CUTLINE: WOK THIS WAY CK Shanghai serves up old favorites — like these garlic pea-pod stems, left — and unusual regional Chinese dishes — like the “vegetarian goose,” right — with equal flair.
C.K. Sau was Boston's first Chinese-American celebrity chef. After his first gig, as executive chef of the original Sally Ling's (which pioneered linen-tablecloth Chinese food hereabouts), he revitalized the New Shanghai in Boston Chinatown, and about six years ago put his own name on this Wellesley spot. I don't know how much time Sau puts in around the woks these days, but the style and menu at CK Shanghai are what he has always delivered: a consistent polished quality all across a menu that ranges from Chinese-American clichés into unusual regional Chinese dishes. If some rough edges of authenticity have been smoothed over, the attention to detail, excellent bar, and superb service make up for it.
This was immediately obvious on a recent hot night when we ordered three cold appetizers. Cold noodles with sesame sauce ($5.95) — common and commonly neglected on so many menus — are here done with subtlety and grace, with a delicate sesame flavor and none of the sticky leftover quality you may associate with this dish. Shanghai cucumbers ($5.50) are in a light sweet-sour pickle, with some red pepper flakes — very refreshing although not as spiffy as the Cambodian-style cukes served with fish cakes at Floating Rock.
An appetizer called "vegetarian goose" ($7.50) draws on Chinese Buddhist cuisine to roll up tofu skins around Chinese vegetables. It's then sliced, like a French galantine.
A special on "soft-shell crab with spiced salt" ($19.95) showed impeccable dry deep-fat frying. The Hong Kong seasoning was relatively mild, despite some round slices of red and green chili peppers. A crispy whole fish Shanghai-style (market and species price, recently sea bass for $25.95) had all that and a nifty presentation of two boned fillets arranged with head and tail to look like a whole fish, but no disassembly required. It was showered with a sweet-sour sauce full of diced vegetables and, most cleverly, pine nuts with kernels of sweet corn, look-alike morsels with contrasting flavors.
This is a menu with lots of tempting Chinese vegetables. We went with pea-pod stems with garlic ($13.95), a large portion of a favorite that never gets old, here with a balance of garlic. With entrées you want the white rice ($1), nearly as fragrant as jasmine rice; not the brown ($1.50), which is comparatively dull stuff.
Amid the usual suspects to drink is a Truro Vineyards sauvignon blanc ($7.50/glass) that is crisp and clean, even if the grapes are not from the Cape winery's back hill. A mai tai showed proper attention to balance in the often-distorted Tiki bar concoction, this one a warm drink of rum, orange, and lemon harnessed for quasi-tropical finesse. The desserts are fortune cookies, conceding to suburban expectations, I suppose, although you never know about those lottery numbers on the back of the fortune paper.
The space and decoration is outstanding, with yellow and white walls breaking the traditional rule, and wood floors and a lot of glass (views of Route 16 and the Bertucci's across the street) reflecting some noise, but table linen to remind us of the glory days of Sally Ling's.