Saturday, January 3, 2009

Joe's Shanghai

After a long hiatus due to a busy new job, lack of internet, and pretty much any excuse I can think of that will not let me admit to general laziness I have decide to get this rolling again. Sadly, over the last 6 months I have eaten in numerous places I would love to write about, but the details are now to few and far between to write coherently. Luckily, I had the pleasure of some fantastic Chinese food on Christmas Eve at Joe's Shanghai that inspired me to return to writing.

My friend swears by Joe's Shanghai, and as any New Yorker knows, everyone has their "best" Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. Plus, any New Yorker knows that to Jewish people, Chinese food is a close second when it comes to a religious experience. After Joe's Shanghai's surprisingly fresh, delicious, and well portioned food I found myself questioning if it should still be second on the religious experience scale.

Our party of seven had to wait an hour outside on Christmas Eve, but my understanding was that this was standard. Upon being seated, before we could even open the menu the waiter asked us if we wanted soup dumplings (the house specialty). Never having experienced such a treat, but a lover of all things dumpling, I hesitantly asked my friend how many orders should we get. He is quite the dumpling connoisseur, so confidently he said 1 crab and 1 pork. As two other people stared at our noisy group (tables are shared, unless your group is 9 or 10 people), we excitedly debated the number of dishes we needed, and how to evenly balance them between vegetable, meat, and if fish should even be an option. The order ended up like this:

Cold Noodles with Sesame Sauce
Double Cooked Pork
Sesame Chicken
Beef with Broccoli
Vegetable Lo-Mien
Sauteed Spinach with Garlic

To top this all off, we of course had to get multiple rounds of Tsingtao, which I imagine is the official Jewish drink of Christmas. No sooner had we placed our order than the soup dumplings had arrived. To attempt to describe these moist flavorful nuggets of steamed goodness probably won't do them justice. Although the crab flavor was not that distinct, the meat was well flavored, cooked perfectly, and a delightful mouthful. The dough of the dumpling was steamed, a little chewy, but by no means the thick, flavorless shell that too many restaurants serve. The highlight of the dish is of course the soup that is within the dumpling. The broth is exquisite, with a strong, but not overpowering lemon flavor. Amazingly the rest of the dumpling is infused with this flavor, but still manages to hit your tongue with all the other tastes that the full dumpling provides. I could probably eat a bowl of just the broth, and may have to see if this is on the menu next time.

After the amazing first course, and the arguing over who got the 8th dumpling, the cold noodles with sesame sauce were an extreme disappointment. The noodles were a bit overcooked, and the sauce was watery and tasteless. Perhaps some people like spaghetti noodles and a very liquidy sesame sauce, but me, I like thinner noodles, and a sauce that sticks to the noodles with a distinct flavor and even a slight hint of spice. The best, in my mind, are a balance between a little spicy, a little sweet, and plenty savory. With this disappointment firmly behind me, we prepared for the main courses, which came out seemingly all at once. The double cooked pork was excellent, in a nice brown sauce, and featuring tender crispy pork with a mix of your standard veggies. The nice surprise was the still crispy cabbage. This is such an underused vegetable in cooking, and it adds a distinct flavor and texture that made a good dish great.

The beef with broccoli was tasty, and the meat of higher quality than I expected. I must admit, however, I'm not a big fan of this dish in general, so thank god for the spicy red pepper sauce on the table to give this a little bit of a kick. The same must be said for the vegetable lo-mien. I don't know how vegetarians do it, but I would get pretty bored eating this dish without chunks of meat on a regular basis. There was nothing I could point to that made the dish bad, and in fact it was distinct for not being greasy at all compared to your average lo-mien dishes. Honestly though, would you waste prime stomach space during a hearty meal on this dish? I think not.

Despite everything else that came before it, the two highlights of the main meal (dumplings not included) were the water spinach with garlic, and the sesame chicken. I know, sesame chicken is not exactly fine dining, but when made right it really stands out. The chicken was all white meat, no fat, and was fried until crispy with a batter that actually accentuated the flavor of the chicken instead of muting it. On the side was fresh green blanched broccoli, still with a slight snap to it. One of my biggest pet peeves is Chinese food where the meat is dumped on top of broccoli, and it is a clear after thought, usually over cooked or greasy. Topping off the chicken and broccoli was a deliciously sweet and tangy sauce that was both instantly recognizable as sesame chicken sauce, while being surprising at every bite. Perhaps it was that the sauce was gooey, without being overwhelmingly full of corn starch, and hit the right balance between sweet and salty that it caught my attention. Whatever the reason, it goes down as the best sesame chicken I have ever had, and I wish we had 2 orders instead of one. The other great dish was actually a side dish. As mentioned in the past, I love a side order of spinach, and the water spinach with garlic was perfectly cooked, bright green and fresh, and flavored with salt and garlic. All in all, I could have just eaten the spinach and the chicken and been happy all night.

Despite all the food that had been consumed, a debate ensued about what we should have for dessert. After a number of minutes of crazy ideas, we decided the best dessert was another order of pork soup dumplings. The smiles and giggles of glee that everyone expressed as they showed up at our table meant we had made the right decision. We also clearly made the right decision to go to Joe's Shanghai on Christmas. I know I will be making more trips to Chinatown soon, and well before the next Jews night out.

Take a trip to dumpling heaven.

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