It was Audra Mariel who led us to Shanghai Jazz, fans that we are of her rich and lyric-lifting voice, dynamic phrasing and heartfelt interpretations of the American Songbook. She was singing at the Asian restaurant in Madison that is known for bringing the finest jazz musicians to its dining room stage, in the process offering jazz aficionados more than bar food as they listen to music, and enthusiasts of Far Eastern fare live tunes as they eat.
Audra, backed by Tom Monda on guitar and Chris Bauer on harmonica, was wending her way through “Always,” “Embraceable You,” “Bye-Bye, Blackbird” and a sensuously scatted “Summertime” when we realized there was another hit in the house: the food.
Which is why, mid-way through Audra’s pitch-perfect performance of “The Way You Look Tonight,” I started jotting down a few notes on what I was eating.
For the spicy tuna wrapped in cabbage then flash-fried managed to keep the tuna raw and hip-hot spiced while the cabbage and its crust popped with a crispy crunch. Pooled in tandem on the plate were both a wasabi-edamame puree and a gingery sauce with a pinch of sweet and a backbone of soy. The dish was as spirited as Audra’s rendition of “Pennies from Heaven.”
Classics, including Little Dragon dumplings served in a bamboo steamer and stir-fried string beans that favored a little heat over a lot of sweet, showed the kitchen doesn’t snooze when standards are ordered.
But it’s what pushes at the edges of standard Asian that Shanghai Jazz does best. There’s a Vietnamese-style “Endless Summer” roll that ratchets up the standby: Here, mushrooms, scallions, snow peas, carrots and noodles are wrapped in rice paper before being prettily plated with squiggles of sriracha sauce and julienned peppers.
For sure, you can get a fine supper of chicken and basil swaddled by noodles, but why not do something with a little more oomph and personality? Such as sizzling wok-seared beef, seasoned with vigor and served ready to wrap in large lettuce leaves, or Korean japchae, in which sweet potato noodles mingle with chunks of chicken, slivers of carrots and snow peas, and sprouts.
What’s new at Shanghai Jazz isn’t just the singular talent of Audra Mariel; new owner Thomas Donohoe renovated the dining room this year, expanding the performance space and bringing in a new piano, sound system and acoustic ceiling tiles. Donohoe, a restaurant veteran has trained at The French Laundry in Napa Valley as well as New York institutions such as Cafe des Artistes and Barbuto, says he aims to create the finest live-music dining venue in the Northeast.
“Audra Mariel is an amazing talent,” Donohoe says, adding that he’s also proud of nightly specials such as spicy Szechuan shrimp and a grand wok-seared “Prosperity Fish.”
For fans of Audra specifically, jazz and the American Songbook in general, and fine food all the time, Donohoe notes that Audra is next booked at Shanghai Jazz on Sunday, April 22, for a gig that starts at 6 pm. She will be backed by Chris Bauer on bass and Arturo, the single-monikered guitarist.
Shanghai Jazz, 24 Main Street in Madison. 973-922-2899; shanghaijazz.com. Open daily for dinner, except Mondays. Though there is no music charge, there is a food and drink minimum of $25 per person. Reservations on live music nights are recommended.