Xiao Long Bao (XLB) @ Lily's House in Lafayette
A visiting 'hound lured me to return to Lily's House in Lafayette last weekend by dangling the promise of the Beggar's chicken and Squirrel fish he'd ordered in advance. I can end the suspense upfront by saying the squirrel fish was a major disappointment.
Image of double order of squirrel fish -
And, since it was a double order for our large party, make that a major disappointment times two. Frozen yellow croaker was used, then topped with a sweet and sour sauce that was too sweet and thick. I added some of the black vinegar still on the table to try to perk it up. The crispy fins and parts of the head were fun to eat, but the flesh had little flavor of its own. The heavy batter was thick and oil-logged in some areas. Oh well, now we know this isn't one of the strengths here.
I had brought a Saar Spätlese, my favorite wine with sweet and sour dishes. I felt a little silly having admonished the others at the table to save some of their wine to have with this dish. The 1996 Bert Simon Serriger Würtzberg Riesling Spätlese far outshone the squirrel fish.
The Beggar's chicken was wonderful again, though perhaps cooked a little more making it a bit drier than at our chowdown. This time I asked the chef about the brown coloration of the skin to address Yimster's question. He explained that he does not roast it before wrapping it up. The color comes from rubbing it with soy sauce and oyster sauce.
The "ah hah!" moment of this dinner was the xiao long bao. The chef now makes them himself instead of procuring them outside and they are 1000 times better than what I'd been served my first visit here. The skins are very thin yet elastic. They have a good amount of soup with rich texture and porcine flavor. That the filling is a bit compacted is my only criticism. However, the big problem here is overcrowding them in the steamer basket so that some stick together, tear, and lose their contents. If you order them, be sure to instruct the kitchen to use two baskets for better spacing. We likened trying to remove the xlb without breaking to the technique needed to win in a game of Jenga. The xlb here are a contender for best in the East Bay.
The cold plate was better this time around. The jellyfish was spot on. The vegetarian duck was fresher and more pliant with good roasted flavor. My favorite is still the smoked fish here. A new cold dish, Sichuan beef, had jerky-like batons of beef glazed with a mouth-numbing sweet chili sauce. The marinated shrimp in shell were delicious and sweet.
The chef comped us on sweet and sour shrimp over sizzling rice. It came immediately after the squirrel fish in the identical sweet and sour sauce that didn't taste any better in this preparation.
The pan-touched tofu was again very popular. It was served on a bed of kang xin cai instead of spinach, a nice seasonal change. I still love the longjing shrimp, beautiful texture and subtle flavors. Gluten with two mushrooms (fresh champignons and dried black shitake) was fine, perhaps lacking a bit of depth. The nian gao were as delicious as the first time seeming a bit wetter with a less fatty gravy. And, the Shanghai-style chow mein was a universal favorite.
Fortune cookies were the only dessert offered. I'm still trying to figure out why my share of this dinner cost $36 vs. the chowdown's $25 which included corkage fees for several bottles and a 23% tip. Yet, overall, I was happy with this meal. I continue to be concerned about the restaurant's future as on a Saturday night, only four other tables were occupied by much smaller parties.
Is there more than one chef in the kitchen? Both the sauce on the squirrel fish and the use of oyster sauce on the beggar's chicken suggest a Cantonese hand to me.
It's odd that you had to order the squirrel fish in advance; perhaps they intend to pick up a live fish but were unable to find one or do so. I can see no other reason for it; it's not a dish you normally have to order ahead of time.
re: Gary Soup
No, there's only the one chef. Problem is that most clientele order the non Shanghainese items because the English menu doesn't highlight the Shanghainese dishes. Squirrel fish is not on the regular menu. The other night I asked for a kaofu appetizer and it was not available. They just don't have the demand and despite the big sign that says they specialize in Shanghainese cuisine, many of the dishes have to be special ordered. I have tried a couple of his fried dishes (salt & pepper items) and was disappointed, so frying is not a strength.
Re the xlb, it may be that your friend ordered enough in advance so that the chef made it himself. I asked Lily recently if he was doing this regularly and she said no, they are still sourcing from others. But if you give him 3 or 4 days' notice, he will make it from scratch. He supposedly is well versed in xiao chr but doesn't have the right kitchen help to mass produce. I guess I'll have to call ahead.