Shanghai Surprise

Rejoice, all ye Chinese-food buffs: an early holiday present awaits you at Diho Square -- Houston's new center of gravity for serious Chinese dining -- where the Shanghai Restaurant is quietly turning out authentic regional fare that is unlike anything else in town. From a leafy green braise of pea sprouts to satiny fish fillets in a delicate rice-wine sauce, the food here breathes the elegant simplicity and restraint of the Lower Yangtze -- a lush, freshwater world in which natural flavors are coaxed from the local ingredients, not pitched against a thunderous riot of garlic and hot peppers.

Unlike downtown's Dong Ting, where Shanghai-born chef De Zhong Ding applies the region's subtle palate to a pan-Chinese menu heavy on Hunan, the Shanghai Restaurant offers a full-blown, radically interesting Shanghai repertoire to a mostly Chinese crowd of loyalists. They cluster by sixes and eights and tens at round, beautifully gilded tables, addressing steamy earthenware hot pots and exotic cold-dish platters, sending bursts of laughter and loud talk from private alcoves half-hidden behind French doors dripping strange pink lace.

Do as they do and begin with an assortment of cold dishes: a mild, haunting version of chicken pickled in rice wine (that prime Shanghai flavoring agent); slices of meaty smoked fish with a chewy, faintly sweet skin; peculiar sounding but appealing braised wheat bran (a substance with the approximate texture of deep-fried bean curd) coated in a "Ning-style" sauce that's fragrant with star anise and cinnamon. Pungent pickled cabbage sings with rice vinegar, the discreetest note of sugar and a deep chord of chile-pod heat; it's good for keeping close at hand all the way through a meal.

You can sample your way from Shanghai's triple cold-dish plate to a banquet-size heptad or octet platter (as the menu labels them with mathematical precision), experimenting with a briny, refreshingly crunchy tangle of julienned jellyfish, turnip and carrot, or the alien sounding peanuts with red laver -- which is nothing more than a deliciously salty, feathery species of dried seaweed that turns the roasted nuts into something you could serve at a New Year's party. If jellyfish and red laver sound too esoteric, fear not: this kitchen is reliable enough that you can try weird stuff, whether it be sea cucumber or beef tendon, without feeling tragic afterward. Bemused, maybe, but not tragic. It's the perfect setting for those people who order odd dishes on the Everest Principle -- because they're there.

Among the Shanghai's scarifying thickets of braised fish belly and cuttlefish with pork ribs, however, are plenty of non-threatening dishes that place this restaurant among Houston's best Chinese establishments -- light years removed from the local glut of me-too menus and oversugared Hunan/Szechuan horrors. Here, Braised Lion Heads, those huge, pale meatballs of meltingly tender minced pork, arrive in a glossy brown sauce that is deeply, elementally savory; dark-emerald greens, added at the end of the cooking process, leap out in the context of the pleasantly thick sauce and long-simmered meat. Anyone who relishes a good meatloaf can appreciate this dish and its robust, family-style quality.

Nor does brown sauce equal boredom in a very Shanghainese simmered half-duck with green onion. This is a fearlessly rich stew of tender duck meat still on the bone, its sauce humming gently with anise-scented five-spice powder and invisibly enriched with duck fat, its skinny scallion bulbs packing such a flavor wallop I wished there were five times as many of them. A little of this dish with some plain steamed rice goes a long, luxurious way.

Crabs are as common as ducks in the Shanghai larder, and if the kitchen here doesn't have any on hand, an employee will dash to the nearby seafood market for some live ones. Before long, they will materialize in a succulent, crimson heap, coated with a splendidly gingery sauce that is really more of a paste -- well suited to licking off fingers as you crack your way through the shellfish. It's great neo-Gulf Coast stuff.

So why, I wonder, does the Shanghai Restaurant use artificial crabmeat in several of its dishes -- including an otherwise rarefied combination of silky scallops and crisp vegetables in a light, graceful sauce flavored with pseudo-crab bits? It's subtle and winning, from the snap of snow peas and bamboo shoots to the earthy slipperiness of straw mushrooms; but with real crabmeat, it would be unbeatable.

Soft, white curls of fish in a translucent, barely thickened wine sauce work far better. Almost starkly simple, the dish is all gentle nuance, from crunchy ribbons of glass mushroom to respectfully cooked fish to the rice wine's mellow undertow. Look for it on the menu under "Fish Fillet in Grains Wine Sauce."

Look, too, for the so-called "pea sprouts in light sauce," which turn out to be a mess of greens any Southerner could love: springy and slightly bitter, stemmy leaves in a "sauce" that's more of a life-giving pot liquor. A waitress to whom I will be forever grateful steered me to them. "What are pea sprouts?" I asked her. "Green leaves," she replied firmly, mysteriously.

Less puzzling are juicy hearts of bok choy braised with strips of dried mushroom that taste strongly of the forest floor -- another of the deceptively plain, elemental dishes this restaurant does so well. Resilient Shanghai-style egg noodles done in that spirit are salty and forthright and very good, embellished with nothing more than ribbons of pork and fresh greens. Eat these with some of the restaurant's pickled cabbage and experience comfort.

Adventurers will find lots to amuse them here. I'm still mulling over the restaurant's roasted pork with so-called bean curd sheet knots -- ineffable twists that seem to be made of a very fine, many layered leather. Simmered together with the fatty belly bacon of which the Shanghainese are so enamored, these ornamental knots are ... well ... unforgettable. I've added them to my culinary life list, along with the surprisingly tender, slightly musty-tasting sea cucumber and soft, white tubes of beef tendon that bob in the "Assorted Hot Crockery Pot," a no-nonsense soup brimming with vegetables, shrimp and glass noodles.

Some of the desserts here must be ordered in advance, but I'm not convinced I want to plan ahead for "Rice Glue Ball in Red Bean Soup." And even though a big plate of sliced oranges seems like finale enough, the Steamed Eight Treasure Rice Pudding with fruit and nuts, in a heroic $9.50 portion, is something I plan to return for.

So are some of the Shanghainese shrimp roe dishes, and the meats seasoned with pickled vegetables, and the shredded eels with yellow leeks. This is a restaurant that fosters courage, with its steady kitchen and smiling service and clientele so obviously enjoying foodstuffs you've never laid eyes on before. The grownups cluster inside this modestly comfortable place, under bright lights that miss being harsh, surrounded by big photos of Shanghai harbor and the frilly arrangements of artificial flora that abound in this part of town. Outside, the children congregate -- momentarily parent-free -- practicing kung fu and horsing around. A clutch of cops wanders in from their substation a few doors down, right next to the Imperial Palace -- the dim sum and Chiu Chow mecca that, along with the Texas Lee Chinese bakery and the Shanghai Restaurant, is making this corner of the new Bellaire Chinatown into a gastronomic destination.

Shanghai Restaurant, 9116 Bellaire, 771-8082.

Shanghai Restaurant:
Braised Lion Heads, $7.25;
pea sprouts in light sauce, $6.95;
fish fillets in wine sauce, $7.95;
triple cold-dish plate, $9.95.


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