210 Water St.
It was lunchtime and we’d just settled into what felt like a white cocoon at the Shanghai Restaurant on Water Street. Our “cocoon” was a booth, with super high seat backs, completely covered in a very white leathery material. The table was covered with a white cloth, white chopsticks, white dishes, and dominant before us were pristine white cotton napkins folded in the shape of an ornate crown.
I’ve always been impressed by beautifully folded napkins. It’s an art that’s not practised much anymore. There are dozens of attractive ways to fold a square cloth napkin, from pyramid shaped to rosebud, rose or crown. Altogether it was an impressive table setting for what I hoped would be a pleasant dining experience.
Apart from the British pub style bar, a hangover from the days of the Guv’nor Pub, the restaurant has been visually transformed into a handsome fine dining establishment. Fire engine red, black and white stand out, but also the kaleidoscope colours of photographic murals and poster-sized pictures of the city of Shanghai at night. Shanghai (one of the world’s biggest cities) has lighting that rivals Las Vegas, Nevada.
The great chef Raymond Blanc, in a speech to a seafood conservation conference at London’s Old Billingsgate Fish Market a few years ago, said he feared that one day the only seafood he’d have for his bouillabaisse would be “plankton and algae.” Recently, I heard a comedian (his name escape’s me) cracking a joke about us humans — after allowing the world’s oceans to be fished out or destroyed — convincing ourselves that jellyfish (presumably the only fish left) “tastes pretty good.”
When I saw jellyfish on the menu at Shanghai, I wondered if that day was drawing nigh. I’d never had jellyfish, but, being the type who’ll try anything once, I ordered a dish. The jellyfish appeared to have been blanched and julienne cut. A small pile (looking like sauerkraut) was served on a marinade that tasted of soy, vinegar and sesame oil. Chopped green onion and sesame seeds had been sprinkled over all.
On its own, jellyfish has no taste, absolutely none. When I mixed it through the marinade, it took on the taste of the marinade ingredients. Jellyfish is all about texture, much as squid and snails are about texture — although the latter have more flavour. The texture of jellyfish is like softened, smooth plastic. (How’s that for a description of food.) I liked it, but it’s definitely an acquired taste. Congratulations to Shanghai for having the chutzpah to put it on the menu.
Shanghai’s barbecued pork tasted like the ubiquitous thinly sliced, reddish-edged pork found in many Chinese dishes, like Cantonese chow mein. In this case, I got a full plate of it on a bed of lettuce, smothered in a thick, dark brown sauce decorated with sesame seeds. Parts of the pork were quite tender and moist while others were slightly dry or verging on brittle. The sauce had a deep, smoky, sweet-tart flavour that made the dry bits of pork more palatable.
Shanghai served a decent beef curry on a bed of sticky vermicelli. Bite-sized pieces of beef were mixed with diced white onion, sliced carrot and scallions. Familiar curry spices sans heat or zip made for a very mild sauce. On the other hand, the kung pao chicken was kicking hot with plenty of flavours, including wine, garlic, fresh peanuts, sweet bell peppers and freshly chopped chives.
Scallops and snow peas were served in a glossy, dark, medium spiced sauce. The ocean scallops had been sliced into large coins. They were utterly succulent. Fresh snow peas out numbered the scallops, but were perfectly cooked — not too soft.
Shanghai’s vegetable pad Thai had fewer vegetables than I was expecting. An abundance of noodles was presented with only slivers of pepper mixed through, making the dish stodgy and gluey.
Fortunately Shanghai had had better success with our previous dishes.
Meal for two with tax and tip: $90 (approximately)
Atmosphere and food
Areas for Improvement
* Fair * * Good * * * Excellent
* * * * Exceptional
We’re doing better, but St. John’s still needs more international restaurants. I was sorry to see Taste of Thai close its doors a while back. For those of you who may be missing Thai cuisine, there is an alternative, although I have not yet tried their food. A Thai take-away has opened at the Avalon Mall food court. It’s called Thai Hut. They offer, among other dishes, pad Thai, tamarind ginger beef, tikki masala, green curry, Korean style bulgogi beef, and a dessert of black rice with coconut milk. A sign indicated they would soon offer delivery. The number to call is 738-THAI.
Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef and recipient of the Canadian Culinary
Federation Sandy Sanderson Award for Communications. Contact him through
his website, www.karlwells.com.