Shanghai's cuisine, whether served at a dive or a white-tablecloth restaurant, often is typecast as an impossibly rich parade of braised meats and overly sweet, heavy sauces. But at 4-month-old Yu Garden, chef Bin Hu focuses on a lighter, more streamlined Shanghainese cooking style. It's the sort of food found in casual, modern eateries that have popped up to serve the Chinese city's outlying urban sprawl — call it Neo-Shanghainese Cafe Cuisine.
From Yu Garden's façade, possibly one of the drabbest storefronts on Valley Boulevard, there's no hint of the buzzing energy within. At busy mealtimes the small, narrow room throbs with city life: girlfriends gossiping in the upholstered booths, a lone businessman slurping noodles at one of the faux black granite tables; families and shoppers, their puffy plastic bags resting on the stylishly rustic tile floor, perusing the bargain lunch menu. The polished décor, inherited from several predecessors, gives the plain space a bit of urban chic.
Hu, who trained in China and has worked in local Shanghainese kitchens for about 15 years, leaves the cuisine's notoriously complex creations — the duck egg yolks surrounded by fava bean paste, the shrimp cooked with tea leaves, or lotus leaf-wrapped pork butt steamed with sticky rice — to more formal restaurants. But his dishes do preserve the cuisine's earthy essence.
His pumpkin soup, a clean-tasting vegetable puree, gets its contrasting accent from a scattering of salty dried scallop shreds. His julienned pork in garlic sauce exudes a chile-tinged ring of saucy crimson jus that transforms plain rice into a deeply spiced Asian-style paella.
On the short dim sum list are house-made wontons, 10 fat packets stuffed to bursting with lean pork and jie cai, Shanghai's favorite leafy green that's a delicate member of the mustard family.
The soup dumplings (xiao long bao) are pretty dreamy too, but with skins a bit more substantial than the Din Tai Fung model. For some of us, that's precisely their virtue. There's an ever-so-slight chewiness when you nibble on a corner to suck out the hot soup inside. And the tender filling isn't overly sweet.
Hu cooks loads of incredible choices for vegetarians. That's because it's common practice for the many Shanghainese who follow Buddhist traditions to eat only vegetarian dishes several days every month. Still, even for the committed, a dish called noodle soup with vegetables sounds less than thrilling. Not so. Alongside spaghetti-like wheat noodles in a crystalline broth comes an ample bowl of meaty black mushrooms the size of burger patties and silky-tender bamboo shoots glimmering under a veil of lightly caramelized brown sauce. The separately served topping and noodles are easier to share than most single-bowl Asian pastas, a thoughtful touch.
Eggplant with garlic sauce sings with robust flavor. Gluten puffs, with their intriguing chewy texture, nestle in a ceramic pot paired with a contrasting mix of mushrooms in a rustic onion and vegetable compote. About a dozen other vegetarian items are scattered throughout the menu.
Sometimes it's easy to feel like you're on vacation in China here, particularly if your Chinese isn't all that spiffy. You may occasionally have to ask for a little help translating a few of the menu's more cryptic transliterations. Management says they intend to upgrade the wording of their next menu. Until then there is always the ever-cheerful Raymond Chen, the helpful sous chef who speaks the best English in the house.
Without the carnal pleasure of braised pork knuckle (a.k.a. pork pump), a Shanghai restaurant would absolutely be dismissed. Yet the old-school dish served at many restaurants is usually expensive and requires a large, ravenous crowd to make even a dent in the rich, quivering mass of skin-covered meat braised to an almost jello-like consistency.
Yu Garden's house special braised pork shank, an osso buco-size portion at $8.95 (ample for two or three), is an updated alternative. As tender and outrageously sensuous as its pork knuckle cousin, it perfectly fits Yu Garden's Neo-Shanghainese Cafe style.