Called CheLi, it specializes in the cuisine of Shanghai and the surrounding Jiangnan region. Inside, the dining room looks like a small, prerevolutionary Chinese village, although a few walls have been removed, which makes it easier to get to your table. Paper lanterns dangle here and there. Set on shelves overhead, at the level of the sloping roofs of overlapping curved tiles held up by wooden posts, are clay vessels of the kind traditionally used for turning rice and other grains into wine.
ThoughThough Shanghai restaurants have been around the city since at least 1970, they really grabbed the spotlight when Joe’s Shanghai introduced soup dumplings in the ’90s, squirting dense, wonderfully oily broth onto innumerable shirtfronts. Other delectable Shanghai classics became readily available around the same time, including soy-braised pork shoulder, vinegar-drenched drunken crab, lion’s mane meatballs, elliptical rice cakes with pickled mustard greens and shredded pork, and vegetarian mock duck.
In China, Jiangnan, a region south of the Yangtze River, is known as the Land of Fish and Rice, and for good reason. The coastal plains—which encompass the modern capital of Shanghai and the ancient cities of Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Shaoxing—abound with fertile soil irrigated by rivers and streams teeming with life. So irresistible is the splendor of Jiangnan’s natural bounty that Emperor Qianlong, of the Qing dynasty, sojourned there six times, wherein his hosts vied to dazzle him with sumptuous feasts that tested the ingenuity and the mastery of local chefs. According to popular lore, a surprising number of Jiangnan dishes were born of the Emperor’s storied southern tours.
Plenty of restaurants closed during the great plague year, of course, but plenty opened, too. While most of us were slumbering on our couches in a Zoom-addled stupor, the irrepressible spirit of the dining world bubbled endlessly on just below the dark surface of things. Menus were composed; spaces leased; plans that had been hatched months, years, and even decades earlier inched forward. As dining sheds sprouted up on the sidewalks last summer, brick-and-mortar operations slowly began to open too. They opened in empty hotel lobbies (Vestry) and empty office towers (Le Pavillon). They opened in Brooklyn (Xilonen, Francie) and in different corners of the Bronx (Hudson Smokehouse), and now, as we emerge from our collective slumber, there are suddenly all sorts of new and unfamiliar places to try — many of which appear to have dropped, fully formed, out of the sky.
The traditions of the Shanghai table, notably the Hu-style cooking that is said to have originated centuries ago, are in the spotlight here. The menu demonstrates the breadth of Shanghai’s cuisine, beyond just the popular xiao long bao (soup dumplings, which are on the menu). Choices include wine-soaked blue crab, stir-fried chicken gizzards, crispy eel in sweet-and-sour sauce, spicy frog’s legs with hot sweet-and-sour sauce, steamed yellow croaker with pork meat pie, and sea urchin egg tofu stew.