One to eat and one to drink at, one earnest and one cheeky, from opposite ends of the Earth. This week's Radar goes from the present to the future.
Quick Take: Hometown chef opens a different kind of Shanghainese restaurant
What It Is: Yang Wen spent 15 years cooking his way through a career in Italian and Mediterranean restaurants in China. Now in his thirties, the Shanghainese chef decided he’d try to cook something different: Shanghainese. But he wanted to do it his way, informed by his western background, so he opened Y’s Kitchen.
In about a month, he’s gained a following for his approach of mixing Italian and Western ingredients into classic Shanghainese dishes; for doing it at way lower prices than he could get away with; and for being a steady presence in the dining room and at the tables.
First Impressions: Fusion is a dirty word but there’s nothing shameful about Yang’s cooking. Its DNA is Shanghainese, and more often than not, his tweaks are subtle: balsamic vinegar in the sweet-and-sour-ribs or rosemary in the drunken chicken. This is not the aggressive multi-culti splicing of Xixi Bistro but neither is it the family cooking of Old Jesse. Sometimes Yang uses Italian ham instead of Chinese ham, when, for example, steaming eel or making the Huaiyang classic gansi, with fine threads of tofu and ham. He is gearing up to introduce duck ham and Italian style sausages to the food, which he is curing in a cooler in the dining room (in the back right-hand corner, for the curious). He puts a dab of black truffle paste in a gentle stir-fry of eggs, bean sprouts and shrimp. It’s subtle. Also delicious.
Especially notable is the “chrysanthemum tofu”, a small cube of soft tofu that’s been cut so finely and so perfectly, so many times, that when it’s put into chicken soup, it “blooms”, with its fine strands waving and dancing in the liquid. It’s an allusion to wensi tofu, the “10,000-cut” tofu that is rarely seen because of how damn mafan it is to do, and how few people have the knife skills to do it. Yang’s version is not 10,000 cuts. But! It’s 35rmb. A third of the price it would be in any other restaurant in Shanghai, and it’s all hand-cut.
Is it perfect? No. Some of the western ingredients are muted, whether by cooking or by intention, to the point of irrelevance. Sometimes the atmosphere is a little too loud, with Yang’s friends downing bottles of wine and inviting him to ganbei with them, and it’s probably too crowded for many. He puts a sprig of rosemary on everything. But these are minor quibbles for a restaurant that aimed to do something new, and it won’t be long before Yang and Y’s really find their feet. Already, it’s worth going.
— Christopher St. Cavish
Quick Take: Retro-futuristic 80's bar offering very uncheap cocktails from two bartending bigshots looming over Xintiandi.
What It Is: The climax to a decade-long will-they-won't-they. The name refers to the two minds behind the thing; Steve Schneider (Employees Only) allegedly caught the eye of Shingo Gokan (everything) in a bar this one time when Steve used a novelty-sized mallet to break ice. He later gifted Shingo that mallet. BFFs at first sight. When some second-floor Xintiandi real estate (formerly Devil's Share) opened up, Shingo was like "co-op?" and Steve was like "np."
Both born in '83, they wanted to build what a futuristic bar would've looked like to an 80s kid. That translated into a compact, high-volume, neon-lit cocktail joint crouched over Xintiandi's main pedestrian street, with a massive screen playing PacMan, Star Trek seats and a wall of silver 7-inch disks. Much like the bartenders' stations, the cocktail menu is split down the middle into paired taste-profiles. Steve's speed-rail concoction goes on the right, while Shingo's meticulous take on the same goes on the left. They explicitly invite comparison. They also start at 110rmb and go up from there.
First Impressions: Here, but for geography and my financially unsound drinking pace, go I. This place is for rubbing against the silky linings of F&B luminaries, marketing directors and business scions. In that way, it is 80s as fuuuuuuuck. I can't afford it as much as I want, but if I did, I'd probably even got to Xintiandi for this place.
In case it wasn't obvious, a lot of the appeal comes from its personality. Steve is a man who proudly identifies with the 80s flair tradition of bartending, because (paraphrasing here) only boring losers can't juggle three bottles at once. He's a fun guy. He'll be jetting back-and-forth between this and his other places worldwide, but expect to see him behind the bar more often than Shingo, who's busy with newly-opened SG Club in Tokyo. This place feels a lot more Steve's pace than Shingo's: I'm sure he also loves Back to the Future but I associate Shanghai's most famous bartender with French cafes and cufflinks. Steve'll be training up a mostly Shingo-alumni barstaff in his dark, flair-y arts. The burden's going to be on them to maintain the personal appeal of the bar while he's not there.
It'll be easier thanks to the menu they're working off. The paired cocktails gimmick works. Steve's big, bold and speedy approach versus Shingo's deft, pretty and measured interpretations contrast beautifully (and encourages you to buy two to compare, the sly dogs). Steve beat Shingo on my count but my companion leaned the other direction. That's good. "Sweet," just as an example, can mean vermouth and chai to one person and ice-cream and champagne to another with suspect taste. Just kidding, Shingo. It makes for a really interesting menu, and cocktails that evoke the personality of their makers are what make cocktail bars special.
The Odd Couple. It's neon as hell, it's high-volume, it's mostly standing-room, it's squeezed into a narrow U-shaped chute, the drinks are fucking expensive, and I really like it.
— Alex Panayotopoulos