Though Shanghai restaurants have been around the city since at least 1970, they really grabbed the spotlight when Joe’s Shanghai introduced soup dumplings in the ’90s, squirting dense, wonderfully oily broth onto innumerable shirtfronts. Other delectable Shanghai classics became readily available around the same time, including soy-braised pork shoulder, vinegar-drenched drunken crab, lion’s mane meatballs, elliptical rice cakes with pickled mustard greens and shredded pork, and vegetarian mock duck.
But in fact, the menus of the many new Shanghai restaurants that sprang up only scratched the surface. It turned out the cuisine of China’s most populous and futuristic of cities is every bit as rich and multifaceted as New York’s, filled with historic references and geographic borrowings. And now CheLi, a wonderful new restaurant that opened in November on the busiest block of St. Marks, hints at that culinary density.
The chef is Qiling Wang, and his menu references several parts of the countryside surrounding Shanghai: Jiangnan, Zhejiang, Shaoxing, Hangzhou, Yangzhou, and Nanjing among them. It also draws from such earlier cooking styles as the Haipai fusion cuisine of the late 19th century, when Shanghai was overrun with “trading partners” from Europe, and Song Dynasty cooking going back a millennium. What a welter of material Wang has to work with!
He also invents new dishes. A brownish stew of tofu and egg ($30) arrives thickened with sea urchin, giving it a pleasantly bumpy and assertively nautical taste. Eating it, you can’t help but think about how we’ve been conditioned to covet sea urchin raw and relish its cold, wet texture. Well, Wang’s new take turns the seagoing creature on its figurative head — now hot, gritty, and viscous — suggesting the binary oppositions of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s The Raw and the Cooked. Here’s a potage not only delicious, but philosophical.
But the chef fiddles with classic dishes, too. Shanghai cooking often involves use of rice wines and their vinegars, and drunken crab as seen in New York restaurants is usually raw and tart. But his “wine soaked Atlantic blue crab” ($12) substitutes our own local species for the traditional hairy crab and poaches it in Shaoxing wine, turning the carapace with its beady eyes bright red and mellowing the flavor. The dish is further sweetened with shavings of pickled ginger — eat them, too.
The drunken crab is part of the buffet of small dishes that might begin a Shanghai meal, a style of dining sometimes said to have been influenced by the Russians who poured into Shanghai after the October Revolution of 1917. Sixi wheat gluten is one of those appetizing standards, wobbly blocks of the spongy protein Americans have been conditioned to avoid, tossed with raw peanuts and wood ear fungus and mired in a sweet brown sauce; so is “sliced chilled chicken,” a riff on Hainanese chicken that proves there’s nothing wrong with smooth and subtle blandness.
CheLi — which means “within Zhejiang” but also, punningly, “here,” according to a friend who grew up in Shanghai — is the latest project of the Da Shan restaurant group, formed in 2015 and now in possession of 11 restaurants here and in LA. It operates the city’s two wildly successful Szechuan Mountain Houses, one of which shares a second-story balcony with CheLi, over which both restaurants are dramatically entered. The interior features tiled roofs and bamboo beams, so that walking through the restaurant feels like visiting a rural village. A round painting of red-robed Song emperor Renzong hangs above a semi-private table in the rear, a nod to the ancient roots of Shanghai cuisine.
That cuisine makes much of seafood and pork, and often the two are conjoined for startling effect. “Braised pork belly with abalone in chef special sauce” ($28) represents just such a pairing, with big blocks of fat-edged pork matched with the ovoid shellfish served whole. Both feature their own take on bounciness and come painted with soy sauce simmered down to syrupiness. I recommend alternating bites or mashing the two roughly together. Along similar lines, you can also experience pork liver with cockles and something called steamed yellow croaker with meat pie, which I didn’t get a chance to try. It has haunted my imagination ever since.
The menu borrows signature dishes from remote regions in the way a restaurant from Shanghai might do, including the famous fish head in pickled chiles, one of the hottest recipes on the planet. Back in Hunan, it swims in red chile oil, but you won’t be surprised to hear Wang braises the head — which comes with a very meaty collar — in rice wine before he applies the red and green preserved peppers.
CheLi offers dim sum, too, including a colorful and beguiling trio of steamed dumplings in shades of yellow, green, and cream called triple soft ($9). Only one is conventional — a har gow filled with minced shrimp — while a second features pork and greens in a wrapper something like an armadillo. A third is shaped and colored like a pumpkin and filled with a bean puree.
And yes, there are soup dumplings, available in three types. The one with a plain pork filling (four for $7) rates among the best examples in the city, principally because the wrapper is so thin the bottom bulges like a beer belly. That makes the bao difficult to maneuver, but rewarding to eat. Two more versions feature pork and crab and a truffled pork filling.
It’s always exciting when new Chinese regional cuisines arrive in the city. And this is doubly so at CheLi, where historic and modern dishes not usually seen in New York City appear, and the cuisine of Shanghai receives a thoughtful reappraisal from a talented chef and crew.