Joe’s Shanghai has had a lot of great press over the past two years. It has been hailed as one of the best restaurants in Chinatown, but that wasn’t enough to persuade me to spend an hour in line waiting to get in (they don’t take reservations). On a recent Sunday, however, when some friends from out of town wanted to shop in the neighborhood, we took turns to hold our place, numbered chit in hand, while the others went off to buy embroidered slippers and plastic frogs that flapped in the bath. I had plenty of time to examine the fish tank by the door, which was full of disconsolate carp with pearly alabaster skins splotched with orange. They looked like giant goldfish someone had given up painting halfway through. One of the carp kept picking up pebbles from the bottom of the tank, swimming to the top and spitting them out when it discovered they weren’t food, and returning back down to repeat this senseless exercise. (The carp who refuses to learn from his mistakes is condemned to repeat them.)
There is nothing in the décor to distinguish Joe’s Shanghai (whose original branch is in Flushing, Queens) from most Chinatown restaurants, with their operating-theater lighting, large round tables for family dining and laudatory reviews hanging on the walls. Staff members are dressed in bright green sweatshirts that make them look like members of a cult, but the resemblance ends there, for instead of being perky and eager to make converts, they are among the rudest I have come across.
One of the many framed reviews, which I had ample time to read while waiting for my table, recommended ordering the restaurant’s specials of the day, which sounded unusual and interesting. When we eventually sat down, I asked the waiter what they were.
“Jumbo shrimp,” he replied, looking off into the distance with a bored expression on his face.
“How is it prepared?”
“What kind of sauce?”
He looked impatient. “Sauce.”
“I see. Any other specials?”
“And how is that prepared?”
“That’s it? No sauce?”
At this point, without bothering to reply, he walked away.
“I think what they have here is a great deal of brown sauce,” said one of my friends, eyeing the next table where a bird that looked like a pigeon, falling off the bone and drenched in brown sauce, was being spooned out and another dish, of the same color but indeterminate content, was being passed around.
The waiter returned. “You want soup dumpling?” Actually, this was put less as a question than a statement of fact. (The write-ups of Joe’s Shanghai have praised the soup dumplings filled with pork and crab and a mouthful of soup that are specialty of the house.) We agreed to a couple of rounds to keep us going while we decided what else to eat.
“Which dishes are from Shanghai?” I asked the waiter when he was ready to take the rest of our order.
“Yes, but which dishes?” I asked, pointing to the menu that also listed specialties from Hunan, Sichuan, Canton (Guangzhou) and Beijing.
“All Shanghai food,” he insisted, adding somewhat obtusely, “Everyone share.”
“Yes, but we’d like to try some unusual and different dishes from Shanghai.”
“I tell you what to order,” he said, perking up suddenly. “I suggest five dishes.”
“Sounds great. What do you suggest?”
“Lobster with noodles …” he began.
We all groaned. “Forget it, but thanks all the same.”
At this moment, another waiter dumped a couple of bamboo steamers of the famous dumplings on the table. When I put my chopstick into mine, it spurted a greasy liquid across the plate. None of us liked the buns very much, and there was one left over. The waiter, without invitation, slapped it down like a hockey puck onto a woman’s plate. “No, thank you,” she said, handing it back, at which point he proceeded to do battle with the rest of the table.
Most of the food I tried on a couple of visits was depressingly mediocre. I did, however, like the creamy tofu in a spicy Sichuan sauce, the small, slender eggplant cooked with garlic sauce, the very fresh sautéed vegetables and the scallion pancakes, and I’m sure there are other good things on the long menu.
“The test of a good Chinese restaurant is the whole fried fish,” said one enthusiast who never gives up hope until the end. But the crispy whole yellow fish he ordered was a dry ruin. Diced chicken with cucumbers and hot pepper was as pale and bland-looking a plate as Binky and Muffy would have for lunch at the country club in Greenwich.
“I need the red stuff on this,” said the woman who had ordered it.
After we had made our way through sesame beef, which was tough and chewy under its thick layer of batter, run-of-the-mill calamari with black beans, and a truly awful dish of eels with yellow chives, which had neither the garlicky charm of anguillas nor the sweetness of regular eel, someone said they had heard that the restaurant had gone down in recent months. But was the rudeness, I wondered, a recent phenomenon, too?
At the end of lunch, a very young man from California naïvely asked if we were going to get fortune cookies.
The waiter was appalled. “That’s American!” he said. “Besides, why ever would you want to spoil a good meal with a lousy fortune?”
Joe’s Shanghai 1/2*
9 Pell Street, between Bowery and Mott Street, 233-8888
Noise level: Quite high
Wine list: Beer only
Credit cards: None
Price range: Main courses $5.95 to $18.95
Hours: Daily 11 A.M. to 11:15 P.M.
** Very Good