There is something perverse about ordering lion’s head meatballs at Shanghai Social Club. The Chinese-themed nightspot, which opened this summer, is located within chopsticks’ distance of longtime Chinese restaurant Shanghai Gate, where these pork meatballs are a specialty. (They are named for the frilly appearance of the greens with which they are cooked, said to resemble a mane.)
In the matter of this dish, there is no contest. Shanghai Gate’s lion’s head reigns supreme. Shanghai Social Club’s version is hit-or-miss. One night, in a bowl of soup with noodles, the meatballs are dense as matzo balls at a bad diner. On another, they are great, served folded into puffy white steamed buns with bok choy to make spicy, satisfying little sandwiches.
But that’s not the point. Shanghai Gate is about the meal. Shanghai Social Club is about the night out. “Experience the Prohibition Era in Allston’s version of opium fueled Old Shanghai,” invites the website. Presumably there is no actual opium involved. The restaurant is the latest spot in town to repurpose Chinese history and culture; the decor is a mishmash of religious statuary and Communist-era kitsch. Famine! The Cultural Revolution! How jolly. Tolerant smiles play on the lips of the Buddha statues. “It’s Friday night,” they seem to be thinking. “Have another scorpion bowl.”
Because the place looks great. It used to be the dive bar Our House, where people drank cheap beer and played board games on grungy couches. Restaurateur Doug Bacon (The Avenue, White Horse Tavern) has redone the interior with dark wood, dim lighting, and cozy cushioned nooks. It may look like the cleanest opium den in bygone Shanghai, but in spirit it is more of a salute to America’s Chinese restaurants. The menu offers “street food” like those steamed buns, but its focus is the dishes many of us grew up on: pupu platters, fried rice and lo mein, General Gao’s. Meals start with bowls of crisp fried wonton strips, accompanied by unusually fresh, vibrant-tasting duck sauce. Chef Bob Botchie formerly worked at the South End’s Myers + Chang, a local champion of cheeky, delicious inauthenticity.
The steamed buns are always good, whether filled with savory hoisin scallion duck, braised pork belly, or spicy beef and shiitake mushrooms. (There is a lemongrass lobster version, but it never seems to be available when we try to order it.)
Fried rice is a fragrant, steaming bowl that can be made with just vegetables (the rare non-meat dish on this menu) or chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, or lobster. The version at your favorite takeout joint usually features shreds of omelet stirred in; here the dish hews to modern restaurant trends, with the egg fried and served on top.
Appetizers often err on the side of blandness. Scallion pancakes don’t have much scallion flavor; the filling in the egg rolls needs seasoning. Crab Rangoon just tastes like cream cheese rather than crab, which I suppose makes it an accurate if uninspiring rendition. But the frying is nicely done, and ordinarily greasy tidbits land a little lighter on their feet.
When it comes to larger plates, there is much to like. The standards are standard; beef with broccoli is just as you’d expect. But there are surprises, too. Szechuan beef packs pleasant heat. Black pepper shrimp buzzes with spice but doesn’t overdo it; the shrimp are perfectly cooked, sweet and fresh. So are tender scallops, served in XO sauce, complex with deep flavor, a little bit sweet, a little bit salty. In winkingly kitschy surroundings, with bold-flavored food, it is surprisingly refined.
For dessert, a giant fortune cookie is a fun idea that falls flat. The cookie is terrible, flavorless and soft, and the five-spice ice cream it comes with tastes like vaguely like Band-Aids. Shanghai doughnuts are much better, coated in crunchy vanilla sugar and served with ginger ice cream. As for the real fortune cookies, the small ones that come with the bill, on each visit our table receives duplicate messages. Either our fates are entwined or the box needs a gentle shake.
No one is coming to Shanghai Social Club to drink wine, which is good because the list is a snore. The food is better suited to beer; there is a range on tap, from Bud Light to Wasatch Apricot Hefeweizen to the Lost Abbey’s Devotion Ale. But tiki-style cocktails are the real draw, emphasizing alcohol rather than sugar or tropical juices. Foo Dogs Barking, a potion of bourbon, lime, falernum, and Angostura bitters, would be at home in any craft cocktail bar. And for those who prefer their drinks in a bowl, there are three choices: a scorpion bowl, a lemon grog punch, and a rhum club punch. They are all variations on the theme of rum and juice, not dissimilar but satisfying when you want to slurp booze through a long straw. Hint: If you choose to blow out the flaming Bacardi 151 in the center and shoot it, as servers suggest, let it cool a bit before you do.
As for those servers, they are universally smiling and sweet, if occasionally spacy. Drinks and dishes can be a long time coming; servers can be awkward when putting food on the table. The food seems designed to be shared, but that befuddles one waiter, who really wants to give each dish to a specific person. Another server swears a soup is vegetarian, but if that broth’s not chicken, Botchie should market his amazing meat-free facsimile.
But hospitality is clearly emphasized here, even if some of those delivering it are still refining their skills. With a clubby atmosphere and a deep rum selection, Shanghai Social Club could consider food an afterthought. Instead, it’s a focus. And prices are fairly gentle in this student neighborhood: $9 cocktails, $12 entrees. There are similar places in town — for instance, Big Night Entertainment, behind the likes of Red Lantern and Empire, does them well in a splashier, pricier way. Shanghai Social Club is a sweeter, scaled-down version, less about the scene, more about a fun night out with friends. It’s not Our House anymore. It’s Our Opium Den.
★★★★ Extraordinary ★★★Excellent ★★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) PoorDevra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.