Shanghai Lily: there will be no escape from General Tso

by Aidan Morgan

Shanghai Lily - photo by Darrol Hofmeister

restaurantsShanghai Lily
2416 14th Avenue
4 out of 5

One of a food critic’s greatest pleasures (aside from literally getting paid to eat) is finding something genuinely new. Many of my clearest culinary memories — and, I’m willing to bet, yours — involve the first time I bit into something surprising. A MacIntosh apple eaten on the sidewalk in 1974 (age three — one of my first memories); an expensive duck breast with orange glaze ordered at a restaurant at age 11, much to my mother’s horror; the brightness of fresh cilantro in the salsa at Earl’s restaurant, back when they still made the best nachos in the city; the freshness of lentils in olive oil, set out as a dip at a small Italian restaurant in Manhattan.

I can now add a dish at Shanghai Lily to that list. You’ll have to wait until the end of the review to find out what it is. Or you can just skip to the end.

Wait, don’t do that. We need to go through a lot of fungus and dumplings to get there.

My first visit to Shanghai Lily was the result of pure serendipity. I happened to be walking by at the precise moment that my brain said, “Hey Aidan, how about some Chinese food?” It turned out to be the first week of operations, and things were — well, the owners were still in the experimental phase, with lots of enthusiasm but not much in the way of seating and even less on the menu. I tried some barbecued pork slices and noodles, which were tasty but certainly not exceptional, and forgot about the place.

Over the summer, Shanghai Lily quietly gained a reputation for high-quality ingredients and a menu that featured plenty of dishes that could be called “authentically” Chinese. People started asking me about a review. So a few weeks ago, I gathered up a couple of Knights of Appetite and led them on a quest for great Chinese food.

The layout was a bit awkward, with small, almost claustrophobic rooms and a haphazard approach to decor. We grew accustomed to the oddness of the place pretty quickly, though, and decided to focus on obscure dishes that would make us uncomfortable and push the limits of our palates.

That is, until I saw General Tso’s Chicken ($13.95) on the menu and my plans went completely out the window.

“We’re not afraid of unusual dishes,” my friend declared to the chef. “Do you have jellyfish salad?”

“I want the General Tso’s Chicken!” I piped up, because clearly I was there to ruin everything.

Even if you’re not familiar with the name, you’ve probably had General Tso’s. It’s a sweet, tangy, slightly spicy deep-fried chicken dish that usually hibernates under Chinese buffet heat lamps. It’s easy to make but hard to do right. And brother, Shanghai Lily does General Tso’s right: hot and flavourful, with an immediate rice vinegar tang and a sherry-flavoured sweetness beneath it. The owner told us that the chicken was sourced from a local organic producer, and it makes a huge difference. The chicken pieces were surrounded by chilies and pale white lobes that looked like whole cloves of roasted garlic. I popped one in my mouth and discovered that, yes indeed, they were cloves of garlic. I’d been gulled into eating the garnish.

We started the meal with the Shanghai Style Pork Dumplings ($3.95/4), which came with a house-made scallion and chili oil dipping sauce. Look up the Platonic dumpling and you’ll find Shanghai Lily’s offering: a warm, crisp but pliable shell containing a delicious little mass of ground pork.

We also tried the Chicken Ball with Chili Sauce ($15.95), which turned out to be a very different dish than expected. The server cautioned us twice: once about the level of heat, and again about the bits of bone in the meat, which generally isn’t popular with Western customers. What came to the table looked much like the General Tso’s, with its pieces of meat in a nest of chilies and garlic cloves, but the chicken itself was full of small bits of warned-about bone.

For many Asian diners, this wouldn’t present a problem: just lean forward and discretely spit out the pieces on a corner of the plate. I went through an absurdly polite show of gurning and bringing my napkin to my face because I can’t just pluck bones out of my mouth. Regardless, the flavour was fantastic. The heat was manageable until it hit critical mass somewhere around my sixth or seventh bite, whereupon all was sweat and tears and crazed giggles.

Our vegetable course was Stir Fried Bok Choy with Mushrooms. It was perfectly fine and helped to cut down on the heat from the chicken ball dish, but isn’t a standout item.

Waiting For Eggplant

On our second visit, we decided to take some time, order more dishes than was strictly necessary or sane, and not listen to me when I mentioned General Tso’s Chicken again. And this time, we invited a couple from China named Thomas and Tracy. Aside from being excellent company, Thomas had a background in Asian cuisine and was able to pick out some dishes that he thought the entire table would enjoy. They also brought their four-year-old daughter along, who drew a picture of someone that may have been me but could have been a pirate, or maybe the Zig-Zag man.

We started with an off-menu item, an intensely sweet dessert soup made of rice, sticky rice wine and fermented globes of sticky rice. The ingredients included a small flower sprinkled throughout, but Thomas was unable to translate the name for me. The dish was largely ordered for the benefit of their daughter but I had more than my share because I’m a jerk. Also, she thought I looked like a pirate, and I do not. Okay, I do.

From there the dishes kept coming until our table was more food than surface area, fragrant and steaming: Shanghai Sixi Baked Bran ($5.95), a neat little mound of gluten cut into cubes and soaked in a sugary sauce; Pork with Bamboo Shoots and Wood Ear Mushroom; Shrimp Fried Rice ($12.95); Spicy Dry Pork Ribs ($16.95); and the exceedingly spicy but delicious Simmered Sliced Beef in Hot Broth ($15.95), which could have served as a meal on its own.

The last dish to come out of the kitchen was Stuffed Eggplant & Minced Pork with Black Bean ($15.95). The server let us know that it would come later than the other dishes; and in fact, it took so long to come that we were ready to leave by the time it appeared. But my god, am I glad that we waited. Scorchingly hot at first, the eggplant was cooked to that almost impossible consistency that lies at the exact midpoint between firmness and mush; it had just the right amount of give, and the sweetness of the black bean sauce worked precisely with the slight bitterness of eggplant. Best of all, though, was the minced pork at the centre. I was stuffed, but the taste of the eggplant made me want to start the meal again.

The excellent food doesn’t come without a caveat, though. Shanghai Lily’s kitchen is small, and dishes come out one at a time and not always in a sensible order. The rice comes first and sits there until you give up waiting for the accompanying dishes, appetizers might arrive at any point in the meal, and you’ll almost certainly end up staying longer than you expect.

But if you’re prepared to put up with a bit of a bumpy ride, the food is worth your time.

The Round Table

WHAT IS IT? Shanghai Lily

WHAT’S IT FOR? Lunch and supper

WHEN’S IT OPEN? All the freaking time, bro. Urban Spoon lists the hours as Mon-Fri, 11:30 a.m.-midnight, but you may be disappointed if you’re hungry for chicken balls at 11:00 p.m. on a Sunday.

WHY DID YOU ORDER GENERAL TSO’S CHICKEN AFTER YOU SAID YOU WANTED TO GET SOME AUTHENTIC CHINESE CUISINE, AIDAN? Because shut up, that’s why. Also I consulted Human Resources and you’re not the boss of me.

Bamboo And Mushroom Ears

Almost forgot about the fungus. We should talk about that.

About midway through the ever-lengthening meal, the server brought up a deep bowl of shreds. That’s what the contents looked like — steaming shredded beige things. Thomas pulled the bowl closer as I tried to guess at its contents.

“Pork, bamboo shoots and wood ear fungus,” he informed me.

Wood ear fungus, also known as cloud ear or rat’s ear, are rubbery ear-shaped mushrooms that sprout on trunks and turn otherwise dignified trees into really bad Ratatouille cosplayers. This was probably the only point in the meal where I paused before raking food into my bowl. I eat mushrooms all the time (literally — I’m eating a mushroom not only as I write these words but as you read them, even if you find this review in the basement of a bombed-out house several centuries from now in the Irradiated Zone and, ah hell I’ve said too much), but fungi put me in mind of things that grow in strange places. I was amazed, even as I grappled with my own squeamishness, at the difference that a word could make.

“Oh, wood ear mushroom!” I said, and took a healthy chopstickful. Sometimes food is just words. /Aidan Morgan