The front door of Madame Shanghai might as well be a time machine as we stepped through it into an opulent dining room decorated with Chinoiserie wallpaper, Chinese motifs and malachite fixtures reminiscent of 1930’s Shanghai.
Judging by its elegant interiors and carefully selected tableware, we were fairly certain this wasn’t going to be an ordinary Chinese dining experience. Indeed, the staff were more than helpful in making recommendations and topping up the water glasses throughout the night.
It isn’t often that we come across such a wide selection of beverages in a Chinese establishment either. The wining and dining started and continued on a French note with Paul Jaboulet ‘Parallele 45’ from the Rhône Valley ($13/glass).
First impressions were positive but how about the food? Did it live up to the mounting expectations? The menu at Madame Shanghai has evolved over time from street style charcoal grill to contemporary Chinese with a distinct Shanghai influence under the reign of executive chef Chris Yan. Sweet soy sauce seasoning is the trademark of Shanghainese cooking and can be found in a number of dishes. Flavours from other parts of Asia such as sriracha, wasabi and tamarind are also well represented on the menu, blending in seamlessly with Shanghai style dishes. Madame Shanghai is where tradition meets innovation.
Few things can match Shanghainese people’s love for dumplings and there are plenty to choose from here in Madame Shanghai. The likes of BBQ Pork Bun and Chicken Siu Mai are familiar from Sunday morning yum cha, but Fried Pork Wontons ($12) are less well-known outside of Shanghai. In a similar shape to tortellini, wonton have been a staple for hundreds of years in Shanghai. The dumpling is usually boiled and served in a clear broth with salt and sesame oil. The leftovers are fried the following day and served with Shanghai Worcestershire Sauce. It is quite something to be able to sample the dish at Madame Shanghai and eat like a native Shanghainese.
Equally authentic is the Steamed Silken Egg ($19) with lap cheong (Chinese sausage). In the 70s and 80s when baby formula was rare in the communist country, many Shanghainese families used steamed egg to bring some protein to their babies’ diet; it was also enjoyed as a “soup” at the dinner table. The eggs are lightly beaten, mixed with water and then steamed for a few minutes. The texture is uncannily like custard and extremely silky and smooth. The lap cheong jazzes up things a little and the XO sauce brings out all the flavours.
The aroma from the open plan kitchen in Madame Shanghai creates constant stimulation on the nose, especially when the food is cooked on the barbeque. Grilled Beef Short Ribs ($32) are served with shredded salad, chilli and fresh coriander. The meat has already come off the bone and soaks up the sweet and soy dressing. It works beautifully with the rounded tannins in the French red.
Braised pork belly cooked in dark soy sauce and sugar is probably the most iconic Shanghainese dish but to balance out other meat entrees and main, we decided on Sizzling Prawns ($39). Once the theatrical sizzling action calmed down, we found six enormous de-veined prawns on a bed of green beans and red chillies. The depth of flavour in the seafood was remarkable and we even demolished all the vegetables and garnish. It was tempting to find out the secret sauce in the prawn, but we decided to leave the cooking to the professionals.
It didn’t take much to twist our arm to try the dessert. The Gold Peanut ($18) was covered in gold dust and arranged in a shape of peanut shell. Inside gooey apricot caramel was mixed with light peanut butter mousse, neither of which was overly sweet. Needless to say, we didn’t leave any crumbs behind.
So who is Madame Shanghai? In our opinion, she is nostalgic and innovative; she embodies all the glorious past and glamorous present of a city once dubbed as the Paris of the East. She is traditional but also modernised, she is humble but also sumptuous, she is the one and only Madame Shanghai.
18 College Street, Darlinghurst, Sydney NSW
Phone: (02) 8318 8618