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[On the Radar]: Craig Willis is up to Something on Wukang Lu

A little something about Something, a something or other somewhere in the FFC.
2021-04-23 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: Something is the latest project from veteran Shanghai and restauranter Craig Willis. You probably know Mr. Willis, his eponymous restaurant on Anfu Lu, Henkes, Bang and his work with Wagas

Area: Deep in Old Xuhui on Wukang Lu, due south of RAC. The space used to be a wet market. Now, it's a nascent haven for hip restaurants and boutiques. On the ground floor, where vendors once hawked bamboo shoots and winter melon, you'll now find a fashionable clothing retailer and a soon-to-open burger joint called Agnes. Something resides upstairs, flanked by a new Canto joint called, Mi Mian Hui Xin. Atmosphere: Walking in, you feel like you've been invited to dinner at your successful artist friend's loft in Brooklyn. Vaulted ceilings and solarium-style windows give the place lots of breathing room and natural light. 

Potted ferns hang overhead from exposed I-beams, providing just enough shade. A balcony puts you at eye level with the foliage of plane trees that line the street below. Weathered Persian rugs give the place an upwardly mobile boho feel. 

Dishes To Try: Alexander Bitterling is overseeing the kitchen. He's worked with Willis since last year, helping to develop the menus for places like Funk & Kale and BOR. Before that, you've probably tasted his work at Hunter Gatherer and Thought for Food

They really aren't kidding about curing and aging their meats.

His food at Something doesn't fit easily into any box. You'll find a bit of Italian inspiration here, some Thai there, maybe a bit of Korean, some Spanish. His food is better described by his style — eclectic, curious, subtle. Those three words certainly sum up the crispy fontina cheese (48rmb) starter, which is breaded, gently fried, dusted with smoked paprika and drizzled with osmanthus honey. 

Crispy fontina cheese dusted in smoked paprika and drizzled with osmanthus honey.

He's on board with the recent duck prosciutto trend. It's cured in-house, sliced paper-thin, and served with marinated grapes and granola rye crackers (52rmb). Both are worth ordering. 

House-cured duck prosciutto with marinated grapes.

At times, Bitterling's curiosity takes him down some odd rabbit holes. The beef tartare, for instance, is lost on me. It's marinated with kimchi juice, and topped with rainbow stripes of salted egg, pickled radish and kimchi. It's then served in covered candy dish. Lift the lid and a puff of wood smoke billows out. 

Beef tartare with a rainbow of accoutrements and pine nut crackers.

Opt instead for the octopus leg (118rmb). It gets a few minutes in the charcoal-fuelled Josper oven and is served with hunks of grilled pineapple and slices of seaweed. It's an odd-sounding combination, but it's greater than the sum of its parts. The fresh brininess of the seaweed makes the smoky char of the octopus and the delicate caramelization of the pineapple really pop. 

Charred octopus with grilled pineapple and seaweed.

Also, don't miss the smoked burrata cheese with Serrano ham and piquillo pepper cream (138rmb). It's hard to say no to fresh mozz with a creamy liquid center. 

Smoked burrata cheese with Serrano ham.

Main courses are yet another excuse for Bitterling to play with his Josper oven. It yields particularly delicious results with his grilled sea bass fillet. Its skin comes out crisp and taught. The flesh beneath flakes off at the slightest contact with your fork — as it should. The plate is sauced with a fragrant bisque with plump mussels. Endives and seaweed add an interplay of taste and texture — bitter, savory, slippery, crisp. 

Grilled sea bass with mussels, bisque and endives.

These dishes are meant for sharing along with a few sides, so be sure to order the sweet potato mash. It's decadently sweet and creamy. Sea salt and toasted brown butter breadcrumbs keep it from veering into dessert territory. 

A side of sweet potato mash with brown butter breadcrumbs.

Now that we are in dessert territory, though, it's worth pointing out that Bitterling is careful not to take sweetness to excess. His signature "One Night in Bangkok" (62rmb) takes inspiration from his stint as a chef in a Thai resort. In it, he encapsulates a mango sorbet in a coconut foam. Flavors are fresh and bright, not cloying or heavy. Puffed rice gives it a pleasant crunch. That's at the fruity end of the dessert spectrum. 

"One Night in Bangkok" makes a hard man humble.

Toward the chocolaty end, we have his "Chocolate Deluxe" (88rmb) in which broken-up brownies and marinated mandarin orange segments surround a quenelle of dense, dark chocolate ice cream spiked with truffle oil. Surprisingly, it works. 

"Chocolate Deluxe" with truffle and marinated mandarins.

Damage: Snacks go for as low as 48rmb for the crispy fontina cheese. You'll spend a bit more than triple that for four French oysters. Small plates run a similar range, but you get more selection. Main dishes start around 138rmb for duck confit gnocchi and top out at 456rmb for a full rack of lamb. Deserts and sides average out around 55rmb. Cocktails and wines by the glass are in the 60 – 80rmb range. For 89rmb, they'll even shake up a drink for you tableside. Who's Going: Pretty people with nice camera phones and large social media followings. 

* Something isn't the only restaurant that has taken on mixed-cuisine dining. To know more places, then head to SmartShanghai's Fusion Venue Listings.