Quick Take: Cotton Ding's latest project down an alley off Fuxing Lu, this one's filled to the brim with romance, whimsy, references to a pretty lady, and a bunch of lychee-related things to eat and drink.
What It Is: The idea behind Cotton Ding's six-week reimagining of the space that used to be Hunan House comes from her newfound muse; Yang Guifei. One of the Four Classic Chinese Beauties, Imperial consort of Emperor Xuanzong, practiced musician, poet, and winner of Miss Tang Dynasty for like 30 years running, she was also very, very into lychees. The story goes that the Emperor would have fresh lychees rushed up 1,700 kms from the south every day, Pony Express style.
So, in honor of the highest-maintenance consorts in history, we get three floors off Fuxing Xi Lu. From the ground-up, respectively, a lychee-inspired bar, restaurant and lounge. It's cozy, it's whimsical, it has murals and clouds painted on the walls and ceilings. The staff call one of the tables Cinderella because they've got a pumpkin-looking lamp over it. There's a 3-floor mural running up the staircase of the lady Yang herself. It's built, according to Cotton, to reflect Yang's dream. Start with a drink, move up for a sit-down meal, and end the night with music on the top floor.
Beauty & Beast
With Nest's Carson Xie on as consultant, the ground floor bar has a cocktail list packed with summery, refreshing and sweet drinks. The signature cocktail (on a list of signature cocktails) is the Lychee's Kiss (68rmb). It comes in these fancy little vessels with the final ingredient, a spot of bubbly, poured in from a long-necked vessel. Decadent. Apart from that, there're things like the Zero Point (98rmb), a scotch-heavy thing with an interesting plum powder rim, the Beauty & Beast (128rmb), which tastes remarkably like Mint Mentos.
Slow-Braised & Grilled Teriyaki Beef Tongue
The food comes courtesy of Chef Ebony. Served on the second floor, it's a mix of things drawing inspiration from everywhere. "Fusion," perhaps. The menu'll expand soon to about 40 dishes, but for now, it sits at a solid, well-executed 20. The lychee makes itself known in things like the just-spicy-enough Roast Duck with Lychee Salad (48rmb), along with fare like a comparatively minimalistic Beef Cheeks (98rmb), a less minimalistic Slow-braised Teriyaki Beef tongue (78rmb), Tuna Tartar (98rmb) and a selection of skewers ranging from 28rmb for a quite outstanding tofu one, or 58rmb for octopus (also available down at the bar and up in the lounge).
Peanut and Gochujiang-crusted Tofu skewers
The third floor is a three-room setup with its own bar, and a corner for the DJ. The seating is low, and the lights are lower.
First Impressions: If you don't know who Cotton Ding is, you're missing out on a real story. For years, she's worked her way up from concept to concept. Know that 100 shots thing? She came up with that. An earlier dream of being an interior designer ended up resurfacing, because she's managed to carve out a little corner of the Shanghai scene she can call her own.
It's easy being cynical in Shanghai, even easier in the F&B industry, but she manages to stay upbeat. Fairy DNA somewhere in the family tree. I bring this up because her latest creation seems like a Cotton's place through-and-through. To whit; a cozy, well-furnished lanehouse establishment with an intimate, playful atmosphere.
Roast Duck with Lychee Salad
The cocktails are good, even exceptional in the muggy summer heat. The food is both visually and sensually colorful, with the Duck Salad (48rmb) a particular standout for me. It seems like a great spot for a date on a weeknight or a small group of friends, might get a bit cramped on weekends. With few exceptions, prices feel pretty reasonable. If your date ends up ordering a dozen Beauty & Beasts, at least you'll have a good story of excess in the name of romance to justify the bill. Hope your story ends on a happier note than Yang's. Eesh.