Shanghai Blues, London, WC1

The menu promised a trip to old Shanghai, but the dishes that arrived on the plate took our critic on a gastronomic tour all over modern China
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Just as Nobu changed the DNA of Japanese restaurants, so Alan Yau's London restaurant Hakkasan reinvented the Chinese experience. There is now a distinct post-Hakkasan genre, filled with designer dim sum, sultry nightclub surroundings, sophisticated cocktails, high-status tea leaves, and ambient music.

Just as Nobu changed the DNA of Japanese restaurants, so Alan Yau's London restaurant Hakkasan reinvented the Chinese experience. There is now a distinct post-Hakkasan genre, filled with designer dim sum, sultry nightclub surroundings, sophisticated cocktails, high-status tea leaves, and ambient music.

The new, cool and classy Shanghai Blues restaurant in Holborn slots neatly into this genetic profile, although the heavy columns, tall ceilings and screened windows of the old St Giles Library would not look out of place on The Bund in Shanghai.

The restaurant is the most glamorous venture yet from David Yiu's well-established Weng Wah group. I love the ceramic blues and chocolate browns, huge lampshades, lovely filigreed lanterns, silk panels, round tables and grown-up powder-blue leather chairs. There is a live band on Friday and Saturday nights, and rather insistent recorded sounds at other times. It's not exactly blues, in spite of the name, but then, it's not exactly Shanghainese food either.

While Shanghai Blues claims to focus on the hearty cuisine of this Eastern region, its lunchtime menu is based on Cantonese dim sum and the evening menu treks a gastronomic tour of all of China. It has one foot in the past, with lemon chicken and sweet and sour pork, and another in the future, with chicken fillets with pineapple and red wine sauce and sea bass with strawberry sauce.

But if this is Shanghainese, where's the beggar's chicken, Westlake fish, Wuxi spare ribs, and all the red-cooked and slow, simmered dishes? Determined to put together a Shanghai meal, I begin with xiao long bao (£5.50), the famous pinch-topped, purse-like Shanghai pork dumplings that should miraculously contain a spoonful of hot soup.

When it comes to Shanghainese soup dumplings, I have been to the mountain top, once eating 16 of them at a single sitting at Shanghai's famed Nanxiang Dumpling House. It was there that I learnt how they get the soup inside the dumpling, by cooling a concentrated stock until it's jelly, dicing the jelly and adding it to the filling. Ingenious. I also learnt how to eat them without burning my lips or losing the broth down my sleeve. All you do - take notes now - is carefully pick up the dumpling in your chopsticks or rest it on a spoon, then nip a hole in the side with your teeth and suck the broth through the hole. It's not graceful but it works. Then you dunk the remaining dumpling into the ginger vinegar and finish it off.

Tragically, my four dumplings have all been punctured and have lost their broth, and their pinched tops are thick and dry. Not a good start. At least the fresh, tropical-fruity New Zealand Goldwater New Dog Sauvignon Blanc works, from a mixed-bag of a list that goes way up to an 1986 Château Lafite for £440.

Drunken chicken is another traditional dish, marinated in fragrant shao hsing rice wine and gently simmered and cooled. This version (£8.50) is bland and over-cooked rather than sensuous and spirited. Instead of the usual jellyfish accompaniment, there are translucent bean-thread noodles in sesame oil, which make very good pretend jellyfish in a Buddhist kind of way.

Next I order crispy eel fillets in a sweet-spicy sauce (£8), thinking I am ordering the Shanghainese version, fried until crunchy then braised in soy syrup. No, it's the cocktail party version instead, battered and deep-fried with a dipping sauce. Likewise, prawns in longjing tea (£12.50) lose more than tradition when cooked inside a lotus leaf instead of served straight from a hot wok.

The closest thing to Hangzhou's famous slow-cooked Dong Po pork (simmered in soy and rice wine) is something called "braised pork belly cooked in Chinese herbs and vinegar" (£11). The layer of fat is tender but the meat is tight and the vinegar gratuitous.

Just as I decide this is all fake Taiwanese Louis Vuitton instead of the real thing, along comes another Shanghai signature dish, lion's head meatballs, listed as minced pork balls with baby, baby pak choi and beancurd sheets (£10). Beautifully cooked, the smooth, juicy meatballs lie entangled in a mane of dried beancurd skins and baby pak choi, in a good soupy sauce that cries out for rice. Then there's a great dish of morning glory (hollow-stemmed water spinach, £7.50) wilted into a spicy sambal-like chilli. These make my night. Oh, and a miraculous little thing of sweetness and light made by an alchemist, from coconut, egg white and, I think, angel's wings (£6), which makes me weak at the knees.

The all-Chinese staff are hither and thither, a bit too hither when it comes to topping up glasses, and a bit too thither when you really need them, but the food comes remarkably quickly.

So how best to use Shanghai Blues. For corporate dim sum, certainly, which ranges from very good (har gau steamed prawn dumplings) to not-such-a-good-idea (steamed salmon dumplings using hot smoked salmon). And in the evening, for pan-Chinese round-table dining in an enjoyable, modern space. Just not when you are particularly hooked on either Shanghai, or the blues.

14 Shanghai Blues 193-197 High Holborn, London, WC1, tel: 020 7404 1668. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Around £110 for two, including wine and service.

Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets

Second helpings: More post-Hakkasan Chinese restaurants

Fuchsia Nelson House, Nelson Street, Bristol, tel: 01179 450 505 Richly decadent in feel, David Lai's glam, modern bar/restaurant/ club/lounge combines black marble, lacquered wood and fuchsia pink to dramatic effect. There is a good selection of authentic Cantonese dishes including dim sum, plus pan-Asian offerings such as yakitori salmon, Malaysian beef rendang, and Thai green chicken curry.

Dragon-I 311-313 Hope Street, Glasgow, tel: 0141 332 7728 Across the road from the Theatre Royal, Dragon-I describes itself as Glasgow's first contemporary Oriental restaurant. The feel is spacious, shadowy and minimalist, while the food is a mix of Chinese, Thai and mix-and-match fusion. Wassat? It's chicken with sautéed apple and pineapple in a lemongrass and chilli sauce.

Opium 25 Warser Gate, Lace Market, Nottingham, tel: 01159 881 133 Opium takes three floors of this beautiful building, so you can start in a glossy red-black Shanghai-style cocktail bar, go on up to a sophisticated restaurant serving authentic banquet dishes such as "seafood treasures with mangetout in birds' nest", then rise again to the chill-out lounge with built-in deejays and opium den. No, of course there isn't an opium den.

E-mail Terry Durack about where you've eaten lately at t.durack@independent.co.uk

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