Andrea’s View: When Dave and I went to Shanghai Lil at 86th and Keystone for dim sum, I thought that I knew what I was doing. I have had dim sum before, (granted it has been 20 years ago), but I was confident that Dave and I would not have a Korean barbecue like meltdown. No pun intended. Dim sum is the Chinese equivalent to tapas; little small plates of food that you share. At Shanghai Lil, the dim sum is ordered in the same manner as sushi. A paper menu with the different dim sum menu items is placed at the table and you mark off the ones you want with a pen. The server comes over and picks up the menu and takes it to the chef. So far, easy peasey. No meltdowns yet. Dave and I decided on ha gao (shrimp dumplings), cha siu bao (roast pork buns), scallion pancakes with five spice beef roll, turnip cakes, spare ribs, noh mai gai (sticky rice in lotus leaves), and chicken feet with homemade sauce. Yes, chicken feet, but more on that in a moment. The dishes are brought out in the order that they are finished being prepared, not necessarily the order that they appear on the menu. First came the turnip cakes. These were subtle, they reminded me of a hash brown, but with turnips instead of potatoes. They were served with a ginger orange sauce that complemented the turnips well. The spare ribs, scallion pancake, pork buns, and chicken feet all came out next. I went for the chicken foot first. Let me say, it was not bad, but I probably won’t need to eat one again. It tastes like you think it might. It is a little gelatinous, with a chicken aftertaste. Too many bones to navigate for me, it’s just too much effort for the reward. But I am glad that I tried it. The spare ribs were similar to the feet in that there is way too much work to get the meat off the bone while using chopsticks. The pork buns and scallion pancake were both very tasty. Last to arrive at the table was the lotus leaf wrapped sticky rice. It was then that I asked our server for silverware, as I did not know how to eat the lotus leaf with my chopsticks. The lotus leaf dish looked like a tamale sized dolmath(the stuffed grapeleaf dish found in Mediterranean cuisines). I received my silverware and promptly cut into my lotus package and put a bite in my mouth. Dave asked me how it was, and I replied, “leafy.” When the server came back by, Dave asked him how one would eat the lotus leaf with chopsticks. The server replied,” You just unwrap the leaf and pick out the rice inside.” The server then asks me, “You didn’t eat the leaf did you?” I said, “Why yes I did, it tasted a little like grapeleaves.” He then says with a smile, “You don’t eat the leaf.” Good to know. Then a very brave Dave asks, “Who eats chicken feet?” The server then says, ” A lot of Asians do.” Dave replies, “There is not much to them, or the spare ribs either.” The server states, “Yes, well, Asians like to work for their food.” And now that we look and sound like complete jackasses, Dave and I ate the rest of our lunch, lotus leaves excluded. The rice inside the leaf was very good, well worth the effort and embarrassment. After we had finished, and to save face in front of the Asian server, Dave and I stacked all of our little plates, sauce dishes, chopsticks, chopstick resting things, and napkins in a pile to make it easier for our new friend to clear away. The server then exclaimed, “You guys are awesome.” Yeah awesome. I now realize that Dave and I have a lot to learn about the Asian culture as well as the cuisine. I am now well aware that I too have that American cockiness that tells me that I know all and understand all. Don’t get me wrong, that American cockiness has served our country and our citizens well. After all, we were cocky enough to tell the King to stick it where the sun don’t shine. But some degree of understanding and appreciation of others can go a long way too. Dave and I may not always be awesome, but this food adventure was.
Dave’s View: Shanghai Lil is a very dark restaurant when you first enter the place. Your eyes will need adjusting, but once they do, you’ll love the quaint romantic atmosphere of this restaurant. It is really a nice looking restaurant inside with its burgundy walls, nice white table linens, and pink lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Beyond the ambiance, they do have an extensive wine list and many Dim Sum items to order. First off the bat, is the wine list. I have a fair amount of knowledge about wine. I’m not a wine expert, but my knowledge is probably above average to most people who live in Indiana. I ordered a Chardonnay off the menu mainly because it had a vintage year of 2006. Most Chardonnays need to be consumed young usually two to three years after the vintage year. Now my thinking here was it’s a 2006 Chardonnay. It must be good or it’s a Chardonnay that has reached its peak and they’re trying to get rid of it. Two minutes later, a 2010 Chardonnay is placed on the table. What? What happen to 2006! I know, you’re saying I’m being a wine snob, but damn it, update your menu!!! And by the way, I didn’t send it back. Why? Because this happens in about 7 out of 10 restaurants in Indianapolis. Take some white-out or a magic marker, I don’t care, update your wine menu, please. A 2010 Chardonnay is very different from a 2006 Chardonnay. If you have grown wine grapes, you’ll know what I’m talking about, that’s all I’m going to say. Enough ranting.
Now to the Dim Sum: I’ve never had Dim Sum. Basically, it’s food that you order off a menu, but they’re smaller portions. Once you order, they place them in round bamboo containers and set them down throughout your meal. Bamboo baskets will be coming out one by one. On this visit, we ordered seven items. They were Ha Gao(shrimp dumplings), Cha Siu Bao (roast pork buns), Chicken Feet, Scallion Pancakes, Turnip Cake, Spare Ribs, and Noh Mai Gai(sticky rice in lotus leaves).
Ha Gao(shrimp dumplings): Shrimp wrapped up in dough. If you like shrimp, you’ll love this dish.
Cha Siu Bao(roast pork buns): Slightly sweet buns with pork/sauce stuffed inside.
Chicken Feet: Yes, the feet of a chicken. There is nothing there to sink your teeth into. It’s like trying to eat chicken skin off a toothpick. It’s not going to happen. The waiter says you have to suck them off the bone. I don’t do this with chicken wings and I’m not doing to their feet!
Scallion Pancakes: This dish is like French Crepes. Nice vegetable medley inside and the taste is incredible.
Turnip Cakes: Taking turnips and shaping them into small gold bars is ingenious. The turnips are super moist and melt in your mouth.
Spare Ribs: I was thinking baby back ribs when we ordered this dish, only to find out we get small rounded ribs??? Like marbles. They must have come off a mini pig because they were so small. Is there such an animal called a mini pig, I don’t know? This wasn’t a spare rib off a mini pig, it was like the knee cap replacement off of a mini pig. No way did it resemble a spare rib. Again, you would have to suck the meat off the bone and after you did this, you wouldn’t be satisfied, there’s not that much meat on them. Mainly bone and cartilage.
Noh Mai Gai(sticky rice in lotus leaves): A wrapped lotus leaf sitting in a bamboo basket. I’m looking at this, thinking how am I going to eat this. So I start using my fork.(We asked for them. Not quite capable of handling chopsticks like an expect). I’m tearing away the leaf and getting to the rice tucked inside. I take a bite. The lotus leaf tasted like a steamed grape leaf and at this precise moment the waiter comes to our table. I said, “How do people eat this with chopsticks?” He replies, “ You don’t eat the leaf, it steams the rice.” He gives us a look. “How was the leaf?”, the waiter said. Andrea replies, “Pretty tough.” The waiter shakes his head and walks away. I look at Andrea and there is a five second pause. A LONG five second pause.
“We’re dumbass Americans, aren’t we?”
“That will be our title!”, Andrea giggles with wine dribbling out of her mouth.
So, there you have it. Again, we’ve taken the dumbassness out of it, so you can venture for yourself. Come here, order the Noh Mai Gai, open it gently with chopsticks and savor the taste of the awesome rice that awaits your mouth. Suck on some Chicken Feet if you dare or play it safe with some Turnip Cakes and Scallion Pancakes. But please don’t forget to eat the Cha Siu Bao(roasted pork buns), they are splendid, just don’t forget to wash it down with some 2010 Chardonnay, not to be confused with the 2006 Chardonnay.
Food: 7.5 Service: 9 Ambiance: 9.5 Total: 25.5 out of 30
$70-$90 with adult beverages.