Shanghai Cuisine (89-91 Bayard Street, 732-8988) is a homey and affectionate re-creation – make that evocation – of Shanghai in its glorious, decadent heyday in the thirties, with Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington wafting through the air along with the scent of soy sauce. The restaurant is the labor of love of Josephine Feng, a young native Shanghai émigré who arrived here in 1987 and, after ten years as a textile designer, decided to go into the restaurant business in partnership with her husband, Ji Jie Hong, and Mr. Wing Jing Lau, the proprietor of Shanghai Domain and Winter Garden (Wing, in his double-breasted vest of black glove leather and pastel dress shirts, is a trimly elegant presence in the dining room). Miss Feng and her husband have decorated the room with the kinds of memories that might have survived in someone’s grandmother’s trunk through the years of the Cultural Revolution, which was particularly virulent in Shanghai. Several movie posters adorn one wall, all featuring seductive leading ladies who have, for the most part, been erased from official memory. In the rear of the restaurant, behind a glittering full bar, a row of pictures of Shanghai’s main street, Nan Jing Road, are on display, oversize postcards that hint at the high style for which the city is famous.
On three visits, I found the food unusual, the ingredients fresh, the sauces full of the powerful tastes of soy, rice wine, ginger, and garlic. The menu is gigantic, and the names of the dishes accurately foretell what will arrive at your table, so my advice is to order freely: If it sounds good, it probably is. I add this caveat: Ask your waiter or Miss Feng whether the dish is authentic Shanghainese, because the menu offers a good number of Cantonese dishes that cater to American expectations of a Chinese menu.
Each time, I ordered the fried seaweed and peanuts: I cannot think of anything better to go with a cold Tsingtao beer (another product of Shanghai, originated when the city was a proto-colony in the German sphere of influence). The intrepid diner might try cold shredded jellyfish with scallion, a salad that’s as fresh as coleslaw but chewier and more tangy. It might be most appropriate to start the meal with the so-called tiny buns, juicy dumplings that are an accessible staple of Shanghai cuisine.
Shanghai itself is well known for unusually sweet sauces for thoroughly cooked, braised meats and steaming noodle casseroles. Chu ree (thinly sliced pork tongue) cooked in wine has a silky, meaty texture; the braised bean-noodle casserole with crabs is a meaty, salty, ginger-laced, peppery dish that had us all cracking shells and staining our shirts with reckless disregard for dry-cleaning bills. A pork shoulder with brown sauce is first deep-fried to render out the fat, then plunged into cold water to shock (and shrink tight) the skin before a final braising in brown sauce redolent of what I took to be Five Spices or some Shanghai variant of it. The braised buffalo-carp tail has a somewhat off-putting name – neither the carp nor the buffalo for which it is named tops my list of subtle dainties – but the dish was outstanding, its firm flesh standing up to the rich, salty sauce. Nor should you be deterred by the mysteriously named Osmanthus pork, which turns out to be crisp chunks of pork in an herb- and garlic-rich batter. Finally, order in advance the braised soy duck with eight treasures (two of which are rice and a chestnutlike filling).The moist duck is an ideal platform from which to show off the unusually tasty brown sauce. And if there’s any of that gravy left over, the stuffing will mop it up nicely.
Open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11 p.m. Entrées up to $19.95. Cash only.