By now, almost everybody in San Francisco who loves Chinese food has experienced xiao long bao (soup dumplings), a famous Shanghainese delicacy of steamed dumplings that contain hot broth that gushes into your mouth when you bite into them. (This is accomplished by adding cold gelatinized soup when wrapping up the forcemeat stuffing, long before the dumplings are steamed.)
Xiao long bao are available at Shanghai Dumpling King and Shanghai House in the Outer Richmond and Kingdom of Dumplings in the Parkside, among other places. My favorite is the excellent version made with Kurobuta pork served at both downtown locations of Yank Sing. But one place I had never enjoyed soup dumplings until recently was Chinatown. At the new Bund Shanghai Restaurant, tucked among the many run-of-the-mill Cantonese restaurants that dot the district, you can feast not only on an intriguing selection of Shanghai-style dumplings, but also on a long list of exciting dishes from Shanghai and other regions.
The xiao long bao here were on the small side and come eight to an order ($6.95). Add a touch of sharp black vinegar with shredded ginger to them. Another version that included crabmeat as well as pork in its stuffing ($12.95) wasn't different enough from the classic to merit the surcharge. I loved the unusual small pan-fried pork buns ($5.95 for six), crunchy on the bottom, steamy on top.
Another typical Shanghai treat that shouldn't be missed are the small layered bread rolls called mantou, here offered steamed or fried ($3.50); we prefer them fried, for the textural difference between the crisp browned crust and the doughy interior. They were served with a small dish of sweetened condensed milk for dipping. We couldn't resist the red braised pork upper leg ($16.95), even though it was one of the priciest dishes on the menu, and looked unpromising when brought to the table: a huge brown fatty-looking lump, drenched in brown sauce, surrounded by a few limp green leaves. Slice through the gleaming exterior, and underneath there's a treasure trove of succulent star-anise–scented pork. It's kept moist and luscious by its long, slow braising in its cloaking of buttery fat.
The same dark, rich sauce covers the red braised lion's-head meatballs ($8.95), four big plump beauties that were surprisingly light and airy under their browned skins. Not everything we enjoyed at Bund Shanghai was a classic Shanghaiinese dish: A lovely version of tender Mongolian lamb strips ($9.50) was spicy with red peppers, and nicely fried chicken wings with garlic ($8.50) were showered with a colorful confetti of diced red and green peppers and scallions.
Salt-and-pepper shrimps without shell ($12.50) came coated in a light eggy batter, but weren't very peppery, and were soon limp. The simple stir-fried shrimps in the shell ($12.50) and the excellent small shrimps sautéed in a sweet but not cloying fragrant rice wine sauce ($13.75) were better. An unusual Shanghainese fish dish is Chilean sea bass steamed with salty cabbage ($12.50), the delicate white fish served in chunks atop dark greens and topped with the minced, slightly sour preserved and lightly pickled pale-yellow cabbage.
The most surprising dish at Bund Shanghai was on the menu under lunch or dinner specials, where you'll find it tucked amid familiar but by-now-ho-hum dishes such as sweet and sour pork and broccoli beef. It's General Tao's chicken ($8.95), also known as General Tso's chicken, generally accepted as not a true Chinese dish at all, but one invented in New York Chinese restaurants in the 1970s. I remembered the dish as deep-fried chicken nuggets served in a neon-colored sweet-and-sour sauce, but allowed my friends to order it — there was plenty else to eat on the table if I didn't like it. I was more than pleasantly surprised by the delicate result: The boneless pieces of chicken were coated in a sweet, crisp shell, and the sauce was light and pearly — nothing like what I expected. It was so unrecognizable that I had to ask our server if it was, indeed, General Tao's chicken. I would order it again, as I would the spicy soft ma po tofu ($8.50), whose meatless chile sauce was reminiscent of that served atop the dan dan noodles ($6.95), thin noodles topped with a spicy sauce of ground pork, shiny with bright-red chile oil, excellent for a solitary lunch with plenty of leftovers.
If the seasonal greens on offer are pea leaves ($8.50), lightly sautéed with a bit of chicken broth and lots of minced fresh garlic, don't miss them. Celery stir-fried with lily bulb ($8.50) was light, fresh, and a nice crunchy green counterpart to the heavier dishes we tried.
The unprepossessing entrance to Bund Shanghai, covered by an awning and flanked by colorful backlit photographs of some of its signature dishes, hints at neither the clean modern space that awaits you inside, nor the superlative and unusual cooking. We look forward to trying the drunken chicken, shrimps stir-fried with egg and chive, and mountain potato with wood-ear mushrooms, among many other intriguing dishes. The room features white-linened tables, soft yellow-painted walls with small drawings framed in pale wood, and rather striking space-age–looking light fixtures suspended by wires. There's no visible reference to the Bund, Shanghai's famed riverfront street that retains its beautifully preserved low-rise '30s-era Art Deco and Beaux-Arts buildings, but which has a view of the aggressively modern and towering buildings across the river in Pudong, some of which look extraterrestrial.
Seated at a cozy booth or a large table centered with a glass lazy susan covered with Bund Shanghai's delicious dishes, you will enjoy some of the best Chinese food available in San Francisco, in an exciting new restaurant tucked among the old stalwarts. Finally, a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown that we can recommend unreservedly.