Fussy Little Dinners: Ala Shanghai
It seems like all my good ideas these days come from Stanford Steph. No joke. She’s the one who thought it would be a good idea to have a Tour de Donut. Since then there has been the Tour de Hot Dog and the Tour de Soft Serve. Come to think of it, we are due for another one. I need to get on that.
Stanford Steph was also the one who read my post about the luffa at Ala Shanghai with a certain longing and suggested a few of us get together for dinner. Well, her nudging tapped into something I had really wanted to do for some time. The idea was to contact local ethnic restaurants and ask them to prepare a special meal of regional delicacies, one in which the diners would be unafraid of any unusual dishes that came their way.
And this seemed to be the perfect opportunity.
So I reached out to Lanny at Ala Shanghai, and based on my newfound knowledge of their spring and summer menu, I asked him to talk with his chef about putting together a meal of seasonal and authentic dishes for a group of eight people. The only thing I insisted upon was that there had to be soup dumplings. After all, Albany Jane was going to be there, and she loves those little pouches of steaming hot pork juices.
You can read about and see pictures of each tantalizing dish at Albany Eats. I’m not going to rehash what she wrote, but instead I’ll offer some color commentary.
I wish you all could have been there. And in the future, I’m going to try to think of some way to get more people involved in events like this. But the only consolation I can offer is that this menu the eight of us enjoyed can be yours too. Gather up seven of your most adventurous friends, and give Lanny a call. Tell him you want Daniel’s seasonal menu for eight and you too can dine like bandits for $20 a person.
Just allow them some time to put it together.
There was a lot on the menu I was excited about trying. In fact, there were several things I had for the very first time, like jellyfish, West Lake Beef Soup, snow fungus, tung-po pork, salted egg yolk, and chrysanthemum jelly with medlar.
Jellyfish conjures up something slimy in my mind. However, the dish couldn’t be further removed from this. This was a refreshing cold summer appetizer, and I’m moving it high up my list of things to eat. It’s protein that eats like a salad. It’s cold and it’s crisp, lightly flavored with sesame oil. But it’s more about texture than flavor, and I loved its snap.
When it came to the soup course, I’ve never found a hot soup so refreshing. Granted, if you are one of those people who cannot abide cilantro, this will not be the soup for you.
My favorite dish of the whole night however was the shrimp with luffa and soybean. Previously I had sampled just the luffa and soy, but the addition of shrimp took the plate to a higher level. The crisp firm texture of the shrimp and their delicate sweet flavor, worked beautifully with the other ingredients.
Really the entire first half of the meal was all about delicacy, up to and including the chicken with snow fungus and celery. These white wood ear mushrooms were almost like a very tender tripe, and I say that in the very best way.
From that point on Ala Shanghai took us into some more assertive waters with the braised pork belly that was so richly fatty I swear it gave me a head rush when I bit into the soft and tender morsel.
There was so much sea bass that despite its deliciousness, it was one of the dishes that remained unfinished at the end of the night. Now for those who may be following my concerns about ethical seafood, I actually have no idea what kind of sea bass this fish had been. It turns out several fish are marketed under this generic name, some of them more sustainable than others. Perhaps it’s wrong, but I opted for the don’t ask, don’t tell rubric.
Mr. Sunshine was generous enough to split the head of the beast with me. We each dug out a cheek, but Albany Jane seemed dismayed we didn’t try to devour more morsels from the skull of our dinner.
There was one truly remarkable thing about the soft shell crabs. They were actually battered in salted egg yolk. That’s it. Apparently it’s a very old and very traditional Chinese cooking technique. But I never would have imagined that a beaten egg yolk could produce a light and flaky deep fried crust. This was a real eye opener, as was the dessert.
The chrysanthemum jelly with medlar was beautiful. It was like a very delicate floral Jell-O mold with bright pieces of exotic fruit studded within and encircled in a ring of lychees. With all the food we had eaten, dessert seemed like it was out of the question. But this brought the meal back around to the point it had started, with cool delicate dishes, and perfectly book-ended the experience.
This was a stunning meal with great company, and much like the Chinese New Year’s feast, I cannot believe Ala Shanghai can put out this much great food for such a reasonable price. More local restaurants need to take a page from their book. Maybe some will be inspired to try. In the meantime, if you haven’t been, I strongly encourage you to go.