A small seven- or eight-table restaurant off a little alley on Wanping Lu, across from the crowded Xujiahui Park basketball courts, Xiao Bai Hua has all the elements of an old school Chinese restaurant, including really good food in a slightly cramped back room with a lazy-susan’d table and a cloud of Chinese cigarette smoke.
The restaurant’s unassuming location aside, this was my second meal at Xiao Bai Hua, this time with a table of hungry dudes, including two out-of-towners. The good thing about eating with out-of-town guests is the privilege of guiltless over-ordering, also known as the “you have to try this” principle. The last time, I was the out-of-towner, and I recalled enough to my previous meal to have a good handful of dishes to look forward to.
Shanghainese cuisine has some really nice elements of sweetness that I haven’t come across in other regions, and Xiao Bai Hua had a few of tasty examples of that, and a whole host of other exceptional dishes.
To maximize variety, we loaded up on small dishes, which were all delicious. The smoked fish was crispy without being greasy, and held a syrup-like sweetness that managed not to be cloying. The drunken shrimp (served raw) was also sweet, from both the alcohol marinade and (in a different way) the shrimp itself – the second sweetness is particularly nice, which you’d recognize if you’ve ever had really fresh sweet shrimp sushi.
The next two dishes were also cold, made for dipping in a soy-vinegar sauce, and had a clean but rich taste: the jellyfish of the sea and the pork stomach a fatty savoriness like a poor man’s foie:
We had another bowl of chilled cuts of offal on a bed of edamame (not pictured) and a plate of sponge gourd, which I hadn’t had in quite some time. Its consistency and flavor are unique, but sautéed and simply seasoned (with salt and perhaps some cooking wine), it is quite refreshing.
The next few dishes were some of my favorites, for their minimalism and depth of flavor. Xiao Bai Hua’s fried kabocha squash was the first dish I’ve had with the salted-egg batter – it’s great because the saltiness and grainy, fried texture accompanies the soft, sweet squash. Also, it begs the question: why shouldn’t the batter have such a powerful taste, rather than being just a bland, oily coating? It makes you think about whether whatever you’re frying is going to taste good, and whether it will taste good with the batter. When that combination works really well, then the result is doubly good.
The flavors of the fried tofu dish are the directional inverse of those of the fried squash, where the intense umami of the mushroom inside adds to the lightness of the crisp wrapping.
The meatball and the last dish of mushrooms in soy sauce are both good with a bowl of rice.
And that was our meal (too stuffed for dessert).
Xiao Bai Hua (小白桦)
Xuhui District, No. 297-3 Wanping Road, near Zhao Jiang Bang Road