Confucius once said, “The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.” He clearly never met a food writer, because superlatives and immodest speech are basically all we have to work with. But had Confucius opened a small patisserie, it would probably be Lillian Cake Shop.
Lillian’s has a sign over the counter that timidly boasts in Mandarin: “Probably the best egg tarts in Shanghai.” One bite in, and you realize that’s sort of like Yao Ming saying, “I’m pretty good at basketball” or Meryl Streep saying, “I think I can pull off that accent.” Every time we visit one of this small local chain’s stores around the city, we’re always checking to see if the consistency is off, or if there’s a batch that came out a little burnt. But that’s the thing about Lillian’s, no matter whether it’s a small storefront or a café in a mall: these little treats are baked to perfection.
For the uninitiated, imagine the perfect egg tart as a bit of crème brûlée nestled in a fresh croissant. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s close. The crust needs to be soft and flaky while retaining the circular shape, and the egg filling must have a touch of sweetness that harmonizes with the egg custard. The egg tart originated at a monastery in Lisbon, but found its way to China through Macau, the former Portuguese colony. The dessert finally landed on dim sum menus in Hong Kong, then the Mainland, and is now situated at the top of the famously short list of “delicious Chinese desserts.”
An egg tart at Lillian’s is a perfect midday snack or end-of-the-meal quencher for sweet tooths. We sampled tarts on a trip to Lisbon (where they are sometimes served cold, and with a dash of cinnamon on top), and there’s nothing lost in translation here. The bit of humility that Lillian’s portrays on their signage turns endearing once you’ve bitten into the warm, fresh egg tart in its impossibly flaky shell. The turnover is high here, so you’re almost guaranteed a fresh-out-of-the-oven treat. The eggy custard is lightly seared on top and wrapped in a resilient croissant-like bucket. It’s gone in one or two bites, and you’ll need another. At RMB 4 each, you may as well just grab a box.
And what would Confucius have to say about that? We’re not sure, but he told us once on the Internet, “Things that are done, it is needless to speak about… Things that are past, it is needless to blame.” Clearly he’s referring to the box of tarts you bought to take away. We won’t tell.