Modern Shanghai at SM Mall of Asia is one of the newest offerings of the Bistro Group restaurant, and this is also the company's first venture into Chinese food. Just like Japanese, Italian, and our very own Filipino cuisine, Chinese fare in our country never fails to satiate the hunger of many. Chinese restaurants are everywhere, and anywhere -- from hole in the wall, mom and pop places that serve Tsinoy style food, little nooks and stores where you can loudly slurp your noodle soup, to hotel-run, elegant fine dining destinations where you delicately clink on your china and chopsticks.
To create a more modern yet inviting atmoshpere for the restaurant, Modern Shanghai sought the expertise of award-winning interior designer Steve Leung. From the outside of the restaurant, passers-by can see cooks working in the half-open kitchen. During our visit, we saw the cooks preparing different kinds of dimsum.
Instead of the traditional use of flashy red-gold combination in everything (from the walls to decor to the cloth-covered chairs), the interior of Modern Shanghai is calming while keeping itself inspired with subtle touches of Shangai. The mosaic tiles in green and white, we were told, are typically found in old Chinese homes. Lattice designs carved in wood -- intricate and beautiful -- is another touch of Shanghai culture. And instead of having huge tanks of fish, lobsters and crabs greeting you nearby your table, Modern Shangai displays wooden koi fishes on one wall.
A Modern Twist on Shanghainese Cuisine
After I've browsed through their menu, I immediately appreciated two things. First, is that there were so many items to choose from -- nearly a hundred items from appetizers to dessert, and that is excluding their teas and other beverages. Second, the menu was a good balance of familiar favorites and new flavors, definitely solving the problem of feeding a group of people that have both the adventurous ("let's try something new!") and picky ("let's have the usual") eaters.
"Shandong" Style Shredded Chicken
Our first couple of appetizers fell under the not-quite-usual category: "Shandong" Style Shredded Chicken (P358) and Deep Fried Crispy River Eel (P298). We were informed upon ordering the chicken that it is traditionally served cold, and some patrons request for it to be heated. We wanted to taste how the dish is meant to be served, just as how the roasted chicken is prepared in Hong Kong, so we declined to have ours heated. Other than it being a cooler temperature, the flavors are actually quite familiar -- soy, garlic, some sweetness -- and the meat itself is tender.
Deep Fried Crispy River Eel
A personal favorite is the Deep Fried Crispy River Eel. A plateful of the crunchy strips with sweet glaze prove to be a test for my appetite: should I just nibble on a couple and save room for the main course, or devour the entire plate since it's so delicious? I shamelessly admit to have chosen the latter (it's a small platter anyway). This would be a good introduction to eel for people not too keen on eating this type of fish, as it's boneless, fried to an addicting crunch (think bar chow material), and coated with a very agreeable sweet soy glaze.
Shanghai Lily Tea Cocktail
To go with our starters, I tried one of Modern Shanghai's Signature Tea Cocktails, the Shanghai Lily (P118). Labeled as the Signature of the Signature Tea Cocktails (Signature-ception, anyone?), I had to try this for myself. This cold beverage combines lychee, grapefruit honey, mango juice, chrysanthemum tea, and Sprite. It is a cold glass of fruity meets fizzy, with delicate and subtle flavors complementing rather than overpowering the food you'll eat. I'm a fan of lychee, so this gets my thumbs up.
Chef's Special "Pan-fried" Xiao Long Bao
You can also order a crowd pleaser at the restaurant--xiao long bao is available here. You can have it the usual way, or try something new with the Chef's Special "Pan-fried" Xiao Long Bao (P228). It presents a simple way of twisting things a bit. Modern Shanghai's fried version of the Xiao Long Bao keeps its skin translucent and firm, hot broth intact, while its bottom part a toasty golden brown from the frying. You end up devouring every dumpling with a slight crunch, a welcome change in texture.
Deep-fried Scallion Pancakes
If you are craving much more of the crunch, order the Deep-fried Scallion Pancakes (P148). Instead of a plate of thin velvety pancake, imagine a stuffed flatbread coated with sesame seeds and deep fried into a golden brown color, with a crisp texture. The pancake is sliced like a pizza to reveal its soft, steamy inside filled with scallion and green onions. You could pick up a slice with your chopsticks, but eating it handheld like a pizza also has its rewards.
Steamed Buns with Preserved Egg Yolk Paste
I've also discovered a new favorite that I can foresee being a perfect afternoon snack with hot tea or coffee. The Steamed Buns with Preserved Egg Yolk Paste (P148) could actually be listed under Desserts on their menu (it is categorized under Buns & Dumplings--well, it is a bun). Just thinking about the sweet and soft little pieces of delight makes my mouth water. A bite of the bun (it looks like a flattened mini siopao) will have the warm, chewy bread and that warm, sweetened egg yolk paste playing around your mouth like it's your birthday. I find myself liking a lot of sweet and salty dishes, be it a meal or a dessert, so this dish is definitely something I will be coming back for at Modern Shanghai.
Let's move on to meatier stuff. If your hankering for a good pork dish -- the slow cooked and tender kind -- choose between (or order both) "Tung-Bor" Style Braised Pork Belly (P418) and Our "Signature" Braised Lucky Pork Knuckle (P888) as your main course. These two items prove that fat is indeed flavor, and that slow cooking makes everything better. The slowed-braised pork belly is reddish in color, its fat and skin glistening from the sauce that comes along with it. This order can be split in two if you're having some fried rice or other dim sum with it, or you can indulge the two fat slices on your own. Some veggies in the form of spring onions are also swimming in the sauce, to rid you of a little guilt from all the fatty, meaty goodness. Belly, belly nice.
"Tung-Bor" Style Braised Pork Belly
Meanwhile, the Our "Signature" Braised Lucky Pork Knuckle (the frequent use of quotation marks on their menu items amuse me) is a beauty. The pork knuckle swims in brown sauce with some baby pak choy. No need to plan your attack on this towering chunk of pork -- try poking the meat with your fork and it will simply give way. Consider this dish "lucky" not only because of the '888' pricing (the number is auspicious in Chinese numerology), but also because of its tender and flavorful meat, slow braised to fall-off-the-bone perfection. A celebratory dish, if you were to order one at Modern Shanghai.
Our "Signature" Braised Lucky Pork Knuckle
After all that pork goodness, it's best to soothe the stomach with some hot tea. Modern Shanghai boasts of their selection of Blooming Tea, aromatic teas that are bundled up and will 'flower' slowly once the hot water is poured. It was relaxing to wait for my Peaceful Garden (P198) to bloom, slowly but surely, in time for our last round of food: the dessert!
Peaceful Garden Blooming Tea
In between sips of the tea, we sampled a trio of desserts: Fresh Mango Cream with Sago & Pomelo (P118), Golden Pumpkin Cake (P58), and Crispy Pancake with Red Bean Paste (P118).
Fresh Mango Cream with Sago & Pomelo
The first dessert is more commonly known as Mango Sago, a staple in most Chinese restaurants. This restaurant in particular adds pomelo to the mix, giving more texture and bite to every spoonful of the classic sweet soupy delight.
Golden Pumpkin Cake
I ordered the pumpkin cake because it was the first time I read it on a menu of a Chinese restaurant; we are in a new restaurant, so why not try something new while we're at it? An order of Golden Pumpkin Cake comes in a plate of three flower shaped deep-fried cakes. It was warm, chewy, and every bite had a tiny gush of oil -- much like how you eat a tikoy (Nian gao, or sticky rice cake). But unlike tikoy, the pumpkin cakes were more savory and with just a little bit of sweetness.
Crispy Pancake with Red Bean Paste
The last dessert was personally my favorite dessert of that day, it was something new again to try, yet with flavors quite familiar. I though that the crispy pancake would at least be shaped like a pancake, so it was a surprise to see it arrive in our table as eight little rectangular pieces. I like to describe them as 'crispy hopia crepe' -- pita-thin bread deep fried, slathered with red bean. It was crunchy and sweet. Since they're bite sized (like the crispy eel), it was a delight to pick them up and munch on them easily.
Chinese cuisine seems to always be a safe choice when dining out, as we have familiarized ourselves with most of their dishes through the years. It's good to know that the staples and the traditional favorites haven't tired, and some restaurants out there still deliver them at top quality; it's also good to know that more food choices are coming in, bringing modern techniques or flavors to twist things a bit. I'm glad Modern Shanghai embraces both long-time specialties and contemporary ones, and offering these with an inviting modern ambience.