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[First Bite]: 404 Error: Great Izakaya Not Found

Oha Group's foray into Japanese izakaya cuisine
2021-03-17 18:00:00
Photos: Brandon McGhee
First Bite is a SmartShanghai column profiling new restaurants, bars, and other new places we find interesting. Sometimes we stumble upon these places, and sometimes we are invited, but in both cases, we are never paid to write an opinion, rather, these are our honest first impressions, and not a formal review.

What it is: Yet another restaurant from the seemingly ever-expanding Oha Group. This is the same team that has given us eclectic hipster havens like Oha Eatery, Pass Residence, Bar No. 3 and Dead Poet. 404 marks the group's foray into Japanese izakaya cuisine — grilled skewers and other assorted small plates designed to ballast the belly for a night of protracted drinking.

Area: Wulumuqi Nan Lu, just north of its junction with Yongjia Lu. You've got lots of dining options in this area. 404 marks the midpoint point between Yongping Li, where you'll find the likes of Garlic, Colca, and a Cote at one end and Surpass Court, where you'll find Ottimo and Food Theory at the other.

Atmosphere: An updated izakaya for a younger, more stylish crowd. More Shanghairen, less salarymen. It's dim, with spotlights focused on each table. Acid jazz and ambient beats ooze through the air.

Dishes to try: Food comes courtesy of Chef Blake Thornley. He has made quite a name for himself with his work at Pass Residence and Oha Eatery. Have you been to either of them? They're fantastic! They're a testament to his range as a cook, his canny sense of flavor and texture, his willingness to take risks...

...Which is why 404 is so disappointing.

Don't get me wrong. It's not a bad restaurant. It's just not a great restaurant. And given what I know of Thornley's work, I was expecting a great restaurant.

There is so much about this place that made me want to like it. The menu looks fun and irreverent — a departure from the staid norms of a cuisine that often values precision and mastery of technique over playfulness and exploration. For instance, you don't often see corn dogs on an izakaya menu. You think to yourself, "This might work. How are they going to pull this off?" Then a bowl of them comes out. They're sheathed in a doughy batter, dipped in a shallow pool of wasabi aioli, and buried under bonito flakes.

Mini corn dogs in a bowl with bonito flakes and wasabi aioli.

Some dishes are unmemorable, like fried cauliflower in a chili miso glaze or the silken tofu with ponzu, radish and shredded nori. Ingredients like these are neutral canvases, there is so much to build on. Yet all I can give both is resounding "meh..."

Fried cauliflower glazed in miso and chili

Silken tofu with yuzu, radish and nori shreds

Credit where it's due, though: Thornley still demonstrates a willingness to experiment. He does a terrine. I've probably said this before, but I like terrines. This one is made with pork and eel. I even like the presentation. It's a elegant and spare, a thin slice gently seared and served with a few sheets of nori and a tiny mound of julienned radish. It's such a great idea! Why, then, does it leave me cold?

Japanese inspired terrine of pork and eel

The same goes for the salt cod sando. It's one of those tonkatsu sandwiches with the crusts cut off. He swaps out the pork cutlet with a bacalao croquette. Unfortunately, not even the pickles provide enough texture. It ends up being a mashed potato sandwich.

A salt cod and potato croquette on a sandwich

It's not a total loss, though. The shaved cucumber marinated in rice wine vinegar with a pinkish dollop of umeboshi paste is a refreshing palate cleanser. And you can't go wrong with some of the simple yakitori offferings, like chicken thigh with soy ginger or the king prawns.

Sweet and sour simplicity in shaved cucumber

Their craft highball selection is worth a look, too. They use a peaty single malt as the base and infuse it with raisins and saffron or mix it with coffee vodka and amaro liqueur. There are lots of odd flavor combos to explore. Each one features a confusing grid-based flavor profile icon to clue you in to what you are drinking. I forgot my decoder ring that night. I asked the server. He was great, and his explanations were crystal clear.

Highly eclectic highballs

And, of course, they do that whole natural wine thing that seems to be a trademark of the Oha brand.

Ultimately, this place is not Thornley's best effort. Nevertheless, I admire the guy for continuing to branch out and broaden his horizons. What can I say, though? Sometimes you swing and you miss.

Damage: Yakitori options range from 8 to 26 kuai. From the snacks section, you can go as low as 18rmb for roasted gingko nuts to 78rmb for miso-glazed gindara. Mains go for 72 for that sando up to 108 eel rice with shaved foie gras. Highballs start at 65 and top out at 90. Two people walking out full with a couple of cocktails each will set you back around 800rmb.

Who's going: Hip locals in their early 30s. SmartShanghai Editors Emeriti who know this place can do better.

Full listing and details here.