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.
Here's the weekly newness: Cuban legacy chain La Bodeguita del Medio finally opens; the return of Pirata, a tapas favorite cut down in its prime; and a new diner called Diner on Wulumuqi.
Quick Take: The world traveled Cuban chain La Bodeguita del Medio brings their Ernest Hemingway-approved mojitos to Shanghai. Two floors of classic Cuban dining and revelry now open on Hengshan Lu. The moveable feast has moved here.
What Is It: This one was behind its construction cocoon for so long — about a year, maybe more — I didn't think it was ever opening. Then, driving past it last weekend, 'lo and behold, it was open for business: the world famous La Bodeguita del Medio. And it's legit.
"You can crush the flowers but you can't stop the spring." Testify, Pablo Neruda.
With outlets in over 16 countries around the world (four in Spain alone), this Havana, Cuba-originating bar and restaurant is famous for one thing: They invented the mojito. They invented it. It's "the birthplace of the mojito" — or at least it claims it to be. It's also famous for one another thing: It's where noted American chest-thumping literary marksman Ernest Hemingway preferred to drink his own mojitos, an activity he had some experience in. The writer of The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and more is said to have opined this: “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita.” The bar has framed his endorsement.
(According to his biographers, he might not have actually said that either, but hey...)
And it's not even just Hemingway. The following luminaries from the worlds of literature, politics, and film have all been counted among the patrons of La Bodeguita del Medio: Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gabriela Mistral, Agustín Lara, Nat King Cole, Nicolás Guillén, Julio Cortázar, Joan Manuel Serrat, Margaux Hemingway, and Salvador Allende.
So it's kind of like a Hard Rock Cafe for Latin Studies 101. And with their formula refined over the decades and around the world, it feels popped out of the box like a finished product. It's two floors of dining, dancing, and drinking space, a patio, a balcony, a cigar lounge, a stage for bands, and, of course, a gift shop. Framed pictures of Papa Ernest et al. adorn the walls. It very much conveys this sense of an authentic, 1950s Cuban watering hole fit for mercenaries and romantics. All the managers there look lifted out of The Godfather Part II.
The mojitos on offer are just two variations. Nice and simple. (One's made with lemon juice; one's made with lime juice.)
They're good mojitos. But yeah... um... they're just mojitos. They're definitely alright. They taste exactly like well-made mojitos. I guess this is the platonic ideal of a mojito. This mojito stands before all mojitos. These are the most mojito-ey mojitos that ever mojito-ed. (But yeah, it's just a mojito.)
The menu is as manageable as the cocktails. It's just a single page of a few items in Starters, Soups, Creole Plates, Grilled Meats, Grilled Fish, and Desserts categories. And from our brief encounter, really delicious. But expensive. That's 250rmb for a plate of chicken, mash, and pesto. Their other mains jump up to 350rmb or so for steak dishes. Even their "starters" are 150rmb-ish.
First Impressions: Food and drink were exemplary. The space is also really quite lovely. In a sweltering, ahistorical, eve-of-the-revolution Gabriel Garcia Marquez sort of way. Although, it must be said, not without a slightly pre-fab kind of feel and a contemporary, cheesy 'it's salsa night!' undercurrent. These must look the same everywhere. They're tourist destinations. It's a chain restaurant. They work on their homogeneity. It's also expensive, damn. We got the cheapest shit on the menu and it still came out to like 600rmb for two people. Damn. Still, definitely worth checking out though if you've got the money. If I was Revolucion, I'd be a little nervous. They've got Cuban dancers. If I was Zapatas, I'd be a little nervous.
All the same, Shanghai's turned its nose up at these massive chains before (see: Trader Vic's, Hard Rock Cafe: Episode 1), so we'll wait to see if it catches on.
Can you unpack five decades of history from a shipping crate?
Quick Take: Shanghai scene chef Austin Hu, along with some Monkey Lounge types, have got a sweet location at Wulumuqi and Wuyuan Lu. It's called "Diner" and they serve nü diner food — contemporary revisions of classic American fat-ass cuisine.
What Is It: Stiff competition for Al's Diner, that's for sure. Or at least it will be when they're finally firing on all cylinders. As of this writing, Diner is soft open and testing out a "Temporary Menu", with operating hours 10am to 5pm, daily. Seems like they're getting their breakfast and lunch game down first, but with the broad strokes already in place, one can't imagine they're going to stray too far from this menu when they're open properly. Currently, you're looking at a single sheet of paper that features the American diner culinary pillars of Pancakes, French Toast, Burgers, American Breakfast, Eggs Sandy, Fries, and Salad — all given that contemporary twist with things like chipotle aoili, cured lemon aoili, caramelized onion, candied chili, brandy gravy, blueberry compote, hazelnut butter, ferrero rocher, pistachio streusel, foie gras, and... yes... homemade spam.
DIE YUPPIE SCUM.
(Just kidding. The food was pretty great. Live on, yuppies. Live forever.)
For their three main items (thus far, mind you), the menu breaks down in three variations: Classic, Fun, and Gold Standard. So, for each of French Toast, Pancakes, and Burgers, you've got three varieties to choose from. The Classic one is more straightforward; the Fun one is... "fun"; and the Gold Standard is like the deluxe. One can see them spinning that out into... say omelets. Or hotdogs. Or tacos. Or meatloaf. Or whatever.
Lots of culinary pyrotechnics going on in all three categories though. To wit:
French Toast - Gold Standard: strawberry pepper syrup, brandy gravy, foie gras, pistachio streusel - 98rmb.
Foie gras French Toast. Don't even know what that would taste like. Was going to try it out but friggin' La Bodeguita del Medio cleaned out my wallet. Still, I admire the effrontery of a foie gras French Toast dish.
Whether it's the ambitious "temporary menu", the creative team behind it, or the great location, Diner is already creating a little buzz in the neighborhood. I stopped by for lunch a few days ago and already it was packed and there was a wait for tables. When I finally got one, they were all sold out of burgers. Sitting in their dining booths at the big bay windows, all the neighborhood aunties had their faces pressed up against the glass as I dribbled lemon curd and thyme honey into my sexy beard. My milkshake brings them to the yard.
First Impressions: The pancakes were fucking excellent. Really, really good pancakes. Like a lemon meringue pie.
That's my first impression.
Overall... hmm. They might be doing too many zany things with the menu. It's a bit overwrought. Like jam is jam, just fuckin' say jam, not 'infused compote jam extract cured, buttered, candied, whatever-the-fuck' jam.
Still, if it results in these pancakes I can't complain.
But then again, maybe they're just creating a bit of a stir before dialing it back a bit for the actual "hard open" menu. It's one to watch.
(Really, really good Bloody Mary too.)
Quick Take:It's the reincarnation of the original Pirata. It's gotten rid of the izakaya stylings but kept the bar and the outstanding tapas dishes.
What is it: After getting shut down due to noise complaints, the new Pirata just opened up on the safe ("safe") side of Dongping Lu, right next to Sasha's. It's like the old Pirata, with chef Ling Huang still running the kitchen. It's a nice spot.
The space feels like a homey Spanish eatery, lots of dark wood, muted lighting, a couple of round tables, an open kitchen fronted by crates of "fresh produce," and plenty of bar seating. Apart from the little maneki-neko thing on the front desk and the chopsticks they bring with your knife and fork, the Asian influence isn't very visible. Casual date-night vibe, too, except for the having to wait for a spot and the possibility of sitting elbow to elbow with strangers at the bar. Book ahead, kids.
For fans of the original, the menu remains heavily tapas-oriented. Heaps of tapas, available in either single, small or large plate formats, to accommodate any group that can cram in around a table (and get a reservation). Classics return, like the Foie Gras (25rmb/pc, 85rmb small plate). The menu goes on with single names often describing the main ingredient and with zero explanatory text (for now?). Croqueta (25rmb/pc) is like a puff-ball with a dollop of sea urchin on top, Sobrassada (30rmb/pc, 80rmb small plate) is a slice of that sausage with a scallion on top, Romesco (25rmb/pc) features Romesco sauce. It's tapas, you either know or you don't. Also, they don't do fancy presentations here; the food's so opulent and glistening they're cool with just putting a tapas on a plate for you with a little cardboard underneath to soak up the juices.
Apart from tapas are a bunch of clam dishes with more informative names, like Garlic Clams w/ Chorizo (95rmb), Juicy Clam & Pork Rice (158rmb), as well as a series of dishes called 2 Eggs With... things like Chorisito (58rmb), Asparagus Migas (65rmb) and Hanger Steak Baby Potatoes (158rmb). Some of these look like they could feed two people; the menu's definitely meant for sharing.
First Impressions: I felt real unsophisticated here. Real unmediterranean. Drew a complete blank on the menu. Anchovies L'Escala - "Stair Anchovies"? Is L'Escala a place in Spain? Costa Brava? I ordered at complete random. Either I was lucky, or Pirata's entire menu is fantastic and I couldn't have gone wrong anyway. Each morsel was a delectable, decadent explosion of Spanish-Asian whatever-ness. Just all round excellent stuff. So rich. So filling.
I feel like I ought to say the Smoked Salmon (35rmb/pc, 35rmb small plate) was a bit too rich and filling. Not sure if it was actually milk butter under the heaping pile of delicious smoked salmon, but it definitely felt like it.
Prices are too high to play palatte-roulette with every single section on the menu, but ordering individual bites is just barely cheap enough to encourage you to try new things. Come here with a bunch of friends and just ordering whatever off the tapas section. Go wild. Tapas aficionados and Spanish people will probably already know what they want, while the uncultured with no clue (hey) can explore the menu, safe in the knowledge that it's probably going to be good. Except maybe that milk butter thing. Is that a Spanish thing I just don't understand? Could absolutely be that.
[Edit: I've been informed it's mascarpone cheese. So much mascarpone cheese.]
- Alex Panayotopoulos