Pillowy pouches of dough with neatly pinched tops, served in a bamboo steamer basket - Shanghai-style soup dumplings resemble any number of other filled dumplings and steamed buns you might find on a dim sum cart. In China, where they go by the name of xiaolongbao, they are indeed a popular dim sum offering.
Bite into one, though - carefully! - and you'll discover the magic secret of xiaolongbao: They're filled with piping hot soup.
OK, it isn't really magic. More like molecular gastronomy, though the Chinese were making these little gems a hundred years before the term was coined. (Simplified explanation: minced pork and pork fat are simmered in chicken stock, which is then chilled until it gels, sometimes with a little natural help in the form of agar. The gelatin is then cut into little blocks that can be sealed inside a dumpling. Steaming returns the gelatin to its liquid state).
Soup dumplings became popular in New York in the 1990s, but outside of major metropolitan areas, they're still as rare as black jade.
Lucky for us, they're the specialty at Asian Grill, which offers two versions: classic pork and a variation with pork and minced crabmeat, whose briny aroma wafts up to your nostrils even as you're gently lifting it onto your ceramic spoon. Both are served with the traditional accompaniment of Chinkiang black rice vinegar and ginger slivers for dipping (or, as some aficionados prefer, spooning directly into a small hole nibbled into the dumpling). Both are excellent.
But soup dumplings are by no means the only reason to rank this North Raleigh newcomer among the area's best Chinese restaurants. The extensive (and still evolving) menu is the first in these parts to feature authentic Shanghainese cuisine, whose subtle flavors offer a refreshing alternative to the fiery Szechwan fare that dominates other authentic menus in the Triangle.
Scallion pancakes - rustically dense, authentically greasy, and served with a pungent dipping sauce - are a straightforward introduction to the cuisine and a most agreeable companion to a bottle of Tsingtao. More adventurous palates will find rich rewards in a casserole of fresh eel and pork belly in a seductively dark, complex sauce that arrives furiously boiling in an earthenware dish.
Between those two extremes, and typical of the Shanghainese penchant for seafood and alcohol-laced sauces, is fish fillet in wine sauce. Asian Grill's first-rate rendition serves up nuggets of pristine sea bass and cloud ear mushrooms in a velvety white sauce with a caramelized rice wine fragrance reminiscent of sherry.
Giant "lion's head" pork meatballs, Shanghai's ginger- and bok choy-punctuated answer to the Italian meatballs that are a comfort food to many, should appeal to a broad range of tastes. So should West Lake braised pork, a dish whose sweet-sour "cherry sauce" is universally - and invariably, poorly - imitated by Chinese-American restaurants.
The menu occasionally ventures across regional boundaries, with similarly successful results. The spice level of Szechwan dishes in particular is toned down to suit the Shanghainese palate, though they're otherwise authentic. In fact, given the restrained use of chiles and Szechwan peppercorn in dishes such as Dan Dan noodle and twice-cooked pork, it's a good bet they'll find fans among people who previously found Szechwan fare too spicy.
Those who still aren't persuaded will find a generous selection of Chinese-American fare. The closest I got to sampling any of these dishes, beset as I was by all the more authentic temptations, was a Cantonese beef with oyster sauce that is to the familiar Chinese-American version as Stevie Wonder is to Milli Vanilli.
Nine months after opening Asian Grill, owners Jia Gu and his wife, Christine Li, continue to tweak the offering in response to customer demand. They recently added Peking duck (a version, currently fashionable among Chinese patrons, that substitutes steamed buns for the traditional wrappers), and they plan to offer a selection of Taiwanese specialties in the coming weeks.
But the biggest change came in August, when the owners jettisoned the entire menu (originally, a generic pan-Asian-with-sushi-bar concept that failed to find a following) in favor of their native Shanghainese cuisine. This just goes to prove that, just as a dumpling can contain a pleasant surprise, a cloud can have a silver lining.