Mid-Autumn at Shanghai Blues

Generally, I tend to merit restaurants for the quality of their food rather than the niceties of the environment, however, having found that the Sichuan restaurant we had in mind for Mid-Autumn was not quite right for the occasion, we ended up paying a visit to Shanghai Blues on High Holborn. Housed in the Grade II listed building that was formerly St. Gile’s Library, I’d had my eye on the place for a review for a while, so we decided to “drop in cold”.

Decked out in dark wood furniture and soft highlights in red, Shanghai Blues evokes the kind of 1930s chinoiserie glamour immediately suggested by the name. We entered the smaller dining room, which was divided from the rest of the restaurant by a bamboo blind and traditional wooden folding screens. Next to the fireplace are displays of Chinese tea sets and on the mantelpiece, highly decorated maotai bottles. Across the corridor is the larger dining space, with a bar on one side, grand piano on the other and bisected by panels featuring 1930s pin-up girls.  We went midweek, and were seated without delay.

Having settled ourselves, we began to peruse the menus. The wine list starts with Champagne, a typically full list of French and new world wines, and ends with baijiu, sorghum and lychee wines. The mixture of East and West ran through the evening. Even the ‘mood music’ straddled the divide, Daft Punk and Dido mingled with Mando-Pop and 1930s Shanghai tunes.

The main menu starts with teas, which usually, even in London’s Chinese restaurants, are relegated to the final pages. Shanghai Blues certainly has a selection of posh sounding teas – Thousand Day Flower, Pre-Ming Long Jing and Golden Wulong. Not wanting to partake of caffeine that late, I opted for the chrysanthemum whilst my partner tried the Supreme Tien Guan Yin. I was very pleased to see the tea being served in leaf shaped gaiwan, although the waiting staff poured quite prematurely before the leaves had time to infuse, and we had to pour it back to steep for a little longer. My chrysanthemum tasted good eventually, and the Tie Guan Yin was a very smoky variety. We had to call for our tea to be refreshed, but the hot water was added, to my delight, with a long-spouted traditional copper kettle.

The menu seemed to definitely favour a western palette, with the usual fare of sweet & sour ribs and crispy duck pancakes, but also a selection of classic Shanghai dishes, which we decided to try. Our food was at our table in just 15 minutes, and whilst I expected the starter to be served first and cleared before the main course, they all arrived within five minutes of each other, main dishes arrived first. This rather detracted from the special occasion and eating experience. The half light of the restaurant and the ubiquity of dark wood created one unexpected dining problem, of the chopsticks being camouflaged against the table, with only the tiny red blot of the chopstick stands offering any clue.

The Xiao Long Bao were sagging a little from being over-steamed, but at least they still held their soupy content, as they should. The nian gao (a thickly sliced, gnocchi type dish made of rice flour) would have been delicious, had they averaged out. Those we’d ordered with pork slices were a little overcooked and claggy, whilst the ones with chicken, arrived a little undercooked, and were tough to the bite. There had also been a mix up of the dishes, the pickle which was supposed to go with the pork nian gao ended up together with the salted fish and chicken, leaving one over flavoured, and the other rather bland.  The rest of the meal went without a hitch, and both the Shi Zi Tou (Lion’s Head) meatballs and Luo Bo Su (Radish Puffs) were delicious. I thoroughly recommend both.

From the moment we stepped into the building, the service was friendly and polite. The maitre D was very courteous and the rest of the staff all helpful and efficient, albeit rather heavy handed. Maybe I am a little spoiled, expecting tea to be poured without spilling a drop, and dishes to be announced by name when served, but with the prices attached (a meal for two, without wine, midweek came in at around £60), I think that’s almost a necessity.

The manager became very apologetic when he heard about the rather bizarre mix up with our two nian gao, and cancelled one of them from the bill straight away.  Overall, I would say that the staff do try their best.

As the night drew on, the medly of soft, but achingly acceptable pop gave way to a new song, which seemed jarring, and rather out-of-tune. It took a while to dawn on us that on the other side of corridor, behind the row of wine coolers, must be a karaoke room. The singing deteriorated through the evening, and as we tried to get back into the dreamy mood of nocturnal elegance we were in before, we realized that whilst we had put the evening to one side to appreciate the moon, others were content howling at it.

I would return to Shanghai Blues, but probably on one of their discount days, keeping an eye out for their regular appearance in coupon emails, or possibly suggesting the venue for a business lunch. I will also definitely make sure I book a table in the larger dining room, away from the karaoke, though I am looking forward to trying more of their tea.


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