This review of a Shanghai restaurant is a break from The Picky Glutton’s usual London-based coverage
Eating out in a non-Western place like Shanghai with other Brits can be a miserable experience. For every one person that’s open-minded enough to give almost anything a try, there will be another five that would make Karl Pilkington proud in their depressingly bellicose displays of culinary conservatism and parochialism.
Although there are things that I won’t eat, the food at SOAHC is hardly that exotic. Located just down the street and around the corner from T8, this Xintiandi restaurant is nothing if not attractive. The compact square courtyard has a small koi pond which leads to a series of dining rooms that are comfortable if eclectically furnished.
I managed to sample a good swathe of the expansive menu at SOAHC during a recent business dinner there, starting with a platter of some of the available starters. The cucumber and turnip rolls taste more of cucumber than turnip and has a tart, vinegarish flavour to it. If it sounds a bit dull, that’s because it is a bit dull.
The slices of dimpled tofu were equally unexciting. The pressed bean curd slithers were plain and filled with one dimensionally salty bits of anonymous vegetable.
I was amused by the comically small size of the freshwater prawns. Although there’s minimal meat inside the edible shells, the sweet crunchiness of the shells were surprisingly addictive.
While the tofu starter was quite limp, the same couldn’t be said for the thin, milky, nutty and firm noodle-like strands of tofu served in a clear, meaty chicken-flavoured broth. Although the baby pak choi were fresh and added some much needed greenery, they also felt a little tacked on.
Deep fried yellow fish wrapped with green moss sounds terribly exotic, but the reality was far more mundane. While the fish fillets were moist and slightly earthy, the chewy, grassy batter in which they had been deep fried made the dish resemble a serving of mildly diverting fish fingers.
I suspect the fried sweet and sour chicken rolls had at least been modified for Western tastes given the rather bland sweet and sour glaze, but at least they were more spicy and not as sickly sweet as the sweet and sour rubbish served in anglicised Chinese takeaways throughout Britain. It’s a shame the distinctly flavoured addition of walnuts wasn’t more prominent.
Mushrooms and peaches are an unusual combination, but SOAHC paired them together here. The braised, heart-shaped mushroom was dense with a certain silkiness to it that was very pleasing, but the crisp chunk of peach both looked and tasted out of place.
The gently smoky duck was very moreish, especially with its taut, slightly crispy skin. The accompanying triangles of cold, flat and chewy rice flour bao were disappointing though.
The sautéed prawns were allegedly cooked in the Sichuanese style and while they were tangy, they were only very mildly spicy and lacked the intense numbing spiciness I would expect from Sichuanese food. The prawns were also a touch overcooked with the flesh a little too soft for my liking, but at least the prawn heads are served intact for slurping.
Unsurprisingly at this point, my business dining associates lapped up the bland, inoffensive egg fried rice but refused to touch the steamed wax gourd stuffed with diced scallops. The smooth, slightly sweet and starchy diamond-shaped gourd chunks went down quite nicely, but it was hard to tell where the heavily detexturised minced scallops ended and the gourd began.
While at least some of my business dining associates were willing to try at least a few of the savoury dishes, the peasants refused to touch either of the desserts. The gooey, starchy balls of glutinous rice are admittedly an acquired taste, but they’re worth putting up with to get to the thick, savoury sesame paste that lies at the centre of each ball. Oddly, the balls were served in a rather bland, slightly viscous liquid.
The kitchen had made the odd decision to dice the honeydew melon into small cubes before serving it with small tapioca balls in coconut milk. This dessert was disappointing all-round from the bland, detexturised melon cubes to the thin, watery, uncreamy milk.
Contrary to what my tediously bourgeois business dining associates might think, the food at SOAHC is not inedibly strange. It is, however, overpriced and generally quite humdrum in ambition and flavour. One can do better in Shanghai.
Branch tried: No 3, 123 Lane, Xing Ye Road, Xintiandi, Shanghai
Phone: (86-21) 6385-7777
Opening Hours: call to confirm.
Reservations: probably a good idea
Total cost for one person including soft drinks: ¥600 (approx. £60 at time of writing).