Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Shanghai Gate Review, Allston, MA

After several failed attempts at resurrecting frozen dumplings, Jeff and I thought we ought to go out and remind ourselves of what truly good dumplings taste like. If you have never experienced a truly beautiful dumpling, one that is so much more than the sum of its meat and noodle parts, one that makes you cry just a little when you first bite into it, I suggest you hie yourself to the Gourmet Dumpling House on Beach street in Chinatown and order as many dishes as you can. Your stomach may wreak terrible vengeance on you later in the evening for subjecting it to so much meat and oil in one sitting , but trust me, its worth it. Anyway, that’s a story for another time. On this particular evening Jeff and I didn’t want to make the trek out to Chinatown (mostly because we were hoping to throw back a couple Belgian beers at The Public House in Brookline after dinner), so we decided it was the perfect opportunity to finally check out Shanghai Gate, a Chinese restaurant in Allston that a friend has been raving about for years.
Now, when it comes to a recommendation for a new Chinese restaurant Im often skeptical. I have been subjected to far too many Americanized parodies where every dish is drowned in sauce so sticky and sweet that it seems better spooned over ice-cream, and everything else on the menu is fried into tasteless oblivion. I think many restaurateurs have the idea that the American palate has never made it out of adolescence, that all we can handle are bland, salty, and sweet and that any flavors beyond that frighten us into disgust. Okay okay I’ll try not to get up on my soap box again (or at least not so early in my review), but I’ll say right off that Shanghai Gate is in no danger of falling into this category. A quick glance at their menu reveals evidence of what Anthony Bourdain always salivates over on his show, a great respect for all parts of the pig. Experience has taught me that if you aren’t sure about a Chinese restaurant, always check the menu for dishes featuring pig knuckles or tripe, or blood sausage. Even if you aren’t bold enough to try these delicacies, their very presence bespeaks an authenticity that will ensure you never have to worry about your food coming out looking and tasting like candy.
At Shanghai Gate, as with most Chinese restaurants, dinner is preceded by the ubiquitous bottomless pot of hot tea. Some may see this as uninspired, but I have found that the tea’s plain bitterness helps it to act as both a refresher and a palate cleanser during the meal. Not to mention that its presence is easily the most comforting thing in the world when you have been standing outside in the Boston cold waiting for a table.

Jeff and I started with two familiar appetizers; pan fried pork dumplings and scallion pancakes. We had heard a rumor that Shanghai Gate serves the much sought after eastern species of dumpling commonly known as the ‘soup dumpling’ (seriously, these things are like unicorns, if you find a place that serves them, never ever leave!), and indeed, there is a photograph in the restaurant’s front window clearly featuring these plump little jewels, but we couldn’t find them on the menu and the waitress wasn’t sure of what we were asking for. Perhaps you need to know the secret password…or at least be able to pronounce Xiaolongbao. Anyway, settling for the pan fried dumplings turned out to be far more than a consolation prize. Each hot, juicy packet was encased in an almost paper thin wrap, which tore easily under our invading chopsticks and allowed full saturation of the simple vinegary dipping sauce. The pork was not simply seasoned with the usual garlic ginger mixture, but also carried a hint of Chinese five spice (star anise, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, and fennel) which gave it a softly fragrant taste that we found surprisingly delicious. The scallion pancakes were fried until crunchy , which gave them far more spirit than the doughy blobs that one often comes across. They had an appealing slightly gamey flavor which led me to believe that they were cooked with Chinese Chives rather than American green onions- another nice surprise!

Next, we ordered another familiar dish ; pan fried noodles with pork (and to think that I used to have delusions of being a true vegetarian-ha!). The noodles were thick and chewy, lightly coated in a flavorful but not too salty sauce, redolent of sesame oil, oyster sauce, and smoke from an obviously well seasoned pan. They shared the plate with tender bits of pork and juicy green heads of bok choy, and there was a noted absence of bean sprouts which made me ecstatic. Normally I enjoy contrasting textures in my meals but for some reason I can never enjoy bean sprouts in a noodle dish. Maybe its because they look so much like noodles themselves, and when I bite into one and am surprised by its telltale crunch, I feel betrayed.

Lastly we ordered a dish that we had never tried before; Steamed salty duck with sticky rice. This turned out to be the true star of the meal. It came to the table in a small bamboo steamer lined with wilted banana leaves. Slices of fatty duck nestled atop a pile of glutinous rice tossed with shitake mushrooms and ribbon thin strands of Chinese bacon. The duck was perfect-meltingly tender and gently flavored. I usually remove the fat with my chopsticks when I eat duck, but Jeff encouraged me to eat each piece whole and Im glad he did. There was definitely a part of my brain that balked at consuming so much unadulterated fat in its natural state but the creamy texture that it imparted to the meat immediately convinced me that it was the right thing to do.

Far from being a mere accessory to the duck, the accompanying pillowy soft rice added its own deliciously mellow note to the dish. The shitakes gave it a wonderful gamey, umami flavor, and the salty, smoky bits of bacon rounded everything out. Needless to say that there were no leftovers at the end of the meal, in fact, if we had been at home, I might have licked my plate. Sadly though, I was so full that I was only able to manage a single beer at the Public House afterwards. But it was a Saint Bernardus so that’s all I needed anyway. If you’re a beer aficionado then nuff said. One more note to finish off this review- Shanghai Gate’s d├ęcor really caught my eye. Forget the usual ‘I’ve been to China and I can prove it’ knickknacks and blown up photographs of mountains, instead the restaurant is refreshingly spartan and decorated primarily in black and deep red. Scarlet curtains are pulled back from the door and the rear wall of the dining area features a painted mural executed in bold black lines of Chinese villagers. High ceilings add to the sense of bold modern openness.

So in conclusion, if you like your comfortingly American wonton soup and general tsao’s chicken, don’t come here, you might get scared. But if you want all the tastes of Chinatown without the hassle of finding parking in those narrow alleys, this is your place. Now I just need to learn how to order the soup dumplings, I’ll capture that unicorn yet, mind my words!

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