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At the Table: Authentic cuisine, heavenly dumplings at Ala Shanghai

Sunday, January 9, 2011
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Ala Shanghai

WHERE: 468 Troy Schenectady Road, Latham 783-8188, www.alashanghai.net

WHEN: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday

OTHER INFO: All major credit cards; handicapped accessible

COST: $65.08

— Just east of the traffic circle at 468 Troy Schenectady Road is where you’ll find my new favorite Chinese restaurant.

Depending on what you order, you might pay a little more at Ala Shanghai than at other Chinese eateries in the Capital Region, but the food is so superior that cost shouldn’t be an issue.

You can find the usual stuff you’d expect at Chinese take-aways — like won-ton soup and lo mein noodles — but you’ll also find genuine Chinese cuisine here like fish belly with chili sauce, fish head casserole, Wuxi-style spareribs (in a brown sauce), Shanghaiese pork shoulder and scores of other authentic dishes from the kitchen of chef Jian Hu.

Then there are those heavenly dumplings, which all by themselves are worth the visit. Six temptingly plump crab and pork soup dumplings will cost you $6, and that’s a bargain. The dumplings arrive, pretty as a picture, in a bamboo steamer basket. You’ll be tempted to bite into them right away, but be cautious. Their innards — ground pork and crab with a flavorful broth — are hot enough to burn your mouth. I poked mine with a chopstick to let some of the steam out before proceeding to devour them greedily. (They’re that good.)

Beverly and I tried two appetizers, the dumplings and a crispy turnip pastry ($4), which were two delicate servings of turnip puree encased in delicate dough on a little bed of vegetables.

RESERVED DISHES

Some of Ala Shanghai’s specialties require that you order them when you make your dinner reservation. Dishes like sea cucumber with shrimp, whole eel with garlic in brown sauce, braised whole duck with scallions and the Chinese salty honey ham with pancakes take time to prepare. They’re also the priciest items on the menu at $32-$36.

For an entrée, I ordered the General Tso’s Prawns with broccoli and brown rice ($14). (Beverly commented on Ala Shanghai’s offering of a choice of white or brown rice, which is not the norm in most Chinese restaurants.)

My prawns were delightful — sweet and hot with a nice crispy crunch. The broccoli did not have the life cooked out of it, and the brown rice was firm and a great complement to the spicey prawns.

Beverly’s choice for her entrée was the Crispy Fish Fillets with brown rice ($12), and she ordered a vegetarian entree as well — Bok Choy with Mushrooms ($11) — because we wanted some greenery with our protein.

The large mound of crispy-fried white fish, lightly breaded and fried, then flavored with a sweet-and-hot sauce, was a treat. The flaky fish morsels were moist and sweet, and the crispy exterior provided a perfect foil.

Like my broccoli, the bok choy was cooked to al dente doneness, in contrast to the portobello mushrooms which were tender and glossy from their dark sautee sauce.

All of the dishes arrived with artfully sliced and arranged bits of carrots and daikon, which helped to enhance the pretty presentations.

We wouldn’t ordinarily have dessert in a Chinese restaurant, but Ala Shanghai’s offerings are different and, on our server’s recommendation, we ordered the Sweet Red Bean Pancake ($4). Rather than actual pancakes, these are crispy little tortillas filled with a sweet red bean paste. The combination of the savory crispness of the tortilla with the sweet paste interior made for an enjoyable conclusion to our meal.

You can also order a Tiny Rice Ball in Sweet Soup for $4 and Sweet Eight Jewel Rice for $5.

POT OF TEA

Ala Shanghai serves a complimentary pot of tea with its meals and we didn’t feel the need for additional beverages. (For now, customers must be content with soft drinks. Ala Shanghai, which opened last spring, is still waiting for its liquor license.)

The restaurant ambience is appealing, with attractive lighting, wall coverings and dark wood furnishings and mood music that is loud enough to be noticed but soft enough to not intrude on dinner conversation.

We noted that half the customers having dinner or when we visited were Asian-Americans, which seemed like a good sign.

Trying not to gawk, we watched with fascination as our server sliced up a whole crispy duck for a diner a couple of tables away. “Next time,” Beverly said.

Our tab for entrées, including an extra veggie dish, two appetizers and a dessert to share, came to $65.08.

NAPKIN NOTES

Service at Ala Shanghai, which is supervised closely by manager Lanny Lau, was impeccable. It’s always impressive when different servers show up to clear away dishes or refill water glasses. Lau himself visited our table to ensure we were happy customers, and we told him our server, Min, was taking very good care of us. Ala Shanghai sits just slightly off the beaten path on Troy Schenectady Road where Sakura Steakhouse was.

 
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