Unobtrusively situated on Sydney’s Sussex Street, Shanghai 18 promises authentic Chinese dishes, including staples like dumplings and noodles.
Only a few minutes’ walk away from Darling Harbour and King Street Wharf, you’d easily find yourself walking past it if you didn’t know it was there. Of course, you’d be doing your tastebuds a disservice should you forego a visit.
It’s a humble enough setting, more like a backstreet cafe in China than a restaurant in the heart of Sydney’s CBD. The decor remains elegant yet uncomplicated.
But Shanghai 18 doesn’t aspire to high-class airs and luxury. It eschews pretension. It is, after all, a restaurant, and thus its primary concern is food.
The menu has been put together by Shanghai 18’s Chef Meng, who cut his teeth with an elite team that prepared meals for high-profile figures, like former Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin.
Meng’s own master had an equally distinguished record, so guests of Shanghai 18 can be assured that they’re enjoying the products of well-honed culinary expertise.
The staff are welcoming, charming and friendly. Our waiter introduces us to his boss, who, he assures us, doesn’t speak much English, “but has a very big heart”.
Shanghai 18 promises “humble and mouth-watering food in generous portions”. This is no exaggeration – when our eight dishes are brought out, we wonder how we’ll manage to get through them all.
Nevertheless, we bravely persevere, and the task is certainly made easier by the array of flavours. While six of the eight dishes are pork-based (so if you love pork, you’re in for a treat), each is interesting enough to make for an impressive banquet.
The first item we try is the restaurant’s signature dish, pork buns. It’s not hard to see why it’s Shanghai 18’s specialty, with its chewy yet slightly crispy texture. Be careful when you bite into it; we’re caught off guard by the burst of broth inside. The use of shallots adds a great contrast to the pork, and the dish would make a pleasant light meal on its own.
Next comes the sweet and sour pork, served with potato. As tender as the rest of the meat at the restaurant, the sauce is towards the sour side, a nice change from the oversweetness of most such dishes.
This is followed by fried dumplings, again with a pork filling. In terms of composition, they aren’t very different from your usual dumplings, but these are distinctly well-cooked and well-seasoned.
As something of a side-dish, we also sample fried spinach with garlic. The only vegetarian option on our sample menu (though other vegetarian options are available), it has a mild flavour, and could have used a little more garlic.
The sautéed beans with pork mince is a simple dish, but unexpectedly spicy, a not-unwelcome surprise.
And the wonton soup, served in a simple broth with seaweed, is a pleasant change from the solidity of the other dishes. That said, it would be insubstantial on its own.
The xiaolongbao, like the pork buns, contain a pork filling and broth. Compared with the pork buns, they are quite rich, and taste slightly of egg.
Finally, the ribeye steak. This, our waiter says, is his favourite – evidently, he has good taste. Coated with a thick pepper sauce and garnished with mint leaves, it’s perfectly cooked. Admittedly, the accompanying peas are a little undercooked, but they are hardly worth grousing about.
While some of the dishes at Shanghai 18 are not all that far removed from typical Chinese fare, you can tell that Chef Meng’s specialties are specialties with good reason. With seating space for 52, Shanghai 18 is an excellent choice, should you want to avoid the busier areas of the CBD.