By Sara Boyd, WCCO

When a new restaurant opens, even with the “soft opening” warnings, you never truly know what to expect. But I’ll never say no to be a guinea pig.

Such was the case this weekend for the “soft opening” of Shanghai Bistro in Stillwater. Now, as a disclaimer, once upon a time back in my college years I worked at the Shanghai Bistro in Eau Claire, Wis. and I must admit, I credit the restaurant and innovative owner Henry Chan for my obsession with sushi. That being said, the fact that I barely got a paycheck (most of my income went straight back into the restaurant) goes to show that the food at Shanghai can’t be denied.

When I heard Henry’s plans to convert The Kitchen’s trendy patio location into a sleek, modern Shanghai Bistro, I was more than curious to see what he had in store. Located in the Grand Garage Building, the location seemed like some big shoes to fill.

But after one step inside the transformed space, it was clear Shanghai was home. The bar is perhaps the first thing you notice as you walk into the open room. A raised frame of bright blue light encircles the large bar and gives it a nightclub feel, with a few flat-screen TVs tucked away inside for bar seat viewing.

The exposed beams provide a warehouse atmosphere while modern, square lighting sits staggered inside the far right wall. To the left, the sushi bar provides an intro into the open kitchen with plenty of seating and great views of all the action.

Asian warrior statues line the restaurant, which is a great added touch that brings the whole room together. A baby grand piano sits on the small stage, ready for a variety of live music, though my hunch is jazz could be quite common.

I was almost too busy taking in the space to realize that our reservations had been lost. Luckily, a quick double check with the owner and we were back in business. (Thank goodness, since by the time we drove from Minneapolis to Stillwater, we were more than a tad hungry.)

We were seated in a cozy, two-person booth, left of the main bar and immediately began perusing the new martini menu. The Zakuski martini, made with vodka and cucumber, was both refreshing and effective — with hints of mint that almost tasted like a summer mojito.

We ordered two sushi rolls to start — no easy feat since the sushi here is both creative and crazy good. I decided on the John Roll, stuffed with shrimp tempura, avocado and topped with jalapenos. I’ll admit, the jalapenos totally freaked me out but our waitress said it’s one of her favorite rolls. My boyfriend ordered the No. 9 roll — shrimp tempura topped with salmon.

In one of the most difficult acts of patience I’ve faced in some time, our sushi sadly arrived before our sushi plates. The sushi server realized this but clearly, being that it was a soft opening, we knew we might be in a bit of a wait. We had two options — try to eat the sushi from the serving plate without making a mess on the brand new tables or wait, chopsticks in hand, and drool.

I’m not ashamed to admit we lost that battle and each wrangled a piece of sushi into our mouths before plates could arrive. Totally worth it. Both were outstanding, though I’ll admit, I wussed out on a few jalapenos. The combo was great but my tolerance for spice is weak sauce.

For our main course, we could’ve gone with more sushi (so tempting) but opted instead for the Chinese dinner entrees. Without a doubt, it’s still the best Chinese food I’ve had. (Yes, you might blame bias but honestly, I wish it wasn’t so good — then I probably would’ve made some money in college.) I ordered my all-time favorite, the Szechuan beef with vegetables and a delectable brown sauce that I would totally eat with a spoon. For the second entrée, we went with orange chicken, crispy pieces of battered chicken in a sweet and tangy orange sauce that’s truly a treat.

The meal was excellent and the setting only amplified the experience. (Sidenote: I’m not sure if we offended our waitress by asking for sushi plates but we never really saw her for the rest of the night. One would argue a soft opening means the servers, along with the diners, are learning a new setting but she seemed to be attentive to the tables surrounding us, just not yours truly. Maybe it’s just me and my previous serving bias, but even a quick “How’s everything tasting?” goes a long way.)

Still, waitress aside (it was only a blip on the overall evening) the entire night was a wonderful experience and an exciting new venture, perfect for the Stillwater area.

Shanghai Bistro, 324 Main St. S. in Stillwater, officially opens at 11 a.m. Monday, April 4. Lunch is served every day and rumor has it, brunch is on its way this May. For more information, check its Facebook page.