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Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Casual Chinese Dining – Big Feast at Top Shanghai

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It is the time of the year when my parents are back from Hong Kong and they usually like to treat Ying’s family to dinner at a restaurant (because my mother dear, unlike Ying’s mom, cannot cook). Ying and I thought high and low and decided to pay Dinesty a visit after reading so many raving reviews. Reservations at Dinesty is a must, so they say, but no one picked up the phone. Therefore, I decided to just show up! Alas, it was closed to a staff celebration party… Bearing such great disappointment, I was in no mood to look up another place to try. So we walked across the street to visit this trusty Shanghai cuisine restaurant that hasn’t disappointed me since day one.
Top Shanghai Cuisine Restaurant (上海一只鼎) is a modest looking diner situated in the Pricemart Foods plaza of Ackroyd and No. 3 Rd. This place has been here forever and ever. I was in high school when I first visited this place (and that’s over 7 years ago). The exterior has been roughly the same since then (and they really should put up new decorative pictures outside because their current ones are faded in color). Parking is abundant and freeeeeee :D
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The interior is as modest as the exterior, with as many tables as  they can tightly fit in this confined space. I would say they can seat 60 to 70 people comfortable, but actually seat more like 80-90. During dinner time (between 6 to 7pm), you’ll usually have to wait a good 15 to 30 minutes realistically (the waitresses here always under quote you). Weekend may take even longer. It’s always a good idea to make a reservation before coming. Since dinner was at 8:30pm tonight, reservation was not necessary. As you can tell by the picture, there were empty tables.
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We were quickly seated and presented with one menu. Mind you, we were a party of 7 people. One menu? Oh well, we were too busy talking anyway. So Ying got to wear the pants and decide what we were having this lovely evening. This place doesn’t serve exclusively Shanghai food. In fact, you will find quite a bit of Cantonese dishes on their menu. I had a quick glance at the menu and it was the same as the last time I was here. Nicely organized with many colorful pictures so even the illiterates can order. Over the years, they have revamped their menu a few times, adding more pictures and ENGLISH descriptions of their offerings, but the selections have remained moreo or less the same. Ying was of course fascinated by all these pictures and went crazy with the ordering – 9 dishes in total.
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To start, we had the marinated beef (五香牛肉), which is one of our favorite dishes here. For $4.99, you get a good-sized portion of well-marinated, tender beef. Can’t really complain too much about that! I liked how there were tendinous parts that made the beef a bit chewy.
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The other appy we picked tonight was 口水鸡, which literally translates as saliva chicken, or more appropriately spicy marinated chicken? No, this dish isn’t made with saliva! It’s actually a traditional cold appetizer from Szechuan that is supposed to be so delicious that people would be drooling at the thought of it. Top Shanghai’s version is definitely not as spicy as the traditional dish, but it was tasty nonetheless…at least according to Ying. As you can see, it is a sesame-based dressing with peanuts and green onion as garnish on top of a bed of cucumber slices. I tried some of the sauce and found it mildly spicy. Ying commented that the chicken was cooked well – juicy and tender.
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IMG_7531 copy We picked the Veggie and Tofu Soup (荠菜豆腐羹), which is a classic Shanghainese soup according to Ying’s mom. She used to live in Shanghai so I’ll take her word for it! The veggie in this soup is actually a weed (野菜) called shepherd’s purse or Capsella bursa-pastoris…(I had to wiki those terms)
As in most Chinese restaurants, the waitress helped us serve the soup into small bowls. The soup was very refreshing, and the taste of the shepherd’s purse is very palate-cleansing.
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Since we are dining with parents, we usually get a veggie dish as well. Today’s choice was braised shiitake mushroom with Shanghai bok choy in oyster sauce. Really nothing special about this dish, as it tastes very homemade, but I do need my daily veggie intake!
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The above dish will probably look familiar…we just ordered it at Golden Szechuan the other day – Fried Chinese Steamed Bun (炸银丝卷 or 金丝卷). Ying and I really like this dish and tend to order it everywhere as it is usually pretty inexpensive. We’ve found that it’s pretty consistent between the different restaurants as well. Well, it’s pretty hard to screw up I think… The outside was fried to a nice crispy texture while the inside remained moist and chewy. It goes really well with the sweet condensed milk dip. This is really a dessert dish I suppose.
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Ah, now you can’t go to a Shanghai restaurant and not order the dish above! 小笼包 or little soup dumplings is a classic Shanghai dish that originated in Nanxiang, a suburb or Shanghai. They are little steamed buns typically filled with pork, but can also have seafood and vegetarian fillings as well. The best kind of buns would have skin that is tender, smooth and very thin – almost translucent. The filling would be a combination of ground pork and solid meat aspic (or meat stock gelatin). Once steamed, the aspic would melt and turn into soup. Be careful when you eat these as it can be quite hot! The proper way to eat them is to dip it in the vinegar and ginger dipping sauce, bite a small corner of the bun, slurp all the soup and then devouring the rest of the bun! Top Shanghai executes this dish very well, one of the better ones in town. I liked their special touch of placing the buns on a thinly sliced piece of daikon. 
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IMG_7552 copy The next dish is a classic Cantonese dish – sweet and sour pork (咕噜肉). It’s not something that we would typically order in a Chinese restaurant. I think we ordered it as a fluke when we visited this place with some friends a number of years ago and I fell in love with the dish! Today’s choice was pretty disappointing though… What I liked about it before was that the pork was in smaller pieces than other places and had less batter covering it. It seems that they have gone away from that and made it more typical now. This might be the last time I get this dish here… I still liked the sauce, the tangy and sweet ketchup/vinegar-based flavor never fails to satisfy my tastebuds. As usual, the pork was complemented with pineapple chunks, onions and green peppers.
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The dish pictured above is a common Northern Chinese dish – green onion pancake or 葱油饼. I love this yummy snack! Ying and I often buy them frozen from T&T – it comes in a green package. I nag her to make them for me at home all the time! It’s best when the crust is slightly crispy but the inside is still moist with plenty of green onion of course! I suppose it is on the greasier side, but it’s not that bad. :P Ying’s mom has also made it from scratch…much harder and tastier! Top Shanghai’s offering was pretty decent and reasonably priced (~$3 or so?)
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The final dish of the night was probably the most impressive of all – the sweet and sour rock cod or 松鼠石斑 (literally squirrel rock cod). The sauce was very similar to the sweet and sour pork, but there was also a healthy sprinkle of pine nuts. This was also the priciest dish of the night – at $29.99, but really reasonable for rock cod, which can be much more expensive at other restaurants! The fish was fresh and cooked well – tender but still firm in texture. As you can see from the picture, Top Shanghai delivers in terms of presentation – with the entire fish served up in an oval dish. This would definitely be unusual in a Western restaurant, but is a sign of how good the fish is in Chinese cuisine. There’s even dishes that feature the fish’s head. Now there’s some food for thought. IMG_7537 copy
Overall, this was a positive experience – not surprising as this place has yet to disappoint me. It was good that we visited on a Tuesday night (pretty late too), so there weren’t many people in the restaurant and our families got a chance to catch up. :)
The Yummies:
  • The food doesn’t disappoint – yummy comfort food
  • Ample free parking in the plaza parking lot
  • Reasonably priced – the bill came to ~$120 or so for the 7 of us
The Yuckies:
  • Servers can have tunnel vision at times – especially if it’s really busy
  • Long waits at prime dinner hour/weekends

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