The Quintessential Shanghai Xiaolongbao
Because we have eaten at 3 separate restaurants serving superb Shanghai Xiaolongbao (上海小笼包) on this trip, the mister mandated that I must write about our experiences (despite the fact that he does not eat Xiaolongbao). Unfortunately, while I’m a self-professed gourmand, I’m far from being a good food writer. Hopefully I’m a much better photographer than food writer.
Jade Garden 苏浙汇
This restaurant was selected by a friend (who is currently working in Shanghai) whom we were meeting for dinner on a Saturday evening. Jade Garden (苏浙汇) serves a combination of Suzhou (苏州) and Zhejiang (浙江) styles, widely believed to be the essence of Shanghainese Cuisine. Which panned out really nicely, because we didn’t know which from the plethora of Shanghainese restaurant to patronise.
Thanks to our dear friend, we got to know of this super-sized shopping mall Grand Gateway Mall on the outskirts of the city centre above Xujiahui Station (徐家汇地铁站). Unfortunately we didn’t know this beforehand and timed to arrive at the mall just slightly before the agreed time for dinner. We would have loved to explore the mall a little more.
When we got to the restaurant a little before 7 pm, our friend was already seated. I felt bad when she told us she came to the restaurant to queue for a table at 6 pm because they do not take reservations. But she was cool about it; guess anyone working overseas always welcome familiar faces from back home.
While waiting for her two other friends – a Malaysian working in Shanghai and a Shanghainese friend, we started looking through the menu but had no idea what to order. Finally we gave our friend the autonomy to order anything she thought was delicious or interesting on the menu since it wasn’t her first time there. And boy, was that the best decision we made that day.
Our friend A exclaimed that the vegetarian abalone was a must-try. Had to agree with her because it was one of the nicest dishes for the night. Following that of course, we must order the quintessential Xiaolongbao since friend A also professed that Jade Garden produces some mean ones. And so she ordered two trays of Xiaolongbao: one with traditional pork filling, and the other with crab roe and pork filling. The last dish on the picture above was ordered by the mister because he felt like having some prawns for dinner.
A also ordered crab roe noodles, pork ribs, fatty pork belly and for dessert, rice dumplings in rice wine, a traditional dessert. For some reason, I took no pictures of the duck dish. It’s no coincidence that I didn’t touch the dish at all either. In general, I don’t like duck meat much.
The dishes I loved from this meal have to be both types of Xiaolongbao, crab roe noodles and the pork ribs. The rest were all okay, except for the duck and pork belly dishes, which I didn’t touch at all. In particular, the Xiaolongbao were all very flavourful, the skin very thin and the soup oozing out of the dumplings exceptionally ample. And the crab roe noodles… oh… even though the dinner was almost 10 days ago, I could still remember how good it tasted.
All in all, we had a great dinner with old and new friends. We suffered from an information overload because our helpful friends were giving us tips on how we should spend our remaining few days in Shanghai, but will be eternally grateful to them for cutting down the unnecessary places we needn’t visit.
The whole meal of eight dishes and dessert cost us a total of 580RMB. A very reasonably-priced meal, not to mention delectable.
Nanxiang Xiaolongbao 南翔小笼包
Many people have told us that this is the real deal, including a couple of Shanghainese that I personally know. And so, when we visited Yu Garden (豫园) and the bazaar around it the following day, we made it a point to find and patronise the famous 3-storey restaurant. Expectations were running high, naturally.
For some reason or another that continues to elude me, this restaurant is actually named 南翔馒头店 (Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant) because I understand 馒头 (steamed bun) to be the plain, dry bun made of bread flour, and a Xiaolongbao is anything but. But you know… it’s just a name. Furthemore I’ve read that 馒头 refers to different foods in the northern and southern regions of China so perhaps a Xiaolongbao is a steamed bun in the Shanghai area. The long queue of people snaking around the first storey of the restaurant was enough to tell us that we were at the right place.
Now, this is where it gets interesting. The three different storey are in fact, quite different although all come under the umbrella of Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant. If you had been to Hong Kong and patronised one of their Dim Sum restaurants, you might understand this concept a little better: that the ‘higher’ you sit, the more you can expect to spend. At Nanxiang, the ground level is solely for take-out orders only thereby explaining the crazy long queue we saw. Very limited variety of food is for sale on the ground level, and if I’m not wrong only two or three flavours of Xiaolongbao are available for sale. In contrast, the 2nd and 3rd storey come complete with tables and chairs although one would need to look for one’s own seats on the 2nd storey, and spend a minimum of 50RMB per person. We proceeded to the 3rd storey because we found the 2nd storey too crowded and too noisy. Also, some of the menu selection are not available on the 2nd storey. We were showed to our seats on the 3rd, and were informed that we have to spend a minimum of 80RMB per person. It’s not difficult to achieve that kind of spending because a tray of traditional pork filling Xiaolongbao already costs 55RMB. Honestly I think time is more precious to us tourists than spending 80RMB per person but make your own choice.
We sat down and got comfortable. Not a person known to do things in half-measure, the mister egged me on to try out the more unique flavours of Xiaolongbao offered by Nanxiang. After much contemplation (from too much selection available), I went with the safe choices of traditional pork filling Xiaolongbao and crab roe with pork filling Xiaolongbao. And for the sake of experience, I also ordered one of those king-size crab roe Xiaolongbao inserted with a straw where one would suck up the soup.
This is not the first time I’m trying Xiaolongbao from Nanxiang, in particular the king-size crab roe Xiaolongbao. But my experience with the Nanxiang restaurant in Singapore was a bad one that I do not wish to relive so I shan’t go into the details. That was some years back. Accordingly to my ex-colleague (whom I went for lunch with that time), the restaurant has since been revamped and the food tastes much better nowadays. Somehow, I never felt inclined to give them a second chance.
But that was about the Singapore branch. I decide to assess the real Nanxiang with fresh eyes, without forming prejudice based on my prior experience in Singapore. The mister also wanted some ‘proper food’ for lunch hence he ordered some vegetables and pork cutlet, which apart from the black pepper on top was the best pork cutlet we both have ever tasted. Delicious!
The king-size crab roe Xiaolongbao was exactly as I remembered it to be (although I did try to forget my first experience). Novel way to drink the soup for sure, but there really wasn’t enough of the soup to slurp up with a straw to feel satisfied. Furthermore I was paying too much attention to the red tag that read ‘Caution: Hot’ and sipping really carefully I think the enjoyment was completely absent. Before I knew it, I was sipping air. Dang!
Do not attempt to finish up every bit of this king-size Xiaolongbao because that is not the way to do it. As you could imagine, the skin would have to be very thick (and therefore unpalatable) in order to hold the amount of soup. You could open it up to inspect the contents and finish up every last bit of the soup but just leave the skin alone. Or you might be traumatised by how yucky it tastes. Trust me.
As for the two trays of Xiaolongbao (I only took pictures of one of the trays, probably forgot about the second tray), I would say they were not phenomenal but still tasty. Presentation was definitely inferior (folds were just not as neat) compared to other Xiaolongbao I have tried before, and the skin was slightly thicker than what I preferred. They were also not as generous with the amount of soup as Jade Garden. But the filling were really good, especially the crab roe with pork filling.
Our meal came up to slightly over 200RMB, which meant that we easily surpassed the minimum spending of 160RMB for two pax.
Din Tai Fung 鼎泰丰
Patronising Din Tai Fung (鼎泰丰) was not part of our plan since we had tasted the real thing in Taipei itself and felt it didn’t exactly measure up to what we get in Singapore. However, after staking out for a couple of hours at the observatory of Shanghai World Finance Centre (SWFC) to have a good shot of the night view of The Bund, we were famished and didn’t want to walk too far for dinner. Incidentally there is a Din Tai Fung branch at SWFC itself! What luck!
We are very familiar with Din Tai Fung and knew exactly what we wanted to order since the menus between the Singapore, Taipei and Shanghai branches bear very little differences. They were so similar we were expecting the same foods to be delivered to our table. Alas, we forgot to factor in locale differences and we were immediately reminded of this when the peanuts was delivered to our table. The peanuts were hard and so unlike the soft, fragrant peanuts we are used to! There was no way we could ingest the peanuts after our cursory mouthfuls. We asked the dish to be cleared from our table soon after, to the bewilderment of the service staff.
In similar context, we too could not ingest much of the pork cutlet and vegetables. The pork cutlet was just… very badly done, in our opinion. It was hard and difficult to chew, like it had been deep fried several times through. And the vegetables – we both love our greens very much, but we just don’t know how to eat the vegetables when the stems were so thick.
Fortunately for us, the noodles and the exquisite 18-folds Xiaolongbao were as normal as we were used to. In particular, I really missed Din Tai Fung’s really thin-skinned Xiaolongbao and the yummy soupy goodness that oozed out of every Xiaolongbao I bit into.
To end it off, we were served complimentary almond jelly (with vouchers given to us when we purchased tickets to the SWFC Observatory). A sweet ending to a rather tiring day.
Comparison and Verdict
It may not be the fairest comparison because it wasn’t a blind test where I ate all three types side by side, and I was in very different moods when I patronised the three different restaurants. In general, I enjoyed the Xiaolongbao from Jade Garden and Din Tai Fung more because I really like soups and theirs had more soup than Nanxiang’s. However, Nanxiang’s fillings were the most flavourful in particular the crab roe with pork filling Xiaolongbao. I’m hard pressed to pick the one I like best, this much I have to say. But if I have to choose one, it would have to be Jade Garden’s.
Don’t take my word for it. Go do your own Xiaolongbao test when in Shanghai too!