While many applauded Mayor Bloomberg’s implementation of the restaurant letter grading system to bring transparency to a Byzantine health inspection process, it’s never held much sway for me; everyone knows the best restaurants are the ones most likely to inspire, at best, a grudging C grade and a passing glare from daintier patrons. Torn linoleum and stained Formica tabletops are tangible evidence a place has been frequented and loved by hundreds of regulars over time. Clean floors means the mom-and-pop staff have the time to spend their days mopping rather than churning out dishes for a steady stream of demanding, knowledgeable patrons. Got the time and money to install eight different sinks to satisfy those sanitation requirements? You’re either adding that extra buck to my bill or taking it out in low-quality ingredients.
Shanghai Café’s (100 Mott St., shanghaicafenyc.com) A grade, gleaming interior, groovy recessed neon lighting and polished dark wood booths should have scared me away faster than any laundry list of violations. Here, it seems, is a place you could safely take your local health inspector on a date.
Just don’t let him see the Kau Fu, off the cold appetizer list, a mound of ragged chunks of wheat gluten studded with black mushrooms, an abomination in brown that would look more at home in a subway grate than on your table. It’s delicious—brightly savory, the gluten that wonderfully dense texture of a meat substitute that’s not been forced to masquerade as “chicken”—but best left for more forgiving company. Wait till he’s out of sight, then order a dish of this and the pig ear, soy-marinated and sliced into thin, crunchy strips, and bask in the sidelong glances of disbelief you get from your fellow diners.
But back to your date. Lucky for you, much of Shanghainese cuisine is accessibly self-explanatory. Of course there’s xiao long bao, soup dumplings—the waiters are trained, in fact, to check all tables that somehow overlook them when ordering. “You want soup dumplings,” they say, more an instruction than a question. You should—they’re one of the best renditions of this classic in Chinatown, with skins that are acceptably thin but not puncture-prone and a rich, briny broth—but if you don’t, they won’t press the issue.
Shanghai rice cakes are slices of the world’s thickest rice noodle sautéed up with chicken, pork, shrimp and that holy trinity of Chinatown vegetable, onion, cabbage and carrot, in a savory brown sauce that doesn’t reek of white-guy takeout and despair. If he insists on it, rest assured you’ll actually find some flavor there.
Now that your friend is happy, get yourself something from the house specialties lists, traditional, harder-to-find dishes that are segregated from the rest of the menu. These are provided in rudimentary English, the translation an uncommon courtesy for most regionalized restaurants, which means that anyone willing to take a chance won’t be punished by the point-and-pray roulette gods that can bring some real gems or some unpleasant surprises.
Braised pork belly is everything you’d hope it would be, red-cooked to the point of melted, the tender meat just barely maintaining its shape, waiting for the touch of a chopstick to dissolve into shreds. Bean curd skin with preserved vegetable and green bean turned out to be flat, tagliatelle-like ribbons of chewy bean curd tossed with faintly salted greens and edamame. It’s an unexpectedly light, fresh preparation, and a daintily plated version could easily be passed off as the latest in Sino-Italian fusion in a Lower East Side hotspot.
Though the approachable grade and décor draw a decent stream of the tourist crowd, the dining room is invariably bolstered by great round tables of middle-aged men ribbing each other and passing cauldrons of fish head casserole, regulars who would be just as happy in Formica and linoleum. And if you look closely there, on the counter at the register, tucked between the toothpick dispenser and a plastic bonsai tree, a lone Siamese fighting fish floats belly up in his glass bowl. Finally, there’s that C grade spirit! Just don’t tell your date.
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