[Subtitled, ‘An Alternative Thanksgiving’]
In lieu of the ol’ turkey, six sides, and pie-until-you-cry routine, this year, we decided to embrace our environment and go ‘full Chinese’ on the most American of holidays. (Not sure what most of Middle America or any Fox News pundits would have to say on this, but I digress). So to celebrate family in town (and any excuse to eat), we headed to Shanghai stalwart, Din Tai Fung.
Din Tai Fung is a slightly controversial choice to some. It is often deemed stuffy or overpriced, but worse is that originally Taiwanese, the brand was much lauded and so summarily expanded into an international chain, and thus diluted in the eyes of many of its original supporters. However, it is also an inarguably celebrated spot for the Shanghainese classic, XLB (gold star if you know the acronym – if not, you’re clearly not a big enough HAL fan, so get to Googlin’). And that made the decision easy enough.
The restaurant, this branch tucked into the back of the Ritz hotel complex, was undeniably the most polished place I had been to in a while – I’m usually allergic to white tablecloth dining, but after a month of eating on plastic tables which have recently hosted chicken bones even more recently hosted by someone’s mouth, I was all for formality. We were gently escorted to our table and bi-lingually greeted by an endless procession of hostesses, all immaculately uniformed and smiling, and settled into our table by our attentive waiter for the evening. I could get used to this.
Immediately upon entry we had been ushered past the glassed kitchen showcasing a group of chefs hand-making each delicate dumpling, and so we dove into the menu’s steamed section straight away and got to ordering.
Each basket was brought out as it was ready, a reminder that each set was pinched by hand and summarily steamed. We had rounds of the famous pork and crab XLB, with huge sweet crab flavor, to be dipped in vinegar and slurped; shrimp shu mai with delicious porky juice in the belly of each; vegetable dumplings filled with vivid green spinach; and wontons floating in soy sauce for extra flavor. Each little bite had such impossibly thin and tender skin it was incredible to think they could contain their contents, and generous contents at that.
We also got a token order of gan bian si ji dou, or fried green beans with pork; some distinctly average fried spring rolls to satisfy a certain someone; and a delicious dish of spinach with crab. The crab meat was sweet and stewed into a porridge that would make even the pickiest eater get down with greens.
So skeptics be damned – yes, it was slightly pricey, and yes, it might not have been the most interesting meal, but the XLB are justifiably praised and, a huge surprise for here, there was service with a smile. (Seriously. It was one of the categories on our after-dinner comment card). Din Tai Fungsgiving 2012 = success.
Although I did miss my pumpkin pie.
Din Tai Fung
(Shanghai Centre Branch)
1376 Nanjing Xi Lu, near Xikang Lu