On The Radar is a weekly SmartShanghai column where we profile new venues that you might like to know about. Here are the facts and our first impressions.
The weekly dose of new venues. Presenting. For your consideration...
What It Is: Heading straight to your gut from Taiwanese transplant Jessica Chu and chef-how-many-restaurants-does-this-guy-have Austin Hu is Fresh-Off — as in “fresh off the boat” — a sandwich shack specializing in variations of Keelung Miaokou Night Market’s famous fried sandwiches: the “nutrition sandwich” (营养三明治).
They’re so nutritious! (They're not so nutritious.)
Nutrition sandwiches are sort of like enriched fried hotdog buns with different fillers inside. Apparently, their origin come from when the Dutch colonized the island. Said Dutch wanted the locals to make them submarine sandwiches and they came back with these. ’Twas a beautiful mistake. 'Twas a wondrous catastrophe. 'Twas a terrific blunder. And the nutrition sandwich was born. The basic version is a couple slices of ham, a sliced up braised egg, sliced tomato, and all the mayonnaise created since the dawn of time slopped on top. The bread is the star of the show though. It’s hard to describe. Maybe somewhere between doughnut, mantou, white bread, banh mi bread, and very, very much deep fried. It's a crispy, sweet exterior and a gooey white interior.
If you’re at home with Chinese-style bakeries, wherein bread can be a bit fluffier and sweeter, and the mayonnaise doth flow like champagne at a Bund divorce, you’ll want to make the trip out to try Fresh-Off’s global permutation of these.
First Impressions: Hey, respect that this isn't another poke place. That's all I needed.
But yeah, it's pretty clever. Good prices. (Eating more than two is inadvisable lest you want your heart to explode out of your chest. Thusly, a meal totals in under 80rmb.) Great variety of flavors — in addition to these shown above, they've also got a Beijing Duck, a Japanese teriyaki chicken, and the Taiwanese classic with the ham and egg, as well as a dessert one. The only bummer is the location. It's a spiffy gimmick with some interesting and tasty execution but it's out in Hongqiao, and therefor suffers from being not literally two feet from my face.
Still, if you're looking for something completely different or are already familiar with the Taiwan sandwich and are looking for the Shanghai (read: every other country) version, it's one to check out. Or at least look for it when it pops up all over town. So scale-able...
What It Is: With five locations in Shanghai, Chun Store is a Taiwanese grocery chain that prides itself on organically grown, safe produce. From those, The Purple Garlic is trying to make a Restaurant and bar, capital R, lower-case b. To those ends, on the other side of the wall from its modestly-sized Xujiahui supermarket — well-stocked, as it is, with Western and Taiwanese goods — there's a surprisingly decent-looking restaurant. It's got a glassed-off VIP dining room. That's the indicator, of course. The interior is best described as: Purple. Purple chairs, purple light strips, purple menu.
Said menu stocks a mix of Taiwanese dishes, made with those fresh, pesticide-free and locally grown ingredients. "Safe and healthy for you and your family," according to the very first page on the menu. Stuff like Sauteed Mushroom Salad (32rmb), Braised Beef Casserole (68rmb), fried dumplings, and, low-point, Grilled Octopus Leg with aioli sauce (48rmb). Avoid this. Exceedingly chewy. Tasted of freezer. I just got excited because it includes a whole garlic bulb, which seemed thematically in-line. But yeah, there's a real array of stuff. Preserved Egg on Tofu with Meat Floss (26rmb), Fried Bean Curd with chives (15rmb). Crucially, also, smoothies — basically heaped mountains of flavored ice. Kiwi, mango, and peanut flavors available for 36rmb per heap.
First Impressions: Doesn't diverge too far from other places with big glossy menus, but the quality's pretty high and the price points are good. The locally sourced thing (if true) is cool, the non-GMO thing, eh. "Organic" just has the ring of a marketing gimmick. Anyway, the organic, non-GMO mushroom salad thing was delicious, as was the locally-sourced, pesticide-free peanut somothie. The Purple Garlic's probably not worth it if you live more than half an hour away, but if this is your neighborhood, or you really like shopping at Chun, get yourself a peanut smoothie.
What It Is: Quaint. Easygoing. Relaxed. Low-key. Low pressure. Mellow. Approachable. Folksy. A nice change in vibes from the standard overly serious Shanghai wine lounge venue. Quirky little French sayings and drawings on the wall; a line of last night's dead soldiers lining the front; free-and-easy seating; lighting un-optimal for WeChat moments. Specializing in mostly natural wines, Vinism is a nice little addition to this around-the-way area of Jing'an, almost right across from The Fennel Lounge and down the road a bit from Da Marco. (AKA Da Marco, Damn Still Going, That's Been There Forever.) They're dealing in natural, organic, and biodynamic wine.
If you're not in-the-know, "natural wine" is a recent-ish trend in the wine world signifying a breed of wines ushered into this world without the use of chemicals, machinery, or inauthentic cellar techniques. As this useful primer points out, "nothing added or taken away." It is the case that for lots of wine, it's always been "natural". But now there is a name for it. And an ideal to strive for. A term to latch on to. A trend to embrace. A code to live by.
People who don't buy it complain that natural wine often has "faults that haven't been corrected" and there is no real accreditation for the effusive quality of "naturalness". People who buy it argue tautologically that natural wine is "very natural tasting". And what's wrong with having faults? Spice of life.
Anyway! You can see for yourself! At Vinism. And maybe at a slew more places in Shanghai as the trend trickles into the city. (Has that happened yet?)
By the glass, the reds are mostly from France, and priced around 50rmb. There's some fair variety of representation: Pinot Noir, a Syrah/Merlot, and a Cabernet Franc, among others. Along with a few sparkling and rose offerings at around 35rmb-40rmb. the whites are also primarily from France and in around the 40rmb to 60rmb range (Chardonay, Souvignon Blanc et. al). By the bottle, your consulting with their chap at the bar and looking at a couple red ones on up.
But don't miss out on the food, which is unique and tasty. Coming from a chef with a split Hong Kong (and greater China) and French background, they're doing Chinese flavors reworked as tapas and sharing plates. Eight options on the chalkboard, individually priced between 40rmb-80rmb, and you can also get combos of 4 plates (210rmb); 6 plates (310rmb), and 8 plates (420rmb).
Lots of bold creativity. The pork belly is really fine.
First Impressions: Feels like it's coming from the heart as apposed to coming from the consensus of a group of wealthy investors. Which is getting rarer and rarer these days, it seems, in Shanghai. In striving for austere perfection, cold infallibility, and larger economics of scale, it's like a lot of places have lost that natural touch.
Vinism: Good one to check out if you live in the area or before (or after) a show at Fennel. I recommend my standard wine recommendation: Whichever is the second cheapest one.