Some restaurants are so much fun, the food is almost secondary. That's kind of how we felt about Shanghai Lil's, a sushi bar and Asian restaurant that opened on Canton Square in June.
Pamela Tsimon and her World War II buff of a husband, Dean, have filled the upstairs bar with vintage war memorabilia from the Pacific corridor. Sandblasted bombs serve as table legs, a stretcher hung on the wall does double duty as a menu, and camouflage netting shields the sushi bar from an imaginary tropical sun. Parts of actual B-17s and B-29s have been painted like the embellished planes of the famed Flying Tigers, whose signatures adorn the lithograph at the bottom of the stairs.
In the dining room, the mood is darker and more serene, with the ceiling painted dark purple and the walls a buttery pumpkin. There are wonderful details here as well, from the rice-paper fish hanging from the ceiling to the vintage Asian ads on the walls.
But we came to eat, not gawk. Unfortunately, the food didn't quite measure up to the decor. Part of the problem may be that Shanghai Lil's permanent menu is still in development. The current menu is limited - with a heavy emphasis on Chinese food - while the pan-Asian specials list is more extensive.
When we asked our accommodating waiter for suggestions, he only mentioned dishes on the specials list, like the grilled tuna with ginger, miso and cilantro sauce, and the gingered scallops with snow peas and peppers.
Almost everything we tried on the regular menu had some problems. Excessive saltiness marred both the shiitake-filled hot and sour soup, and the chicken and broccoli with orange peel. The chicken dish had no redeeming qualities other than the tenderness of the meat and the crispness of the vegetables.
Rings of squid, done Kung Pao style, also had been cooked perfectly, but they were sitting in a sauce that was strangely soupy, not to mention mild. There's no way this dish needed a star to warn of its spiciness.
We were happier with our choices from the specials list. The Chinese barbecued salmon was flaky and moist, covered in a sweet exotic glaze that tasted faintly of star anise. It looked pretty, too, sitting on a puffy starburst of fried bean threads next to a cold salad of cooked spinach.
Two long, angle-cut spring rolls, another special, were full of crab meat that had been seasoned simply with tiny bits of jalapeno and red chilies. We wished the rolls had been hotter, though, both in temperature and spice.
Everything was fiery about our gorgeous thunderbolt roll, though. The spicy tuna rolled inside, the garnish of fresh jalapeno and the dot of hot sauce on top, as red and round as the symbol on the flag of Japan.
To squelch the heat at the end of your meal, there's a trio of desserts: a not-too-sweet strawberry tart, which you may want to order warmed, and a pair of cheesecakes - one that is faintly tropical with mango and a less successful ginger version.
2933 O'Donnell St.
Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner; daily for lunch and dinner starting in September
Credit cards: All major cards
Prices: Appetizers, $2.50-$5.50; entrees, $7.50-$10.25
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *
Pub Date: 8/20/98