Since opening its doors in Bangsar a couple of months ago Shanghai 10 (the name is a play on the Chinese characters, which read 'Shanghai Tian' - 'Shanghai Heaven') has received positive reviews for its innovative take on Shanghai food (dim sum, especially). Coffeeshops, hawker stalls, and markets are our usual dining venues of choice, but that's not to say that we headed to Shanghai 10 with prejudice. For us, whether supping indoors or slurping next to a gutter, the same standard applies: the food must be yummy. The problem is, at Shanghai 10 it wasn't.
Perhaps it's the name. I'm no anal retentive stickler for absolute authenticity, but to my mind the dishes offered at a restaurant called 'Shanghai 10' ought to pledge at least a bit of allegiance to Shanghai flavors.
What's missing at Shanghai 10 is vinegar. Shanghai cuisine tends to be sweet, but vinegar is a key ingredient, and many dishes evince a hint of tartness. At Shanghai 10 there's vinegar, but in every dish we ordered it was neutralized with sugar. And there we have the crux of the problem: Malaysianization. It's the reason we rarely eat non-Malaysian food in Malaysia, unless I prepare it myself. Many Malaysian chefs just can't resist tweaking the flavors of the cuisines they're referencing to cater to the Malaysian love of sweetness. And so it seems to be at Shanghai 10.
Xiaolongbao (steamed soup dumplings) are a standard Shanghai snack; locals test for the presence of soup by lifting a dumpling by its topknot. Shanghai 10's bao sagged with liquid, a promising sign, but the broth within was disappointing - not light, fresh, and porky, but dark, heavy, and Maggi-fied (or boosted with another flavor enhancer). The nub of pork was pleasingly piggy but the wrapper, while laudibly thin, was overcooked. Black vinegar enhanced with plenty of shredded ginger was marred by sugar, not tart or sour in the least.
Jellyfish was a textural triumph, smooth and crunchy (albeit the strips cut just a bit wide), and we welcomed the creative addition of thoroughly Malaysian nubs of deep-fried dried shrimp that added a bit of crackle and some flavor of the sea. But the 'dressing' of soy, vinegar, and - again - plenty of sugar put us off (in Shanghai the shredded seafood would be dressed simply with fine toasted sesame oil and salt) and carrot shreds added nothing to the dish.
Spinach dumplings boasted thick, substantial wrappers, which would have earned a star if they hadn't been hopelessly overcooked. The green vegetable's flavor was barely detectable (Chinese chives would have worked better) and a dipping sauce of chopped garlic and vinegar was spoiled by, you guessed it, lots of sugar.
Cucumber salad isn't specific to Shanghai, but whether served in Shandong, Sichuan, or on the east coast, three ingredients are key: salt, garlic, and sesame oil. The first two were absent in Shanghai 10's preparation. The cucumber hadn't been salted and squeezed (or had been salted, but not allowed to sit long enough), and so arrived at the table weeping water into its bland, sweetish (yes, more sugar), soy-based dressing, which, to our taste, may or may not have included sesame oil. Garlic was missing in action, and carrot shreds were again incorporated for no apparent reason.
More successful were the smoky fenpi (noodles of green bean starch) stir-fried with prawns, egg, and soy, a la Malaysian char kuey teow. Strips of woodear mushrooms and - ahem - shredded carrot contrasted with the delightfully chewy, soft noodles. Still, we wondered what was 'Shanghai' about a dish that Malaysia made famous.
'But Shanghai 10 doesn't claim to replicate authentic Shanghainese cuisine!' is what the restaurant's fans are thinking. Fair enough. But beyond its lack of 'Shanghai-ness', the food (or our food on Sunday; I'll allow that every restaurant has 'off' days) was simply lacking in lip-smacking deliciousness. Nothing sang, nothing left us pondering seconds, nothing had us fighting each other for the last bite. All of the dishes but one (the fenpi) were, in a word, dull, dressed or dipping- sauced with an unchanging variation on the soy-vinegar-lots of sugar theme. (A positive - service is friendly and very efficient, even when the place is packed.)
Shanghai 10's Chef Loong enjoyed a reputation as a creative cook at his previous restaurant in Petaling Jaya and this quality comes through in the two desserts we sampled: soft avocado buns (available weekends only) and avocado 'kadayifi'. Both are tooth-achingly sweet - less sugar would allow the avocado's natural sweetness to come through - but intriguing. The latter, especially - sweet avocado paste wrapped in spring roll skin, deep-fried, and then encased in a web of golden fried bean thread noodles - made us wish we'd sampled the chef's specialties before he became associated with a restaurant group that most likely intends to expand on the Shanghai 10 theme. Unfortunately our (albeit small) sampling of Shanghai 10's offerings were all too reminsicent of play-safe chain restaurant food.
Shanghai 10, Ground Floor, 36J Jalan Telawi 2, Bangsar Baru, Kuala Lumpur. Tel. 03-2287-7366. Mon-Sat 11a-230pm and 6-130pm and Sun 10-230pm and 6-10pm. 46 ringgit for the lot, with two lemon ice teas.