344 Hillside Ave., Williston Park, 516-248-6688, bluewavenyc.com
SERVICE: Friendly and efficient
AMBIENCE: Bright, with a contemporary opulence
ESSENTIALS: Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday, Sunday noon to 10 p.m.; step at entrance and restroom not wheelchair accessible, street parking
I still remember when a sighting of soup dumplings would set Long Island food lovers off in a frenzy. I’d leap into my car and make a beeline for Shanghai Moon in Merrick (2004), Shang Hai Pavilion (2006) and Zong’s Shanghai in Bethpage (2007) for a chance to score the steamed little juicy buns without crossing the Nassau line into Queens.
Then, about five years ago, soup dumplings started to pop up everywhere, their ubiquity due partially to a burgeoning appreciation of regional Chinese cooking and, even more, a proliferation of frozen dumplings.
The appeal of the soup dumpling (xiao long bao in Chinese) is that the soup winds up inside the skin. (The secret is making a pork broth so rich with gelatin that, when chilled, it holds its shape and, with a tiny pork meatball, can be concealed inside the topknotted bundle.)
As the names of those first local purveyors imply, the soup dumpling is a specialty of Shanghai. Blue Wave, which opened earlier this year, is, right now, the only Shanghai specialist on Long Island, and there’s no doubt that the soup dumplings are made on the premises; the restaurant is set up so you can peer right into the kitchen and see them being filled, crimped and steamed.
And yet. Have I become jaded? Has freezing technology improved? The soup dumplings at Blue Wave are only so-so, the skins on the thick side, the broth not nearly porky enough. (Then again, an order comes free with every meal.)
Happily, the soup dumplings were bested by all the others we tried: shrimp dumplings, featuring plump whole shrimp, were veiled by the thinnest wrapper; pan-fried dumplings were meaty and seared on the bottom to a crackle; open-topped supreme shao mai were overstuffed with pork and shrimp. The exquisite Shanghai shao mai were a symphony of savory, pork-infused sticky rice captured in a delicate, egg-rich skin. Best of all were the homey, wrinkled pork-vegetable wontons (indistinguishable from kreplach, truth be told) floating in a light broth and garnished with seaweed and scallions.
For a twist on an old favorite, try the scallion pancake, slathered with hoisin sauce and more scallions and wrapped around tender slices of beef. For a singularly Chinese experience that I may be alone in savoring, try the smoked fish, thin, meaty-sweet slices ambushed by tiny bones that require vigilance.
A much more approachable fish dish is the braised whole tilapia, a mild creature perfectly complemented by a sauce of chilies and fermented broad beans that manages to be mellow and spicy.
Along with their tolerance of bones, Chinese diners embrace fat, prizing the fat veins of white that shoot through a pork belly and, if you’re up for it, don’t miss the braised pork, succulent chunks interspersed with another oddity of the Chinese kitchen, strips of bean curd sheet (a noodle-like leaf made from the skin that forms on the surface of soy milk) that have been formed into knots.
(If you’re wondering if there’s a limit to my own embrace of traditional Chinese food ways, there is: In the current special-needs-diet climate, I couldn’t help myself from ordering “gluten with bamboo shoots and mushroom” and I have to say it was like a celiac nightmare: tumorous blobs of beige sponginess, bound to the vegetables in a translucent glop.)
While appetizers were almost uniformly successful, mains here were uneven. The Wuxi ribs were flaccid and one-note sweet, crystal shrimp were flavorless; shredded pork with chives and dried bean curd lacked depth and verve. Pretty as they were, the snow pea leaves were tough-stemmed; opt, instead, for the baby bok choy, heightened with the barest whisper of garlic.
One night, on my way out of Blue Wave, I noted what the staff was eating, and on my next visit ordered the pepper-and-salt pork, a terrestrial variation on the preparation — deep-fried, then showered with salt and pepper — more commonly lavished on shrimp and squid. Great call on my part.
Blue Wave’s dining room has an appealing opulence, with golden linens and celadon ceramic ware. The one sour note in an otherwise pleasant dining experience is the restaurant’s seeming disregard for the needs of disabled patrons. Somehow it passed a building inspection despite a step up at the entrance and a restroom that won’t permit wheelchair access.