Chrysanthemum fish ($12.95) is Shanghai cooking’s technical tour de force even though it will never become your favorite Chinese dish. Sea bass fillets are crumb-dusted on the skin side, crosshatched on the flesh side, and flash-fried. The crisp skin is then rolled inward, causing the white flesh to stand out in squarish pegs, like the petals of a chrysanthemum. Finally, the fillets are pieced together to form a horizontal bouquet. Tragically, a red sauce as sweet as soda pop sullies this impressive creation.
Yeah Shanghai Deluxe (YSD) is the latest in a series of restaurants that have one-upped the competition by adding new-to-Gotham dishes to the Shanghai repertoire. With a dumpling prep area in the window, YSD looks like an unremarkable carryout till you spot the concrete tree in its depths. To the right a rustic bridge crosses a gorge filled with geological specimens, some featuring tiny plastic bonsai emerging from the crevices, creating the illusion that you’re peering into a deep gorge—if you squint. After an arduous trek, a cavelike dining room is attained.
Other menu-stretching selections include a chalkboard special of fresh eel with yellow chives ($19.95) braised in brown sauce. It seems like the same recipe presented at, say, Shanghai Tang, until the chef pops out of the kitchen with a little silver pitcher and ceremoniously pours on boiling oil, causing the eel to sizzle and pop as a fragrant haze fills the room. (For better or worse, extra oil and extra sugar are twin pillars of Shanghai cooking.) Put on your shades for the arrival of tofu with crabmeat ($10.95). Although the swampy plate glows like contagions from a yellow fever epidemic, one bite and you won’t be able to stop eating. The bean curd is fine-grained and silky, the crabmeat plentiful, and the livid color evidence of vast quantities of tasty schmaltz, like a recipe swiped from Sammy’s Roumanian.
In addition to obscure and challenging recipes, YSD does the standards, too. When you first sit down the waitress will try to coax you into ordering the soup dumplings, a dish New Yorkers fell in love with six years ago when Joe’s Shanghai opened on Pell Street. Trouble is, the “juicy buns,” as she prefers to call them, are doughy and lacking in flavor, as if the chef had more pressing interests. A much better alternative is Shanghai wonton soup ($3.25), featuring purses of admirable delicacy stuffed with pork and preserved mustard greens, a large enough bowl to be shared by three or four as an appetizer, or even as a conclusion to the meal, as they do it in Shanghai. Other standards executed with superior technique by the Shanghai-trained chef include a “pork shoulder in honey sauce” braised in star anise, sweet steamed “thousand pieces cake,” and a version of the northern Chinese favorite dan dan noodles called spicy minced meat noodle.
Another architectural feat, the colorless-sounding “roast chicken northern China style” (half $9.95, whole $17.95), might just be the best thing on the menu. Roast chicken pulled like Carolina pork is heaped into a sort of wigwam, inundated with a delicious brown sauce spiked with plenty of ginger, garlic, and a couple of aromatics I couldn’t identify, then covered in its entirety with the reddish-brown skin. The feet are displayed on the side, completing the impression that the bird has been hit by a cannonball. More of the sweetish sauce is provided in a bowl for dipping. Served lukewarm, it’s a summer dish I can’t stop daydreaming about.