Nothing says Shanghainese food like xiao long bao, aka soup dumplings, so when Gothamist read Eric Asimov's delirious review of the new Upper East Side restaurant, Shanghai Pavilion, it was clear it had been too long since our last xiao long bao. Luckily, our secret weapon in Shanghainese dining was available, LWC, aka the only Shanghainese-speaking mother of Gothamist.
When Gothamist got to the restaurant, it was crowded. We had Saturday night reservations for 7:30PM, but there were three parties waiting for tables, with the restaurant packed full of diners. That's a good sign. But maybe a result of the excellent Times review. As Eric Asimov pointed out, the room is a departure from the usual Chinese restaurant decor - stylish and sleek, versus being simply functional. After waiting for 15 minutes (and many apologies), we were seated.
We ordered some xiao long bao, which were delicious, but they were a bit large. Xiao long bao are best when they are bite size, so you can savor the dumpling and the soup inside it. The key is to eat the dumpling over a soup spon, so none of the delicious soup escapes. Also, don't forget to dip or spoon some vinegar sauce onto the dumpling - it adds an edge to the hot dumpling.
For the main course, Gothamist ordered the lion's head (pork meatballs with vegetables), bamboo's dual delight (fish and vegetables in black bean sauce served in a bamboo container), and some rice cakes (a Shanghainese specialty - chewy oval slices of rice). Here we were reminded of something very important: Chinese restaurants are good for large groups of people. Go with at least four people - that way you can try many dishes. With few people, if you order three dishes, you still go home with leftovers (which is both good and bad - you just need to know what will keep better and what won't). The lion's head was heavenly - the soft pork (Asimov calls it a dumpling, but it seems like a meatball to Gothamist) and its sauce taste great plain or with rice.
Gothamist was skeptical of the bamboo dual delight at first - LWC asked in Chinese if this was reccomended or just something that Caucasians ordered, you know, along the lines of Chop Suey. The server assured us that it was worthwhile. And it was - the fish was fresh, and the bamboo serving dish, while not necessary, was a fun gimmick. Gothamist hasn't always been a fan of black bean sauce, but it is growing on us - it balances the lightness of the fish with rich earthy flavors. The rice cakes were also a solid choice, sauteed with mushrooms and pork. A very filling and satisfying meal, we couldn't bear to order dessert, preferring to stick with the fruit served with the check.
Gothamist chatted with the host, Simon Wu (okay, LWC chatted with Mr. Wu - Gothamist just listened), who said that the Times review was great for business but the restaurant actually had to close in the middle of the day (which is unheard of with Chinese restaurant - they are ALWAYS open) so the kitchen could prepare food for the dinner rush. Which reminded Gothamist of the day Ruth Reichl's Babbo review came out in 1998 - we were on hold for minutes, after ten calls, before we got a table at 10PM. Ah, the double-edge sword of great reviews.
Shanghai Pavilion, at 1378 Third Avenue (between East 78th & 79th Streets)
See their menu here.