If you're a restaurant owner, how do you convince customers that what they really want is Shanghainese red-braised pork hock with its pure cap of creamy, gelatinous fat, and a core of soft flesh that collapses against the roof of your mouth rather than pale, slippery chow mein? Do you even bother trying?
Most nights at Lily's House you can sense owner Lily Qiu tussling with the dilemma, quietly like everything at the nearly-two-year-old restaurant.
Lily's may be the quietest place on Lafayette's restaurant row, the traffic-choked stretch of Mount Diablo Boulevard. With only a few tables occupied and the tinny sound of Viennese waltzes hanging in the air like smoke from a grease fire, quiet is kind: Lily's is boring. The menu doesn't help. Despite the banner in the window that promises "Specializing in Shanghai Cuisine," the food doesn't seem to aim higher than neighborhood Chinese, a mom-and-pop Panda Express sexed up with a few chef's suggestions that just aren't sexy. Call it cultural disconnect, but for customers with a hankering for potstickers and lemon chicken, the prospect of braised mutton isn't likely to get anyone's mouth watering.
Too bad. Like many restaurants that try to appeal to both Asian and non-Asian diners, Lily's hides its real treasures its authentic Shanghai cooking behind a screen. Some things can leave you wanting a do-over, but when chef Willy Ying hits, his Shanghai dishes are among the most exciting things to eat on restaurant row. Finding them is the challenge.
If you're lucky, you'll open your menu to expose one of the lightly stained loose-leaf sheets titled Menu of Shanghai, a list of about three dozen dishes in Chinese with English translations. Ask if you don't get it. While some of what's on the special menu pops up on the standard one, you definitely want to focus here at the heart of things, without the distractions of Mongolian beef.
Breaking Lily's menu code can feel like that dream where you find a secret room at the end of the hall. And just as in that dream, what you find isn't always what you expected. Take the clay chicken, a dish you have to order a day in advance. It's also called beggar's chicken, from the origin myth of a chicken thief stashing a poached bird in river mud, and later being too lazy to wash it off before roasting it in the fire. Nowadays the dish is a comfortably worn set piece with regional variations: stuffed chicken swathed in lotus leaves and sealed, usually in clay, before roasting.
Lily's uses dough for the sealing. It baked up into a blackened dome that smelled nicely burnt Ying himself breached it at the table with a little drama, a lot of struggle, and a big old chef's knife. He peeled back the layers to reveal a fractured mound of chicken, and the shrimp, lotus seeds, and black mushrooms he'd stuffed inside.
Sadly, it wasn't worth his struggle: The chicken had cooked too long even the shattered dark meat was cottony and flavorless. And the rich juice you'd expect to find somewhere at the bottom of it all the moist redemption, like decent gravy walking terminally dry turkey back from the brink had evaporated.
The shrimp were dry, too. And while the mushrooms were chewy, and the lotus seeds had an appealingly crumbly, chickpea-like starchiness, the most delicious thing about this beggar's chicken was something you can't eat. That was the lotus-leaf wrappers, which gave up a gorgeous whiff of sweet and spicy, a cinnamon-and-rosewater ghost of what this dish might have been.
But if Lily's chicken never made it out of the mud, it was one of the few dishes I've tasted here that didn't. Red-braised pork hock (translated on the Shanghai menu as "pork thigh," another dish you need to pre-order) made a virtue out of the clay chicken's downfall the long, long cooking. The big, shiny pork roast had the double-layer appeal of lemon meringue pie: A deep pillow of fat above a delicate core of flesh that fell from its bone preserved its frankly earthy, pure-animal taste. The sugar-and-soy braise pooled in the platter to serve as dipping sauce seasoned without getting in the way of all this beautiful porkiness.
The latter dish is a perfect introduction to the homey, unctuous cooking of Shanghai. Eat it with a platter of Shanghai-style soybean and kale the bright green soybeans studded a mass of finely chopped, preserved Asian mustard greens. Rich and salty, they hit a place every bit as deep as American soul food gets to.
So did the smoked fish, a warm appetizer you want to curl up with. Ying takes thin slices of fish, deep-fries them, tosses the crispy pieces with sugar and five-spice powder, and smolders them in a smoky wok. He uses freshwater fish (winter carp, Qiu says, which was frozen, as far as I could make out). Its small, stiff pinbones are prickly, but pulling them out gives you an excuse to lick the last traces of sweet, smoky juice from your fingers. Beer is mandatory here.
Ying can do delicate, too. Long jing shrimp show up only on the regular menu, which notes that they're stir-fried with long jing, the green tea leaves also called Dragon Well.
The dish arrived without a tea leaf in sight a disappointment, even though the gently curled shrimp were tender and sweet enough to stand on their own. A bowl of yeasty Chinese black vinegar was included for dipping, but dousing shrimp this good in full-throttled vinegar flirts with sacrilege, like dunking lobster in A.1. sauce.
Ying made delicacy look easy in a dish called pan-touched tofu with spinach, only this time I don't think he forgot anything. It's a fragile tic-tac-toe grid of tofu squares coated with soft, eggy batter. Breading and shallow-frying tofu this custardy is a feat as improbable as deep-frying spoonfuls of flan. And that doesn't even include transferring it, intact, to a mound of garlicky stir-fried spinach.
It's through these dishes that Ying reveals his passion, not to mention his long résumé of distinguished cooking gigs in Shanghai. It's a shame that Lily's House hasn't built a bigger following, but Ying and Qiu seem to be trying to run two restaurants: A Shanghai place for insiders, and a bland, suburban Chinese joint for everybody else. Too bad they don't feel free to do what they do best or persuade more of Lafayette that braised pork belly works its way into your soul deeper than sweet and sour pork ever can.
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