Sunday, November 15, 2009

Divine Dim Sum: Shangri La

"Shangri-La" is a fictional location that has become synonymous with the idea of a pure utopia. How about foodtopia? The new Chinese eatery Shangri La, located in Midtown's University and Theatre District, is just edible nirvana (at least, the dim sum menu is).

Shangri La inhabits the space of the former Twingo's (a moment of silence in memoriam, please). They've maintained the overall design of the previous space, opting only to change the color theme to a palette of soft browns and warm woods. The decor is simple and inviting, though certainly more chic than your typical strip mall Chinese spot.

When I stopped in for a visit, I had the chance to speak with Raymond Wong--does that name sound familiar? It should--he's the mastermind behind the wonderful, brilliant, and unjustly short-lived Asian Village (including Fusia, which offered hyper-trendy haute Asian-fusion cuisine in stunning backdrop with a riverfront view...a moment of silence in memoriam, please).

Yes, Mr. Wong has quite the roster of cutting-edge and unfortunately failed restaurants under his belt, which is why he has since retired and is helping Shangri La in a consultant capacity only. After the failure of AV, Wong's experienced his own set of personal traumas, including divorce and bankruptcy. Oddly, Wong can laugh about this now...even though the conversation was a little...awkward...for me. :O But time heals all wounds, as they say, and at 60 years old Wong is ready to pass the torch on to the next batch of enthusiastic risk-takers.

Though the "risk" at Shangri La seems relatively minimal: with a built-in college student and working professional market thanks to the nearby WSU, CCS, and DMC campuses (as well the numerous cultural institutions such as the DIA and DPL) that was previously woefully under-tapped, Shangri La has almost limitless potential clientele.

They consider themselves an "authentic" Chinese eatery, distinguising themselves from the common generic take-out joint. And why? Two words: dim sum.

The lone dumpling that remained when I finally decided I should be taking pictures

If you've ever walked down Mott Street in Manhattan's Chinatown district (after first pushing your way past the junk-peddlers on Canal St.), you've seen the numerous nondescript dim sum restaurants that have no name, only addresses, and serve dim sum only on Saturday and Sunday mornings through the early afternoon. If you've ever visited such a place, you have a full understanding of dim sum, and you will not be disappointed by what Shangri La has to offer.

For the uninitiated: dim sum is a traditional Chinese cuisine featuring small plates of "finger foods" served in succession (often from a cart, though not at Shangri La), usually baked or steamed and including both sweet and savory dishes. It is typically served in the morning or early afternoon, though at Shangri La it is served until an hour before the kitchen closes so Asian students getting out of classes late can still order it, according to Wong.

“We did a lot of study of the area’s demographics, and we found that there are a lot of people from Asia in the area and there is a demand for authentic Asian food,” Wong told me. They also keep the prices very reasonable (most entrees are about $8.00) to appeal to the surrounding college crowd.

If you've got a hankering for a baked cream bun or curry chicken pastry, get there early or call ahead--the baked items are all made in the morning and tend to sell out quickly, though if you call in advance and request some be set aside for you, they will more than happily accommodate your request.

The dim sum menu includes the basics--Pan-Fried Dumplings, Baked BBQ Pork Bun, Baked and Steamed Cream Buns--as well as some decidedly more exotic dishes. Steamed Chicken Feet (which the table nearby raved about, including the four-year-old child), Curried Baby Squid, Beef truly experience the fullness of this dim sum menu, American palates may be forced to step a bit outside their comfort zone.

That being said, I decided to stay firmly planted in my comfort zone: Shrimp Shiu Mai, Roast Pork Pastry, Pan-Fried Dumplings. Nom nom nom. The portions were enough for two to share, and each item came out fresh, hot, and bursting with flavor. (Made me a little nostalgic for some Mott St. gyoza, lemme tell 'ya.) Next time I look forward to trying the Egg Tart and the Steamed Sweet Red Bean Paste Bun (Tao Sar Bao, a very common and popular Chinese pastry). The dim sum here is probably the best you'll find in the metro Detroit area (and the ONLY you'll find in the city proper), and is truly top-notch.

“We couldn’t open until we found the best dim sum chef around,” says Wong. “That was a must!”
Done and done.

As for the rest of the menu...some hits, some misses. The options are pretty catch-all Americanese, though they do also offer real Thai curry. The "General Chicken" (as in "General Tso's" or "General Tao's"), which happens to be my fave Americanese dish, was great: crispy deep-fried chicken still crunchy beneath the thick spicy-sweet red sauce that struck just the right chord between heat and sweet. The Egg Drop Soup was hearty and savory. The Yang Chow Fried Rice (with shrimp and BBQ pork) was only edible only once doused--doused--in soy sauce.

First of all, look at that picture. Does that even look like fried rice to you? Plus it's full of peas. I hate peas. Ugh. Blechy blech. Every bite bursting with pea flavor, blech blech blech. Also, where exactly is the fried-ness? This looks (and tasted) like regular 'ol steamed rice made with butter. Now, I am not a fan of utilizing tabletop accoutrements on my dishes (unless it's proper and necessary to the dish, like Vietnamese garlic-fish sauce). Skip the salt and pepper (unless we're talking about scrambled eggs, but ONLY then), and let the dish stand on its own. The way I see it, adding all that extra dressing is in effect destroying the integrity of the dish. And any dish that NEEDS to be dressed up in this way...well, it's probably just not very good to begin with. And so it was with the fried rice.

However, there's more good news: bubble tea. Yes, bubble tea (or, "boba tea"). Bubble tea is tea (sometimes flavored) with milk and "boba" balls, which are made with a mixture of tapioca and carrageenan powder that taste like gummy bears without the flavor. Popular throughout eastern Asia and abundant in Toronto (where I first discovered all its greatness over a decade ago), bubble tea is just now gaining popular momentum in the States thanks to our trendsetting cities on the East and West coasts. At Shangri La, you can order bubble tea in a variety of flavors; I opted for mango and was not disappointed, though perhaps next time I might stick to a more traditional tea flavor. All you bubble tea lovers, rejoice.

Shangri La is a great space in a great location and caters to a previously underserved market of students, professionals, and nearby residents who enjoy authentic (and inexpensive) Chinese cuisine...or just cheap, good food in general. Most dishes are at least satisfactory, but the real star here is the dim sum, and no dining experience here should be complete without first passing around a few such dishes ($2.95-5.95 each, and enough to share). Service is attentive if sometimes a bit awkward, but having only been open since October 1st I would chalk this up to opening "kinks." The restaurant is entirely non-smoking, and they are currently working on adding a sushi bar and acquiring a liquor license. The only thing that could possibly make this dim sum experience any better is if it could be done alongside one of those giant Chinese fishbowl-fire drinks that they only allow you to order one of.

In short: dim sum yum!