Flavor: Asian fusion
Ambiance: Far Eastern chic
Service: Knowledgeable and relaxed
In 1933, James Hilton penned Lost Horizon, a novel about an idyllic land of harmony in the Tibetan mountains called Shangri-La, where the people were governed by spirituality and principles of refined moderation. There the High Lama spoke of the philosophic nature of his paradise on Earth: “We have no rigidities, no inexorable rules. We do as we think fit, guided a little by the example of the past, but still more by our present wisdom.”
These principles seem to be a loose guideline for the Shangri La Cafe, a pan-Asian fusion restaurant located at the north end of Biltmore Avenue, just around the corner from the Noodle Shop, a popular Pack Square eatery owned by the same folks who run Shangri La. Chef Jin Chun Wang’s menu and the restaurant’s decor borrow on tradition while keeping a finger on the pulse of modernity, and the service is anything but rigid.
The dining room itself is elegant yet modern and casual, with a tastefully understated Asian flavor invoked by such touches as tall, wispy branches of crimson blossoms in vases on the bar and small rock gardens of smooth pebbles, which fill in the depressions between where the dining room floor ends and the expansive front windows begin.
Our waiter arrived with wine list in hand and proceeded to dispense a good bit of detail about the selections, then directed attention to the sakes, of which the restaurant offers several. My dining companion and I ordered a bottle of a chilled, unfiltered variety, which arrived in a decanter with a bulb-shaped aperture blown into its belly to hold ice. The waiter instructed us on how to pour the sake without dumping ice water into our laps, a useful bit of advice that was more easily forgotten than one might expect.
Turning to the menu, we perused the rather generous dim sum offerings. Dim sum, a Cantonese phrase often translated as “heart’s delight” (as in, order to your heart’s delight or until you empty your wallet, whichever comes first), refers to a variety of small bites that are traditionally served family-style. On Shangri La’s menu, wraps and rolls abound; they come fried, steamed, chilled, served vegetarian or stuffed with meat. Chicken, shiitake and shrimp shaomai are spiked with cilantro and ginger, then grilled, and various vegetables are tempura-battered and served with a pair of sauces. One of the dim sum selections, a soft-shell crab, is served deep-fried with sweet aioli and Szechwan salt for the very reasonable price of $6.50.
We opted for the Vietnamese Spring Rolls, which arrived wrapped in rice paper translucent enough for the inner glow of the shrimp, vegetables and fresh herbs to shine through. The filling was incredibly fresh; the vegetables had a crispness that nearly suggested they had been cut to order (though on a busy Saturday night, that seemed unlikely).
Alongside the rolls was a squiggle of spicy Chinese mustard, a mellow plum sauce that tasted of honey, and a spicy and tangy Thai ginger sauce. The sweet and spicy sauces were presented in clever little yin-yang-shaped ramekins that seemed to hint at the harmony created by the interplay of the contrasting flavors. The dish, an exercise in the benefits of simplicity, suffered only from the lack of a salty element and suffered not at all from the splash of water it received from an ill-handled sake flask at the hands of one of the servers (a mishap that prompted laughter from both our table and the other members of the three-man wait staff, who chided him for not heeding the same advice he’d undoubtedly recited ad nauseam).
We also selected the Sesame Sea Bass Cake, a dish burdened with an unfortunate description on the menu: “sea bass puree covered in sesame seeds [then] lightly fried” an image that, to me, calls to mind a seafood smoothie. My guess is that few people make it past the puree part before skipping to the next item, which would be a pity, since the appetizer was fantastic.
The first entree we chose was an outstanding vegetarian Thai tofu and eggplant stew. The tofu, which was braised with eggplant and slow cooked in a spicy coconut curry until the eggplant was almost silken, retained a firm texture on the outside, was soft inside and pregnant with the flavors of the stew. The stew was not overwhelmingly coconutty, but more subtly flavored more savory than sweet, and quite spicy. With the final crowning of fresh basil and cilantro and a side of steamed rice, the result was a dish that somehow inspired me to wax poetic over bean curd.
Another entree, the Mango Duck, did not fare as well. The dish was nicely presented and the duck was tender, but it was not cooked to my specification, and unfortunately it was nearly submerged in a cloyingly sweet citrus/mango sauce that obliterated every other flavor on the plate. Our waiter, per my request, politely whisked it away and replaced it a very short time later with the Shrimp Pad Thai, a variation of the classic that I had been told was worth the trip to Shangri La by itself.
I was not disappointed. The stir-fried noodle dish contained all the ingredients one would expect from Pad Thai, but the difference was in superior cooking technique. The egg wasn’t stringy and dry, but perfectly cooked, and the shrimp and vegetables were treated with the same reverence and enhanced with fresh herbs. The spice was applied with a fairly heavy hand, just the way I like it. When I told our waiter how satisfied I was, he smiled and said, “Good, that’s just what I wanted to hear.”
The wait staff’s relaxed and genuine willingness to please made the experience a good one, negating any foibles we’d encountered. Shangri La, like its namesake mythical city, is not rigid. Mistakes are reacted to lightly and efficiently corrected, focusing on solutions, not problems. The air is one of professionalism without being ingratiating, the kind of mood you find in a place that focuses on casual refinement of tradition. The characters in James Hilton’s novel would feel right at home.