Editor’s note: We regret to report that Charmant has closed.
We’ve mentioned Charmant before on Culinary Backstreets, giving it a nod for its night-owl dining opportunities (it closes at 2 a.m.). But this restaurant tastes good all day long and has something going for it that few Shanghai restaurants have: consistency. After more than seven years of loyal patronage (not to mention the restaurant’s 11 years of operation since opening in 2004) and Charmant’s split from its parent company, which runs the equally successful Taiwanese chain called Bellagio, we have yet to notice a slip in quality.
The restaurant is half-full of foreigners, but don’t let that fool you. Like many Taiwanese-owned businesses, Charmant has nailed its marketing to the expat population, thanks to a dual-language menu and food that feels healthier than that of your typical local eatery. And, since Taiwanese food is an underserved cuisine around town, it’s one of the easy go-tos for displaced islanders and their foreign-born descendants. The food is not fancy, nor is it too exotic – it’s like an old friend you don’t see for years, but with whom you can pick up right where you left off as if no time has passed.
It’s easy to fall into an ordering rut when you eat somewhere at least once every other month, but we’re happy with the deep groove we’ve worn over the past couple of years. Namely, Taiwanese pancakes (榄菜肉碎, lǎncài ròusuì) served on the side of a greasy plate piled with finely chopped green beans wok-fried with minced pork, garlic and preserved Chinese mustard green leaves. (This pungent relish is often mistranslated as olive greens. More common in Guangdong’s Chaozhou cuisine, it makes a welcome surprise appearance here with its umami-laden punch.)
Charmant’s kitchen can kung pao just about every type of meat on the menu, but we order it with the soft white tofu (宫保豆腐, gōng bǎo dòufu), which is browned, then fried with rings of caramelized white leek, cashews and chopped dried chilies. “Three Cups Chicken” (三杯鸡, sānbēijī), one of Taiwan’s signature dishes, is done proud here. Chicken on the bone is stewed with equal parts rice wine, sesame oil and soy sauce (Get it? Three cups?), sugar and ginger in a clay pot and topped with sweet Taiwanese basil. And when we eat through all the meat, there is the inevitable clash of chopsticks over the whole stewed garlic cloves.
If you haven’t yet indulged in the pleasure of dragon beans (龙豆, lóng dòu – sometimes called winged beans, four corner beans or Goa beans), now’s your chance. These protein-rich legumes up the meal’s health quotient, but taste like they’re anything but good for you when they come served in a slurry thickened with cornstarch and flecked with garlic.
Save room for dessert, as Charmant serves one of the most popular Chinese sweets in town: 冰沙 (bīng shā). Although they’re labeled as smoothies on the menu, they’re too thick for that title, but not milky enough to be ice cream or granular enough to be shaved ice – they’re almost like a granita in texture. The sundae comes in many flavors, but the most popular is peanut (花生, huāshēng), with silky smooth spoonfuls sprinkled with chunks of the nut. Almost every table will have one, or its mango (芒果, mángguǒ) counterpart.
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