Having survived dinner at Agape Substance and lived, albeit barely, to tell the tale, Miss Love and I were reluctant to commit to another potentially disastrous tasting menu while on this trip. We’re not averse to eating spaetzle and frites at home by any means, but we did want to go out for at least one other meal out before she left. As luck would have it, I was browsing David Lebovitz’s website late last night, in between post-writing jags and cell-phone shopping, (okay, and maybe I was also ogling motorcycles) when I saw a very positive post about Shang Palace, one of two restaurants at the Shangri-La Hotel in the 16th.
Not that I’ve been seeking it out, but it seems that the only decent Chinese food in Paris can be found at 2AM when you’re inebriated. It can be found everywhere, with a sort of underground McDonald’s like eeriness in its frequency and consistency. You walk into the kiosk. Sometimes it says “traiteur,” sometimes not. Sometimes you can tell just because of the metallic aromas of nuked soy sauce. Hand the person at the counter 2-4 Euro, mumble your order. It doesn’t matter. In less than a minute, you will receive a dented microwaved plastic box with plastic wrap on top, noodles and chicken steaming the hermetically sealed packet. It tastes of MSG and heartbreak and will leave 3rd degree burns on the inside of your mouth. Because you are drunk, you will enjoy it and in the morning, remember little more than the blisters and heartburn.
It may be cheap, but it’s hardly satisfying, never scratching the itch that saucy, sweet, spicy noodles and crispy mong beans do. So Chinese, along with decent bagels, chicken salad, and mozzarella sticks, has been put on the back burner until I return to the States. When we saw this write-up, though, we thought it would be fun to go for lunch. Shang Palace has one Michelin star and the service and food is certainly implicit of this fact. Walking in, it was like we’d quietly shut the door to busy Paris and been ushered into a sound-proof museum, quietly playing piano music.
I’d never had a near-silent lunch before, but as the only patrons in the restaurant surrounded by imposing, maze-like woodwork panels and an impressively large table for two, it seemed as though we would soon be experiencing one, the waitstaff silently moving around us. You could hear a chopstick drop in there, so we were pleased when more customers started filing in for lunch. Everything about Shang Palace is poised, with a grand, yet tasteful power to its decor and design. I imagine it’s a popular spot for business dinners, as evidenced by its upper three and four digit wine list!
We opted to share a teapot of green jasmine tea, easily the best beverage deal in the restaurant. One pot yielded at least five steaming mugs of very elegant, naturally sweet tea for us both.
As David’s review had warned of oversized portions, we opted to share the Dim Sum menu, with a side selection of caramelized barbecued Cantonese meats, one of the specialties of the restaurant. This was an excellent choice for two people. It was the perfect amount of food for us. The pacing and service of the lunch was impeccable, some of the nicest I’ve ever had. Highlights included fresh, steaming plates every two courses, steamed towels at the beginning and end of the meal, and careful, attentive service without coming off as nosy. Our waitress noticed that my chopstick and sauce spoon was placed on my right side, but that I kept using my left hand to eat. Not two bites in, she swiftly picked the set up, cleaned them off, and placed them on my left side once more.
I think Shang Palace speaks to the interesting differences in the sensibilities of restaurants based on the average age of the clietele and cultural desires. When we’ve eaten tasting menus at newer, relatively trendy restaurants, there seems to have been an overarching desire for the waitstaff in New York to explain and chat, to analyze every element of the food and provide background information on individual ingredients. While there is a time and place for that, sometimes it’s refreshing to allow the food to speak for itself, something Shang Palace has obviously seen and touched upon.
We started with Ha Kao, shrimp dumplings, and Siu Mai, shrimp and pork dumplings with a little fish roe on top. These complimented each other perfectly, with the delicate, sticky shrimp dumplings, perfumed and saline, contrasting the robust, almost hefty Siu Mai. Neither of these required soy sauce or even the transcendent and fresh hot chili sauce I kept close to my side.
After our first few bites, the meat platter was brought out, a hefty plate of roasted duck, marinated chicken, and crispy pork brisket, each with their own accompanying condiment. Each meat was impeccably prepared, generously portioned, and none felt like an afterthought in the selection. However, I was most impressed with the duck, served with a sweet orange and prawn sauce, its lacquered skin crispy and crackling with a tender, moist chew. That being said, the savory chicken and crunchy pork with hot mustard were not to be left behind!
Our next dim sum course was brought out, Shanghai steamed pork buns. I expected these to be more akin to the traditionally fluffy buns, but in retrospect, they were more like soup dumplings, served with a piquant black vinegar and ginger sauce. The subtle flavors in this played well with the boldness of the sauce, the dumpling skin fresh, stretchy, and tender.
Moving on to soup, we shared a steaming bowl of white tofu soup (with a self-described superior crystal broth) with a giant crab dumpling. Eating this was like slurping down Chinese matzah ball soup, from the finely ground texture of the crab meat to the hot, savory broth– admittedly superior. It was comforting and cozy on such a damp day.
After finishing up the last of our meat and drinking another mug of tea, the table was again cleared and made way for a huge bowl of fried egg noodles with chicken, bean sprouts, and onions. Perfectly cooked, not over salted, and pleasantly grilled in flavor…this was one dish I couldn’t resist spooning a little chili sauce over. With or without the sauce, it was a great end to the savory part of our meal.
Miss Love’s menu came with a dessert, a chilled mango cream with pomelo and sago. Originally, we thought this would be served in steamed bun form, a dessert that looked delicious on David’s blog, but instead, we received a small pot of this sumptuous cream, delicate and floral with small beads of sago and individual grains of pomelo.
I ordered dessert, too, a special double-cream almond pudding inside a sweet, thin sesame shell. The presentation on this was stunning, with a toasty, almost savory exterior counterbalancing the sweetness of the thick almond cream. The inner part of the shell absorbed the cream and with time, got glutenous and chewy, like a mochi. The perfect ending to the meal.
Shang Palace is impeccable in every respect, achieving a quiet dignity through their flavors and service that some restaurants would benefit from adhering to. It is obvious that they have maintained a style that many find irresistible. It’s definitely somewhere I’d love to go back to!