Ignore the stark office building, walk past Waffle Boy and head straight for the elevators to the third floor. With its gold ceilings and chandeliers, the shiny new interior of the Sanlitun SOHO Xiao Nan Guo (or Shanghai Min if you use their official English name) exudes Shanghainese charm in a plush dining room that is busy with hushed chatter.
At the sixth and biggest branch in Beijing, this reputable Shanghai luxury restaurant chain is in popular demand, judging by the full dining room. The kitchen is manned by 20 chefs, and a central purchasing department brings in the finest ingredients from Shanghai to satisfy any craving for ben bang (slang for Shanghainese home-style food). Note that seasonal fare rules in this restaurant, so not all dishes are available all year round.
Vinegars have been wowing Chinese gourmands for years and nowhere more so than in the Yangtze River Delta. The Shanghainese obsession with sweet vinegar is evident in the varieties that end up on the table. They bring gustatory thrills by opening the flavours of different dishes and accenting them beautifully. Fatty and delightful, the giant lion’s head meatballs with hairy crab roe (xie fen shi zi tou, 188RMB) are so soft that they practically melt in your mouth. They are paired with xie cu, a dark, glutinous rice vinegar especially for crab, that cuts through the richness of hand-chopped meat aided by a spike from little bits of ginger.
Xie fen xiao long bao (38RMB) fans would approve of the version of the crab soup dumplings served at Xiao Nan Guo. They pack in hot broth delicately folded into an infinite number of pleats that would make Issey Miyake proud. Be sure to dip them in kang le cu, a lighter vinegar of rice, wheat bran and honey. Add the wispy ginger slices to go the extra mile.
The classic cold dish chicken in Shaoxing wine (shao xing zui ji, 35RMB) comes in a generous serving, though its shamelessly salty. Leafy spring pea sprouts matched with the classic sweet soy oil-braised bamboo shoots (dou miao you men sun, 58RMB) allow for a tangent from a meat-heavy meal but stems can be woody and tough.
Fans of glutinous rice desserts beware. The restaurant falters badly with its pan-fried attempt at eight treasures (ba bao fan, 22RMB) that are likely to turn you into a former fan. Pale and pasty, it looks like an accident victim and is a treasure worth leaving for Somali pirates.
A good Chinese meal should always end with a starch. And this dining room really blows the doors off with its noodles with scallion-flavoured oil (cong you ban mian, 38/10RMB). Wickedly delicious and intensely packed with flavour in its simplicity, this brings everything home. A meal here is guaranteed to destroy the most committed of diets. No matter how full you are – you will probably finish this.
The friendly, attentive staff provide great service, and can answer all food curiosities you may have if you speak Chinese. Whatever brings you here, the food will have you returning.