Whenever I visit Shanghai, I'm usually looking for a fix on non-Chinese cuisines, and end up at places like Wagas, Element Fresh, or Boxing Cat, looking for a sandwich or burger or layer cake. But this trip, I'm on my way out of the country for the next 6 weeks, so I thought I'd try to get some regional Chinese in before leaving.
We went to the expat-popular "Southern Barbarian", on the corner of Maoming Nan Road and Jin Xian Road. It won best contemporary Chinese in City Weekend mag, and more importantly, we were able to make a reservation for two at 7.30 on a Saturday night. It specializes in Yunnan food, an area I'm interested in, since Yunnan borders Vietnam, and I was interested to see if there were any dishes I might recognize from Northern Vietnam.
The restaurant is located through a commercial building, out the back way, and up a flight of stairs, so you get to run a very Shanghai-like gauntlet of chefs in their kitchen whites, smoking cigarettes and checking their iPhones amidst the wreckage of dirty dishes in the back alley. The restaurant is also currently featuring an exhibit of original North Korean movie posters, so it got serious points for atmosphere.
The menu was pretty narrow, and we decided to order their recommended set, since I thought if the kitchen messed that up, it wouldn't be worth coming back to; but if it didn't, it would be worth further exploration. Also it looked really good.
(Please excuse the horrible cameraphone pics: my camera was packed)
First up, cold dish: charred eggplant with tomato-vinegar topping. Excellent. I'll try to make this myself. Very smoky, with the tomato adding a tart note.
Then a puree of fava beans with Yunnanese ham.
Kind of bland and I couldn't figure out how to eat it until this came to the table:
A crispy/salty potato pancake, perfect for scooping it up.
We then got a plate of fried Yunnanese goat cheese, very similar to halloumi or fried saganaki cheese. We piled the charred eggplant on top of that, and the salt from the cheese made for an excellent bite. Like Chinese mezze.
Then, chicken wings on skewers, perfectly done. Lightly seasoned with a whiff of sichuan peppercorns and some sweet glaze - not sticky, just enough for flavour. I would have liked these spicier, but they were perfectly cooked.
Then we got the first plate of identifiable "Chinese" food; a plate of pork fried with peppers and ginger slices. Ok, but kind of bland. I wouldn't order it again.
We were still eating our way through all this, and beginning to lose space on the table when the dumplings showed up:
Half were filled with the fava puree, and half were filled with a traditional pork mixture. What made these special was the pastry-like wrapper, which was crispy and.. buttery? And the vinegar cilantro dip. Again, I though the dip was too light on spice, I would have liked more chili. Next time I'll ask them not to pull any punches. I get flustered in Shanghai and start ordering in English and generally look like a tourist.
So to finish up, and we were quite full at this point, but persevering, they brought a giant bowl of rice-noodle "Cross the Bridge" noodles, which I had been quite curious to try. The only restaurant in Suzhou serving them closed the month I moved there, so I'd been wanting to try them for a while. Since they're generally described as a rice noodle soup with meat, I was curious to see if they tasted like pho.
Short answer: not really. The noodles were round, to start. The broth was chicken, making it closer to pho ga, but without any anise tones. At least in their version. There were a lot of fishy tones from the squid also included. And I was so full from everything, I just couldn't do the bowl justice.
The restaurant also has about two pages of imported bottled Belgian beers, including the usual suspects like Chimay, Maredsous, Leffe. I had a bottle of Vedette, which came in the appropriate glass.
Verdict? I'll come back and work my way around the menu. The cold dishes were great, and a Chinese cheese dish is rare enough to revisit. The barbecue wings were also succulent, which makes me want to explore that part of the menu more thoroughly. If you're in town, it's worth a stop.