Kuala Lumpur - Best Shanghainese in KL at the Shanghai Restaurant (上海苏浙苑)?
JW Marriott's lush Shanghai Restaurant offers practically every Shanghainese dish you'd ever want, though its claim-to-fame is to that it serves the best Shanghainese "xiao long bao" (苏浙苑精品小笼包) in KL - yes, better than the ones served at one of the Crystal Jade's KL outlets as well as Din Tai Fung KL, both located in the upmarket Pavilion Mall, just across the road from JW Marriott KL.
My dinner there was a case of hits-and-misses though:
- Smoked duck's eggs - beautifully done here, the bright orange yolks molten-soft, and I liked the way the eggs were served with cashews, seaweed and crisps;
- "Xiao long bao" - delicate & translucent-skinned but, perhaps after my recent meal in HK's Shanghai Fraternity Association restaurant, the ones here paled in comparison. The flavors were one-dimensional and lacked the subtlety & taste-sensory pleasure which good "xiao long baos" provide one's palate;
- Crisp-fried eels with spicy salt-pepper - yech, didn't like this at all. I much preferred the type with glossy caramelly-vinegary coating that's de rigeur in Shanghainese restaurants elsewhere;
- Xiao bai cai braised vegetables in chicken stock and garlic were good - in fact, the best dish for the evening;
- Braised lion's head dumpling (獅子頭). The ones served here were the red variety (红烧), braised with a soy-based, unctuous sauce and contained Chinese white cabbage, fresh bamboo shoots & mushrooms. The sauce was tasty enough but, here again, the meatballs (though light & well-textured) came across as pretty bland, and lacked the "umami" taste sensation I was looking for.
For dessert, we ordered some steamed layer cake with custard and duck's yolks, which were lovely and the best-tasting morsels we had all evening.
Service at the Shanghai Restaurant was the best I'd ever encountered in KL - definitely Michelin-star standard. The food is perhaps the best Shanghainese in KL (restaurant patrons this evening were a mix of Chinese-Malaysians and Mainland Chinese visitors/tourists, with at least a couple of tables filled with Shanghainese-speaking businessmen) - the standard of cooking is definitely better than those I get in Singapore's Shanghainese spots (e.g. Crystal Jade Shanghai) but way behind the standards of Shanghainese dining options you'd find in Hong Kong, Taiwan and in China itself.
One brickbat - over-priced drinks: imagine charging RM18 (US$6) for a Pepsi Light, when a basket of 10 steamed "xiao long bao" costed only RM30 - that's daylight robbery in any city!
Shanghai Restaurant (上海苏浙苑)
1st Floor, JW Marriott Hotel Kuala Lumpur
183 Jalan Bukit Bintang
55100 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: +603-2715 9000
No dishes prepared with alcohol were ordered? ;-)
I wasn't as aware of the subtleties of different cuisines when I was younger but it seemed to me that there was a laissez-faire attitude towards maintaining "purity" of cuisines in KL (or stuff offered at a single restaurant) even when I was still there, at least as it seems to me now looking back. I remember your saying in another thread that there was considerable blurring of lines between cuisines and traditions in KL, perhaps more so than in other cities/places, even if the predominant culinary "base" is Cantonese for Chinese cuisine, with lots of commingling from "Malaysia"/Malay/other SE Asian traditions as well. How "pure" is this restaurant in presenting "Shanghainese cuisine", and what about the stuff one gets in a general sense "out there" in KL nowadays?
In fact, poached chicken marinated in wine (or "drunken chicken") was one of the house specialties of the Shanghai @ JW Marriott, though we didn't order it that evening.
I think the emergence of "pure" Cantonese or Shanghainese restaurants here in Kuala Lumpur(and also in Singapore) is a result of "globalization" and greater movement of people cross-border these days, whence everyone become more aware of having to maintain their own identitiy, even culinary-wise. The Shanghai Restaurant at JW Marriott presented cuisine and dishes which were 100% similar to those one would get in Shanghai, Hangzhou or in good Shanghainese restaurants in HK - no trace of any "Malaysianisation" in its dishes! This is something unthinkable even as recent as 1990s Malaysia/Singapore, where most Chinese restaurants have localized cuisine, with liberal lashings of sambal belachan, chillis or assam (tamarind) in some dishes, e.g. "kangkung sambal belachan".
Better international transport and "cold chain" logistics also meant that many "authentic" Chinese ingredients (e.g. fresh bamboo shoots, China-grown vegetables) are now available in Malaysia and Singapore. Also, there are now expat HK and Chinese chefs working in Malaysian and Singaporean kitchens, especially those in major hotels.
Mind you, even back then you could certainly eat pretty "pure" regional food in KL - Oversea Restaurant, as one example, if you wanted good Cantonese cuisine; there was a place on the hill behind Sultan Rd (IIRC) that was pretty pure Hakka food; etc etc. Even Yook Woo Hin served cuisine that was Cantonese in style and inspiration, almost wholly. Places had dishes that were definitely Malaysianized or Malay-influenced etc, but one could certainly find pretty good renditions of regional cuisine. However, my point was that you could find various cross-influenced dishes on the menus of even ostensibly Cantonese (or whatnot) places and often mixtures of regional dishes on the same menu, even if the "speciality" of a particular place was Hakka or Cantonese or Teochew etc. Whether or not it was 100% pure Cantonese etc I don't know (and wouldn't have known). it is interesting that you feel it was unlikely ('unthinkable') that completely pure regional cuisine was available back then.
I think in the old days, there was perhaps slight tweaking by the restaurants in KL & Singapore to suit local tastes, and cooking style tend to be more rustic, e.g. in KL, Esquire Kitchen's Shanghainese food was definitely "different" from those one finds in Shanghai, ditto the faux Shanghainese in Singapore's Westlake Restaurant.
Personally, I think Chinese food undergo "localization" more than Indian food - which is why we have Japanese-style Chinese food in Japan, American-Chinese food in the US, etc. Maybe it's got to do with Chinese cooking, which requires fresh ingredients, so the chefs usually make do with whatever local subsitutes they can get - e.g. in Singapore, "soon kueh" (笋糕) uses shredded local jicama (Chines turnips) in place of fresh bamboo shoots.
Well, it makes perfect sense that you can't find really good Shanghainese food in KL. The majority of the Chinese population there is Cantonese, followed by the Hokkien, Hakka and Chiuchow. In Singapore, our Chinese population is mainly Hokkien, followed by the Chiuchow, then the Cantonese and Hakka. The Shanghainese never really come to South-east Asia in large numbers historically. Ironically, my Singapore-born husband is half-Cantonese and half-Shanghainese.