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Oct 15, 2005 06:20 PM

Lily's House, Shanghainese Restaurant in Lafayette

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I have passed by this place dozens of times in the 6 months since it opened. There is a large handwritten sign on the window which claims Shanghainese specialties. My husband and I went there for lunch today. It is located on Mt. Diablo Blvd, a few doors down from Los Jarros, another fairly new Mexican place which a neighbor recently recommended.

The dining room is pleasant, with tablecloths and linen napkins. There is a chalkboard at the entrance that lists the lunch specials of the day, all of which sound kind of Americanized Chinese, certainly no hint of Shanghai there. The lone waitress spoke good English, but was Cantonese. When she went back to the kitchen to call out the orders, she and the cooks all talked in Cantonese.

The menu also looked pretty standard Chinese American (despite a brief intro to the chef, Willie Ying, who "graduated from the Culinary Academy of Shanghai in 1980. His first cooking experience came at the prestigious Liu Bo Long Restaurant in Shanghai, where he rose to the rank of head chef while perfecting Shanghai cuisine and serving the likes of Pres. Bill Clinton and PM Margaret Thatcher..... While working at a Hang Zhou restaurant, he met Lily, whose similar aspirations and ambitions led them to follow their dreams to America in 1995. After 9 years of hard work at 10 different restaurants, they finally could afford their dream home in Lamorinda as well as their own restaurant. They wish to present a taste of the rich cultural experience of China through one of the hight forms of art - good food.)"

I saw a few dishes that hinted of Shanghai - Shanghainese Wonton Soup, Long Jing Shrimp (I had that recently in Hangzhou, made with Dragon Well tea leaves), Vegetarian Duck, and Jellyfish. The last two are things my kids like, so we ordered them. Also got the wonton soup and a rice plate with bbq pork and tofu for my husband. Then I asked the waitress if there was a Chinese menu with Shanghainese dishes. Yes, she says, but it's in Chinese. That's ok, I say, I can read it. I saw my favorite, stir fried Shanghai thick noodles, so I also ordered that. I wanted to keep the Chinese menu to take home and translate, but the waitress said that was the only copy, she had to make me another copy. Unfortunately, because it was handwritten, some of the characters didn't come out so well on the copy, so I will have to go back and check the original more closely.

The wontons were indeed Shanghainese, they were wrapped the way my mom taught me, and the filling was flavorful. The broth was very light, but they added a little bit of seaweed, like nori for flavor, as well as a bit of spinach and shredded egg. Plus we each got a nice fat shrimp in our bowl. The wrapper was a bit on the thick side, but was not overboiled. There were 8 large wontons in this order.

The vegetarian duck came out warm, with a thick brown sauce, not the same style that I am used to. And the jellyfish, which I heard being sauteed with some scallions, needed a bit more sesame oil and sweet vinegar flavor. It was softer in texture than other jellyfish dishes that I've had, but was not bad. I brought it home, have doctored it up to try again tomorrow. My husband's rice plate was nothing special, but it was a way to get him some rice. Lastly, the noodles came. They looked exactly as they should, with shredded pork and spinach. The noodles were just a shade overboiled, like 30 to 60 seconds too long, because they didn't have quite the chewiness that I love about this type of noodle. But the flavor was good. I brought the leftovers home to my daughter who polished them off right out of the container.

I think the real chef must come in at night. Based on what I could read on the menu, there are xiao long bao and scallion pancakes (no mention of them on the English menu). There are wheat gluten dishes, stir fried rice sticks (nian gao), smoked fish, and a number of typical Shanghainese braised dishes. I was looking for ti pang (pork pump/rump), but haven't identified it yet. His specialty is claypot chicken which requires 24 hour notice and costs $50. We've decided we'll have to order a banquet menu to test his skills.

We got there about 12:15 and there were only 4 tables out of 15 occupied. I hope they stay in business long enough for me to try the claypot chicken. So far this week, I've discovered 2 decent local restaurants that are worth a repeat visit, both thanks to mention from others on this board.

Lily's House
3555 Mt. Diablo Blvd.
Lafayette, Ca 925-284-7569
Open 7 days a week

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  1. Good sleuthing, anli! When I read first mention of it some months ago, I crossed my fingers that you'd check it out some time.

    If you need a couple more covers for a banquet try-out, please email me. I've been in touch with a friend in Lafayette to get over there, but haven't had a chance yet.

    1. Sounds like an interesting prospect in an unlikely area. It would appear to be BART accessible, too.

      Since Lu Bo Lang is best known for its dumplings and "xiao chi" (and its scenic location) I would hope that the "real" chef at Lily's would be in the house at lunch time on a Saturday. Did they not have the xlb or cong you bing when you were there, or did you just not order them?

      Do you fold your wontons like a big tortellini? That's the way my wife makes her "da" wontons.


      1 Reply
      1. re: Gary Soup

        Because I ordered off the English menu first, then saw the Chinese menu after that, just couldn't order more food. They do have the items available daily, next time I'll bring the kids to do justice to them. As for the wontons, yes, mine look like tortellinis. The restaurant is close to Bart, on the opposite side of Uncle Yu's.

      2. Coincidentally Chowchild and I finally tried Lily's Friday night. He took one brief look at the menu and immediately asked if there was another since this one was so obviously Americanized. (Melanie and Yimster have taught him well). We were directed to the chalkboard and did try XLB which were good but not great. Since Lily's is in our neighborhood I'd love to try it again with Chowhounds who could order off the 'real' menu. I agree--lack of customers is a little disconcerting. There was only one two top and one take out when we were there.

        10 Replies
        1. re: chowfish

          Sunday night the Don of Walnut Creek abandoned his plans to order-in pizza and had a cong you bing (scallion pancake) in Lafayette with me instead. It wasn't very good. We also had the white board special of xiao long bao ("steamed bao"). Those had lovely pork-y flavor, but disgustingly thick skins. It was starting to look like this was going to be a long night. . .

          Luckily this chef's talent shows itself in other ways. This became apparent with the long jing shrimp. Soft and tender, near glassy shrimp, were handled so gently to stay sweet and juicy. The wok-seasoned oil and green tea leaves were very subtle notes on the delicate shellfish. Lily (the petite lady with the dimple) offered us some black vinegar for dipping as an option and I liked it both with and without.

          We were dazzled by the smoked fish appetizer. I usually hate this dish because the marinade is too sweet and the fish is closer in texture to drift wood than flesh. This arrived still a little warm and looked as fresh as can be. The crispy, paper-thin brown pebbled crust yielded to soft, moist flesh, so tender in fact that the bones were not softened, so look out. The marinade was lightly sweet and had a lot more intricate flavors as well that complimented the tea smoking. It was also un-oily, much different from other examples. Later I had a chance to ask the chef, Mr. Ying, how he makes this (he speaks good English), as there'd been questions on this board of whether Shanghai style smoked fish is truly smoked. He said that he deep-fries it, then marinates lightly for two minutes, and then smokes it.

          Stir-fried rice cakes (nian gao) with cabbages was a wet style blended with fresh and preserved Napa cabbage. The rice cakes were perfectly toothsome and infused with pork-y richness though there was no meat added to the dish. Later as it cooled, I ran a spoon through the thickening, cooled juices and commented to Francesc that the pale caramel-colored sauce looked like emulsified pork drippings.

          The pièce de résistance was the pork belly in master sauce, as shown below. The thick slices of fatty meat had a quivering, jellied texture basted in a deeply flavored and mysterious master sauce. The hearts of Shanghai cabbage were perfectly cooked to bring out their sweet essence. Though this dish was undeniably rich, the chef's light touch shown in its balance of flavors and relative non-greasiness.

          For dessert, fortune cookies were presented with our bill. Francesc howled at his which read, "Promote literacy. Buy a box of fortune cookies."

          From this showing, I'd have no qualms about springing for the $50 clay chicken (beggars chicken) to let the chef show more of what he can do. He has a very broad repetoire and is open to special requests. We're very excited at the possibilities. The restaurant is located across the street from BART and is at the intersection of Oak Hill and Mount Diablo, just off of Hwy 24.



          1. re: Melanie Wong

            Mmmm, that pic and description of the pork belly is getting my stomach growling and arteries hardening. How are the prices overall?

            1. re: Eugene Park

              Aw, don't listen to those arteries. When you order this dish, Lily will tell you that it's good for you.

              Three of our dishes were not on the English menu, so I didn't read any prices and we sussed them out by trial and error. Don Francesc kept asking for "pork, braised pork, fatty pork, pork . . ." and wouldn't take the standard come-back of "lionshead meatballs". On the white board the XLB were $5.50 for 6 dumplings and the long jing shrimp on the English menu as around $13. Other than four florets of broccoli as garnish, that dish is pure shrimp with no filler, so not really that high. Portion size is not huge.

              From his pen motions over the credit card slip that I caught from the corner of the eye and upside down, I think the total bill was somewhere between $50 and $60 for three appetizers, two large dishes, and one noodle plate. It was enough to easily feed three people and maybe four.

              We should start to inventory the good dishes here. Lily said that Shanghainese patrons are starting to find them and requesting more and more things. The Chinese menu is the result of those special requests.

              One side of the room is decorated with black and white photos of Shanghai in the 30s and 40s. The other side has color photos of modern Shanghai (and President and Mrs. Clinton in the restaurant where the chef once worked.) It's not that far from Oakland or Berkeley, and very much worth the trip. I hope you'll give it a try and report back.

              1. re: Melanie Wong

                A very good friend who used to live in Shanghai recently married the gal he met while there. I'll take the two of them with me and see what their thoughts are. I'll be sure to take detailed notes....=-D

                1. re: Eugene Park

                  Here is a partial translation of the menu to give you an idea of what is offered. If your friends have other specific dishes they want to try, based on Melanie's conversation with the chef, it sounds like he would accommodate:

                  Preserved vegetable and fish soup
                  West lake beef soup
                  Shanghainese wonton soup
                  Smoked fish
                  Wok sauteed shrimp in shell (you bao xia)
                  Preserved veg and fresh soybeans
                  Cold tofu salad (liang ban dofu)
                  Stir fried shrimp
                  Long Jing shrimp
                  Black mushrooms with bokchoy hearts
                  Wheat gluten with mushrooms
                  Sweet & sour spareribs
                  Shanghai style rice sticks (niangao)
                  Lionshead meatballs
                  Stir fried Lamb
                  Claypot/Beggar's Chicken
                  Pork Shoulder (TiPang)
                  Braised Fish Tail
                  Vegetarian stirfry

                  There are several more items, just can't quite make them out. With the exception of the claypot chicken, prices range from $7 to 13. Don't see any duck dishes either.

                  1. re: anli

                    Good show, anli, thank you! Nothing terribly exciting on that list, but could be special when executed well. I recall Lily mentioning a duck dish, but don't remember what it was.

                    Do you know the name of the pork dish I had? I think it was on the right side of the Chinese menu, maybe in the bottom half, three characters with the last one, "rou". It wasn't printed clearly. I asked Lily to pronounce it and she said something close to "lu yau rou".

                    I've linked up Jim's old report on a Hang Zhou banquet he attended in NYC a few years ago to give folks an idea of what we meant by the slightly different touch. Oh, and in the past we had a debate with Jim about dong po rou. In NYC, he's always had it with steamed buns (mantou). Out here, no one had it served with buns.



                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                      The characters on the menu read Zou3 You2 Ro4, or oil free meat (loosely translated), but she may have called it Lu3 You2 Ro4, which means Master Sauce meat. As you know, a master sauce is developed over many years. My mom has a jar that she has been brewing since I was in grade school.

                      On the menu, the dish right below that looks like pork rump - Zou3 You2 Ti2 Pang3.

                      Regarding mantou and dong po rou - I had it in Hangzhou this summer, at LouWaiLou, a well known restaurant overlooking the West Lake, where I also had the Long Jing shrimp. BTW, Grandview Restaurant in Burlingame also serves dong po rou that way (disclaimer: my uncle's restaurant).

                      1. re: anli

                        Thank you for the translation help. My limited vocabulary runs through a Cantonese analog first and sometimes doesn't come out right at the other end! I had started a master sauce long ago but it died when the power was out during the 1989 quake.

            2. re: Melanie Wong

              Way to go, Melanie. Looks like you picked several winners. Based on my lunch choices, I was only 50/50 as to whether I would go back to try dinner, but now it looks much more promising. Because of his Hangzhou background, I suspect he also can do a credible version of Tung Po Rou, a famous pork dish named after the poet Su Tung Po, usually served with steamed mantou.

              Too bad about the xiao long bao, but maybe because he has little demand for it he hasn't spent the time to improve the wrapper. There aren't many xlb experts in Lamorinda.

              1. re: anli

                The negotiations were not easy. Don Francesc had arrived ahead of me and had managed to get his hands on the Chinese menu. When I arrived, my "ni hao" must have impressed Lily as she launched into a detailed description of the chef, his cooking philosophy . . . 99% of which I couldn't understand until I stopped her and apologized for only knowing English.

                When she recommended the smoked fish, Francesc wanted to order it. While I didn't object, he said that I made such a face at the idea. See, I said I hate that dish usually.

                We were seated near the front so it was a little hard to hear the chatter in the kitchen. I did hear some Cantonese spoken by the taller waitress with the kitchen. I think there's a cooking assistant. Maybe the owners inherited a Cantonese cook from the previous incarnation. Did you notice the pho dishes on the back of the menu? But then I heard Mandarin too, and that let me settle back in my seat and calm down.

                A man, who we later learned was the chef, came out at one point with a couple bags of take-out orders. I thought he'd leave them at the front and got nervous when he kept on going out the door. I asked Lily who he was, and she said, "he's the boss, cook and delivery man." When he came back, we had a chance to chat with him.

                Please keep us posted on new finds here.