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[On the Radar]: Ottimo

Flexing for the gram with pasta in a pig’s bladder.
2021-02-20 12:00:00
Photos: Brandon McGhee
On the Radar 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: Ottimo is the latest wine bar and bistro from the team behind SOiF and Vinism. It's not exactly "new". A restaurant named Ottimo has occupied this space since at least 2014. It was an Italian-inspired eatery long popular with well-heeled locals for its imported oysters and steaks. But in December 2020 the new owners gave it a reboot with new staff, new décor and a new menu. Yet, curiously, the name remains the same. I asked about this. It was explained to me that it was just easier to retain the name for licensing purposes. Fair enough. Surely, they also realized that by keeping the name "Ottimo", they would be inheriting a Dianping listing that, for years, has enjoyed consistent four- and five-star user reviews.

Area: Surpass Court. That alcove on Yongjia Lu that is home to craft cocktail lounge Avenue Joffre, Food Theory, The Roof, and…Brownstone? Yeah. I was surprised to see that place was still open, too.

Atmosphere: Bustling like Peoples Square station at rush hour. The place is packed. What little décor I could see between all the people was simple and slightly retro. Think, 1980s-style wicker chairs and unadorned blond wood table tops. White stucco walls give the place a slight Mediterranean feel.

Dishes to Try: The new owners have been careful not to meddle too much with the parts of the formula that made the original Ottimo a success: the seafood and the steaks. They have a great selection of imported oysters from the cold waters around France, Ireland and New Zealand . They do other raw mollusks and crustaceans, too. Try the New Zealand scampi. They are presented on the plate in strenuous yoga poses. They give you soy sauce and wasabi on the side. Don't bother; they're delicious as is.

Fresh scampi doing the dhanurasana pose

The scallop carpaccio is worth a try. A lime vinaigrette and a chiffonade of mint leaves add layers of freshness to the sweet shellfish. Pistachios add texture.

Scallop carpaccio: scattered, smothered, and covered

For those who prefer their seafood cooked, there is an update on the classic prawn cocktail. Plump, sweet tiger prawns are draped along the rim of a bowl of cocktail sauce, along with a few fried heads. They aren't presented as a garnish though. Eat them. They're tasty.

Plump tiger prawns with classic cocktail sauce

The roasted octopus leg takes inspiration from Spain, with smoky flavors of char and paprika, along with a thick dollop of an aioli-like pecan sauce.

Nice legs: octopus tentacle, charred and served with pecan sauce

All of the above are shareable starters and small dishes. The main events are on the following page. There are several steaks, ranging from minute skirts to pricey behemoths like an 800g USDA T-bone as well as a 900g M6 wagyu ribeye. The Osso Buco, a classic Italian dish of veal shanks braised in a tomato gravy, offers some more affordable cold-weather comfort.

“Ottimo Buco”, cold-weather comfort food

Then there is the dish that probably fills most of the seats here. You'll see it on Dianping and your friends' WeChat moments. You'll see it rolling past you on a trolley a few times before your server even takes your drink order. It's the rigatoni.

Rigatoni, post-pig’s bladder

Rather than boiling the pasta and then saucing it, they tie it off in a pig's bladder with cream and (presumably) parmesan cheese. The bladder is then submerged in boiling water. This steams the contents. Expanding gases inflate the bladder like a balloon only for it to be lanced tableside.

Rigatoni in a pig’s bladder

The contents are poured into a sizzling cast iron pot so that the server can finish the dish off with shaved parmesan and black truffle. The chef is borrowing a widely Instagrammed technique from Riccardo Camamini. Riccardo does something nearly identical with his Cacio e Pepe "En Vessie" at Lido 84, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Brescia, Italy.

Pig’s bladder pasta sizzling tableside

It's a good dish. But why the bladder? Does it impart flavor? Thankfully not. Does steaming improve the pasta on some molecular level that my palate can't perceive? Perhaps. Does presenting a dish in this way effectively promote the restaurant in a fickle market that is obsessed with trends, likes, shares and FOMO? Absolutely!

From a pure cooking standpoint, none of these extra steps are necessary. But hey, can you blame a restaurant when it flexes for the gram? How else are you going to get exposure? Besides, none of this is really new. From the Grand Marnier-fueled flames of Crepes Suzette to the sizzle of fajitas that fills the dining room, restaurant-goers have always liked a spectacle. They want something that justifies the cash they are dropping at these places. More importantly, they want something that makes all the other diners in the restaurant crane their necks and ask their servers, "What did they order?"

Ottimo doesn't put much thought into desserts. Neither will I. They do a burnt Basque cheesecake. So does everybody else now. Or you can get a perfectly decent crème brûlée.

A simple creme brûlée

However, Ottimo does put a lot of thought into their wine selection. The wine program here marks a departure from what they do at their other restaurants.

Where SOif and Vinism focus on odd and eclectic natural wines, Ottimo goes for more tried and true selections from key regions in Europe, the US and Australia. I took a peek in their wine room and saw some lovely Burgundies, Brunellos, Super Tuscans, and even a few primo Oregon pinot noirs. Definitely order a bottle.

Damage: Oysters are anywhere from 38 to 88rmb a piece. Save yourself the trouble and order a dozen at 299 or 499rmb. Small plates like the scampi, prawns and octopus range from 68 to 248rmb. The osso buco is 158rmb. Premium steaks will set you back 888 to 1,198rmb, but they are huge and can feed two to three people. The rigatoni: 138rmb. Showing all of your friends on WeChat that you are up-to-date on the latest Shanghai food trends: priceless.

Who's Going: Everybody. Everybody and their first date. Everybody and their relatives visiting from out of town. Everybody and their mistresses. Seriously. Everybody. We went on a Monday. It felt like a Friday. It was packed. Good luck getting a table.


If interested in knowing more about F&B within Shanghai, then click here for the Eating & Drinking Directory Page.