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Restaurant Reviews --> Shanghai Lil

Shanghai Lil
Indianapolis' Best Chinese Food

I have always been a huge fan of good Chinese food, a commodity that has been in very short supply here in Indianapolis. Admittedly, I grew up thinking that Chinese food was Chop Suey from Lotus Garden at 44th and Keystone. Fortunately, a trip to Los Angeles in the early 70's introduced me to just how elegant and delicious Chinese cusine could be.

I have always believed that...

1. There is more to Chinese cuisine than the greasy windowed strip center storefronts we endure here in Indianapolis;

2. That even P.F. Chang's reproductions of 12th century murals and T'ang Dynasty horse sculptures cannot not make up for indifferent preparation and cheap ingredients; and,

3. Indianapolis can support a fine dining traditional Chinese restaurant.

And, now that we have one, I hope I'm right!

Don't get me wrong. There is a place for carry out Chinese or Chinese restaurants where all the entrees are $6.95 to $8.95. However, there should also be a place for fine dining. Applebee's and St. Elmo's both sell steaks, but there sure is a difference in the quality of meat and the meal. Finally, we seem to have that choice here in Indianapolis with Chinese cuisine.

A visit to Shanghai Lil
I have to admit that when I saw the sign for Shanghai Lil's go up on the former Peter's Restaurant location at Keystone at the Crossing, my first thought was "Great, how is another "20 something" bar going to pay that kind of rent." Then, last week a friend told me that it was actually a restaurant and that he and his wife had had a fabulous meal there. And, that Lil's is a product of the same family that brought the city Mikado and Five Spice Cafe. So, last Saturday, Linda and I along with Associate Wine Guy Tom Landshof and his wife, Suzanne decided to try it out.

Despite the less than descriptive name choice, Shanghai Lil's turns out to be an exceptional, upscale Chinese restaurant. The old Peter's side has been given over to a Chinese theme and the former "Chops" side is now a sushi bar and Japanese restaurant, although both menus are available on either side. The old Peter's layout still looks familiar, but the heavy red brocade drapes, dark mahogany chairs and red walls lend an elegant, oriental air. We also appreciated the ample distance between tables and the level of privacy it provides. And, best of all, no plastic dragons on the walls!

The Wine
The wine list contains plenty of selections and seems to be well chosen. Best of all, the prices are quite fair. My major criticism would be that it lacked vintages. But, finding good wine at a fair price more than made up for having to ask "what year." The glasses are first rate Reidel shaped knockoffs from Zwiesel and the wine service was equal to any of Indianapolis' better restaurants. In fact, we had a first! We were served a bottle of Chateau Reynella "Basket Press Shiraz" 2001 (WS 91 $29 at GVC - $57 on their list). I whiffed, passed the glass to Linda, who made a face. She passed it to Tom who actually tasted it, and, as his face contorted the server asked, "is it corked?" There is hope!!! Not only did she understand why the bottle was bad, she was the very model of efficiency at replacing it.

The list is filled with good choices, most at about twice retail. Better than the 3-time mark-ups taken by many greedy restaurants. Some of the stand-outs are the Miner Viognier at $33 - $18 at GVC, the Luna Pinot Gris at $36 - $18 at GVC, Marques Casa Concha Merlot $30 - $15 at GVC and the Rosemount Hill of Gold Shiraz $34 - $16 at GVC.

The Food
The menu is very, very extensive with over 60 entree choices just on the Chinese side. There is also a complete sushi, sashimi and Japanese menu but we limited ourselves to the Chinese side. I have to begin by saying that we were most impressed by the freshness of the ingredients, the fact that everything was cooked to order and most of all, the lack of any of the oily residue that accompanies many Chinese dishes.

We began with four appetizers that we all shared. Linda pronounced the Seafood Puff the best crabmeat/shrimp Rangoon she had ever eaten and I had to agree. It was light, crisp and not the least bit greasy. The excellent beef pot stickers were served with a slightly spicy chili vinegar and had obviously been steamed to order with no stickiness or doughy qualities. The poached dumplings contained both pork and shrimp and were just as fresh and tasty as the pot stickers. Finally, the seafood rolls were light and crisp containing fish, squid, shrimp, chives and ginger and served with very nice sweet sour sauce. Four thumbs up for the appetizers! And, be sure to eat the pickled radishes they serve as a garnish, it's delicious!

The soups were also very good and brimming with fresh ingredients, like the two small oysters Tom found poaching in his Miso soup. Linda and I were a little disappointed with the hot sour soup. It is prepared vegetarian and leaned more toward hot than sour. However I don't remember leaving any in my bowl so it certainly passed muster.

The entrees were the prize. I was served the best Mu Shu Pork I have ever had. Again, no hint of oiliness. Just plenty of meat and vegetables served with delicious plum sauce and wonderfully thin and irregular homemade Chinese pancakes that put the tortillas that pass for pancakes in most restaurants to shame. A close second favorite was the Owners Special Lamb that Tom selected. Silver dollars size slices of lamb tenderloin served in a wonderfully rich, dark gravy, along with scallions and more of the thin Chinese pancakes.

The most interesting award went to Suzanne's Shi Zi Tou - Lions Head. They were fluffy pork meatballs with cabbage and noodles in a brown sauce cooked and served in ceramic oriental pot. A really tasty and unusual dish... I think it was Chinese comfort food... kind of like what momma used to make if you were raised in Canton. Linda's stir fried shrimp and wild mushrooms rounded out the meal with large, perfectly prepared (read this as not over cooked) shrimp along with lots of interesting mushrooms in a light sauce. Hers was certainly the lightest of the dishes and was a nice compliment to all the lamb and pork. All the portions were more than ample for sharing so be prepared to take some home. And, the prices were on the same level most local upscale dining establishments, with appetizers ranging from $4.95 to $7.95 and entrees in the $13.95 to $27.95 range with plenty of choices in between.

The dessert menu is not ready yet, but the options we were offered sounded good. Unfortunately, after having grazed our way through that menu, dessert was not an option. Altogether, it was a very enjoyable meal and a dining experience that we can all highly recommend.

Shanghai Lil

8505 Keystone Crossing
Indianapolis, IN 46240
317-205-9335
Shanghai Lil