Mrs. Lee, twenty years in the United States but Shanghainese to the core, meticulously curated our lunch. She ran her manicured finger down the menu to show me her choices. She spoke at length in Shanghainese to the waiter about a dish posted in Chinese on the daily specials board. And during the whole meal, she never failed to keep every tea cup filled.
We were eating at Old Shanghai, a small, homey restaurant in the former location of the beloved Cantonese-American dinner house called Mike’s. Mrs. Lee knew exactly what to order to show off the restaurant at its best, the great hits of Shanghai cooking, albeit adjusted to compensate for slightly different ingredients.
Of course we began with crystal shrimp (No. 66, $13.50), the iconic lower Yangtze Valley preparation in which tiny freshwater shrimp, no bigger than a child’s fingernail, are barely warmed through in hot oil just until they turn opalescent pink. Here, larger salt water shrimp, about the size of an
adult’s thumbnail, get similar treatment. They emerged silky smooth on the tongue yet excitingly toothsome and naturally sweet when we bit into them. They are eaten with a drizzle of black Chinkiang vinegar infused with ginger threads.
Shanghai cooking also stars freshwater fish in clear, gently sweet sauces based on sherry-like Shaoxing rice wine. One of the nicest dishes here features bias-cut slices of flounder in a transparent sauce studded with nutty, frilly, black tree ears (No. 68, $12.95).
For me, Shanghai is synonymous with xiao long bao, delicate steamed pork dumplings (No. 2, $6.50) with thin wrappers, twirled at the top to seal in the juices of the pure pork meatball inside. On Geary, the kitchen makes them a little larger than those in Shanghai. But they’re still luscious, the wrappers delicate and thin, the juices vibrant, the pork perfectly seasoned. I could eat a hundred.
This restaurant skillfully makes another typical Shanghai preparation that uses chopped salted greens to season ribbons of chewy bean curd skin scattered with radiant fresh soy beans (No. 143, $7.75); or translucent ribbons of mung bean noodle in a buttery-tasting sauce (No. 138, $6.75); or chewy oval slices of sticky rice flour cake with thin strands of fresh pork (No. 51, $8). The first two of these are incredibly satisfying vegetarian dishes, light, bright but somehow meaty. The third seduces with texture. Order at least one of them.
Meat eaters will not go home hungry. Wu Xiang Pork Spareribs (No. 96, 9.95), about two inches long, the meat still firm but easily coming off the bone, have a deep, dark, sweet sauce buoyed by bright green vegetables. Though not meat, sauteed eel with chives (No. 87, $13.95), cut into spaghetti-like julienne in a dark, luscious sauce, acts like it. The eel is fabulous on rice or noodles.
The daily special that Mrs. Lee ordered, roughly translated as "three steamed fresh ingredients," looked divine — a molded hemisphere encased in thin overlapping slices of pink country-style ham and pearly fish filets, filled with bean curd skin cut into thin threads that look like noodles.
This pastel dome is surrounded by black mushrooms and flourescent greens in a subtle wine sauce ($9.95).
Without Mrs. Lee’s guidance, one might get lost navigating the long menu. Follow her advice, and you’ll get an authentic taste of old Shanghai.
Location: 5145 Geary Boulevard (at 16th Avenue), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 752-0120
Hours: Lunch Wednesday through Monday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner 5 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Tuesday
Price range: Shanghai dim sum, $2 to $7.50; dishes $6.50 to $20
Recommended dishes: Shanghai steamed dumplings (xiao long bao); preserved vegetable with bean curd skin or green bean skin or rice cake; crystal jade shrimp; fish filet in wine sauce, Wu Xiang spareribs
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa