Saturday, 22 October 2011

Contrast and Compare - Review: Cafe Opium, Shanghai 30s

That's a Bright Eyes song in the title by the way. I always find it quite difficult to compare the experiences of different restaurants. I try my best but it's difficult to distinguish between the different shades of good. A few days ago, I had the opportunity to do a direct comparison between two different places both serving Chinese food. One was Cafe Opium for a lunch which had proved very difficult to arrange but worked out in the end. We all had high hopes and also were very hungry. Everyone was enthused by the decor (very dark and tasteful but with lots of lanterns) but unfortunately the food left everyone but me disappointed.
The egg fried rice pictured above was the best thing about their meals. And even that was only 8 out of 10.
My food, on the other hand, did nothing but please. I was initially hesitant when the spare ribs came and I found them cloyingly sweet but my noodle dish was the right levels of sweet and sour and salty. The noodles appeared freshly made and had just the right texture and off-set the tender chicken and prawns really well. Unfortunately, everyone else described their dish as tasting of nothing. So then I felt guilty for taking them all there to try the place. This guilt intensified when I went to the amazing Shanghai 30s for dinner later that day.

The first time I went to Shanghai 30s was on my 20th birthday. I'd decided to take my parents punting which was always going to be risky. Surprisingly, it was quite calm (quote from Papa: 'of course I know how to control a boat, I'm Bangladeshi) until the last few seconds where the broken lock of the boat resulted in a stressful episode with my brother falling in the river in front of lots of people I knew and some strangers. After we'd bought him some new clothes, we went to Shanghai 30s. Sizzling seafood in pepper and honey sauce, beef and tomato stew and fried rice. Also some other things which I now forget but I remember that it was all excellent despite having no detail or photos to share. That wasn't just a one off it appears.
Even the interior seemed somehow better than Cafe Opium: more authentic. As if the restauranteurs had just hobbled together what they could and come out with a beautiful, atmospheric result which reminded me instantly of Memoirs of a Geisha/Chinese Cinderella and all that.
The fried rice too was better. This may have been because it wasn't just egg fried, it was Shanghai vegetable fried. Soft and fluffy with flecks of savoury sweetness from the peas. Then followed my second tofu experience. Again, an excellent one. This time very differently prepared to last time. Coated in sichuan pepper, herbs and some sort of breadcrumb revealing a gooey but flavoursome centre. The dry toasted sesame seeds scattered over were NOT just there for decoration - they added a different type of solid texture which I loved. A nice contrast to the zingy spring onions alongside.
Pork 'a la Shanghai' was similarly glorious. Rich and thick and meaty, it provided a direct contrast with the over-sweetness of the ribs from earlier. The fresh spring onions again stopped the dish from being too heavy. At the end of the meal, we were informed that we'd benefit from some offer they had on so the bill came to half the price we thought it would. The food is so good I think it is worth MORE than full price so at half price this was a STEAL. Definitely my top 5 places in Oxford. I only wonder if the open half empty cigarette packets in the 'waiting area' are for show or for smoking.

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