Saturday, January 21, 2012

Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village - Siren Call for Modern Chinese FineDining in the SGV?

I admit, I'm a sucker for the full experience when it comes to dining. Breath-taking decor can't make up for poorly made food, but I'm greedy - I want great taste in both. This perfect balance is prolific in higher-end Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong, and I've been wanting to find a place of similar caliber in LA. That isn't a frenetic, sensory assault chamber gilded in red and gold and/or almost visible congestion of soundwaves - with waiters yelling over busboys clattering dishes over a sea of humanity, sharing their latest at their loudest, or dodging metal carts chock-full of that which can maim or at least seriously burn.  And serves quality dim sum.

Freshly back to LA from a Hong Kong/Singapore trip, and just starting to miss all the great eats, I was excited to hear, via Sinosoul, of a newly opened restaurant in San Gabriel that may fit the bill for good food in a modern fine dining setting - Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village (opened 12/18).

Apparently they are a new outpost of a successful restaurant chain in Shanghai, 上海1号.

My friend 'Designer' and I went to check it out for dim sum today, before word of mouth packs the place and makes it tough to get a table.

Shanghai No. 1 is on the top floor of a small mall: Life Plaza Center. From the ground floor looking up, there was not much to impress. But then we stepped inside the place, and it was breath-taking. Walls tastefully done in lush, dark red, with the space sectioned off into cozy rooms with spacious hallways, and a modern take on traditional Chinese carved wood partitions. With chandeliers crowning each room, carefully arranged with Marie Antoinette worthy styled chairs in silver and royal blue, and ornate gold-leafed dishware. Which somehow works with the antique Chinese furniture in the hallway and vintage black & white photos from Shanghai.

Designer thought the place made her feel like she was on a ship, and I agree - the decor did evoke some modern retro Chinese luxury ocean liner.

We got there around 1pm and got seated within minutes. Great start on service. Slightly marred by the comedic mess up of having our table set the wrong way (knee-height bars made it really uncomfortable to sit) - though our waiter mistakenly told us the table was bolted down, we were fine after we rotated it ourselves.
Then first things first - the tea order. On my recent trip, I developed an addiction to Chrysanthemum Shou Mei - 菊壽 -a white tea mixed with dried chrysanthemum flowers - and was impressed Shanghai No. 1 served this (not every place does). White tea is low in caffeine, and high in anti-oxidants, while chrysanthemum is said to ease sore throats or cool down 'hot' chi from eating too much fried food. A perfect pairing for an indulgent meal of dim sum.
But that's not why I love it - light and refreshing, with lovely, nuanced floral sweetness, it tastes as beautiful as it looks. Nice to see Shanghai No. 1 doesn't skimp on tea - it's loose leaf with real, whole dried chrysanthemum blossoms.

Click for larger image
Next order of business: food. Typical to higher-end dim sum houses, push carts have been replaced by a la carte menu sheets that you check off and hand to the waiter. This makes for less chaos, and ensures your food is as fresh as possible. Pricing is also easy to figure out - cost is by 'size', notated next to each dish: (S)=$1.98 (M)=$2.98 (L)=$3.98 (SP)=$4.98 (KITCHEN)=$6.98. Not too bad for a fine-dining space!

I was excited to see some dim sum classics with a twist - though for non-Chinese readers the English translations can be really confusing. Designer knows her dim sum, but even for her it was hard to figure out which was which from menu titles. For items with confusing names, I have noted both proper/familiar names and what Shanghai No. 1 calls them for reference.

First up: Abalone sticky rice w/ lotus leaf 鮑魚糯米雞 (L) - a dim sum staple, glutinous (sweet) rice is steamed with preserved sausage, bits of chicken and soy-based sauce while wrapped in lotus leaves, which impart fragrant flavor to the mix. Shanghai No. 1 upgrades theirs with a piece of abalone - a small but substantial piece (top left in photo) with nice distinctive taste and fresh, softly chewy texture. To those that would complain about size - it's actually very reasonable - with 3 pieces to a steamer tin costing under $4 total. One of my favorites of the meal as the rice had great perky yet cohesive texture, and the ratio of rice to filling was perfect.
Another classic, upgraded is Deep fried taro ball 蝦巢炸竽角(M), usually half the size, quenelle-shaped, and filled only with taro paste.

S#1's (abbreviation mine) version: giant puffs of beautifully fried wisps of flaky dough in coral-reef-like formations, surrounding taro pieces with veggie filling.
While the fried dough exterior was perfect, it took a bit of work to cut through the center with my chopsticks (the taro was a little bit hard and chunky). I still loved this though for the gorgeous presentation and the texture/taste of the fried dough.
Shrimp Dumpling (aka Ha Gow) 晶瑩蝦餃皇- a dim sum staple that also serves as a great basis for comparisan between restaurants (as all dim sum spots would have this dish).

The shrimp were plump, but not necessarily fine-dining quality (i.e. live). These dumplings at the best places will have a 'crystal clear' wrapper that is soft, pliable, delicate and thin yet do not break open when picked up. S#1's wrappers left us a bit wanting, as it was 'cloudy' and slightly too thick and mushy around the edges. They were also not uniform in shape /size - not a big deal but another indicator of craftsmanship if they want to be perceived as a true fine dining venue. If memory serves correctly, these are better than Elite's, but not as good as Yank Sing's.

Next up should have been a sure-win given the restaurant's name and place of origin: Xiao Long Bao aka Shanghai Dumplings ("Steamed Shanghai juicy pork bun" 上海小籠包 on menu) (M). These "little basket buns" are another way to see the chef's skills - it's no easy feat to get the round of pork, surrounded by hot broth, sealed into a dough wrapper that must be thin and yieldy, yet strong enough to retain its fillings when plucked from the steamer tin.

We were disappointed to find that the XLB we got - that should have been plump little bundles of brothy, porky bliss - were emaciated, with dry wrappers, not much broth, and barely any meat. The photo kind of says it all.
Steamed rice noodle with shrimp 甜豆鮮蝦腸 (L) - the flat sheets of wide rice noodles had really great, fresh texture - and the shrimp were again plump but not as incredibly fresh as they could be (a little mushy around the edges). The twist here is the addition of sugar snap peas, for a lovely pop of green as well as a pleasing crunch of sweetness that works really well with the more subtly sweet/savory shrimp and soft rice noodle. Fab topped with sesame seeds and dipped in soy sauce.
Po Tat aka Portugese Egg Tart ("Baked egg custard" 蛋撻 on menu) - this is the classic dim sum dessert, egg custard tart but done Macau style (Macau has large Portugese history/influence) with the top of the egg custard bruleed. We loved these little tarts, with its smooth, sweet egg custard amped up with the slight caramelization on top, surrounded by a beautifully buttery, flaky crust. All served fresh at just the right temperature, as if straight out of the oven. LOVED.
Though the dishes were inconsistent in quality, I didn't really want the meal to end - but was glad we could finish with a dessert that you don't see at every place: Mango Pomelo Coconut Sago Soup 楊枝甘露 ("Fresh fruit w/ tapioca" on menu) (L) - sweet/tangy soup served cold, with bits of mango, pomelo and tiny tapioca balls (sago) in a sweet coconut base.

This is usually one of my favorite Chinese desserts - so I was excited that S#1 served this. Overall it was delicious, but when I've had this in Hong Kong, it's usually in a mango coconut base and is golden in color (both base and pieces of mango and translucent white pomelo reflecting base color - hence the poetic words that phonetically sound like 'sunny branch, golden dew' in its Chinese name) - and S#1's version leans much more towards coconut, is less nuanced, and the pieces of mango are tiny (so small you can't really tell if they're fresh - but there were several pieces that were so hard I took them out). The sago was soft and fresh tasting though, and I liked the visual effects of the bursts of grapefruit red.

Also of note: besides dim sum staples they also have on the lunch menu other Asian specialties like 南洋肉骨茶, which I thought was a Singaporean item (Bak Kut Teh) but is listed with English translation "Malaysia style pork rib tea"; and 星洲沙米 which I think is a Hong Kong invention generally known as Singapore Fried Noodles, which is listed as "Malaysia Pan Fry Rice Noodles".

In terms of food, it's no Yank Sing, not even close. But we were happy to have a place like Shanghai No. 1 in LA to elevate the Chinese dining experience - they just need to raise the bar a bit more on their food to meet the promise in their decor (and service which was good - waitstaff came by to change our plates several times and kept the tea pot full of hot tea). That said, those rearing to bash and sink it as 'overpriced' food, where you are just paying for decor - our meal cost a total of $28.12 for the two of us, and we left stuffed plus takeout boxes. So not really that bad at all. It's an upscale place where you can bring visiting relatives, have decent dim sum (for the most part - and it's just over a month old so finding its groove) with attentive service, and actually be able to hear and hold conversation - my parents could enjoy the space.

I've also read a bit about their gorgeous magazine style, beautifully photographed dinner menu (now standard with upper mid-tier restaurants in HK, presumably to entice bigger, impulse orders) and look forward to checking it out at some point, hopefully soon.

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5.5 bites
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $ (1 bite mark)
Probability of return visit - 100%

Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village
250 W Valley Blvd., #M, San Gabriel, CA 91776
Ph: 626.282.1777

Parking: Free parking in open-air lot or underground structure at Life Plaza Center

Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village on Urbanspoon


  1. *sigh* wish it had more hits OMB. So sorry, but I knew you'd like the straight out of the boat fresh digs

    I give this place... 1 year, tops. At least I know where to take out of towners for dimsum these days.

  2. LOL did you just find a lengthier way of calling me FOB?! Well, I wear that loud and proud ;) Hoping to find more hits and overall improvement in food quality on the next visit - giving us reason to root for this place to last.

  3. I just visited for a second time today for a business lunch and I think the quality of the food has improved, especially the XLB. The soup dumplings were very plump and gushed soup.

    I'm told that the dim sum menu and dinner menu are headed by different chefs, so I don't know if that is where the difference lies? I'll be back to try the dim sum menu next.

    Both times I've been to the restaurant around 3:30pm. Too late for dim sum and too early for full dinner service.

  4. Thanks for reading, and nice to hear that quality is improving. Any other notable items in that late afternoon timeframe? (I love eating at all times of day too :))

  5. Great Place and Awesome FOOD! I was pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere and decors of this place! We came here for our wedding anniversary & enjoyed this fine dining place in town. Lovely food with excellent service always attentive without being intrusive. Legit!



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