Friday, January 18, 2008

Come On-a Our Place

A while back I wrote a post claiming that, in general, midtown Manhattan was happier hunting grounds for good Chinese restaurants than Manhattan's Chinatown. Though I've recently had excellent meals in Chinatown at Amazing 66 and Shanghai Cafe, I stick by that claim. And now I have another fabulous restaurant to add to my list of midtown winners: Our Place Shanghai Tea Garden, at 141 East 55th Street. I had passed by the restaurant several weeks ago and seen a number of positive reviews posted in the window. My concern was that in addition to Shanghai cuisine they serve a large number of dishes from other regions of China. I'm suspect of restaurants that try to be all things to all diners. Still, I arranged a dinner with a group of friends and was more than pleased by the Shanghai specialties as well as a couple of non-Shanghai dishes.

Shanghai cuisine is fairly easy to find in New York these days. When I first tasted Shanghai food in the 1970s there were only a few restaurants in Chinatown serving the cuisine, most notably Say Eng Lok (4-5-6) and Little Shanghai, both long gone. In addition to Shanghai Cafe, which is a descendent of Little Shanghai, there are now a handful of good Shanghai restaurants in Chinatown, including New Green Bo, which I haven't reviewed yet, and Joe's Shanghai, which doesn't really live up to its hype and probably isn't worth the inevitable long wait. Joe's has a midtown branch too; it's much easier to get a table there, but they're quite overpriced. I'm more partial to Evergreen. Now, however, I'm almost ready to declare Our Place the best Shanghai restaurant in Manhattan. It'll take one more visit to seal the deal though.

My group of six tried only a couple of appetizers, deciding to focus on main courses. The scallion pancake was respectable and not at all greasy; more interesting were the flaky turnip pastries. Cold appetizers are a cornerstone of Shanghai cuisine, but Our Place doesn't have a large or interesting selection. I do want to try their dumplings, both the jiaozi (fried dumplings or pot stickers) and the xiaolongbao (soup dumplings), when I return.

All of our main courses were prepared with finesse. Nothing was greasy, heavy or overly salty. Perhaps the least exciting dish was the fresh squid with salt and pepper (lightly battered, a preparation common to Shanghai and Cantonese cuisines). It was actually beyond reproach, but I've had better versions at a number of other restaurants. My favorite dish of the evening was the lion's head, large pork meatballs seasoned with star anise among other spices, topped with an amber gravy and served with cabbage hearts. It's a famous Shanghai dish. I'm not sure where the name comes from, and I'm skeptical of the Wikipedia explanation: "The name derives from the shape of the cabbage, which together with the meatball and a bit of imagination, resembles a lion's head." Still, you gotta love an encyclopedia that has an entry on Shanghai meatballs.

Also excellent were the Shanghai flat noodles with eight precious ingredients, doughy, hearty wheat noodles with mixed stuff (meat, baby shrimp, vegetables). "Eight precious" (sometimes "eight treasures") is a common name in Chinese cuisine, but the particular eight can vary depending on the dish. Eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture, but the name appears to refer specifically to the "pa pao," the eight precious objects of Buddhism (and there are apparently multiple groups of pa pao). Our other Shanghai dish was lima beans with bean curd skins and preserved vegetables. This dish is usually made with soybeans, and sometimes with shredded pork added. The thin bean curd skins are cut into noodle-like strips.

We ordered two dishes from the non-Shanghai specials menu, called "New Yorker's Favorites." I was seduced by the description of the Rack of Lamb Our Style: "Hearty portions of lamb chops grilled, then sautéed in our spicy garlic sauce, finished in Chinese sherry wine." The dish was wonderful, though I'd hardly call four baby lamb chops "hearty portions."

Chef Peng's Beancurd is described as "Creation of a legendary master chef. Beancurd in spicy sauce with shredded pork, hot pepper, and garlic." They forgot to mention the black beans. It is apparently their version of bean curd home style, a Hunan dish that has become a staple of Chinese-American restaurants. Moderately spicy, it was an excellent rendition of the dish.

There is also a "general menu," which has many other multi-regional offerings. I'm more inclined to try some of these dishes now that the kitchen has proven itself.

Service at Our Place was efficient, perhaps too efficient. All six of our main courses came out at about the same time, which made the table rather crowded. When the dishes arrived the waiter asked, "family style?" I guess the kitchen plans accordingly for the dreaded "I don't share" types. Our Place isn't a budget restaurant, but a meal there won't break the bank. Depending on drinks, I'd say dinner with tip should run between $30 and $45 per person.

Our Place Shanghai Tea Garden on Urbanspoon


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The anonymous cook says:
I think the name derives from the greens (sometimes joined by noodles) being draped partially or entirely over the meatball to create a head-and-mane effect. I have one recipe for a lighter version (from Hangchow), where the meatballs are gently poached, then topped with shredded lettuce in this fashion, and another, attributed to Chiang Kiang, a Yangze river port town (evidently widely known throughout China), where the meatballs incorporate some crab and fish and are served with manes of spinach & noodles.

11:41 AM  

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