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 much-lauded 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 de-boned 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 Michelin-star 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.
201 Anfu Lu, Xuhui; 86-21/5404-0998.
50 Wuyuan Lu, Xuhui; 86/135-0172-6412.
4/F, No. 301, 171 Jianguo Zhong Lu, Huangpu; 86/186-1632-6327.
23 Anfu Lu, Xuhui; 86/136-2164-7680.
Sui Tang Li
2/F, The Middle House Residences, No. 366 Shi Men Yi Lu, Jing’an; 86-21/3216-8068.
No. 102, Bldg. 10, 546 Yuyuan Lu, Jing’an; 86-21/5299-8928.
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Small Wonders”).