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Sushi Cantonese

Shanghai Lil's Brings Pacific Rim Cool to East Baltimore

Shanghai Lil's

This location is closed

By Jill Yesko | Posted 7/15/1998

Its China-derived moniker notwithstanding, Canton is known more for kitschy eateries such as the Elvis-mascoted Nacho Mama's and frat-boy watering holes rather than as a locus for Asian cuisine. Enter Shanghai Lil's, a restaurant and sushi bar that aims to put the Canton back in Canton, the East Baltimore neighborhood so named by sailors who returned from the Far East spinning yarns of opium nights whiled away in the arms of pliant geishas.

Alas, Shanghai Lil's takes its name not from the Chinese city but from a Rod Stewart song. Its bill of fare features a generous selection of American-style sushi (think the perennial California roll) as well as a more limited list of cooked items, including favorites such as beef fried rice ($7.95) and vegetable lo mein ($6.50) and slightly more adventurous entrées such as kung pao squid ($8.95).

Although I'm usually not a big fan of fusion restaurants, Lil's Tokyo Rose— meets—Hotel California dining room has just the right balance of retro and postmodern touches to keep it from being too much of a mixed bag. Rice-paper boats hover above black lacquer tables accented with teal-colored napkins and faux-mother-of-pearl chopsticks, and coolie hats and vintage China-girl posters adorn the room's flaming Creamsicle-hued walls. With soft jazz in the air and cut-glass partitions all around, the vibe is decidedly Pacific Rim cool. Upstairs the frenetic sushi bar affects a tiki-bar motif complete with a wing from a World War II—vintage Zero airplane and other Pacific Theater tchotchkes. The quirky décor had me thinking of Gilligan's Island and McHale's Navy.

Disappointed by Lil's less than innovative selection of appetizers--same-old same-old egg rolls ($4), sadly ubiquitous shrimp toast ($3.75), and been-there-done-that sesame noodles ($4.50)--we started our meal with a round of sake ($3 per serving). Served in thimble-size tumblers, the delightful, creamy rice wine not only warmed the cockles of our hearts but also whetted our appetites. A pot of steaming oolong tea ($3) served in a gorgeous chinoiserie pot dotted with happy, swimming koi was equally pleasing.

The beer list includes three types of Kirin as well as European, Mexican, and American brews. I didn't see mixed drinks listed on the menu, and a follow-up phone call revealed the mixed-drink offerings have not been finalized. For now some drinks are made upon request.

Purists be warned: Shanghai Lil's sushi menu is of the Planet Hollywood variety, tasty but flashy. Many of the items are heavy on non-Japanese ingredients such as cream cheese, jalapeño, and avocado. The 39-item sushi menu ranges from the locally inspired Canton Roll (crabmeat with Old Bay and cucumber, $6.95) to the Zero Roll (eel with avocado and cucumber, $7.25), and ika temaki (squid with scallions in a handroll, $4.95).

Already heated up from our sake, we began with the Lightning Roll ($6.95), a flavorful half-dozen pieces with spicy eel, jalapeño, and sesame. The four-inch-diameter Vegetarian Roll ($5.50) was a yummy, Godzilla-size portion of carrot, pickled veggies, and unidentified crunchies. The serviceable Sake Roll (smoked salmon and scallions, $3.75) was too salty; it reminded me of inexpensive bar-mitzvah lox wrapped in a seaweed bagel. A better bet was the sake nigiri ($4), two generous swaths of melt-in-your-mouth tuna served on twin divans of sticky rice. The advertised red snapper in an order of tai nigiri ($4) tasted suspiciously like flounder.

After the inconsistent sushi, the grilled tuna ($10.95)--one of the evening's specials--reinstilled our faith in Shanghai Lil's kitchen. Served on a black plate (bad feng shui, warned one in our party), the dish consisted of pie-shaped tuna wedges perfectly seared on the outside and exquisitely pink within. The tuna was seated in an aromatic broth redolent of coriander, ginger, sesame, and onion, and an artful array of rice noodles and sesame salad provided a cooling counterpoint. If Shanghai Lil's is to have a signature dish, this should be it.

Despairing the omission of green-tea ice cream, we nearly passed on the dessert tray. After all of that heart-healthy fish the last thing we were in the mood for was a slice of cholesterol-laden cheesecake or chocolate layer cake. But we tried the mango, rhubarb, and pineapple tart ($3.75), which proved to be light and excellent, a fine finish for the meal. In spite of its theme-restaurant touches and minor culinary missteps, we liked Shanghai Lil's damn-the-torpedoes approach. Fortune cookie predicts "bright future ahead."

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