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Saturday, November 29, 2014
Food / Drink ...

My brother and I recently tried a relatively new restaurant here in our corner of northern NJ, and I thought it was pretty good. In many ways, it was rather unique (at least to New Jersey; maybe it’s just another dive in Manhattan). So I thought I’d give it a plug here on my blog. I’m not a Yelper, so I’ll use some real estate on my own site. As to Yelp — some years ago I put up two reviews of local places on Yelp, and subsequently got banished and had my reviews removed. In both cases I conveyed a positive perspective; but it’s actually no surprise that I got canned for that, as I’ve read that Yelp uses an automated algorithm to ferret out possible “shill” reviewers. That’s the way the on-line world is today; if you’re not at least a little bitchy from the get-go, then its presumed that you must be a shill.

Anyway, the restaurant is called Lan Sheng, and is located in Wallington, NJ, right along Paterson Avenue along the border with East Rutherford (Carlton Hill, to us old-timers). Lan Sheng is not another take-out storefront Chinese joint; it’s a small but tastefully furnished restaurant with a full bar. Some Yelpers complained that the service at Lan Sheng isn’t so good (guess that Yelp won’t be removing them!). But for us, the service was just fine. The staff was actually rather friendly and personable. My brother ordered a glass of wine after we sat down, and he found it to be quite adequate. Adequate enough to get 3 refills – the staff knew how to keep his wine glass full. I nursed my usual beer, then managed to fulfill my Friday night ritual of sipping down an after-dinner cordial. This involved a little bit of negotiation about the proper pronunciation of Grand Marnier; but admittedly, a part of that confusion was my own fault (I am a serial name butcherer).

Now, as to the food — take a look at the menu (it’s rather large), and you know that you’re not in Kansas anymore. There appear to be some very authentic Chinese dishes here — including tripe, sea cucumber, duck tongue, black fungus, frog, rabbit, eel, pigs feet, ox tail, and catfish. But there are also a wide variety of American favorites based around chicken and beef (with some pork-infused dishes, and of course, the old classic Peking duck). So it’s nothing to be afraid of. As a wanna-be vegan (getting close), I had cold noodle sesame and a tofu veggie stir fry. And enjoyed it quite a bit. This place is authentically Szechuan, and so I got some pepper-fueled heat with my tofu; but nothing I couldn’t handle. And, challenges remain for the future — the veggie menu includes sponge cucumber, lotus roots and pumpkin! I may actually try the pumpkin dish next time; they have a “pumpkin strips” option that looks no worse than the familiar zucchini sticks that were once popular in “fun” places like TGI Fridays and Hoolihans.

We were there on a Friday night around 8, just as most New Jersey restaurants are getting crowded. On the night of our visit, the ‘crowd’ — quotes are necessary, as the place was hardly half filled — was all Oriental, other than my brother and me. In a way that’s good — this place must cook the way the family did back home! But it’s too bad that adventuresome Euro-Americans haven’t yet found Lan Sheng, despite some good reviews. I guess that Wallington is not among the more obvious places where adventuresome western palates would look.

It’s rather nice to discover a little bit of China right near your own backyard (without digging all the way through the earth, as the old childhood joke went). I hope that Lan Sheng will catch on and become a permanent fixture along Paterson Avenue. This neck of Bergen County has more than its share of Chinese storefront take-outs and semi-Americanized chop suey houses. Lan Sheng is a real gem, a true “fine dining” experience with a touch of mystical Asian adventure to it.

DECEMBER 2017 UPDATE: My brother and I had stopped patronizing Lan Sheng sometime in early 2016. The food was still very good, but the attitude of the staff seemed different. By then, the restaurant seemed to be patronized mainly by local families of Oriental descent, and the waiters and hosts seemed more attentive to their needs then to the Caucasian-heritage crowd (not sure what they were like to people of color — I never saw anyone of African or Latin heritage eating at Lan Sheng). One little example — the waiters no longer brought out pots of tea before the meal, at least not for us. I noticed though that the Oriental families were still getting their tea right after being seated. I had once asked for a pot of tea, and the waiter nodded in agreement; but the tea never arrived. Other little touches had also disappeared, like the fortune cookies and sliced oranges with the bill.

By late 2016, Lan Sheng had closed. I can’t say for sure if my own experiences and impressions had anything to do with it, but for whatever reason, it appeared to be out of business. Except . . . a small hand-written sign in the window promised that it would be re-opening sometime in the future. Well, months went by and 2017 arrived, but the lights were still out at night. Then just a few months ago, new signage appeared with a new name — Shanghai Lulu. And a few weeks later, the lights were back on — Lan Sheng had metamorphosed into Shanghai Lulu. And the Yelp reviews for Lulu have all been quite positive thus far.

So, last night (December 8), my brother and I decided to give it a try. The ambiance was 90% like the old Lan Sheng, but the customer attitude seemed to be much improved! We were greeted and treated in a very friendly fashion, and yes, we got our tea right away without asking!!! (And yes, I did drink it — a very nice oolong). Furthermore, the oranges and fortune cookies were back.

The Lulu menu is physically smaller that Lan Sheng’s, only two printed pages on one broad sheet; but because the print is rather small, there are still a lot of good options. (The old Lan Sheng menu was helpful in that it had small pictures of many of the dishes.) And the food is still very very good, it seems to be a cut above the usual American-Chinese take-out. And the bar is still open, you can still order a beer, wine or a mixed drink. (I had a Sapporo beer and my brother had some red wine).

There were still some Oriental families at the tables, and also there were more than one “mixed couples” (Oriental with Caucasian spouse). But the staff seemed to treat everyone equally, and with much courtesy and respect. If they can keep that trend going, then Shanghai Lulu will be back on my brother and I’s Friday night regular-place list. For now, I’m looking forward to my next visit!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:46 pm      

  1. Jim, Glad you found a good Chinese food place and enjoyed your meal.

    One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that few Americans *really* like authentic food from other countries; it always has to be Americanized; and I’m sure I’m one of this “has to be Americanized” group. I’ve had occasion to eat authentic Chinese food, being assured that I will completely enjoy the delicacy as the person(s) who was offering it to me tho’t it represented *the* absolute best in Chinese delicacies. It was then I realized how food must be Americanized for me.

    I’m sure it’s the same with Italian, French, any other country. If it’s not Americanized, most Americans will find the food unpalatable. So, I would say that Yelp is limiting its reviews to Americanized foods, not authentic foods from other countries.

    I’m sure that over time I (and any other Americans) would get used to authentic foods from other countries; unfortunately, we don’t give ourselves time to do that. I’m sure that the Asian people who were in Lan Sheng were longing for a taste of home, and I’m glad they have the chance to get just that.

    I’m also glad that you and your companions enjoyed the meal when most others would be put off by the fact that the food was not Americanized. So, a special award should go to you for recognizing the authenticity of the food and enjoying it. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — November 30, 2014 @ 7:40 pm

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