Shanghai Lil elevates Asian cuisine to the sublime In the 1933 Warner Brothers movie musical Footlight Parade, James Cagney plays a forlorn sailor who croons a lament for his erstwhile Chinese lover. “Oh, I’ve been trying to forget her, but what’s the use? I never will. I’ve been looking high and I’ve been looking low, till I find my Shanghai Lil.” A few decades later, the generously coifed blond rocker Rod Stewart sang rapturously of the selfsame Asian cutie, “Oh, people, I was glad I found her, oh yeah, I was glad I found her.” The bento box, a traditional combination of Japanese favorites, served in a compartmented lacquered box Mourners of the late Peter’s restaurant at Keystone Crossing who have skulked about the parking lot of its successor wondering what treasures might lie inside can rest assured: Shanghai Lil is, indeed, open for business. But it took a couple of minor disasters to get things going. Late last summer, a driver misjudged the hairpin curve to the side of the then empty building and careened into the restaurant, wrecking the back patio and pristine kitchens of what had recently served Peter’s and Chops steakhouse. Then a winter gust brought part of the roof crashing down, taking with it several Chinese artifacts and stunning a pair of customers. Not a terribly auspicious beginning, but, proverbially, the third time is the charm. And Shanghai Lil exudes charm in every dimension. Given that Chinese food is available in high quantity for bottom-dollar prices in just about every strip mall, some people will wonder if they really need to pay $22.95 for braised beef with vegetables or $15.95 for cashew chicken. But so much care and attention are given to the high-quality ingredients here that one wonders if the restaurant is charging enough. Don’t expect lemon-infused New Zealand baby lamb chops ($24.95) or Black Angus New York Strip ($22.95) in the stir-fries at your local takeout. And since Taiwanese-born owner Yu Mei Lee has softened the angular architecture of Peter’s with rich colors and feng shui curves, it’s also one of the most elegant places to eat a meal of any kind in Indianapolis. Deep Tibetan reds play strikingly off black trim, and appliquéd draperies recall Far East palaces. Miniature halogen lights focus diners’ attention on the simply, artistically presented food on stunning white tablecloths. Only a couple of unwieldy tropical plants and a rather cramped table for four marred this deeply edifying meal. Add to this the unflappable service of the waitstaff, and the experience was complete. Describing the textures and flavors of the nearly endless selection of Chinese and Japanese specialties at Shanghai Lil is a gloriously beguiling task any food critic would both welcome and fear. Dining here takes rethinking what Asian food really is and can be. Lee recounts with horror early experiences in American Chinese restaurants where cooks saved the skins of chicken to fill egg rolls and crab rangoon were stuffed with little or no crab and flavored with a surprising ingredient: A-1 steak sauce. At Shanghai Lil, a kitchen staff headed up by cooks trained exclusively in imperial Taiwanese cuisine (the kind that emperors used to linger over for upwards of 20 lavish courses) oversee two separate kitchens: one Chinese and one Japanese. This was a no-brainer decision, given that there were two connected kitchens ready for business. The chefs treat each grain of sushi rice like a little jewel, and they mince shrimp so finely it barely needs any binding of egg to wrap crisp spears of asparagus soundly. A meal at Shanghai Lil teaches one that purity and preparation are as important as strong flavors and trendy ingredients. Seafood puffs ($4.95), Lee’s version of oft-maligned crab rangoon, are absent fillers (and steak sauce). Spring rolls ($4.50) lack the typical overabundance of cabbage or sprouts and come with shiitakes and julienned squid. Shiaolung bao dumplings ($6.95) and fluffy pork meatballs ($17.95) nearly levitate from plates, and sauces sing with fish flakes, vinegar and ginger. Tiger prawns mix with crispy walnuts and rich Japanese mayo in a festive pineapple shell ($21.95). Beef rolls ($8.95) practically dissolve on the tongue. The sheer value of the food at Shanghai Lil is illustrated best through the bento box, a traditional combination of Japanese favorites, served in a compartmented lacquered box. A few off-the-menu improvisations brought us a whole buffet’s worth of equally delicious items: smoky-sweet chicken yakitori skewers, lighter-than-air tempura vegetables, perfectly broiled salmon, an entire spicy tuna roll, piquant seaweed salad and the most delicious tonkatsu pork cutlet any of us had ever tasted, pounded dangerously thin and shrouded with bracingly crisp panko breadcrumbs. The whole box cost only $22.95. Along with her sisters Vivian Chi and Juping Chi, owner of Five Spice, Mikado and Mikado Café, Lee has put Indianapolis on the culinary map with a quartet of Asian eateries that are not only some of Indy’s best but that would rival most in New York or Chicago. Perhaps Shanghai or Beijing. This is the kind of place to make one’s new favorite, to stop in for cocktails and appetizers after work, to bring friends or families for banquets, to mark romantic landmarks with a lover. Above this hovers the gentle, magnanimous spirit of Yu Mei Lee, in whom Indianapolis has found its own Shanghai Lil. Shanghai Lil 8505 Keystone Crossing 205-9335 Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 11-2:30; 4:30-10 Friday-Saturday, 11-2:30; 4:30-11. Food: 5 stars Atmosphere: 4 1/2 stars Service: 4 1/2 stars

0
0
0
0
0