SMALL WON­DERS

COM­BIN­ING TAL­ENTED CHEFS, CA­SUAL VIBES, AND COM­PACT SUR­ROUNDS, A NEW BREED OF SHANG­HAI RESTAU­RANTS ARE TURN­ING THE TA­BLES ON THE CITY’S DIN­ING SCENE.

DestinAsian - - FEATURES - By Amy Fabris- Shi

Com­bin­ing tal­ented chefs, ca­sual vibes, and com­pact sur­rounds, a new breed of Shang­hai restau­rants are turn­ing the ta­bles on the city’s din­ing scene.

SHANG­HAI DIN­ERS ARE NO STRANGER

to steam­ing kitchens and el­bow-bump­ing com­mu­nal ta­bles when slurp­ing noo­dles or their beloved xi­ao­long­bao soup dumplings. But more el­e­vated culi­nary ex­pe­ri­ences in China’s sec­ond city have long car­ried the ex­pec­ta­tion of fancy din­ing rooms or con­cep­tual gim­mickry. While there’s still plenty of that (you can, for in­stance, cus­tom-or­der your cof­fee or cock­tail on WeChat and have it made by AI ro­bots at the just-opened Ra­tio Bar), Shang­hai’s most ex­cit­ing new restau­rants are putting the spot­light firmly on the tal­ents of their chefs, prove­nance-spe­cific in­gre­di­ents and wines, and fla­vor pro­files that free­wheel around China and the globe.

“I’m sur­prised no one else has jumped on Guiyang cui­sine, the fla­vors are f–ing in­sane!” says Blake Thorn­ley, a New Zealand chef whose cre­ative pas­sion and lively con­ver­sa­tion war­rant his own TV show. For now, his stage is Oha Eatery, an unas­sum­ing 22-seat diner tucked be­hind a street­front espresso stand in the for­mer French Con­ces­sion. Its culi­nary in­spi­ra­tion hails from the moun­tains of Guizhou, a poor prov­ince in south­west China that is nev­er­the­less rich in eth­nic and bi­o­log­i­cal di­ver­sity.

Thorn­ley had never heard of the place be­fore he ar­rived in Shang­hai ear­lier this year to helm the tiny eatery af­ter a five-year stint at Bali’s ac­claimed Mozaic restau­rant. For­tu­nately, he thrives on chal­leng­ing his culi­nary cre­ativ­ity, a tal­ent honed by par­tic­i­pat­ing in cook­ing com­pe­ti­tions since he was a teenager (at 14, he placed third glob­ally in Chaîne des Rôtis­seurs’ Young Chef of the Year com­pe­ti­tion). To­gether with Oha’s Guizhou-born sous chef, Gong Xian, he set off into the moun­tains to “eat pig’s pe­nis and horse and dodgy f–ing rice wines” and learn about the prov­ince’s fla­vors. What he dis­cov­ered were farm­house hams “as good as pata

ne­gra”; moun­tain spices, leaves, and mush­rooms he’d never seen be­fore; and a cui­sine that balances the hot­ness and numb­ness of bet­ter-known Sichuan and Hu­nan cook­ing with in­trigu­ing lay­ers of cit­rus and sour notes. The restau­rant has since es­tab­lished farms in the re­gion breed­ing their own yel­low moun­tain cows and grow­ing wild heir­loom veg­eta­bles. “Be­cause com­mu­ni­ca­tion is tricky, I just ask the farm­ers to grow in­ter­est­ing stuff and send it to me, and I’ll work it out,” Thorn­ley says. The re­sults of his moun­tain ad­ven­tures and kitchen con­jur­ing are in­trigu­ing Shang­hai food­ies, who aren’t used to such an un­ortho­dox ap­proach to re­gional Chi­nese fare.

De­spite a less-than-ap­petis­ing name, moldy tofu salad is a dain­tily de­li­cious en­sem­ble of green leaves and pink petals of pick­led radish given a funky kick from crum­bled blue cheese–like fer­mented tofu, crunchy roasted peanuts, and moun­tain honey. Horse­meat, a Guizhou del­i­cacy, is pres­sure-cooked in a tra­di­tional mas­ter stock un­til it falls into melt­ingly soft chunks that taste like beef with the slight­est hint of gami­ness, ac­com­pa­nied by smoked oys­ter mush­rooms, spiced pork lard, moun­tain lemon pep­per oil, and plump broad­beans. Smoked farm­house pork is made into French-in­spired pork ril­lettes and served with fer­mented chili sauce and slices of Chi­nese man­tou (steamed bread).

Pa­trons at Oha Eatery sit around a three-sided din­ing bar that takes up most of the tiny room. A de­signer lamp in­stal­la­tion over­head and a lone taxi­der­mied duck af­fixed to a con­crete col­umn keep things sim­ple while hint­ing at the de­sign pedi­gree of the restau­rant’s Chi­nese ar­chi­tect own­ers. Chefs pass the small plates over the counter to din­ers, while a fe­dora-hat­ted bar­tender called Elmo pours nat­u­ral wines, in­clud­ing am­ber “skin-con­tact” va­ri­eties cho­sen for their unique af­ter­tones that com­ple­ment the fla­vors on the plate. Pack­ing more of a punch are Oha’s mini-bot­tled cock­tails, in­clud­ing a gin­ger-flower mar­tini.

Hav­ing tested the wa­ters, the Oha team are open­ing Ta­ble Black this sum­mer at Columbia Cir­cle, a new din­ing en­clave cen­tered on

the 1924 Columbia Coun­try Club. At the sec­ond-floor chef’s ta­ble, Thorn­ley will serve an 18- to 25-course tast­ing menu in­spired by a dif­fer­ent re­gional Chi­nese cui­sine ev­ery six months. “Noth­ing stuck up, just fun, ca­sual, and in­ter­est­ing,” he prom­ises.

In keep­ing with Shang­hai’s

ca­sual din­ing vibe, To­gether is a union of pedi­greed Shang­hai restau­rant and de­sign pros that feels very re­laxed and nat­u­ral. Helm­ing the kitchen is de­light­ful Korean chef Bina Yu, who worked at Jean-Ge­orges Von­gerichten’s epony­mous restau­rant in New York be­fore com­ing to Shang­hai to open another Von­gerichten project, the Bund-side Korean restau­rant CHI-Q. De­cid­ing to stay on in Shang­hai, she has teamed up with Kim Melvin, whose dream-like sweets at The Com­mune So­cial have earned her the ti­tle of Shang­hai’s dessert queen.

Yu, who says the great­est les­son she learned from Jean-Ge­orges was “sim­plic­ity,” has crafted a menu that plays with both her Korean and fine French culi­nary back­grounds, as well as in­spi­ra­tion from her trav­els. While some dishes veer more Korean (like a crowd-pleas­ing bar­be­cued wagyu beef steak fin­ished with gin­ger, chili, and daikon) and oth­ers more French (like a spicy seafood bouil­l­abaisse), the most in­trigu­ing are those that com­bine Asian fla­vors and Gal­lic tech­niques with the odd sur­prise in­gre­di­ent—think: mochi tofu, sesame sauce, lemon soy, and parme­san tu­ile.

Con­trast­ing the ex­otic com­bi­na­tions, dishes have an un­fussy pre­sen­ta­tion in clas­sic white and blue-rim enamel trays and mugs. Be­hold the power of sim­plic­ity in the sig­na­ture oc­to­pus ap­pe­tizer, three coil­ing ten­ta­cles—beau­ti­fully ten­der af­ter five hours sous vide—coated in Korean gochu­jang (fer­mented chili paste) and tem­pered with a dol­lop of creamy aioli. In­sta­gram away! Else­where on the menu, a French-style beef tartare of Aus­tralian wagyu gets its sub­tly tex­tured pi­quancy from the ad­di­tion of washed kim­chi. What­ever you or­der, Kim Melvin’s farm­house dessert ta­ble laden with matcha-frosted sponge­cake, gooey brown­ies, and home­made ice creams pro­vides a sweet fi­nale.

The restau­rant’s in­ti­mate in­te­ri­ors were cre­ated by the much­lauded de­sign prac­tice Neri & Hu. Rough red brick floors and walls, raw con­crete, and dark char­coal are con­trasted with a del­i­cate net­work of pen­dant lamps on gold rods that gen­tly il­lu­mi­nate the space. A se­ries of doors leads from the main room into a gleam­ing open kitchen with a sliver of din­ing bar that gives guests a front-row seat to the culi­nary ac­tion. While the folks be­hind To­gether have

come from high-pro­file es­tab­lish­ments, the ca­sual co­zi­ness they’ve es­tab­lished here feels like just what Shang­hai needs right now.

A Dan­ish chef cre­at­ing

Latin-in­spired cui­sine in a Shang­hai restau­rant named Apollo is about as eclec­tic as it gets, but it’s a com­bi­na­tion that ex­pe­ri­enced lo­cal res­tau­ra­teur Michelle Chen was will­ing to bank on for to­day’s Shang­hai. “There was a dearth of Latin cui­sine here and we wanted some­thing light and in­ter­est­ing,” Chen tells me in a din­ing room filled with fash­ion­able young ladies who lunch.

Fred­erik Ras­mussen, a soft-spo­ken chef with tat­toos and gauged ear­lobes, is re­cently ar­rived in Shang­hai from the boom­ing culi­nary scene of Copen­hagen, where he’d been cre­at­ing Latin fla­vors with Nordic sen­si­bil­i­ties at South Amer­i­can restau­rants El Na­cional and Llama. “We’re serv­ing food that peo­ple rec­og­nize, but let­ting them see it in a to­tally new way through new tech­niques,” he says. “I’m al­ways look­ing to see how much of this or that I can put in be­fore it gets too weird.” In­gre­di­ents may be emul­si­fied, de­hy­drated, pow­dered, foam­ing, or smok­ing, but Ras­mussen’s small plates are al­ways well con­sid­ered with a cheeky bal­ance of tex­tures and tastes. “I like to hide things within lay­ers of my food—you need to for­age through it,” he adds with a shy grin.

A scal­lop ce­viche mixes thinly sliced lemon-cured scal­lop with iden­ti­cally cut fresh cu­cum­ber in a pre­cise bal­ance of creami­ness and fresh­ness, topped with a green sauce com­bin­ing av­o­cado, aguachili, cu­cum­ber, and cel­ery for crunch. Ras­mussen’s pol­ished ver­sion of pop­u­lar Latin pair­ing pork and pineap­ple uses slow-roasted pork neck with pineap­ple in three ways: grilled, pureed with mint and chili, and de­hy­drated into a pa­per-like wafer coiled atop the dish. It’s a trop­i­cal riot on the plate and the palate.

Din­ers can watch the young Dane in his emer­ald green–tiled open kitchen un­der the wooden loft ceil­ing on Apollo’s sec­ond floor, or opt for a pave­ment perch down­stairs, which opens onto the leafy French Con­ces­sion street of Anfu Lu. This also gives easy ac­cess to Apollo’s im­pres­sive bar, which shakes up a cre­ative se­lec­tion of pisco and mez­cal cock­tails—per­fect for Shang­hai’s hot sum­mer days and nights. Just down the road from

Oha and Apollo, sis­ter venues Bird and Bit­ter oc­cupy neigh­bor­ing bi­jou spa­ces fronted by clas­sic iron-framed win­dows. Named for the Bea­tles song Nor­we­gian Wood

(This Bird Has Flown) to sug­gest the chance en­coun­ters you have while drink­ing wine, Bird serves small, hyper-sea­sonal plates and ever-chang­ing nat­u­ral wines, while Bit­ter is a cof­fee and aper­i­tivo bar for pre- and post­pran­dial drink­ing (try the beet­root ne­groni) and day­time graz­ing.

The woman be­hind the con­cepts is Cam­den Hauge, a young Amer­i­can for­mer ad­ver­tis­ing exec who was trans­ferred from Lon­don to Shang­hai. “I was bowled over by the bot­tom-up mo­men­tum of this city that was un­like any­thing I’d ex­pe­ri­enced in New York or Lon­don; ev­ery­one around me seemed to be work­ing on a pas­sion project,” she ex­plains.

Hauge soon started the Shang­hai Sup­per Club, then three years ago left ad­ver­tis­ing al­to­gether to launch health café Egg and So­cial Sup­ply and an events agency that runs the an­nual Shang­hai food fes­ti­val Feast as well as cock­tail-themed cin­ema nights and var­i­ous other foodie ex­pe­ri­ences. Clearly, she has a knack for bring­ing peo­ple to­gether and har­ness­ing the lat­est global trends, both of which

she’s done ad­mirably in her lat­est venues.

“I loved the style of din­ing fo­cus­ing on el­e­vated dishes in a con­vivial com­mu­nal en­vi­ron­ment, but it was yet to take off in Shang­hai. To­gether with fresh per­spec­tives on wine and wine ed­u­ca­tion, I felt the time was right,” she ex­plains.

Shang­hainese chef Chris Zhu helms Bird’s tiny open kitchen. Zhu was a sur­geon be­fore em­bark­ing on a Cor­don Bleu course, and his sur­gi­cally pre­cise tech­nique is matched by an ease at cross­cul­tural cre­ativ­ity. Per­haps fit­tingly con­sid­er­ing the restau­rant’s name, chicken feet —a lo­cal fa­vorite usu­ally shunned by less-ad­ven­tur­ous eaters—are com­pletely ap­proach­able, hav­ing been deboned and deep-fried for dip­ping in a sweet Thai chili sauce. Rocket salad and bal­samic gets an umami punch with the ad­di­tion of fer­mented bean curd and duck giz­zard, while a riff on pesto pasta with broad beans does the un­think­able of sup­ple­ment­ing the pasta with Chi­nese

nian gao rice cakes, the tooth­some, rub­bery disks pro­vid­ing a hearty base for the vi­brant pesto. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does.

The ma­jor­ity of the restau­rant seat­ing is perched at the wine bar and “in­ter­est­ing wines—whether that is nat­u­ral, bio­dy­namic, small pro­ducer, lo­cal or ex­cep­tional”—are an im­por­tant fo­cus. Both the food menu and wine-by-glass list change ev­ery fort­night or so, the idea be­ing that regulars can come and try a dif­fer­ent in­ter­est­ing wine each time, with tast­ing notes on the menu (“So fresh, so clean”; “Vol­canic tropic thun­der”) to help them find a new fa­vorite.

“Shang­hai is strad­dling the line of world-class qual­ity, but there are still gaps that need to be filled,” Hauge says. “I was lucky to en­ter when there was so much op­por­tu­nity here. Com­pe­ti­tion is get­ting tougher now, but there’s nowhere I’d rather be.”

Tak­ing sea­sonal to another level,

Botanik is a lush rooftop grotto that will be open sea­son­ally and re­volves around botan­i­cals freshly plucked from its roof gar­den. It’s a dream project for Aus­tralian Eli­jah Hol­land, who comes across like a Steve Ir­win of the plant world, a pas­sion­ate hunter and for­ager with an en­cy­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge of ed­i­ble flora. In fact, Dan­ish chef René Redzepi (of Noma fame) called upon Hol­land to for­age and con­sult about Aus­tralian plants dur­ing Noma’s Syd­ney pop-up in 2016. Now based in Shang­hai, Hol­land has trans­formed a dis­used rooftop above his part­ner’s restau­rant and is or­gan­i­cally grow­ing around 150 species of ed­i­ble plants, flow­ers, herbs, and vines that he’s picked up from around the globe. Sur­round­ing the rus­tic com­mu­nal pic­nic ta­ble and bar are col­or­fully sprout­ing boxes, pots, and trel­lises filled with dainty yel­low-petaled fen­nel, indigo but­ter­fly pea flow­ers, kiwi berries, mug­wort, fin­ger lime trees, and pur­ple ox­alis (a leaf with a vine­gary tang that makes a great ac­com­pa­ni­ment for bar­be­cued fish), to name but a few. Hol­land brushes his hands lov­ingly through the leaves, de­scrib­ing each plant like a mem­ber of the fam­ily and pick­ing pods and flow­ers for his vis­i­tors to smell or taste.

A large bar­be­cue in one cor­ner is re­spon­si­ble for pre­par­ing most of the daily-chang­ing menu, along with a raw seafood bar. “I’m all about raw, zingy, zesty, fruity fla­vors and I love to cook with fire,” Hol­land says, tap­ping his size­able bar­bie like a true Aussie. “There’s a loss sur­round­ing the pro­cesses of what we eat. I want peo­ple to feel like they are out in the wild with us, right in the thick of it watch­ing us har­vest, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a dif­fer­ent view of din­ing and food, and just hav­ing fun,” he says.

Hol­land sup­ple­ments his daily har­vest with only lo­cally sourced pro­teins, oil, salts, and wines, in­clud­ing rape­seed oil in­stead of olive oil, and Chi­nese plum, mul­berry, and waxberry wines. A bee­hive is be­ing built for on­site honey pro­duc­tion, while bread will be milled and baked in-house. The chef’s botan­i­cals are also be­ing in­fused in a se­lec­tion of dis­tilled gins—fen­nel, lemon balm, and but­ter­fly pea va­ri­eties are among many in the works.

Small plates may be all the rage

in trendy global kitchens, but China’s tra­di­tional ver­sion, dim sum, has al­ways been in style. Sui Tang Li at newly opened The Mid­dle House ho­tel is prov­ing that Chi­nese ho­tel din­ing can be equally savvy. The fourth in­stall­ment in Swire Ho­tels’ The House Col­lec­tive, the ul­tra-chic prop­erty en­listed the help of lo­cal celebrity chef Tony Lu, best known for el­e­vat­ing oft-over­shad­owed Shang­hainese cui­sine to Miche­lin­star sta­tus at his veg­e­tar­ian restau­rant Fu He Hui and the Man­darin Ori­en­tal Pudong’s Yong Yi Ting.

Lu, along with Sui Tang Li’s head chef Tony Ye, has cre­ated a menu of con­tem­po­rary dishes in­spired by authen­tic Shang­hainese, Can­tonese, and Sichuan cuisines with a fo­cus on lighter fla­vors and el­e­gant cre­ative twists. Quail siu mai is topped with sliced scal­lop and tiny pearls of black vine­gar that look like caviar, while the clas­sic pork fill­ing hides a soft-

boiled quail’s egg. Shal­lot-oil cake, a pop­u­lar Shang­hai street snack, be­comes el­e­vated with crunchy hazel­nut foie gras and Ibe­rian ham.

De­signed by Ital­ian ar­chi­tect Piero Lis­soni, Sui Tang Li (mean­ing “happy, free, re­laxed”) has done away with pri­vate din­ing and op­u­lent in­te­ri­ors. Din­ers en­ter up a dra­matic spi­ral stair­case and pass the kitchen en­closed in a bronze box. A peek-a-boo win­dow re­veals chefs in black skull­caps sur­rounded by fu­ri­ous steam­ers. Ar­ranged around two sides of the bronze box, the con­tem­po­rary din­ing room is sim­ply adorned with wooden floors and choco­late leather arm­chairs. A fea­ture wall of jade bricks adds a gen­tle nod to the Ori­ent.

Din­ers can ac­com­pany their meal with a glass of wine from an ex­ten­sive list spe­cially se­lected to pair with the light Chi­nese cui­sine, or try a cock­tail from the wu xing (five el­e­ments) in­spired menu. Ask the wait­ers and you may be able to re­pair to Sui Tang Li’s gor­geous up­stairs lounge (there are plans to make it mem­bers-only, but it’s cur­rently open to all), an ideal place to work your way through their cre­ative cock­tails. These in­clude a lus­cious tofu co­lada and the Hawthorn Sun­shine, made with mez­cal, hawthorn jam, Thai gin­ger ale, and Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa, a tra­di­tional Chi­nese herbal cough syrup. Cheers to get­ting funky with Chi­nese fla­vors.

Apollo's Dan­ish 88 chef, Fred­erik Ras­mussen.Op­po­site: An ap­pe­tizer ofgochu­jang- coated oc­to­pus legs with aioli at To­gether.

Be­low: Chef Bina Yu at To­gether. Right: The other half of To­gether’s kitchen duo, pas­try chef Kim Melvin, cre­ates home­made ice creams and cakes. Op­po­site: Kitchen-side seat­ing at Apollo.

Above: A salad of tofu, caviar, av­o­cado, and crabmeat at Sui Tang Li. Op­po­site, from left: Sui Tang Li’s head chef Tony Ye; the restau­rant’s din­ing room.

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