A Chinatown Gem Shines Brightly

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Looks aren't everything at Shanghai Café-and that's a good thing

The rule of thumb for most Chinatown restaurants is that the more nondescript the interior, the better the food. The best handmade noodles are found in an underground den where the chefs sit out in the dining room, forming dumplings on massive sheet pans during the off hours. There are superlative wontons to be found in a corner diner that huddles directly under the sooty rumble of the Manhattan Bridge. Torn linoleum and stained formica tabletops are tangible evidence the place has been used and loved by hundreds of regulars over time, proof that all of the staff's attention is focused on the food, not on building an atmosphere.

Discerning patrons would thus be forgiven for looking askance at Shanghai Café's (100 Mott St., betw. Canal and Hester Sts.) gleaming interior, groovy recessed neon lighting and dark wood booths. Somehow, though, they've struck an impossible balance between style and substance.

It's not all glitz and glamour. To start, order the Kau Fu, a haphazard mound of ragged chunks of wheat gluten studded with black mushrooms, an abomination in brown that would look more at home in a subway grate than on your polished table. It's delicious-brightly savory, the gluten its own wonderfully dense texture, a meat substitute that hasn't been forced to masquerade as chicken-and magnificently ugly. There are, of course, "steamed tiny buns," delicate soup dumplings, in plain pork or pork and crab variations. The waiters are trained, in fact, to check all diners who somehow overlook them when ordering. "You want soup dumplings," they say, a directive, not a question. You almost certainly do-and if you do, get the pork and crab variation, which adds a note of oceanic salt to the rich, fatty broth-but if you don't, they won't press the issue. They'll just give you more of those sidelong glances.

Don't let the wait staff steer you for long, though, or they'll drive you right past the "house specialties" section of the menu. It's here that you see the full breadth of Shanghainese cooking and the subtle ways in which it varies from other Chinese regions; more sweet, more pickles, less spice. All main ingredients are listed, so you'll know, more or less, what you're getting, if not how. Braised pork belly is red-cooked to the point of ludicrous tenderness, waiting for the merest nudge to dissolve into sweet, melting shreds. Bean curd skin with preserved vegetable and green bean is flat, tagliatelle-like ribbons of bean curd tossed with shredded greens and edamame, an unexpectedly light, fresh preparation. A daintily plated version could easily be passed off as the latest in Sino-Italian fusion in a den of innovation like Torrisi Italian Specialties.

You can have your salted pork two ways, though deciphering the difference between the two is like playing a Highlights matching game: one version comes with cabbage, the other with Shanghai baby cabbage. The secret is that Shanghai baby cabbage is bok choy, while plain old cabbage is just that. Surprisingly, the regular cabbage is the way to go; oversized lardons of bacon are hidden among hefty slices of crisp, just-cooked Napa cabbage, the meaty pork offsetting the cool, faintly bitter crunch of the veg. The sweeter, milder bok choy can't quite stand up to the pork in the same way.

Beer here comes in one flavor, Tsingtao, and tea is served in glasses, albeit ones made of actual glass. There is a surprisingly serviceable array of fresh fruit shakes and bubble teas for those who insist on dessert before they leave the table, but a better bet is to give yourself the breathing room to walk down to a specialty shop like Kung Fu Tea (234 Canal St., betw. Baxter and Centre Sts.) for all your brightly colored beverage needs.

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