Hearty Northern Chinese Cuisine Done Right
640 Jackson St., San Francisco
Open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Major credit cards accepted, no reservations
It’s rare to find good food in Chinatown, so I was especially excited to read my friend Foodhoe’s post about Bund Shanghai, which opened earlier this year in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Bund Shanghai, as the name suggests, focuses on Northern Chinese cuisine. Bund is actually what the Shanghainese call their waterfront. (I visited the bund 20 years ago fresh out of high school and it looked like an industrial mess with its murky water and endless row of old shipping freighters. Not sure whether it has modernized any along with that city’s emergence as a world financial powerhouse.)
I recruited my friend Vera to check out Bund Shanghai on a recent Saturday for lunch. When we walked in, I almost thought we were in the wrong place because it was totally empty at 12:30 p.m. From what I read, I thought Bund Shanghai was a pretty popular spot, but it seemed like a deserted hotel lobby on this day.
The restaurant itself is quite contemporary, with a couple of flat screens tuned into CNN. Everyone who works there speaks Mandarin, so points for authenticity.
The menu has a mix of small plates known as dim sum (but with Northern specialties instead of what you find at the popular Cantonese dim sum tea houses) along with noodles (soup and fried) and entrée plates. Vera and I started with a few dim sum plates, including the red bean puff ($3.95) and traditional Xiao Lung Bao ($6.95).
The red bean puff is a flakey round pastry filled with the sweet red bean paste (or azuki beans in Japanese). While they were warm, the puffs just seemed especially dry. The bean paste was OK, but it didn’t really thrill either one of us.
The xiao lung bao, or steamed soup dumplings, is one of my favorite Shanghai dish. Ground pork and some other ingredients are wrapped into a dumpling with just a bit of gelatin-like soup that melts into liquid during the steaming process. So when you bite into them, you get a burst of soup.
Bund Shanghai’s version was great. The skin (which is a big factor in the eating process) was a nice thin layer, which is a big plus for me. I’ve had some that were thick and dumpy. Vera says she would have preferred the skin even thinner, which we both agree we’ve only seen done well, ironically, at Cantonese dim sum places. Still, I totally enjoyed the steamer of xiao lung bao.
Vera convinced me to try one of her childhood favorites called Steamed Mantou ($3.50). I’d never heard of this delicacy but basically it’s a steamed bun served with condensed milk for dipping. But Vera says kids would just eat the bun. And what’s the enjoyment in that, you ask? (I know, I had the same reaction.) She says an expertly done mantou would have intricate layers in the bread so that when you bite into it, it would feel light but dense at the same time.
To me, this was like eating white bread without peanut butter or jelly. I didn’t get it. Sure, Bund Shanghai’s mantou was perfectly steamed and when I looked closely I could see intricate air pockets within the bread. But unless you dipped it in the condensed milk, it was pretty bland. Then Vera had the audacity to compare it to Hawaii sweet bread, which is one of MY childhood favorites.
Now all my Hawaii folks back me up here, Hawaiian sweet bread (especially from the former King’s Bakery) is amazingly light and airy but had an incredible subtle sweetness. I could totally eat a slice by itself without anything spread on it.
Moving on, we then tried a bowl of Dan Dan Noodles ($6.95), another commonly ordered Northern Chinese dish that’s known for its spicy meat topping. The bowl was quite big and tasted spicy but not overly so. I enjoyed the full-flavored broth and the noodles had a nice firm texture with some give.
Quite full by this time, we still decided to try something sweet (as if the red bean puffs and condensed-milk laden mantou weren’t enough). So Vera ordered the Sesame Seed Mochi Balls in Soup ($4.50).
Mochi is the sticky rice mixture made from glutinous rice, and then often steamed or boiled. Bund Shanghai served it in a simple bowl of water, which surprisingly wasn’t sweetened. It was just plain water. The mochi balls are filled with black sesame seed that’s been grounded into a liquid form. I used to love drinking these black sesame drinks that my dad would make fresh.
When you bit into the mochi balls, the black sesame liquid oozed out and totally created unusual scenes in your bowl that just a few minutes ago was a blank white canvas. I liked the black sesame filling, but I have to admit I’m not a fan of steamed mochi. Only because they can be bland and a definite choking hazard for young kids and older adults. (In Japan, you always hear about old people choking to death around the new year because sweetened mochi soup is one of the popular traditional new year dishes.)
As we finished off our mochi balls, the room started to finally fill up a bit (so odd since it was almost 2 p.m.). I guess Bund Shanghai must do brisk lunch business during the weekdays, but that’s a shame because the quality of the food is so good that it should be packed all the time. I can’t wait to return to explore the other Northern Chinese dishes on the menu.
Single guy rating: 3.75 stars (Sweet and Savory)
Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Hearty Northern Chinese Cuisine Done Right