Age is such a relative thing. When you’re 20, you’re in the prime of your youth. In dog years, you’re long overdue at the kennel in the sky. In restaurant years, you’re dancing in has-been territory, duking it out with younger, nimbler players for a share of the fickle, trend-fixated crowd we like to call foodies.
Grand Shanghai is by no means the name on everyone’s lips when it comes to Chinese food – until recently, it was probably more akin to an elderly relative that you should visit more often but don’t because there are so many more hip places to go to.
Well, this not-so-granddaddy is showing that it’s no pushover anymore. A workout routine and an extensive wardrobe makeover has erased 20 years off its chronological age and it’s ready for a renewed lease as an upscale Shanghainese-leaning restaurant near the riverfront.
We say “leaning” because most regional Chinese restaurants don’t go all the way in pushing the authenticity envelope. For maximum appeal, there will always be standard Cantonese fare worked into the menu, even if the cuisine is supposed to be Teochew, Shangainese, Sichuan or borderline Tibetan.
Grand Shanghai seems to think along these lines. Instead of sticking to its core cuisine, it tries to be all things to all diners with a small, token dim sum menu that includes an uninspired char siew pau that might be secretly on the lookout for a new job. It’s tired, limp and seems to have lost its will to fluff up like most paus do.
A better bet is the baked bo lo pau version, which works harder to achieve its crumbly crisp top and robust char siew filling. It’s a little pale and not as tender as Wah Lok’s version, but still a pretty strong contender.
Things get back on track with the Shanghainese staple xiao long pau (S$6) – thin-skinned dumplings that pack a generous amount of soup that burst satisfyingly in your mouth or your bowl if you’re not the most delicate of eaters.
Soups and dumplings turn out to be strengths of an otherwise inconsistent menu. While the whole chicken simmering in a large claypot of healthful stock (S$48) looks nothing like the glistening yellow specimen posing in the glossy menu, it hits the spot for its full-bodied goodness that fills you with the same contentment of a warm hug. Fat, slinky-skinned pork wontons bulge out of the brew like easy targets to spear and devour.
Smoked crispy duck (S$32) is a hit-and-miss in the same dish. It’s crispy, yes, and the smoky fragrance is something you want to sniff all day and get high on. But the breast meat is frustratingly dry, while the steamed mantou you’re supposed to wrap them in are scam artists dressed in dough. They’re all cuddly and fluffy-looking until you bite into airy, dry nothingness. There is only a bit of respite from the meaty leg and thigh parts, which give you a sense of how it should be.
Braised tofu (S$28) in a stone bowl is interesting for the first couple of bites before it becomes a monotonous tofu and crab meat stew that requires no chewing or thinking.
Along the same profile but a little more luxe is sautéed egg white (S$32) which the server emphasises features “fresh” crabmeat (apparently different from the tofu dish). Scooped up with lettuce, the crab here comes in meatier chunks and a drizzle of truffle oil for some pretend glam.
If you like a bit of snap, crackle and pop, indulge in a bowl of crispy rice lobster soup (S$18) where hot soup is poured into a bowl of rice and shellfish chunks at the table, followed by puffed rice for special effect. Like with its other soups, it’s hearty if not refined.
If you’re full by now, stop here because the egg white soufflé balls (S$12) are dry spongy blah blobs filled with red bean paste and banana.
It feels like Grand Shanghai can do a lot more given its shiny new digs and old-school chandelier-decorated glitz. A fair bit of menu streamlining and fixing up of the weak spots should be on its to-do list for a start, and it may not be too long before this veteran is swinging with the cool cats as it should be.
Grand Shanghai 390 Havelock Rd Level 1 King’s Centre Singapore 169662 Tel: 6836-6866
This article was originally published in The Business Times.