It used to be culinary geographical wisdom that "real" Chinese cuisine could be found only in Chinatown. And, conversely, that suburban restaurants -- catering mostly to a timid American palate -- offered a watered-down version of Chinese. That's no longer true, as restaurants such as Jumbo Seafood in Newton Centre and Chilli Garden in Medford demonstrate.
Now that CK Sau, the dean of Chinese cooking in Boston, has moved to Wellesley, the tide has turned, culinarily speaking. Now one of the hubs of "real" Chinese is in this western suburb.
Last year Sau sold his Chinatown restaurant, New Shanghai, and in mid-March opened a comfortable new restaurant just over the Wellesley line. In a space with boldly tinted walls, simple but strong graphics, wood floors, and crisp white linens, CK Shanghai resembles the first "fancy" Chinese restaurant in Boston, the former Sally Ling's, where Sau was a chef in the 1980s. However, the style and service of his new venture are more casual, reflecting the changing times. This is a place where generations mix -- much as they might in Chinatown -- with extended families, young children, and even babies mingling in a lively ambience.
In CK Shanghai, Sau continues the Chinese restaurant tradition of offering hundreds of dishes from all over China. Standards are made with such care that the flavors seem to bounce on the palate, such as scallion pancakes that are light and eggy in the center and crisp on the edges. Peking ravioli are much better than the usual and are obviously made in the restaurant. The little morsels, irregularly formed and tucked into a thin, gingery sauce, seem to melt when you bite into them. Cold noodles in sesame sauce is a ubiquitous dish, seen on Asian menus all over the region. Here tender, fresh egg noodles curl into a little mound, and the diner mixes in the sesame-peanut sauce, which has a spicy kick, and shredded cucumber. It's light and refreshing, much different from the sometimes sticky, thick versions in other restaurants. Shrimp soong is similarly subtle: the minced shrimp in a mere whisper of a sauce that the diner wraps in lettuce leaves and dips into hoisin sauce.
Other warhorses such as General Gau's chicken, with its spicy-sweet sauce, and lo mein with vegetables, are perfectly fine but no different than at any other good Chinese restaurant.
Where CK Shanghai shines is in the details like its Shanghai-style appetizers, as well as in its specialties, saucing, and vegetables. Shanghai cucumbers have a crisp texture and a cleanly sweet-sour, vinegary taste. One of Sau's signatures, sea scallops boast crisply seared exteriors and a black pepper sauce that lilts on the palate. Beijing lamb is tender and mild with fresh bamboo shoots, chunks of red pepper, snow peas, and shreds of egg whites, all in a mild garlicky sauce. Imperial duck, which Sau says in a phone conversation is especially popular, gets a similar shower of vegetables in a spicy, dark, and slightly oily sauce.
Often Chinese restaurants seem to feature only a few vegetables on menus. I've often started pointing at adjacent tables to indicate a desire for delicious-looking plates of pea pod stems or bok choy that seem to be an "in" secret. CK Shanghai, by comparison, celebrates vegetables. Full, small heads of bok choy are steamed with big black mushrooms and served in an oyster sauce. The dark, slightly salty sauce, made in the restaurant and without that cloying commercial taste, complements the bok choy beautifully, and the vegetables are tender while retaining just enough crunch and texture. Another dish of pea pod stems with garlic is so good, fresh, light, and fragrant with garlic that a teenage boy in our party eats most of it.
Sau's Peking duck is a showstopper in flavor, although by the time the table is covered with many dishes, the components of the dish -- slices of moist duck under crisp skin, thin pancakes, a plate of lettuce leaves, hoisin sauce, thinly sliced cucumbers and green onions -- get muddled. It's perhaps a dish to savor on its own, especially since it takes extra time to make and is by far the most expensive item on the menu. Jowever, it serves two to three people. And there's the ceremony of assembling each package -- spreading the hoisin sauce on the pancake, then adding a slice or two of duck, some cucumbers, and green onions -- and then wrapping it into a bundle. Of course, taking a bite of the bundle without most of it falling out is also part of the ceremony. When the components are all so good, though, the ceremony and a little mess are certainly worth the effort.
CK Shanghai is still a new restaurant, which is apparent in the tentative waitstaff and in the pacing of the meals. On one visit, the waitress brought out three sauces, explaining them in a rush and then darting away. What went with which dish was lost on us. The main courses began arriving before the first courses were eaten, and we had to press the server to carry away appetizer plates. Although the wine list is fairly extensive for a Chinese restaurant and there's a full bar, the range of wines by the glass is limited. The tables are set with silverware, and we had to ask for chopsticks. It would be more appealing to have them already laid on the tables next to the Western-style tableware.
Although this might sound like an odd suggestion, I think the menu would benefit from pruning. The dishes that Sau is known for are well-marked in boxes labeled "specialties," and yet the length of the menu is still a little confusing. This is not just another Chinese restaurant, despite the surprisingly reasonable prices. Sau is a master chef, and his finest dishes should be treasured.