From 1849 to 1946, France controlled a portion of Shanghai called the "French Concession." It was a little piece of Paris halfway around the world. In late 2013, Alex Thao closed his Thai restaurant in Hillcrest, Celadon, and reopened it as a dim sum stop called French Concession. It's a little piece of the Convoy District six miles south.
After China lost the Opium Wars in 1842, Shanghai's governor granted a large segment of land to the French Consulate. France built it out with Western-style mansions and trees imported from France. This "French Concession" and similar "ports of call" were places apart where Westerners first interfaced with Chinese, learning about their food, particularly dim sum.
It's this history and sense of a mysterious place apart that, presumably, Thao seeks to invoke with his Hillcrest dim sum restaurant (3671 Fifth Ave.). But the effort is not wholly successful. The experience of eating dim sum at the French Concession is entirely different than at the Convoy District dim sum palaces of Jasmine and Emerald Seafood. Forks and knives replace chopsticks, dishes are ordered off a menu instead of from carts, and tea is not offered as a guest is seated (a sacrilege, as the dim sum tradition, yum cha in Cantonese, translates as "drinking tea").
Also less than successful is the physical space, only lightly remodeled from Celadon and still recognizable as the former home of Michael Stebner's late, great Region restaurant. The entrance is into an unattended piano-bar space, leaving arrivals to wonder if the place is even open. The main dining room upstairs can best be described as "dark," even on a weekend brunch.
The food is better. Not altogether different in style from Jasmine or Emerald, the quality is mostly top-drawer. Where pan-fried turnip cakes are often floury and indistinct, in the hands of Hong Kong import chef Andrew Kwong, the textures of the pieces of daikon radish and bits of Chinese bacon step forward, their tastes popping.
Some of that was also on display in Kwong's steamed dumplings. The pork sui mai tasted distinctly porky; the shrimp sui mai and har gow shouted "Shrimp!" The flavors were clear and precise. Strangely, though, the same could not be said for the form. Kwong's steamed dumplings bordered on misshapen.
The black-bean spareribs, though, were far and away the best I've ever tasted. The steaming produced great depth of flavor and a broth that was every bit as delicious as the meat. Sucking on the bones after the meat was gone was a pleasure all its own.
If ever food alone could sustain a restaurant, this food would do so; it's that good. But how will the French Concession sustain itself? Open only for dinner (except on weekends), with barely 60 seats, it's hard to see how it can make ends meet in the long run. Jasmine likely does more business in a lunchtime hour than French Concession in a day.
That may be all the more incentive to try its wonderful takes on dim sum while you can.