It was back in 1995 that a modest restaurant in Flushing drew the attention of the city’s proto-foodies to Shanghai cooking by astonishing them with a dumpling. But this was no ordinary lump of meat and noodle dough. Soon dubbed “soup dumplings,” these thin-skinned purses popularized by Joe’s Shanghai were puckered at the top and wobbled alarmingly as they were ferried to the table in a bamboo steamer. Many people’s first attempt to eat them resulted in disaster, because each dumpling concealed, in addition to a tiny pork meatball, a reservoir of blisteringly hot broth that squirted out when you poked it with a chopstick.
Most of those original restaurants have disappeared, but the dumplings have persisted, landing in inferior form on nearly every Chinese menu in town. But now—inspired by the newfound glitz of Shanghai, with its trade shows, high-rise towers, and own NYU branch—a fresh generation of Shanghai restaurants are appearing. Latest and best is Full House, with a menu that has evolved from that of the old places to incorporate both the cuisine’s standards and a cosmopolitan mix of Sichuan, Hong Kong, Mandarin, Thai, Taiwanese, and even some American cooking, too. And, yes, the place offers superior soup dumplings.
The downstairs is exhaustively disco-ized, with three rows of slinky, black-padded booths. Blue light streams upward from hidden fixtures, as if signaling spaceships bearing soup dumplings where to land. Giant flat-screen monitors are tuned to Chinese rap videos or Tom Cruise flicks. A stairway leads to a loft outfitted like a conventional Chinatown restaurant, with big round tables hosting extended families and not an ounce of glitz. Though bottles of European wine are displayed on racks, Thai beer is the beverage of choice.
Enfolded in a translucent skin with a thinness measured in micrometers, Full House’s soup dumplings are available with crab or without ($6.75 and $4.75). The former are highly recommended, featuring a nice wad of crab meat sticking out of the top, the liquid within smooth and tan. The proper way to eat them is to ease one onto a soup spoon after it cools slightly, nip off the pucker with your teeth, and suck out the soup before demolishing the noodle wrapper and solid filling. There’s a black-vinegar sauce for dipping, but I usually skip it, since it interferes with the dumpling’s delicate flavor.
Soup dumplings are still considered newfangled even in Shanghai, compared with the city’s old-fashioned dumplings, which are round, squat, and thick-skinned. Stuffed with pork and leeks and fried on the bottom, Full House’s rendition is irresistible. Other estimable starters, priced from $2.75 to $5.50, include vegetarian duck (a Buddhist invention of tofu skin wrapped around mushrooms to look like slices of duck breast); kao fu (big porous marshmallows of gluten drowned in sweet sauce); and scallion pancakes bigger and flakier than usual.
Another great starter is a shared soup: More commonly called West Lake beef soup, name-checking a resort two hours southwest of Shanghai, the minced beef with coriander soup ($6.95) is paradoxically light and pungent, tasting of leafy green foliage and the cool afternoons of an early summer by the lake. Skip the pumpkin soup attributed to Wensi, a municipality in western China: The orange squash imparts only a light tint to the broth, as if the pumpkin had been just briefly immersed.
This pair of potages with origins outside the city point up an essential aspect of Shanghai cooking—it’s really more of a regional cuisine, borrowing dishes from the countryside and returning them to the metropolis like an itinerant tax collector. In another Shanghai specialty, spare ribs Wu Xi–style—pointing to a town northwest of the city—the meat is braised in the “red cooking” style, leaving the ribs thickly glazed and pleasantly gelatinous. And yes, you can get decent versions of Sichuan standards at Full House, too, though the tongue-pummeling heat in its ma po tofu comes from chile oil and dried red peppers rather than Sichuan peppercorns.
Some dishes may even have originated outside China. The pork-and-crab meatballs ($12.95) better known as lion heads, which arrive in a thick yellow broth guaranteeing they’ll remain moist, seem positively German—the country established breweries in China during the 19th century. The international “Snacks” section of the menu goes much farther afield, presenting such Western icons as french fries and buffalo chicken wings. It makes you wonder: Are these two really the most appealing American dishes? Do they belong here? Shanghai thinks so! And it must be said that those wings have indeed been improved with a touch of soy sauce. Call it fair trade.