Shanghai-native Francis Tsai has had a most eclectic life.
He’s a former ballroom dance instructor. He opened the first discotheque in Hong Kong. He once ran the food division of Pan American Airlines. Years ago, he operated the Wu Kong restaurant in San Francisco’s Rincon Center. His daughter, Melody, who was born deaf, opened her own pizza place in the Mission last year called Mozzeria.
Tsai may be 83 now. But he’s far from ready to retire just yet. In fact, this summer he opened his own restaurant in San Francisco in the former Mecca location — Shanghai.
The 60-seat restaurant, done up in burgundy and beige with roomy banquettes and a commanding bar in the center of the dining room, serves modern Shanghai cuisine. Recently, when I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant, I had a chance to try the creations of Chef Leo Gan, former opening chef of Shanghai 1930 in San Francisco.
The decor is definitely a step up from most Chinese restaurants. The prices are, too, with dishes ranging from $4 for a dumpling dessert to $40 for a special that night of a whole crispy duck with spiced salt and chili.
Maybe it’s a holdover from Tsai’s disco days, but the background music seemed more suited to a clubby lounge or a hip Melrose clothing boutique than an upscale restaurant. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, there’s live music with no coverage charge performed by a vocalist accompanied on piano.
For the most part, the food is meant to be served family-style.
Since it was a blustery night, we started with soup, which you can order by the individual bowl. My husband chose the “Snowy Mountain Soup” ($8). The presentation is quite dramatic — a cloud of egg whites floats atop the shallow bowl. Underneath is a delicate consomme with slivers of cured ham. My “Fish Broth” ($8) had spinach and big slivers of fish in the soup. But as with other dishes to come, it suffered from an overly judicious hand with the cornstarch.
Next, the best dish of the night and a specialty of the restaurant: Xiao long bao ($6 for $10). The classic soup dumplings are not easy to prepare. Often, the skins are too thick. Other times, the broth is rather lackluster. I’ve had more mediocre versions than I can remember. But Shanghai’s are a triumph. The skins are nicely thin, the broth quite porky tasting, and the ground pork-water chestnut filling juicy as can be. Place one gently on a spoon, carefully suck out the warm broth, then enjoy the rest with vinegar and fresh ginger.
A dish of Angus beef slices ($14) was a riot of umami taste from a profusion of mushrooms wok-fried with them. The beef was tender — too much so from the use again of cornstarch. The texture reminded me of the beef I’ve eaten as a child at old-school Chinatown restaurants, where the natural toothsome chew had been eviscerated.
Thick pea shoots were stir-fried simply with plenty of garlic making for a satisfying, bright side dish.
“Fish on the Vine” ($18) brought a fillet of sole that was deep-fried, then drowned in a red wine reduction sauce that was akin to sweet-and-sour. Red and green grapes garnished the dish, as did vines of real ivy. When you first see the dish, you can tell the kitchen is really trying for something a little different. But it doesn’t quite succeed.
My husband was intrigued when he saw spinach noodles ($12) listed on the menu. After all, how many times do you see that at a Chinese restaurant? What came out was sort of a Chinese version of an Italian dish, only the pale green noodles were not al dente, but overly soft. Slivers of fish covered the top. But instead of being flaky, they were more slippery slick.
The special crispy duck ($25 for a half) was deep-fried, leaving the skin gloriously crunchy and the flesh as rich as confit. Pile some into a pillowy, warm bun with a smear of duck sauce and you’re good to go.
Desserts are a mix of Western and Eastern. The “Sweetened Rice with Dehydrated Fruits” ($6) leans more toward the Asian side. Sticky rice is flattened into a pancake and pan-seared until it’s golden and crunchy on the outside and still soft inside. Bits of dried pineapple, mango, raisins and red beans inside add sweetness. Two scoops of green tea ice cream accompany it for a juxtaposition of temperatures. It’s a little like Thai sticky rice with mangoes. It may not be fancy, but there’s something wonderfully comforting in each spoonful.
Since opening, the restaurant has slowly been building its clientele. At first, there would be only about three tables filled each night, our server said. But now, the average is about 10 tables nightly. Dim sum, which debuted in October on Saturdays and Sundays, is when the restaurant really pulls people in.
I can see why. There’s no other dim sum restaurant in the area. And if the stellar xiao long bao are any indication, dumplings may be Shanghai’s strength.
With a little tweaking and a more restrained use of cornstarch, the rest of the food may soar just yet.
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