It’s a rare restaurant that combines the distinct and unrelated cuisines of Shanghai and Japan. It’s even rarer for a restaurant to do it well. Sakura Mandarin restaurant does it very well. Like most restaurants on Sunday, the green-colored corner space was packed with happy families and friends celebrating the Chinese New Year. The co-owner was able to get us a seat quickly by the window as a Lion Parade went on outside and we began ordering enough food to last us the day, since, as is the tradition for Chinese New Year, we are not suppose to cook or use knives. I’m also going out of the way to take in all the luck I can get in the hopes that 2010 will be much better than 2009 for us.
We began with the Japanese portion of the menu, rock shrimp tempura in a mango-chili sauce (pictured below). Tasty light-battered shrimp and asparagus in an orange-colored, red-flaked sauce that actually tasted like mangos and chili. Though it is a Japanese dish, the dish of seafood and vegetables kept with what should be eaten on Chinese New Year.
The rest of the meal we stayed with the Shanghai portion of the menu. Shanghai spring rolls (pictured below) were wrapped tightly and filled with cabbage, mushrooms and other vegetables. We skipped the sauce that came with the spring rolls and instead used the sweet mango-chili sauce that was left from our shrimp dish. The spring rolls are supposed to represent wealth and prosperity, symbolizing gold bars. They also represent deliciousness.
What came next is the reason this young restaurant will always be near and dear in our hearts: Xiǎolóngbāo (pictured at the top of the story). More commonly known as soup dumpling (the restaurant calls them “juicy buns”), it’s a Shanghai specialty where the broth is inside the dumpling, or more accurately bun. The traditional Shanghai dumpling has pork with the broth. We prefer the pork and crabmeat buns. To make them, the broth is chilled into a gelatin form. Then the filling and broth is placed inside the skin. The skin is made of unleavened flour that is somewhat translucent. It has to be strong enough to hold the liquid inside when it cooks but thin enough to allow the person eating it to easily get at the juicy goodness inside. The buns are steamed, which melts the gelatin into soup, and served in bamboo baskets.
Eating them requires some skill and but the results are worth it. You have to remember that the broth inside is hot so burning oneself is a possibility. It’s a good idea to let them sit for a minute or two when they arrive. They are served with a vinegar-ginger sauce and soup spoons. One way to properly eat the buns, is to place some of the sauce on the soup spoon, place the dumpling onto the spoon and either with chopsticks or teeth cut a tiny hole into the bun. You can allow the broth to run into the spoon and mix with the sauce or just suck the broth out of the bun. Once the broth is gone, just eat the bun and remaining filling as one would normally eat a dumpling. We’re stretching this a bit, but dumplings (even though these are technically buns) symbolize wealth for the coming year. I’ll add that it will never be bad luck to eat these juicy little buns. I took pictures of Maria properly and safely eating a soup dumpling.
With our financial well being in good shape, it was now time to nurture our health. Noodles mean long life so our final dish was seafood pan fried noodles. Shrimp, scallops, squid, a buttery tasting white fish, baby bok choy, carrots, snow peas and bamboo shoots in a clear sauce. Like everything we’ve eaten, despite the crowds, it was fresh, favorable and hot. Service was attentive and personable.
We thought we ordered enough food to have leftovers for the night. But we ate everything then looked at each other in shock. Then we walked home.
Sakura Mandarin, 1038 Race St., Philadelphia.