Restaurant review: Authentic upscale Chinese food finds a home at Shanghai Shanghai, a Bellevue restaurant that specializes in fare like jellyfish, tossed in a sweet-sharp sauce with carrot, cucumber and cilantro.
“Does anyone mind if I finish the jellyfish?”
These are words I never thought I’d hear from my husband. He’s come a long way from the white-bread diet he grew up on, but eating jellyfish was a stretch. That he liked those cool, crunchy strips, tossed in a sweet-sharp sauce with carrot, cucumber and cilantro, was a surprise, even to him.
Given his druthers at Shanghai Shanghai, a glitzy Chinese newcomer above Lunchbox Laboratory in Bellevue’s Elements complex, he’d have ordered General Tsao’s (their spelling) chicken. You’ll find it on the lengthy menu in the section called “Chinatown Style,” along with Mongolian beef, honey walnut prawns and other Chinese takeout favorites.
Shanghai Shanghai ★★
989 112th Ave. N.E., Bellevue
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily; lunch specials 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday
Prices: $$ (appetizers $6.95-$8.95, noodles and lunch specials $8.95-$10.95, main dishes $8.95-19.95)
Drinks: beer, wine, soft drinks, complimentary tea
Service: swift and eager to please
Parking: free garage on site
Who should go: family friendly and fun for large groups
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
The servers describe those as Chinese-American dishes. Asked to recommend some Shanghainese specialties, the waiter pointed to the deep-fried and braised pork shoulder, and to the pork meat balls, both in the section labeled “Gourmet Food.”
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The aroma of star anise and other spices announced the arrival of the pork shoulder, a fat-capped mountain of meat buried under sweet soy gravy. Yielding to the merest poke of chopsticks, the shoulder tasted as rich and lush as belly. The tender, grapefruit-size meatballs were similarly spiced and sauced. Both dishes were wreathed in baby bok choy.
Looking around, I noticed one or both of those dishes were on almost every table. The meatballs were especially popular with the younger set. Several extended family groups were gathered at big round tables fitted with lazy Susans. Despite its aura of sophistication and shimmery silver-and-white décor, Shanghai Shanghai is remarkably kid-friendly: Witness the stack of high-chairs by the service station and the crayon-ready white butcher paper that covers the purple tablecloths.
As with the pork, Shanghai-style dishes tend to be mild, even a little sweet. Sometimes they include the pop of pickled vegetables, as in a lovely dish of soy beans with bean curd sheets cut into strips that resemble pappardelle noodles.
Actual noodles are made in house. Chow mein featured thick, square-cut strands entwined with pork, cabbage and black mushrooms. Delicate house-made rice cakes are tossed with bamboo shoots, cabbage and mushrooms in a sauce lively with ginger.
However, ginger was too dominant in the pork filling for xiao long bao, house-made soup dumplings that were dry, tired-looking and tepid. I much preferred the gracefully folded wontons, filled with minced pork and greens and floating among bok choy and scallions in a golden chicken broth.
In contrast, Pudong-style squid soup was thick and hearty. Our waiter ceremoniously ladled it from a serving bowl into small bowls for each of us at the table. Dense with squid, bamboo shoots and many other vegetables, the broth was mildly spicy, slightly sour and finished with a cornstarch gloss and the umami punch of dried anchovy.
Despite the restaurant’s name, the menu wanders from Shanghai to Szechuan to Taiwanese night-market snacks like savory scallion pancakes and “fried salty chicken.” Accurately named, those Chinese chicken nuggets are spiced with cinnamon and served with fried basil leaves.
Szechuan dishes amp up the chili heat, for the most part. The subtle flavor of duck smoked over camphor wood and tea is an exception. Taste that first, before diving into spicy chicken wings or lamb stir-fried with whole jalapeños, which are both good choices. I especially liked Chengdu-style tofu wok-seared with green beans, whole Szechuan peppers, peanuts and sesame seeds; an undercurrent of fermented black beans added complexity.
Wonton soup $7.95
House rice cake Shanghai style $9.95
Chendu-style spicy tofu $12.95
Deep fried and braised pork shoulder $19.95
Shanghai Shanghai’s owners, Tang Yan and Ping Xu, have been purveying Chinese food on the Microsoft campus for nearly eight years. Before that, they operated another Shanghai Shanghai in Factoria for many years. They say their main goal here was an upscale Chinese restaurant.
Perhaps they are hedging their bet a little with the “Chinatown Style” fare. When I did get around to trying some of it, I found General Tsao’s chicken too tame and the house special fried noodles nothing special. This kitchen’s best efforts are elsewhere on the menu. You might just look around at what the Chinese families are ordering and tell your waiter, I’ll have what they’re having.