Shanghai Beer Garden  
34 N. Palm St.

My first visit to the Shanghai Beer Garden was a couple of days after the “soft opening” back in late January. At that point I felt the food showed potential in flavorings, design and uniqueness in the burgeoning Asian fusion food cuisine. I noticed the canvas awnings in the glorious patio had been spray-painted a dark color that almost hid the “Tutti’s” sign underneath. A small detail, perhaps, but I began looking at a lot of the small details of this new eating establishment, both décor and food preparationwise.

I began a quest to enjoy this restaurant; it is not inexpensive, and I know how hard it is to be clever, creative and serve a clientele with a discerning and sophisticated palate. I’ve now been back about six times (lunches and dinners), and hopefully what follows are my clearest and most honest reflections on what Chef Ming Ye (a gourmet chef from Shangdong, China, for the last 17 years) is now bringing to Ventura County.

To begin with a very positive remembrance of several dishes: the various bao (bun) are all worth sampling. The bread bun has a familiar light, fluffy and airy rice-flour chewy-ness, but rather than being kind of stuffed dinner roll-like, the filling is placed on the top of the flattened oval dough, which is then folded over so that the filling is half visible, sort of like a bread-y, doughy street taco. A unique twist that not only works in its presentation, but the various fillings all try to outdo each other. The smoked chicken was cooked in tea leaves, making the flavor earthy, smoky and bitter sweet. The five spice beef shank is similar in presentation but redolent of the unique mixture of cinnamon, cloves, anise, pepper and fennel.

Another familiar (yet individually designed) first course is the Chinese potstickers (steamed upon request) which are crispy underneath and at the same time chewy and filled with meat (usually pork), chopped vegetables with a sweet chili ginger dipping sauce. I was disappointed in the spareribs: a sauce of ginger, garlic, lemon, five-spice and hoisin was unique, but I found the ribs more bony than meaty, and they didn’t live up to expectation. It was the same with the Japanese shisito peppers, grilled and tossed in olive oil, a great idea that just didn’t quite work for my palate.

The hot and sour soup was a clever mixture of three types of mushrooms, and the bite of white pepper perfectly complemented the rice vinegar gentle sourness. The flavor was right on target, I just wish the soup had been hotter from the pot, rather than sitting around lukewarmish. I would have sent it back but I had been waiting 35 minutes (without any visit from any server, or the host, or the busboy) and was famished. This, incidentally, was not the first time that sort of delay happened, and this occurred on a day when there were only three other customers eating in the restaurant. To be fair, there have been staff changes since then, but I have heard similar tales from other recent diners.

The Singapore street noodles are a terrific gluten-free option. Thin rice noodles wok-fried in a light curry/turmeric garlic sauce and topped with scallions seem to go best with the addition of shrimp. My vegetarian companion at lunch that day opted for the spicy, crispy tofu, which was diced and breaded with the five-spices mixture and then shallow-fried.  He asked for it to be prepared extra hot, and there were lots of little red peppers throughout but, while interesting, this was not a particularly memorable nor scary-spicy entrée.

As this is a beer garden I should briefly mention the on-site brewed beers: brewmeister Brandon is constantly updating and fine tuning his already well-fashioned recipes; many of my beer aficionado friends prefer the SBG IPA to nearly all others in the county. The official grand opening is now past; many of the earlier challenges have been overcome, and I will continue to return to the Shanghai Beer Garden, hoping it can live up to its potential.