494 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo, NY 14222
Web: Tokyo Shanghai Bistro
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Buffalo Chinese Japanese
"Based on what we've sampled so far, our recommendation here would be to lean towards the Japanese; the highlight of our meal was the Spicy Tuna Hand Roll."
We're close to purists when it comes to Asian cuisines, but we make exceptions for certain especially excellent fusion items, and Japanese spicy tuna rolls are generally at the top of that list. For whatever reason, however, the spicy tuna sushi recipe most commonly found in Western New York is weaker than versions we love elsewhere: around here, the tuna is almost invariably mixed with too little chili and too much mayonnaise. So when we say that we were genuinely thrilled to discover a place in Buffalo that serves this item right - fresh fish, nice spice, and little cream - understand that a single sushi roll is not enough for us to look past the new Tokyo Shanghai Bistro's other issues, but it is a reason we'd visit the new Elmwood Avenue restaurant again in the future.
Like some but not all of the other Asian restaurants on and near the Elmwood strip, the Toro-adjacent Tokyo Shanghai Bistro initially makes a pretty good impression with its decor, which uses the dark red, brown, and black tones of Japanese lacquerware to create a nearly sophisticated environment: one that's decidedly more dine-in than take-out, with plenty of seating at nice and clean wooden tables. Servers are attentive if not always strong on English language skills, and as the restaurant's name suggests, the menu mixes Japanese and Chinese cuisines, with a considerably heavier emphasis on the former than the latter. Chinese receives roughly one page out of five or six, and what dishes are there are largely predictable General Tso's Chicken sort of fare. Japanese options are considerably more numerous but similarly very familiar to the area, and on the day we visited, the specials board had a handful of Thai dishes on offer, as well. Unlike, say, California's Oki-Doki, we tend to set our expectations low for Pan-Asian restaurants here, and just hope that one cuisine is done really well.
Based on what we've sampled so far, our recommendation at Tokyo Shanghai Bistro would be to lean towards the Japanese. The highlight of our four-person meal was the aforementioned Spicy Tuna Hand Roll ($5), a cone of nori seaweed paper stuffed roughly fifty-fifty with good rice and truly great spicy tuna - as peppery and fresh in tuna flavor as at our favorite places outside the area, while several other Japanese appetizers leaned closer towards okay than good. Miso soup was warm rather than hot and light almost to the point of being watery, while a shallow bowl of Seaweed Salad ($4.50) was fine but on the small side. We were excited to find Yaki Nasu ($4.25) - grilled eggplant with miso paste - on the menu, and found the eggplant itself to be pleasant, fresh and ever so lightly browned, but way heavier in sesame seeds and resultant flavor than in miso. It was good, but not quite right.
Japanese entree items were fine, not great. Tekka Don ($18), raw sushi-grade tuna sliced and typically served in a bowl, often with at least some form of garnish - seaweed or scallions - was delivered here on a rectangular plate looking as plain as can be; the tuna was good, but the entree was not up to snuff with its presentation and value at some of the best other area Japanese places, such as Fuji Grill. A Bento Box with Beef Negimaki ($9) was sparing in filling its traditional Japanese compartments; three pieces of California Roll sushi and two good gyoza dumplings were its best elements, while its six beef-wrapped asparagus pieces and bed of vegetables were decidedly plain, with no teriyaki or other sauce to punch them up. If their natural flavors had been more pronounced, this wouldn't have been an issue, but they were cooked to a muddle.
Chinese items we tried ranged from fine to bad. Both of the entrees we sampled were fine: a Sizzling Seafood Platter ($16) arrived bubbling hot with brown sauce and with fair quantities of the shrimp, imitation crab, and lobster we expected, but the advertised scallops were nowhere to be found, and plenty of sliced cucumber was unusually being used as filler, alongside mushrooms, snow peas, water chestnuts and a little bok choy. General Tso's Chicken ($11) was similarly a reasonable portion of chicken meat, properly thin-coated with a crispy batter that balanced with the meat and let the sauce shine, but the sauce had very little spice and none of the dish's characteristic tang.
The worst item of the bunch was the Xiao Long Bao ($5), dumplings that are supposed to be steamed to a purse-like delicacy and softness on the outside, with meat and soup on the inside; here, they were unrecognizable white lumps with no inner juice, no outer beauty, and barely any taste. We know from experience that it's possible to get Xiao Long Bao from the freezer sections of local Asian markets such as Ni Hoowa and have them turn out closer to authentic; these were either poorly made, oversteamed, or both.
Tokyo Shanghai Bistro is a relatively new restaurant, and given the scope of its menu, we didn't feel comfortable assigning it a rating for the time being. That said, the place's aesthetic charms and spicy tuna were bigger draws than anything else, and it presently feels like a me-too addition to Elmwood rather than a compelling new draw. At best, it needs a little more time to find its groove and improve some of the flavors that come out of its kitchen. We'll update this article after a subsequent and hopefully more memorable visit.