Ancient Chinese Secret

Some of today's best Asian food comes from yesterday's neighborhoods.

Among Wu's delights: Perhaps the best General Tso's Chicken around. - Walter  Novak
Among Wu's delights: Perhaps the best General Tso's Chicken around.
On a frigid evening like this one, as wind-driven snow skitters across the vacant lots and huddles in the doorways of abandoned storefronts, the stretch of Rockwell Avenue near East 21st looks even more ghostly than usual. Unpeopled and unplowed, it seems less a part of downtown and more a post-apocalyptic playground for yellowed memories. Yet even the driving wind can't disperse reminders of a happier past, when this narrow street, in the shadow of downtown's skyscrapers, was lined with factories, warehouses, and a thriving community of Chinese businesses.

Those reminders are everywhere: peering out of dusty windows, wafting across the empty lots where the factories once stood. We sense them in the intricate tilework that surrounds the sagging doorways and within the faded calligraphy of the hand-lettered signs. We feel them, too, outside the Shanghai Restaurant, where they gather in the crimson glow of an ancient neon sign, a remnant of the past that pierces tonight's darkness, much as it has since 1935.

We slip out of the wind and through the restaurant's tiny foyer to be greeted by a spacious, comfortable, if slightly shabby interior. It's old, yes -- but thanks to new owners Scott and Lee Wu, today's visitors will find the place clean, tidy, and unfailingly hospitable.

A professionally trained chef who started cooking at 15, Scott Wu spent 18 years in some of Taiwan's best restaurants. In the early 1990s, he launched Wu's Cuisine in Lakewood, developing an outstanding menu of familiar and not-so-familiar Chinese dishes featuring fresh seafood, meats, and vegetables, along with a wide assortment of flavorful housemade sauces and condiments. When urban renewal claimed his Madison Avenue digs last year, he and wife, partner, and goodwill ambassador Lee took the business downtown, reopening in September.

Together, the family has done a commendable job of spiffing up the old digs while preserving the vintage vibe. Just look at the venerable wooden ceiling tiles, with their phoenix and dragon motif, or grab a seat in one of the quartet of small, private dining booths, which look like something from a 1940s movie. Not to say a little more modernity might not be welcome: On this night, the indoor temperature rivals that of an icebox, suggesting that inventions like weatherstripping and insulation really do have their place.

But while the temperature may be chilly, the ambiance is warm and cheerful. Incense wafts through the air, Chinese-pop ballads play in the background, and Wu's rambling menu -- an amalgamation of old Shanghai faves and his own specialties -- is a compendium of Chinese cookery, old and new.

Consider his take on General Tso's Chicken, a "house specialty" we first tasted some eight years ago at the Lakewood location. Even then, we pegged it as a prime example of how impeccable ingredients and attentive preparation can make even the most tired dishes taste brand-new. Happily, that remains just as true today. An eye-catching arrangement of verdant broccoli florets; golden-fried fingers of white meat, enrobed in crunchy, tempura-like breading; and translucent, mahogany-colored hot-and-sour sauce, the dish is simply the lightest, most vibrant version around.

We also revisited another fave: Four Seasons String Beans, a mouthwatering riff on the Szechwan standard and another perennial pleaser. A toss of lightly roasted green beans, butter, and shreds of salty pickled cabbage, the dish offers the addictive appeal of potato chips, balanced by the sweet, juicy crispness of fresh veggies.

And speaking of veggies, while most Asian restaurants are cornucopias for the meat-free crowd, Lee Wu went out of her way to satiate our vegetarian companion. "Why should it always be salad-salad-salad?" she exclaimed while orchestrating a parade of meatless tidbits for his approval. Included was a crisp, greaseless vegetarian egg roll, meat-free versions of wonton and sweet-and-sour soups, and the Vegetarian Delight, a toss of fresh seasonal veggies, ginger-infused sauce, and textured soy-protein "ham." "I didn't think I'd like the taste," our friend confided as he hoovered up every bite.

The menu holds other surprises too. In fact, it was among the former Shanghai faves that I stumbled across a long-lost love: Cantonese Pressed Duck, a determinedly retro concoction of spiced, shredded duck meat and water-chestnut flour, pressed into tidy logs and expertly braised until crunchy outside and delectably moist within.

I was probably nine when I had my first taste, at the old Kon Tiki on Public Square; to my childish palate, even larks' tongues couldn't have seemed more exotic. But like Maurice Salad or Chicken à la King, just try finding it on a modern menu. First loves, however, aren't easily forgotten; finding it here, now, on Wu's menu, my taste buds were all a-flutter.

Of course, venturing that far down Memory Lane can be risky: Palates mature, recall fades, and the odds of recreating a cherished favorite are ridiculously slim. But apparently, luck was on my side this night. Neatly arranged on a bed of shredded lettuce, draped in mellow chicken gravy, and garnished with crushed almonds, Wu's pressed duck was almost exactly as I had remembered it.

Which is not to say it's the pinnacle of culinary achievement. But much like Wu's restaurant itself, and the little stretch of Rockwell it inhabits, the dish was a feast of sweet remembrances: subtle, strong, and Cleveland, through and through.