Shanghai Dreamin’

Hint: Look east of the Caldecott.

“I’m sick of that Cantonese shit,” says Leon on our drive to Shanghai Gourmet. Leon’s family is from Taiwan, and he’s passionate about finding good Northern Chinese food in the land of 1001 Southern Chinese restaurants. Leon called to tell me that a lot of Northern Chinese restaurants around Walnut Creek were advertising on Chinese-language television. Did I know anything about them? Nope, but if he picked one out, I’d take him to dinner.

So he test-drove Shanghai Gourmet, just north of downtown Walnut Creek. Shanghai Gourmet, which has a sister restaurant in Richmond, has been open five years, and its chef, Mr. Shem, received formal training and several cooking honors in Shanghai. He is master of more than 150 menu items, half of them Shanghainese regional dishes.

Almost midway between Beijing and Hong Kong, Shanghai has developed a cuisine that straddles the border between northern and southern styles. Wheat buns, noodles and dumplings, and rich, oily sauces echo the north; simply prepared seafood, pickled vegetables, and rice dishes, the south. Cooks from all over China brought their own techniques to the cosmopolitan city, creating a highly refined amalgam of styles. Like many Americans, the sophisticated Shanghainese also love a little sugar in their sauces.

Chandeliers and white tablecloths set the tone for the restaurant, whose vibrant greenness extends from the carpet to booths to the hand-painted murals on the walls. It’s empty on a weekday evening, and four of us sit in a booth along the back, separated from the large family tables in the main room by a half-screen. For the past several months, Leon and his friend Lilly have been making the rounds of the Shanghainese restaurants around the Bay Area, so they lead us through the menu.

We start off with slices of chilled Shaosing chicken, or “drunken chicken,” a chicken leg that has been steamed with Shaosing (Shaoxing) rice wine and then left to marinate in the wine so its sherry-like flavor soaks into the meat. Next comes a bowl of shepherd’s purse, tofu, and dried scallop soup. Thickened with cornstarch until almost gelatinous, a traditional style that I find a little gloopy, the soup is emerald with shepherd’s purse, a delicately mustard-like green whose origins lie in European herbal medicine. The chopped leaves and cubes of silken tofu are interwoven with threads of dried scallop, its fustiness deepening the flavor of the chicken-stock broth.

Pan-fried Shanghai-style dumplings mark a pause between starters and entrées. The doughy wrappers of six large dome-shaped dumplings are twisted up into crowns, and their bottoms have been crisped uniformly brown. We request a bottle of black vinegar, the balsamic vinegar of China, to dip them in. The robustly seasoned pork meatballs at the centers of the chewy dumplings are infused with ginger and scallion, but they’re too dry for my companions. “They’re called juicy buns in Chinese,” says Leon, “but these lack juice.”

Shanghai’s long tradition of vegetarian cuisine is reflected in the vegetable section of the menu, which is longer and more varied than at many Cantonese places. Shelled fresh fava beans — the quintessential Mediterranean pulse — are cooked down with scallions until they get mushy around the edges.

Their bitterness contrasts well with two of the great Shanghai classics. The city on the Yangtze is famous for river fish such as carp and freshwater eel. Julienned strips of meaty eel, mild yellow chives tangled around them, are coated in the dark soy and rice-wine sauce that marks Shanghai cuisine. A more intense version of the sauce is the basis of the technique known as “red cooking.” Red-cooked pork clay pot contains pork belly, knotted sheets of chewy tofu skin, and lettuce leaves in a sweet brown sauce flavored with ginger, cinnamon, and star anise. I find the sauce a little sugary, which I’m told is traditional, and monochromatic, which I’m told is not. The pork belly has stewed into chunks of tender meat layered with translucent, sumptuous strips of fat.

Later several friends and I, none of us Chinese American, return to Shanghai Gourmet to resume our explorations in Shanghainese cuisine. We’re handed a menu that is completely different from the one that I had looked over the week before. It has a third as many items. Fried pig intestines and sautéed pea sprouts are replaced by sesame chicken and Mongolian beef. You could find all the dishes it lists at any cheap Chinese takeout.

“Can we see the other menu?” I ask our waiter. He brings us a couple of copies of a specials menu with photos illustrating a few familiar dishes such as shredded chicken in lettuce cups. “The Chinese menu?” I ask again. He raises his eyebrows, goes back to the wait station, and returns with the menus from last week, which happily are printed in English. By this time we have a six-inch stack on our table.

We ignore the first two sets and order a few more Shanghai specialties that Leon and Lilly had pointed out, along with a couple of others that catch our fancy. Again, we begin the meal in the Chinese manner with a cold dish. The peppery, salty duck is a duck leg brined in enough salt to permeate to the bone before being steamed. The salt brings out all the flavor of the meat so that it almost tastes roasted, yet its fatty skin remains moist and white. And again, we follow up with a soup course, “seafood chowder,” a thick egg-drop soup with peas, chopped calamari, and prawns. The soup is tasty but unmemorable.

Then the table fills up with so many platters that we have to juggle — one dish must be in the air at all times. “Shrimp balls with gingko nuts” pairs peeled shrimp, which curl up when stir-fried, with the creamy, bitter flesh of gingko nuts, covering them with a transparent, lightly seasoned sauce. The chef takes a similarly Cantonese approach to black mushrooms, as meaty and tender as stewed beef tongue, with baby bok choy and Dictyophora indusiata. I’d had the lacy collar of the collared stinkhorn mushroom before at Daimo in Richmond, where it was described as “bamboo pith.” But Shanghai Gourmet’s preparation surpasses Daimo’s: instead of being so fibrous that they require an interminable amount of chewing, the soft, white spongy strips evaporate in the mouth, releasing all the sauce they have soaked up. The sensation is exquisite.

We encounter tofu skins again, this time wrapped loosely around julienned carrots, bean sprouts, and dried lily buds, a fleeting floral note. The bundles are laid across a bed of steamed spinach, and the greens match the al dente texture of the tofu skin.

The three lightly seasoned dishes play off two more assertively sauced entrées. Wuxi spareribs, fatty and tender, have been braised in a semisweet, bright red lacquer fragrant with star anise and cinnamon. The roasted carp with scallions is fried and smothered in a chocolate-brown oily sauce chunky with filaments of melted, long-sautéed scallions. Its dark, roasted flavor, though not sweet, masks the muskiness of the freshwater fish. But hundreds of tiny sharp bones make the carp something of a nightmare to eat.

The only disappointing dish is the Shanghai-style thick pan-fried noodles. I love the chewiness of the noodles, which are as thick as udon, and the almost smoky taste of wok char. But the oily pasta, stir-fried with a little soy, doesn’t have much flavor.

You can try the Chinese-style desserts — which include a deep-fried rice-flour pancake stuffed with chocolaty red-bean paste or an overly watery, pink sticky-rice pudding studded with dried fruits and lotus nuts. But you’ll probably be just as happy after all the rich flavors of Shanghai cuisine with the orange segments and fortune cookies that come with the bill. Which, by the way, isn’t very large considering the amount of food.

On his first visit, Leon’s Shanghai-born cousin gave her nod to the place, but his quest for the best Shanghainese food in the Bay Area continues. Despite his reservations, Shanghai Gourmet serves the most interesting, best-executed Chinese food I’ve yet tasted east of the Caldecott.

Just be sure to ask for the right menu.

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