Dim Sum at Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village (San Gabriel, CA)

The Mainland corporation that owns Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village reportedly spent big bucks on possibly the fanciest Chinese restaurant ever to open in the LA basin. Chefs would be brought in directly from Shanghai, the ambience would appeal to the fussiest diners and menu to match. The debut was such a big deal that curious and expectant customers created major traffic jams along W Valley Blvd. That was back in December 2011. The hysteria has since died down. Opulent furnishings remain—chandeliers, ebony woods, crushed red velvet walls, French-style chairs (backrest and legs sprayed with silver paint), all a kind of  faux luxuriousness that prompted some reviewers to think bordello or a 19th-century dining car, obviously not the intended effect. Apparently, this kind of over-the-top excess is not rare in Shanghai.

From the start, the reviews have been mixed. Local diners, including those in the Asian restaurant mother lode of the San Gabriel Valley, weren’t overly impressed. At first, the food quality was attributed to growing pains. But, the same, no more than above-average ratings persisted, unimpressive for a restaurant with such high ambitions. Management issues? A lack of dedicati0n to quality? Chef turn-over problems?

And then, there is the curious policy of employing two separate staffs of chefs for the daytime and dinner hours. One wonders if local chefs rule the kitchen during the day, imported Shanghainese ones at night.

The dinner menu is very impressive. I’m referring to its physical appearance, looking like a slick bound catalog, almost an inch thick, with full-color photographs of its menu items on plastic-laminated pages. It struck me that, with the current price written next to every item, these menus would have to be re-printed whenever prices change. Only a single such menu appeared to be available for each table.

A week ago, four of us were here for dim sum, however, so the standard dim-sum-menu-cum-tally-sheet was also placed before us.

The reviews did identify two oustandingly prepared Shanghainese dim sum items. The first is xiao long bao, which we’ve had many times before and didn’t bother to order this time.

The other is shen jian bao, labeled Pan Fried Shanghai Style Bun. This is an interesting hybrid where a similar savory ground pork filling and gelatin slice as XLB are tucked inside a pleated, slightly yeasty wrapper, pinched at the top, steamed, the bottom half coated with white sesame seeds and briefly fried, the top sprinkled with black sesame seeds and green onions. When done properly, the bottom should have a nice golden, crispy hue and the dumpling should release a hot, soupy interior, similar to XLB. A tad thick at the top, Shanghai’s was savory, crispy and doughy at the same time, though there wasn’t much soup that burst out. (☆☆☆)

Shen jian bao

Shen jian bao

We couldn’t pass up Abalone Sticky Rice, a dim sum rarity. This was more subtle than other sticky rices, probably so as not to overwhelm the shellfish flavor. A single slice in each lotus leaf-wrapped packet was perfectly tender though subdued in abalone taste. (☆☆½)

Abalone sticky rice

Abalone sticky rice

The brine for the special pickled fresh cucumbers was rather sweet. We’d never seen a maraschino cherry accompany this dish. (☆☆☆)

Pickled cucumber

Special pickled cucumber

I couldn’t resist ordering something from that beautiful menu—stir-fried scallops with pepper. Though the photograph showed both red and green chiles, only green ones were used. Despite the scallops being perfectly cooked, the dish seemed curiously bland and oily. Would this dish be better at dinnertime when the Shanghainese chefs take over? (☆☆½)

Stir-fried scallops with pepper

Stir-fried scallops with pepper

Is it possible that evenings might provide a more exciting dining experience? I might never find out because it’s also much more expensive.

Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village
250 W. Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, CA 91801

Barbecued Abalone at the Saturday Farmers’ Market (Honolulu, HI)

Last time, we missed out on the grilled abalone at the Saturday Farmers’ Market. How is it that a mollusk long banned from fishing can make an appearance here in Hawaii? It turns out they are farmed off the coast by Big Island Abalone, which cultivates a Japanese species primarily for export. I was (am) a big fan of abalone, having had it as a kid at family meals (sliced and dipped in soy sauce) and later as an adult in the form of abalone steaks that used to be sold in Southern California restaurants, but its disappearance from the market left me longing for it. So, by the time I discovered that they were selling it at the Saturday Market back in 2010, they were already sold out. This year, I was bent on not missing out. My wife and I headed to the booth as soon as we got to the market. There were only a half dozen people in front of us, so it didn’t take long. We ordered one apiece, setting us back $6 each and sized almost 3 inches long, not very big by California abalone standards back in the day. Several sauces were offered for flavoring, including shoyu-ponzu, lemon juice, and butter spray.


Grilled abalone

While the abalone was not without merit, we were both disappointed with the flavor, or lack thereof. It was too mild, not having the signature assertive abalone taste that I remembered from years ago. It’s like the difference between eating a steamer clam and a Northwest razor clam, both are good but the razor is unique and extraordinary. Today’s was a case of an expectation unfulfilled.

Meanwhile, the rest of the market experience was as great as ever—so much food and so little time.