SHANGHAI STYLE COOKING AND A COMMUNITY FEEL ARE THE HALLMARKS OF THIS 18 YEAR OLD WILLIAMSBURG MAINSTAY
BY PETER BURGER • PHOTOS BY JON GORDON
When M Shanghai Bistro & Garden opened in Williamsburg in 2002, the nabe was populated by artists, musicians, and filmmakers. With its genuinely funky vibe at the time, skinny jeans and Redwing boots were mere specks on the horizon, and a blessed air of non-presumption prevailed.
So, M Shanghai threw open its doors offering a straightforward menu, one “based on my grandmother’s cooking…the food I’ve have been eating all my life,” said owner manager, May Liu. The Shanghai focused menu includes noodle dishes and soups, meat and rice platters, and vegetarian dishes cooked over flame in an oversized wok. More than 70 dishes are on the roster, the dinner menu highlighted by Liu’s Fabulous Mu Shu (pork, chicken, or vegetarian), Pine Nut Chicken with Sweet Corn, and dumplings including Crispy Fried Chive and Egg, Steamed or Fried Seafood, and Fried Pork varieties. Dumplings have come to perhaps best represent the owner’s uncluttered brand of presentation. Aka Steamed Juicy Pork Buns, these are succulent delicacies commonly known as soup dumplings, or xiaolongbao in Shanghai parlance.
Back in New York after a five year stint in the late 1990s working in the media industry in Hong Kong and Shanghai, Liu set about looking for a similar job here. Having tried a hand at insurance and real estate, she was hungry for something different.
The idea was to “open a place where creative and artistic people in the Williamsburg neighborhood can meet and eat,” she explained. Hewing to that community ethos, M Shanghai featured communal tables before they became the rage. The establishment remains “non pretentious, keeping the original layout where strangers sit together and can see what others are eating.” The décor reflects, she said, how “in Shanghai Chinese culture, dumplings represent togetherness, bringing family and friends around one table.”
The restaurant became a popular hang also because it brought and brings more than just food. “The initial concept was to bring back the Swinging ’20s,” Liu said. Its downstairs venue hosted spoken word, burlesque, and variety shows bringing a speakeasy feel that appealed to creative types and their friends. Originally located on Havemeyer between South First and Grand Streets (now on Grand between Roebling and Havemeyer), “there wasn’t anything else like it on the south side of Williamsburg,” said Liu. “We served the local crowd Shanghai home cooking with fresh ingredients, everything cooked to order, even our wonton soup, and we arrived at the right place at the right time.”
M Shanghai has catered to locals from their single years through their marriage and child rearing stages of life. It boasts an indoor garden in the backyard that hosts a variety of events for groups as large as 30 people from birthdays to engagement parties, bridal showers to rehearsal dinners.
In 2009, Liu opened M Noodle Shop on Metropolitan between Union and Lorimer in Williamsburg. Its top dishes are double pan fried noodles, pork and pan fried dumplings, and sesame pancakes, in addition to rice platters like Kung Pao Chicken over rice. Also featuring a back yard, it’s casual, fast, and open to 5 a.m. on Friday and Saturdays.
Many of the location’s customers hail from the restaurant industry, which testifies not only to reasonable prices but also tasty food. “There’s nothing like a bowl of hot noodle soup before you get home after working late,” Liu said. Indeed, the bar scene in Williamsburg keeps people out late who often need a hangover prevention dish like noodle soup or lo mein made with soul and love.
Asked to describe M Shanghai’s signature event, Liu said, “We’ve been hosting Chinese New Year parties for the past 17 years. Staff gather around with friends and family and have a feast with 10 dishes and an open bar.”
She pointed out that this February marks a rare occasion that is very significant in Chinese culture not only the ringing in of a new year, but also a new zodiac cycle.
“It’s a new decade…a new beginning,” she said.
Speaking of new starts, the restaurant recently celebrated the opening of its M Noodle Shop on Rivington Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side a smaller joint that focuses on noodle dishes, soup, and rice platters. Offering beer and wine, its top dish is spicy beef noodle soup, and its Yelp rating is high.
Liu knows how to keep a business going strong through neighborhood changes from gentrification to the financial crisis of 2008, and now million dollar townhouses.
“We try to keep prices reasonable,” she said, which helps make the restaurant a continued hit with creative types, as does online ordering.
A stable team of staff members also brings continuity, many of whom have been with Liu for as long as 10 years. (“We’re like family,” she said.) Her daughter has even pitched in at times.
The foundation remains making delicious dumplings. What’s the key to marvelous preparation?
“It’s good dough…packed full of tender fillings,” she said, which requires good meat. “The Chinese love their pork. We use pork from Canada because we think it tastes better.”
Her establishment is all about “home style cooking and loving the business,” Liu said. “Being a place where people come together to enjoy warm, personal service.”
M Shanghai Bistro & Garden
292 Grand Street / 718.384.9300 / newmshanghai.com