After more than 20 years as the N&O food critic, I like to think I’m pretty much on top of the local restaurant scene. Sure, there’s the occasional hidden gem, usually somewhere on the outskirts of the Triangle, that flies under my radar for a few months. But a noteworthy new restaurant smack in the middle of Franklin Street in Chapel Hill? No way.
Uh, yes way.
I first learned of Shanghai Dumpling in November, when a reader emailed me in response to my review of Golden Palace in North Raleigh. In that review, I’d said that, to my knowledge, Golden Palace was the only restaurant in the Triangle where you could get xiaolongbao (soup dumplings). The reader politely informed me that Shanghai Dumpling in Chapel serves this prized delicacy.
That was more than three months after the restaurant had opened its doors – and I’d never heard of the place.
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I’d been on Franklin Street a few times during that interim, and I’m still not sure how I missed Shanghai Dumpling. The entire storefront is painted a vivid scarlet, with the restaurant’s name in bold white letters over the entrance. Chinese pictograms and a red paper lantern hanging over the door come as close as any restaurant I can think of in these parts to evoking a metropolitan Chinatown restaurant (though I’m sure someone will let me know if I’m mistaken).
Inside, abstract art and sleek modern light fixtures combine with black enameled chairs at tables whose burnished wooden tops are neatly set with black chopsticks and white ceramic spoons to give the dining room a contemporary Asian look. Reinforcing the Chinatown vibe, bathrooms are in the back, down a a tight squeeze of a hallway past the kitchen and wait station.
As the restaurant’s name suggests, the food is mostly Shanghainese with an emphasis on dumplings and other dim sum specialties. The menu also devotes separate categories to appetizers, rice and noodle dishes, Szechwan-inspired hotpots and “Shanghai Tapas.”
That last category is essentially a freewheeling extension of the dim sum offering, with options including the usual siu mai and pork bun suspects as well as a couple of surprises. At one end of the spectrum, the kitchen turns out a first-rate rendition of fried leek crescents, blistery-crusted and generously filled. At the other, “beef wrap pancake” turns out to be a Chinese twist on a barbecued beef sandwich, the meat chopped and juicy, piled high and topped with iceberg lettuce on a bun.
Order a few items from the Shanghai Tapas category and a few from the Dim Sum – a short but varied list with temptations including steamed barbecue pork buns and pan-fried chive dumplings – and you’ve got the makings of a thoroughly satisfying dim sum experience.
Except for the carts, that is. At Shanghai Dumpling, dim sum is ordered from the menu. On the plus side, it’s available every day of the week. And with the recent arrival of chef Richard Cui from New York, the dim sum offering is growing. Among the recent additions are more than half a dozen steamed dumpling variations, including the lamb dumplings I lucked into the day they were introduced: pale pink on the outside, with a minced filling whose supple texture is reminiscent of a tartare.
Alternatively, with a little flexibility, you could create a reasonable approximation of an appetizer-entree sequence. If nothing strikes your fancy among the handful of listings under the Appetizers heading (though five spice-braised beef and edamame with mustard greens are both rewarding options), you can always dip into the Shanghai Tapas and Dim Sum categories.
There’s no entree section per se, but you’ll find a couple of reasonable stand-ins under the Rice/Noodles/Soup heading. Pork with bean sauce and dry noodle, the chef’s take on the classic Korean jajangmyeon, is served here with bok choy.
If you’ve got an asbestos palate, feel free to venture into the adjoining territories of Spicy Pot and Spicy Hotpot. To the uninitiated, the distinction between the two may seem elusive. Just think of the spicy pot as a meal-in-a-bowl noodle soup, and the spicy hotpot as more of a stew. Either one – seafood spicy hotpot, say, with tender squid, shrimp, tilapia and cellophane noodles, or beef spicy pot with lotus root – will fill you up with a cornucopia of fresh and exotic vegetables, and light you up with Szechwan peppercorns.
Whether you opt for the dim sum experience or a coursed meal, you’ll surely want to include xiaolongbao in the lineup. You’ll find two first-rate variations – classic pork, and pork with crabmeat – under the Shanghai Tapas heading. They aren’t called soup dumplings here (or Shanghai dumplings, another name they’re known by) but “steamed juicy buns.”
That description is accurate (technically, xiaolongbao are steamed buns filled with soup), but the distinctive wording rang a bell with me. I checked and, sure enough, that’s exactly what they’re called at Golden Palace. A phone call confirmed my suspicion that there might be a connection between the two restaurants. Turns out that Shanghai Dumpling’s owner is Lisa Huang, who happens to be half of the husband-and-wife team that owns Golden Palace.
It just goes to show, I suppose, that no matter how long you’ve been covering the local food scene, there’s always another surprise in store.
143 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill; 919-914-6737
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: casual contemporary Asian
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: attentive and eager to please
Recommended: beef wrap pancake, fried leek crescent, dumplings, spicy pots and hotpots
Open: lunch and dinner daily
Other: no alcohol (license pending); accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; limited parking on street, additional parking in lots on Rosemary Street.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆ Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.