The first great restaurant surprise of 2015 began with a text message from a friend: a screenshot of a spare online listing for a University City restaurant called Private Kitchen.
“Eh?” my friend asked.
I didn’t know much. It had opened a couple of months ago. It served Chinese food, though I couldn’t say from which region. I’d learned — somehow — that you needed to make a reservation to dine there.
My friend called the restaurant and spoke with Lawrence Chen, Private Kitchen’s owner and chef and exactly one half of its workforce. The other half is his wife, Emily, who tends to the front of the house. Chen noted a reservation for two for lunch and then asked what we wanted to eat.
My friend was nonplussed. “What do you have?”
The menu, as it happens, is lengthy. Chen suggested a soup, a shrimp dish and steamed pork dumplings. My friend agreed, and that afternoon we met there for lunch.
The dining room seats two dozen. The decor is simple, but the setting is almost formal: white tablecloths, hefty tableware. With no music or TV, you can hear Chen in the kitchen, chopping and preparing your food.
Our meal began with the dumplings, which were the famed soup dumplings ($6.50), or xiao long bao, of Shanghai. Do not bite into these dumplings. Nibble a small hole in the wrapper first and then suck out the broth, which is as rich and bracing as a shot of bourbon. The pork filling is the chaser.
Next came shrimp braised Shanghai-style ($13.80), served with head and shell still attached in a dark sauce that, after one taste, seemed pleasantly sweet but simplistic. As we ate the dish, though, the sauce’s complexity built, and a subtle but powerful note of ginger shone through.
Chen served the House Special Soup ($13.80) last, a place of pride. The golden broth bore a clean chicken flavor, but the crucial ingredient were the chunks of smoky, salty ham. Also swimming in the broth were bow-tie-shaped knots of tofu that had been pressed paper-thin.
As you might have noticed, Shanghai cuisine is Chen’s specialty. In general, Chen says, this tends to be sweeter than the fare from China’s other regions. The sweetness isn’t blunt, though, and it’s often paired with a strong sour note, as in the whole fried freshwater bass ($16.80) in a pungent sauce that brightens the fish’s naturally muddy nature. The sauce doesn’t dampen the fish’s crisply fried batter, though, and the textural contrast between its crunch and the tender fish is nearly as pleasing as the flavor.
Sometimes the sweetness is as fleeting as the St. Louis spring. It graces lamb ($18) braised with carrot and celery in red wine as one part of its full, five-spice-powdered flavor. In the case of the sweet-and-sour spare ribs ($13), the sweetness seems like a dare. Chen sprinkles the dish with powdered sugar. The striking presentation plays tricks with your mind — is this dessert? — but a sour-plum sauce counters the sweetness and deepens the meat’s flavor.
As impressive as Chen’s tightrope walk between sweet and sour is attention to fine detail, his ability to calibrate texture and seasoning perfectly. You notice it in the contrast between the firm, meaty black mushrooms ($8.50) and the crisp bok choy that accompanies them, or how Chen coaxes an almost creamy quality from the eggplant in a dish called Three Ingredient Vegetables in Spicy Sauce ($8.50). This spicy sauce brings just enough heat to accent, but not overwhelm, the vegetables — though Chen does toss in a few Szechuan peppercorns to tingle your tongue.
Chen’s meticulous eye even extends to the plates. On my first visit, I noticed a spindly tree branch etched along the rim of the dish on which the braised shrimp were served. Or, rather, I assumed this pattern had been etched into the plate. On a later visit, a friend realized that Chen had drawn this pattern using sauces. These sauce drawings aren’t a component of the dish — the tree branch tastes like Hershey’s chocolate syrup — which makes the fact that Chen took the time to create them even more remarkable.
Private Kitchen might not be the easiest restaurant to approach for the first time. The menu isn’t available online or at least isn’t found easily. (Believe me. I’ve tried.) Still, the dining experience repays your curiosity.
Where Private Kitchen, 8106 Olive Boulevard, University City • Three stars (Excellent) out of four • More info 314-989-0283; letseat.at/the-private-kitchen • Menu Traditional Chinese food, with a focus on Shanghai cuisine • Hours Lunch and dinner daily, reservations required