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Nothing beats an alfresco summer meal in Shanghai, yet it’s not easy to find a Chinese restaurant that offers outdoor seating. While Chinese people prefer to shelter under umbrellas during the hottest months, Shanghai’s sun-worshipping expats flock to patios and terraces – most of them located in Western-style establishments. So the opening last summer of Cantonese restaurant Xin Dau Ji, with its expansive deck outside, complete with fans for open-air breezes, was a very pleasant surprise. The venue’s outdoor tables sprawl into the former French Concession’s Xiangyang Park, one of Shanghai’s smallest parks, built in the 1930s for French children. Alongside the bubbling fountains, miniature roller coasters and stone tables, more than a hundred varieties of flowers bloom, making it one of most serene spots in the city to enjoy a meal.

But the uncommon setting is far from the only reason to come to this restaurant. Specializing in dim sum, Xin Dau Ji is a family-owned affair that started out in Hong Kong in 2006 with three locations, the original of which received a Michelin star a few years later. The Shanghai outpost continues the tradition, offering an exhaustive list of Cantonese classics that we’re still working our way through. In addition to the typical steamed shrimp dumplings (虾饺, xiājiǎo) and pan-fried daikon radish cake (萝卜糕, luóbogāo), Xin Dau Ji is justly famous for its roasted meats – indeed, the suckling pig (烤乳猪, kǎorǔzhū) is some of the best we’ve had outside Hong Kong.

The roast meats are conveniently the first thing you see when you walk in the door: Glistening roasted geese (烧鹅, shāo’é) hang from hooks inside the window to the open kitchen, and chunks of suckling pig are crisped to order, licked by the flames to a crunchy finish as a chef spins the meat over an open fire. It’s a little sideshow entertainment to get you salivating if you have to wait for a table, as well as a reminder that these are two dishes you shouldn’t miss when ordering. The crust of the crackling pig skin gives way to fatty pork, with two mouthwatering options for dipping: sugar granules and spicy soybean paste. The goose is equally delicious, the skin lacquered in honey and vinegar until it turns a succulent auburn, while the dark, gamey meat underneath is unimaginably juicy. On the side is plum sauce, a sweet-and-sour honey glaze flecked with the fruit that is often a processed neon orange in the United States, but is beautifully executed in China with balanced flavors. Finally, a meal here is never complete without fried vermicelli with soy sauce, young leeks, sesame seeds and bean sprouts (chǐyóu huáng yínyá chǎomiàn). The Chinese name means “Imperial Stir-fried Vermicelli with Bean Sprouts,” and the huge, messy pile of delicious noodles is indeed a dish fit for an emperor.

Dessert, which inevitably comes in the middle of the meal (the service is excellent by Chinese standards, but it’s darn near impossible to convince waitstaff in Shanghai that sweets should come last), is in the form of steamed buns stuffed with a sugary egg custard (流沙包, liúshā bāo). Called “quicksand buns,” these plain white balls of dough look almost like giant eggs, and the goldenrod goo inside them is like a gritty egg yolk. Although they’re not much to look at, they are creamy bites of heaven.

Xin Dau Ji serves draft Vedett – something of a novelty, since both the Belgian label and the serving of beer on tap are rare at Chinese restaurants in this city – which is the perfect summer beer for an alfresco meal. Or do like the locals do and drink a pot of hot longjing green tea (aka Dragon Well Tea). The brew may be non-alcoholic, but according to Chinese, it chases the heat away in summer.

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Jamie Barys

Published on July 01, 2013

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