, sprinkled with seeds on the top, and both crunch and gush hot juice under your teeth: I can imagine coming here and ordering nothing but several orders of these.
Most of the dumplings, including the Shanghai egg rolls and the crisp turnip rolls, are available only in the daytime, as part of the generally Cantonese dim sum menu, prepared by a different team of chefs, and are very good but not quite as spectacular as the evening food. (The dim sum XLB, for example, seem to be in an entirely different style.) But at either dinner or dim sum, you should feel practically obligated to try the stone-pot fried rice: Loose-textured, brothy-tasting yet dry, tossed with several different kinds of Chinese greens and both smoky Chinese ham and tiny cubes of what resembles Chinese pancetta, it is the best fried rice I have ever tasted in a lifetime of fried rice. You'll probably like it, too.
SHANGHAI NO. 1 SEAFOOD VILLAGE | 250 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel | (626) 282-1777 | Open daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m. | MC, V | Beer and wine | Free underground and lot parking | Recommended dishes: Old Shanghai braised pork, jellyfish with vinegar, pan-fried pork buns (sheng jian bao), xiao long bao, stir-fried green beans with chef sauce, stone-pot fried rice, tapioca soup with papaya
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