There has been a recent explosion of new Chinese restaurants with interesting menus, and they're driving me crazy. I want to try them all. Now! Obviously I can't. I have to make choices, and although I will get to the others eventually, two things tipped the balance in my decision to start with Hai Shang.
First was the availability of two very rare personal favourites: Lion's Head meatballs -- so rare I was once reduced to making them myself; and Shanghai soup dumplings -- the tricky kind with the soup inside, which I wouldn't dare attempt to make myself. Second was the number of fervent fans who reported that Hai Shang was managed by the Shen family, formerly of Huangpu River, which was the only place I had ever found those dumplings. They left that location a few years ago because of a family emergency in China, but are back now -- a little farther south on Pembina, and better than ever.
It's a spare but sparklingly clean and cheerful room with well-spaced tables and a calm atmosphere. Entrées run from $8.95 for $14.95 on a dinner menu that lists an exhaustive 212 items, and that's not counting the 23 dishes on the Chinese-only menu of mostly Shanghai-style specialties, which the staff are patient about translating. It also doesn't include a group of Shanghai-style dim sum, which are served at noon on Sundays (some may be available at other times; it pays to ask).
Let's start with the dishes that lured me here in the first place. Those braised ginger- and garlic-scented meatballs were huge, but still light, tender and moist, complemented by a soy-seasoned brown sauce and garnished with a few chunks of baby bok choy. And the steamed soup dumplings were marvels of flavour -- the safe way to eat them is to nibble at one end cautiously, and suck out the fragrant soup before getting to the juicy nuggets of minced pork.
There are many other highlights, and even though they have become standards on other menus, I couldn't resist trying a few old standbys. These days the most mundane takeout menus might list Shanghai noodles, but they are at their best here -- thick and satisfyingly chewy, streaked with strips of barbecued pork and cabbage. The bracing hot-sour soup had a perfect balance of vinegar and chili, and was dense with good ingredients, and although the mooshi crepes were slightly dry around the edges, the dryness was moistened by the fresh and crunchy filling of bean sprouts, onions and chicken.
But several other attractions rarely, if ever, appear on other menus. One of the best was Guai Wei chicken, which is listed on the Chinese menu -- slices of cold poached chicken, glistening with sesame oil and dotted by wee dice of garlic, green onions and flakes of chili. Another standout was the miraculously fat-free (no, that's not an oxymoron) deep-fried duck -- marinated for a fuller (slightly anise-scented) flavour and steamed before frying, which gets rid of much of the fat.
The fish that is called "lonely" or "loni" here is actually basa, and it's splendid in the Shanghai Special Fish -- slices of firm, white flesh in a delicate rice wine sauce, strewn with thin, ultra-crunchy slices of cloud ear mushrooms. With one day's notice you can have a whole eviscerated pickerel, fried to a marvellous crunch and served in an elegant, non-cloying sweet and sour sauce; it's sold at market price -- our 21/2-half pounder came to $20.
The Spicy Eggplant Hotpot was also exceptional, dotted with bits of pork and sparked by undertones of vinegar and flecks of chili. The mapo chili-spiked tofu with minced pork is one of my perennial favourites, but I've found a rival in the equally spicy deep-fried chunks of satiny tofu tossed with slices of stir-fried beef, bamboo shoots and Chinese mushrooms.
Manager-hostess Yan Yan Shen is a Shanghai-trained pastry and dim sum chef, and she prepares some terrific little treats for the Sunday noon menu. Tops among them are those soup dumplings, as well as stunning boiled fish-filled dumplings, pan-fried pork dumplings, and two kinds of splendid flaky pastries, one stuffed with sweet red bean paste, the other with mashed turnip.
Do I have any nits to pick? Just two. Big, butterflied shrimp steamed under a blanket of minced garlic were plump and juicy, but (and I never thought I'd ever say this) there was too much garlic for me, and the green beans stir-fried with minced pork would have been better if the beans had more snap.
There's a bonus in the larger-than-usual choice of teas, not just the standard jasmine but also bo lei, oolong and dragon (a.k.a. longjing). The welcome is exceptionally warm, and the service is attentive, helpful and accommodating.
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.
Restaurants marked with a red flag were rated between 0.5 to 2.5 stars; yellow flags mark those rated between 2.5 to 4 stars; and green flags mark those rated rated 4.5 to 5 stars. Locations marked with a yellow dot were not assigned a star rating.