At Nanjing Bistro, chances are good that at a given meal, diners will be outnumbered by staff. This is a tragedy in any case, but I was especially heartbroken to be among the only guests at the Fairfax restaurant because it is offering spiffy takes on something exceedingly hard to find: Jiangsu cuisine.
Jiangsu is a coastal region in eastern China just north of Shanghai. The ancient culinary tradition often identified as Su is known as one of the four major cuisines of China. Jiangsu is home to onetime Chinese capital Nanjing, but it also is not far, both geographically and gustatorily, from Shanghai. The result is that I recognized dishes from Jiangnan restaurants (the region that encompasses both southern Jiangsu and Shanghai, as well as three other provinces), despite never having eaten at an Jiangsu specialist before.
Not that Nanjing Bistro prepares exclusively Jiangsu cuisine. There are Wuhan-style duck necks, from the neighboring Hubei province, as well as a slew of Sichuan dishes. But I was there to try Su dishes specifically.
I was familiar with Shanghainese pork buns called sheng jian bao, and apparently Nanjing has its own version. The fluffy two-bite-sized buns are pan-fried, leaving a cracker-like, coral-textured layer of crispies at the bottom of the pan. This is the best part, but the gingery center of fatty pork is nothing to overlook, either. Our server provided black vinegar and soy sauce to make a dip for the meaty buns.
I would have been perfectly satisfied to stop there, but there was so much more to try of this ancient cuisine. The “Wuxi Style Big Ribs” have a lacquered appearance that gives the impression of something that a Ming Dynasty emperor would have favored on his table. The lightly sweet red ribs recall cha siu pork in flavor, but melt in velvety-soft bites.
Nanjing-style meatballs in house soy sauce show are presented in a clay pot, with chunky balls of pork surrounding tender bok choy and slippery glass noodles. Like the buns, the meatballs are packed with ginger, but they melt even more languidly.
And there’s still much to explore at Nanjing Bistro. The friendly service ensures that I’ll be back almost as much as the satisfying food does. Hopefully next time, though, there will be more guests than staffers in the dining room.
11213 Lee Hwy. Ste. C, Fairfax
For more restaurant reviews, subscribe to our Food newsletter.