Throughout China, Kevin Lin told me on the phone after my visits, “Szechuan is the most popular cuisine.” Lin’s restaurant in Wayne, Chengdu 23 (named for the capital city of Szechuan and the highway the restaurant faces in the West Belt Mall), has set a high standard for Szechuan cooking, winning plaudits from NJM readers and critics since it opened in 2008.
Even though “not all Szechuan food is spicy,” Lin said, “it’s easy to remember that Szechuan is spicy. And some people don’t like spicy.”
Lin, 36, wants to please as many people as possible. So when the former Hunan Cottage on Route 46 in nearby Fairfield closed last year, he tracked down a skilled chef working in New Jersey who is from Shanghai—a city on the East China Sea known for its seafood and its delicate flavors.
Lin and the chef, Jiquan Zheng, formed a partnership with Chengdu 23’s chef, Yong Yi Jiang. Lin renovated and refurnished the rundown Hunan Cottage and renamed it Fu.
In Chinese, Lin said, Fu means good fortune. But after about a month, when American friends told him that the letters could have a different connotation here, he changed the name to Shanghai 46. By any name, it’s a good place to explore the cooking of Shanghai.
The Shanghai specialty you’ve most likely encountered is the soup dumpling. Thanks to some leeway in translation, Shanghai 46’s menu lists these as juice buns. No matter. They are the real thing, possessed of the swirled shape of a cartoon hot-water bottle, and plump with scalding broth and a tender lump of succulent ground pork or (the more ethereal choice) crabmeat.
Dexterity is required. The trick is to ease the dumpling onto a flat-bottomed spoon, puncture it with a chopstick and carefully suck out the juice. When the package cools, pop the whole thing into your mouth. Repeat.
Shanghai flavors don’t come at you with the blistering force of Szechuan peppers, but neither do you have to search for them like Sherlock Holmes with a magnifying glass. Their subtlety can be quite enveloping. A prime example is fish fillets with tofu in casserole (listed on the Authentic Shanghai section of the extensive menu as AS27).
The fish is very fresh, skinless flounder, lightly cooked in a rich chicken broth with squares of soft tofu; squishy wood ear mushrooms; and slices of crisp bamboo shoot (fresh, not canned, according to Lin). The flavors and textures of this generous stew ($16 for a bowl four can share) are close yet distinct. Visually, it’s a cloud study in white and pale yellow, with the dark, frilly mushrooms portending rain.
We didn’t finish ours and the next day gave it the definitive leftover test. Eaten right out of the fridge, it was possibly even better than it had been the night before.
A similar dish, shredded fish fillet (flounder) sauteed with yellow leek (AS16) was almost as good, though sometimes the pale, thin strips of leek proved stubbornly chew resistant.
Pumpkin with salted egg yolk (AS22) has nothing to do with Halloween. It is thick-sliced kabocha squash fried in a light, crispy, white batter of cornstarch and preserved egg yolk. Each bite was as substantial as beef, but gently sweet and pliant. Also substantial and satisfying was salted pork and vegetable rice (AS19), a packed dome of rice in a deep bowl, studded with chunks of pork belly and vegetables.
The most unexpected Shanghai specialty looked like it wandered over from an Italian restaurant: three huge meatballs, browned and glistening in a dark, reddish sauce. No refugee, this was lion head meat ball in casserole (AS25). The meatballs are made from ground pork and tofu, with a little ginger and egg. Stir-fried, then simmered in a sauce of chicken stock, soy sauce and hoisin sauce, they were lush and delicious.
I can also recommend crystal shrimp in white sauce (AS31), plump, juicy little guys in a barely there sauce; sautéed rice cakes with shredded pork and sour cabbage (SN6 in the Noodle section) and a novelty called walnut shrimp (SS17 in the Signature Sauce section). These are prawns pounded flat and fried to a winning crunch, with whole walnuts pressed into the crisp, airy batter.
One of the best things I ate a tablemate aptly dubbed a “Shanghai burrito.” It’s a hot, lightly crisped scallion pancake wrapped around a filling of marinated beef, omelet, hoisin sauce and fresh cilantro. Unbeatable finger food. It is listed on the dim sum menu as egg pancake with beef, but is available all the time.
Dim sum, by the way, draws a crowd. Shanghai 46 has its own parking lot. We pulled in at noon on a recent Sunday and were lucky to grab the 40th, and last, spot (I counted the cars). Inside, all 120 seats were taken, and every person was Asian.
Shanghai dim sum ranges from hot dumplings to cold chunks of smoked carp and cold chunks of boiled chicken marinated in rice wine. All kinds of cold dishes are covered in plastic wrap and placed on a central table. Help yourself. A server will figure out what you had, even if you cleaned your plate, and charge accordingly. Since the plates are identical but the prices aren’t, that is a neat trick.
In my visits, I barely skimmed the 140-plus dishes on the regular menu or the 49 dim sum items. There are some pitfalls. The prettiest dish I ate was seafood-chive dumplings, star-shaped quadrants with open tops. Each compartment was filled with an ingredient of a different color, but the fillings (the seafood was shrimp) were bland and the dumpling skin tough. Spare ribs with sweet brown sauce were grossly fatty, as were the chunks of limp-skinned meat in the Shanghai marinated-duck appetizer. Large spicy prawns in the shell were hard to handle and the meat was tough.
Lin, trying to please all, lards his menu with the familiar. General Tso’s chicken was executed with no special spark. Skewers of chicken satay were dry and flavorless. That is no way to bring good fortune—the Chinese character for which remains on the menu and on the sign outside.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:Asian - Chinese
Price Details:Soup, appetizers, vegetables, $4-$10; fried rice and noodles, $8-$15; Shanghai dishes, $13-$21 or market price; dim sum, $2-$20; desserts, $3-$8.
Ambience:Bright, clean, comfortable.