Shanghai Tang

As part of my never ending quest for the perfect Xiao Long Bao (Shanghai style "soup dumplings"), tonight we visited Shanghai Tang at 653 George St. We had heard about it from a few friends, and when it got reviewed in TimeOut we decided we better not wait any longer.

It's a small place, at the intersection of Campbell and George up a small flight of stairs. There are black wood tables spread around a somewhat disorganized space, but it feels light and airy and clean. We sat down and quickly looked over the menus, excited by the prospect of good, inexpensive, authentic shanghai style food. We settled on some old favorites in order to judge the place. We got Xiao long bao, of course, and some dan dan mein (tan tan mian) with hot tea. Given that this is a place that bills itself as shanghai style, and that it's in Chinatown, we had high hopes.

The dan dan mein arrived first, and while Shanghai Tang apparently offers hand pulled noodles, these were not. It also seemed more like a soup than I was expecting, but it had some nicely unidentifiable bits of brown meat on top, and lots of sesame, bean sprouts, and scallions. Just as we were considering starting on this however, the xiao long bao arrived and we decided to try them first.

The reigning champion for xiao long bao in Sydney is the venerable Din Tai Fung, a well known Taiwanese chain. They make good xiao long bao, consistently serving hundreds of them a day. But Din Tai Fung is often very crowded, especially at dinner time, and we were hoping for something with great xiao long bao and no wait.

Auspiciously these looked plump and juicy and were served piping hot. The traditional fresh ginger accompaniment was provided, although the amount of ginger was somewhat ... parsimonious. We added black vinegar and tried them out. They were great! Succulent and flavorful, rich meaty broth, tender pork, skins that were thin yet elastic. At last another source for great Xiao Long Bao. We quickly ate all eight.

That settled we moved on to the dan dan mein. Strictly speaking this is a Sichuan dish, not really Shanghainese, but Shanghai Tang also bills itself as a noodle place, and dan dan mein is universal street food. This was good, nicely spicy with flavorful beef and pork (purists would insist on pork only) there were some odd additions - mung bean sprouts and coriander leaves - though I thought they were tasty. I did notice some preserved vegetables but not as much as I would like, and this was a version with sesame paste (again, purists would cavil.) It was a tasty dish, and certainly spicier and more "interesting" flavors than you'd find in a typical westernized chinese place. Another winner, though not as spectacular as the xiao long bao.

Finally we tried something new. Shanghai Tang has two "dessert" xiao long bao on the menu. One filled with sweetened black sesame paste, the other billed as "egg and milk." We decided to try the black sesame and were delighted with the result. Piping hot, sweet nutty liquid inside a thin elastic skin. Perfect with the tea.

We visited again yesterday and tried a few more things, the Crab Meat Xiao Long bao, braised pork spare ribs in sweet and sour sauce, drunken pig knuckle, scallion cakes, and the other "dessert" xiao long bao called "milk and egg."

We started with the braised pork spare ribs in sweet and sour sauce. I found it disappointing. The meat was dry, chewy, and almost flavorless while the sauce was thin and two dimensional, mostly sweet and a little sour but none of the richness or depth I had hoped for.

Next we had the "Shanghai Xiao Long Bao with Crab Meat" - the specialty of the house. We'd seen other diners ordering it the last time we'd gone, and while we were there this time another two tables ordered it as well. So It's obviously popular, and now I know why. The filling is still mostly pork, but the meat and broth are flavored with crab meat. I suspect it's local mud crab which, despite the name, are quite delicious. Again the skins were nice and thin but still elastic. Not too thick and neither gummy or soggy.

We were still hungry and didn't think that dessert was going to be enough, so we ordered a couple of other dishes we had wanted to try. I had seen them preparing the scallion cakes on the previous visit, and wanted good scallion cakes to erase the memory of the ones we'd had at Shanghai Night in Ashfield. I also wanted to try the drunken pig knuckle since it was pork and held out the promise of being a little challenging.

The scallion cakes were everything I could have hoped for. Crispy, flaky rounds not too oily and with enough scallion flavor to earn the name. Exactly what we wanted. The drunken pig knuckles were also excellent, but in a different way. Cooked in rice wine and served cold, they had lovely textures. Silken smooth gelatinous skin, slightly crunchy, firm and chewy cartilage all with lovely meaty pork flavors. A nice contrast with all the hot liquidy smooth textures of the other foods.

Finally we had the "milk and egg xiao long bao." It was indeed sweet, milky, and eggy with strands of coconut as well. Hot sweet milky custard fills your mouth as you bite into them, then you have sweet coconut with supple dumpling skin after. Nicely satisfying and just what we expected, but personally I liked the black sesame more.

The first time the total came to $30 for the two of us, the second time was $40 both of which are quite reasonable. They are licensed for alcohol though we only had tea or milk. We will be back, there are a lot more things on the menu we want to try. I, for one, will be ordering the xiao long bao every time I visit.

Shanghai Tang
653 George St
Sydney, NSW
02 9281 0088

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