The proliferation of soup dumplings has popularized Shanghainese food in New York, but the cuisine is actually much more eclectic than that, though it’s lesser-known dishes like lion’s head meatballs and drunken chicken are far less ubiquitous here. But recently, a Chinese restaurant with a menu rooted in Shanghai opened in the Flatiron District at 7 West 20th St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues.
Punning on the Latin American corner grocery known as a bodega, Baodega is part dim sum restaurant, part Shanghainese, and part other stuff, too. In front of the brick-walled space, there’s an an independent Indonesian-sourced coffee shop with a display of the usual pastries, and further inside, there’s a glass-walled kitchen and a dining room that looks into a back garden, derelict now but sure to become a beguiling accoutrement once warm weather arrives. How many Chinese restaurants offer outdoor dining?
A slew of lunch specials priced at $12 (weekday only) or $15 drive shoppers and office workers in at lunchtime, jamming the place. These menus provide a voluminous meal that includes a soup, large main course, big hump of rice, and side vegetable, with optional dumplings and tea. Not a bad value, but many of the dishes, such as General Tso’s chicken, are similar to what you might find in a good Cantonese carryout. One exception is grandma’s braised pork, which features dark, wobbly, fatty obelisks of pork belly on a bed of bok choy. The zip in this braise — a Shanghai classic — comes from shaoxing wine.
But most of the action is emphatically not on the specials menus. Accordingly, turn to the regular bill of fare for some superior apps and entrees. A scallion pancake ($7.50) served hot on a bed of lettuce comes flavored with bacon, which adds a welcome extra oomph! to the flaky standard.
A great regular menu entree is the lion’s head meatball stew ($18.95), which plants three elemental meatballs — laced with water chestnuts for added crunch. The dish doesn’t really read as a stew since the vegetable is exclusively bok choy, but the meatballs exude star anise and other sweet spices. I’d love to have these on an Italian hero.
Chefs Salil Mehta and Kenny Yie also do wonders with duck. Chao mai feng ($17.95) tangles thin Singapore rice noodles with duck and pickled cabbage, sporting plenty of chewy duck and a pleasant sour aftertaste. For a more duck-centric flavor, pick the crispy duck noodle soup, which is like something you might get in a Chinatown Cantonese restaurant, with soft, fat wheat noodles in a generous serving for $15.95. (All entrees at Baodega come in family-size portions.)
The menu also spreads to other regional aspects of Chinese cuisine, and of those, the one I enjoyed most was called Huang Feihong hot chicken ($18.95). It proved to be a beguiling variation on Chongqing chicken — you know, the stir fry with all the (inedible) dried red chiles. Here, the boneless chicken morsels have been lightly breaded, and so have the dried red chiles, so you can actually eat them. The dish also includes spicy peanuts, and fresh green peppers further ramp up the heat, so watch out!
And what about the Shanghai soup dumplings? There are four varieties, including the usual pork and pork with crab, as well as chicken and vegetarian versions. When a couple of friends and I tried the pork-only, the purses were deflated and the filling almost dry. It could have a been a bad day, because when we tried the pork and crab the next week (six for $8.95), they were near perfect — thin-skinned, bulging with soup, and with the required crabby taste.
Overall, Baodega is a very serviceable spot, hitting the Shanghai standards but also adding specialties from other regions. The fact that the entrees are so large, and the setting casual but comfortable, makes it a great place to get together with friends. And hey, you can have a cup of coffee and a European pastry afterwards, though no beer for now.