by Fran Schumer
March 23rd, 1997
After 52 weeks a year of Yanni and arugula salad, you yearn for something novel and you find it at Shanghai Jazz. Forget, for the moment, that the dumplings in peanut sauce, are as rich and buttery as the more expensive ones at Chengdu in Clifton. Jazz musicians, most of them from the New York metropolitan area, entertain customers Wednesday through Saturdays with no cover charge. This extra, plus the Sam Adams beer on tap, make the cold sesame noodles, which chefs from Shanghai, Hong Kong, Hunan and Taiwan lighten with cucumber, seem even spicier.
Martha Chang and her husband, David Niu, the owners of Shanghai Jazz, are almost as interesting as their noodles. He is a lawyer, and she is a graduate student at Harvard University, where she is completing her doctorate in Chinese politics. (She writes in the morning and mingles with customers at night.) The couple brought the restaurant in 1995 from Ms. Chang's parents, who opened it as Four Seas Cuisine of China nearby in 1982 and moved to this location five years later.
Then as now, you can enter through the parking lot, just off the main drag in pretty Madison and around the corner from Il Mondo Vecchio. Reliable Italian restaurants are abundant in New Jersey, but when was the last time you ate dumplings whose wrappers were as light as the steamed lettuce leaves beneath them? Perhaps you've eaten similar dumplings in Chinatown, but you've eaten similar dumplings in Chinatown, but was the background music by Duke Ellington or Cole Porter?
Bucky Pizzarelli, Harry Allen and Kenny Davern are among the performers whose names appear on the schedule in the vestibule. Here, too, are artifacts from China, where Ms. Chang's parents were born (she is pure Madison) and remnants of the proprietor's other life as a scholar. ("The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence," and "The Chinese Labor Movement, 1919-1927," by Jean Chesneaux, crown the coat rack.)
The bar is noisier, certainly, then the study carrels at Harvard, at least on Saturday, but the restaurant is a paradise for families on a quieter Tuesday. Everyone on the staff treats children with the attention and respect you hope they elicit in day care. In fact, if you're distracted, when your 6-year-old asks you to cut her won ton, the server does it.
"Would you like fans?" Ms. Chang asks the children at one table. Arms reach up to grab them. But the owner goes one step further; she entertains the children with toys at a neighboring table.
The menu features many dishes, all light rather than gluey. In almost every Chinese restaurant, sauteed string beans, for example, are flavorful but greasy and cooked to death. Here, however they aren't merely al dente: they're relatively oil-free "the first ever," one diner says.
By now, you're used to seeing soy sauce and even hot chili oil on the table at Chinese restaurants,but the condiments that accompany the gingery dragon dumplings at Shanghai Jazz are more expansive. The three include a soy-spiked sesame oil, a fiery chili paste and an inky brew that Ms. Chang describes as Shanghai balsamic vinegar, which is more subtle than the American version and as complex as good burgundy.
Splash a little on the jade shrimp and scallops with black bean sauce, listed as a special. Each scallop and the shrimp in which it's nestled melts on your tongue, the sweetness of the seafood emphasizing the salty essence of the sauce.
Now try the crispy pine nut chicken. The tiny pieces of meat look like caramel corn and are equally addictive. No wonder people toss them back like candy.
The hoisin chicken explosion is a more grownup version of the pine nut chicken, a flavorful stew of juicy meat, satiny leeks and tangy plum sauce. The jumbo prawns are beautifully showered with garlic and salt and are especially tender because the prawns are sauteed whole, rendering even the shells so delicate that many people, including Ms. Chang, eat it.
The whole steamed red snapper is more ethereal. The large pieces of white meat you extract from the tail couldn't be sweeter, and the sauce, flavored with ginger and scallions, has the potency of costly perfume. The kitchen plans to introduce a similar dish made with lobster, as well as soft shell crabs later in the spring, but it brightens seafood with fresh basil all winter.
Shanghai Jazz features dishes from various provinces in China, but also those that reflect the heritage of the owners, which is why you can order a portobello mushroom served on sauteed spinach, and apple pie with Haagen-Dazs ice cream. The eight-jewel rice pudding is more authentically Chinese, but the bittersweet chocolate Brittany cake is better. Each bite is worth 10 times its weight in calories.
Ms. Chang developed an interest in jazz while studying in Shanghai during a year she spent in Asia as a Fulbright scholar. The city was actually a haven for jazz musicians in the 1920s and 30s, largely because of its vast foreign population, especially White Russians, who supported American musicians working at clubs like the Peace Hotel.
These days, however, she is focusing on the topic of her thesis, which is on business and foreign policy. What does she think will happen to China in the wake of the death of Deng Xiaoping? She prefers to answer this and other more serious questions over noodles.