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[On The Radar]: Four Letter Japanese, Hiya and Hulu

Splashy Japanese restaurant at the Shanghai EDITION from an international chef, and a tiny, homegrown sushi-ya show up on the screens this week.
Last updated: 2018-08-15
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.

Two entrants in the Japanese category this week, representing two very different ends of the spectrum.

Hiya

Quick Take:“Japanese”-not-Japanese restaurant from Jason Atherton at the Shanghai EDITION Hotel

Shanghai
Shanghai

What It Is: The final piece in the three-piece restaurant puzzle at Shanghai EDITION. This one is shaped like a Japanese restaurant, but that’d be a bit misleading. Rather, it’s “inspired by” Japanese izakayas. “Inspired” because, despite having a very Japanese kitchen, with the bincho-tan charcoal grill and special tempura fryers, this was an idea conceived of and executed by a couple of very not Japanese chefs: Jason Atherton (the idea, originally here) and Christopher Pitts (the execution).

Shanghai

Homemade pickles, seasonal, 28rmb

Shanghai

Chicken karaage, lemon, salt, 88rmb

The setting has very little to do with Japan, and that’s part of the appeal. It’s not a brushed-plaster, white-walled and blond wood room, though it does have a light touch to it all, and fairly dramatic views of the bend in the Huangpu River and a section of the back Bund. Instead, the Japanese touches come in the tableware, much of which comes from Japan, in things like a Highball list (seven varieties, from Jameson, cranberry and yuzu soda to Glenlivet 12 Year, beetroot, soda water and plum bitters), and of course, in the main menu.

First Impressions: This is nice. I like this. I think most people will. These are big, bold flavors. It’s Japanese food turned up to 11.

Pitts sent us out a sampling of the menu, which is fairly short and divided into a few main sections: Smaller (plates), Temaco, Tempura, Hibachi Grill, and Inspired by the Classics. None of the sections has more than four items in it, except for “Smaller”. Right away, the food was impressive, with thin slices of cured sea bass wrapped around crunchy fried potato, and then a beautiful plate of homemade pickles, including a tight head of cabbage kimchi, a two-tone watermelon pickle, and cucumber.

Shanghai

Cured seabass roll, myoga & shiso salad, crispy potato, 118rmb

Shanghai

Broccoli tempura, kimchi dressing & aged Parmesan, 88rmb

After that, the highlight was the temaco, which is… which is… a made up word? Whatever the language, it’s a lovely, heretical play on Japanese food that involves deep-frying the seaweed in a mold to give it a taco shape, and then filling it with sushi rice and marinated tuna, and daubing avocado puree and planting a small garden of sprouts on top. It's pictured all the way at the top. It’s crispy, it’s soft, it’s hot, it’s cold, it’s spicy, it’s cooling – it does a lot, this temaco thing. It’s clearly the hit single in this album.

Shanghai

Asian pear and avocado salad, radish, tofu dressing, 118rmb

Shanghai

Beef gyudon, slow cooked Wagyu beef, steamed rice, shiitake mushroom, pickled onion, for two people to share, 248rmb

The rest was all very nice, if very fried, including tempura broccolini sprinkled with aged parmesan and given a powerful kimchi dressing, black cod tempura in a flattened nest of fried potato, with a yuzu and egg emulsion for dipping, and the gyu-don beef bowl, made with M7 wagyu beef, shiitake mushrooms and pickled onions. Dessert was a coconut filled with Japanese rice in coconut milk and mango.

Is this Japanese food? Not really. There’s nothing subtle or reserved about it. Do I care? No. Hiya is its own category of cooking. There’s not a second restaurant in Shanghai like it. I will be back.

Hulu Sushi

Quick Take:A tiny omakase sushi-ya from a longtime Oyama chef

Shanghai

What It Is: A tangle of relationships. Pull out a piece of white paper to sketch these out at home. Hulu is a pocket-size addition to Shanghai’s downtown sushi options from Liu-san, a Jiangxi native who spent seven years working at Sushi Oyama, one of the city’s more well-known and well-regarded fancy sushi houses. Liu is the husband of Ling Huang, the owner and chef of Pirata, which recently opened in Columbia Circle. Pirata was originally supposed to be a combination of a Cuban sandwich bar and Ling’s Spanish tapas, but when Ling and Liu found out they were pregnant, they decided that there is no time like the present, and so they turned a sliver of space in the back of Pirata into a six-seat sushi house. It’s been open a month, with a strict seating schedule: six people at six pm, and then six more people at eight pm. That’s it, that’s all, that’s what they have room for.

Shanghai
Shanghai

First Impressions: It’s exceedingly hard to review or even write about sushi for someone who has not spent years studying the topic and is not familiar with all the in’s and out’s of making sushi in Shanghai. I haven’t and I’m not. As just one example, there is a hierarchy among fish suppliers about who gets access to the best Japanese fish, and that is a deep and opaque world of guanxi, money and status; one can not just show up in Shanghai and purchase top-tier tuna out of a catalogue.

So instead of splitting hairs over the specific cuts of fish and the relative quality of the tuna at Hulu vs. the tuna in someplace like Sushi Yano, it’s perhaps more instructive to talk about style. And Liu’s style is, as his wife freely admits, heavily influenced by Oyama. That is no surprise; it was Liu’s first and more formative experience in the sushi world. What that means, according to Ling, is that the flow of the twenty or so morsels of food that Liu will place on a small plate in front of you over the course of the evening, does not gradually increase in intensity and then end in a flavor bomb, but rather peaks and ebbs three times.

Shanghai
Shanghai

I’m not sure I picked up on that during my meal at Hulu, but I did notice that the very first round of sashimi included a piece of toro, in addition to geoduck, scallop and sweet shrimp, which is usually saved for the end, and that Liu likes to layer flavors, which he does with a piece of tuna loin sashimi, the bright red stuff, topped with chopped tuna and sea urchin. It’s a sushi bomb if there ever was one, and it’s delicious. The rest was standard omakase fare — there is only one menu for 680rmb and it changes nightly — with a few surprises, like foie gras over rice with salmon eggs and a cooked arctic clam, the triangle one with the white-to-crimson gradient.

Shanghai
Shanghai
Shanghai

One of the things that makes Oyama so successful is Oyama-san, the chef. He is one of Shanghai’s great personalities and that shows in his restaurant and in his food. It’s hard for anyone to compete with that, no matter how long they’ve worked with him, but as me and my dining partner both agreed, it would be great if Liu-san had a little more presence and was a bit more engaging with the customers. Perhaps he’s shy. Perhaps he’s nervous, running his first restaurant. All in all, though, Hulu is on the right path to being a solid downtown option for when the sushi craving strikes but a Gubei adventure is one step too far.

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