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Downstairs

Apr 8, 2010
by Christopher St Cavish

Area: Downstairs, at the Urbn Hotel. That's on Jiaozhou Lu, between Beijing Xi Lu and Xinzha Lu, a short walk from Jing'an temple. Downtown. Jing'an. Used to be Roomtwentyeight.

What it is: A simple, fairly stylish casual Western joint. The kind that makes up the bulk of the business in London or NY or wherever, but is not so common in Shanghai. It's the first realization of a David Laris makeover of the Urbn's hotel F&B program (they've created a new, attached downstairs bar, and will eventually do a tiny 4th-floor cocktail lounge called The Social, as well).

Their angle, owing to the urban-hippie-yuppie-environmentalist vibe of the Urbn (carbon credits & rhubarb martinis):

"Smart and sustainable living in the modern world that is authentic and real"

Uh huh. To that end, the staff wear patchwork aprons cobbled together from vintage fabrics gathered in rural Shanghai, the floors are reclaimed wood, and... eh.... um....

I'm not even sure what this eco-chic stuff is supposed to mean in China. But, the patchwork aprons are a cool idea, realized by Brown Rice, the b2b arm of the Nuo Mi shop. Raggedy Ann meets David Laris. And the whole place has a crafty, carefully worn aesthetic.

The food is simple, straightforward stuff. There's good pork on the menu, some organic and biodynamic wines, and a tiramisu made with reclaimed carbon harvested by authentic orphans from deepest Africa.

Take away the "green" angle, and you're left with a restaurant that has the makings to be something much simpler, much less fussy, and just as good: a casually stylish place to eat. Beetroot salad with raw milk goat cheese and walnuts; free-range chicken noodle soup, Southeast Asian-style; truffled mac & cheese; Angus sirlon with duck-fat fries; rhubarb crumble with vanilla bean custard.

Atmosphere: The setting is still the Zen bamboo-and-slate Urbn. Roomtwentyeight took it mod, Euro, marble, sleek. Laris has moved the bar into a more prominent position, scruffed up the look with dark floorboards, borrowed Urbn's idea to stick a bunch of old things into a wall or wall-shape (Urbn did vintage suitcases, Laris does rusty woks), and installed black chalkboards with various doodlings as walls. The last bit is sort of like... Wagas.

(Wednesday's scrawled entry on the chalkboard "Chef's Blog": Better to Burn Out Than To Fade Away)

Downstairs is a lot more comfortable than the cold Roomtwentyeight ever was. There's a raised area dining area behind the bar that looks right for drinking a couple of Stellas (on draft, with Hoegaarden) and eating some raw milk cheeses.
The napkins are chef's kitchen towels.

They are in the process of starting an herb garden in the courtyard. Laris did the music. That Marilyn Manson cover of Tainted Love? It's his. He's proud of that. There's also Johnny Cash and Stevie Nicks and Beyonce, lest you mistake him for a suburban goth.

Damage: The kitchen is Mark Beckwith's. He's come off a year-plus at M1NT. He likes SE Asian flavors, hence the Thai fish cakes with spicy cucumber relish (58rmb), salt & pepper fried glass squid with chili lime dipping sauce (38rmb), crispy soft-shell crab with lime and black pepper mayo (55/71rmb), Weeping Tiger beef salad with holy basil and kaffir lime lead (52/75rmb), and fried snapper fillet in spicy red curry (98rmb).

The menu isn't huge. It's a single A3 page, food on front, wine and booze on the back. It's not all SE Asian, and neither is it too yearning-earnest. "Organic" is referenced exactly four times on the menu, and then they leave you alone.

The rest is Euro / Med stuff: potted chicken liver pate with toast and pickles (65rmb); classic beef tartare with quail yolk and toast soldiers (75rmb); wild fennel & orange with green olives, artichoke hearts, and creamed feta cheese (45/65rmb); organic tomato salad, buffalo's milk mozzarella with pine nuts and pesto (49/70rmb); pan-fried black cod with green beans, grilled artichoke, fennel and lemon butter (165rmb), asparagus and parmesan risotto with a soft poached egg (68rmb); organic black pork with apple casserole (110rmb); and even spaghetti and meatballs with rich tomatoes (55rmb).

Downstairs is less expensive than you'd think. The wine list is eminently reasonable. A little less than half of the 50+ bottles are under 300rmb; only eight are above 375rmb.

You'd eat well on 200rmb per person. As it's part of the hotel, Downstairs also does breakfast and lunch (and room service, all from a minute open kitchen).

Who's going: Until April 14th or 15th, only people who've made reservations. This week is a very quiet soft-opening period, and in order to break the place in, dinner is by reservation only. After that, it'll get the crowds drawn by Laris's name, and, eventually, probably just vaguely stylish people looking for something unfussy. People who like Mr. Willis, and Moganshan, and wholewheat bread.
Opened:
April 5

Address:
1/F, Urbn Hotel,
183 Jiaozhou Lu,
near Beijing Xi Lu

Map&Details

Reservations:
Mandatory until April 15, recommended after.

Hours:
Dinner:
Sun-Wed, 6-10pm
Thu-Fri, 6-10.30pm

Lunch:
Mon-Fri, 11am-2.30pm

Brunch:
Sat-Sun, 11am-3pm

Breakfast:
Daily, 6.30-10.30am

Prices:
Starters, soups, and salads: average 45-58rmb

Mains: average 85-110rmb

Sides: 20-40rmb

Desserts: 35-55rmb

Cocktails: 45-65rmb

Wines, glass: 38-55rmb

Wines, bottle: 20 bottles under 300rmb, 43 bottles under 440rmb
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