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If you eat out regularly in Shanghai, which is most of us, then you know who Eduardo Vargas is. From Bam-bou to Casa 13 and the newly opened Closed Door, which we reviewed earlier this month, resta...
2008-12-02 15:12:00

If you eat out regularly in Shanghai, which is most of us, then you know who Eduardo Vargas is. From Bam-bou to Casa 13 and the newly opened Closed Door, which we reviewed earlier this month, restaurateur Vargas is on his way to becoming a household name among expats in this city (Editor's note: Vargas is on record as a partner of Osteria, but the restaurant is run by others parties).

His latest addition to French Concession dining is Osteria -- hosting its official opening party this Thursday -- another well-designed, see-and-be-seen spot for dates, drinks or dinner parties. I immediately liked the four dimly lit floors of east-meets-west motif, especially the walls of exposed Chinese brick and original wooden rafters. What I didn't like was the pseudo-romantic Italian music. I wasn't on a date and if I were, I still would have raised my eyebrows.

Vargas has already proven that he knows how to decorate a restaurant, refashioning old lane houses while leaving some of the best original aspects for authenticity and tradition. But, like a date with a pretty face and nothing to say, we were looking for substance over appearance.

The concept behind Osteria is pay once, eat twice -- the entire menu that is. Guests are encouraged to sign up for the 198rmb prix fixe menu that consists of every antipasti and pasta on the menu and one main course. You can ask for seconds if you particularly enjoy a dish, but, after the feast we had, I can't imagine for the life of me how anyone could want more. This type of voracious dining is best shared among as many people as possible and Osteria has the space for it, including a private room for up to 26 guests. However, there is a 10% service charge for groups of eight or more.

Lucky for me, the prix fixe menu is a reviewer's dream. I was able to try almost everything on the menu. It begins predictably with a platter of Italian cold cuts and pitted olives, moves on to tender scallops and tasty smoked salmon, and then settles at the grand finale of the antipasti menu -- grilled calamari served atop a delicate pea shoot salad with subtle anchovy vinaigrette. Where did this delicious inspiration come from and why had we never heard of a pea shoot salad!? Apparently, it is a favorite of the wife of Nigel Bose, Osteria's chef. Aww, such spousal deference -- these two lady diners were won over.

Unfortunately the pastas were less inspired. The gnocchi with braised rabbit was passable, but the red wine reduction didn't offer enough flavor. I'm also not sure that gnocchi, the heaviest member of the pasta family, is the right choice for a meal with so many preliminary servings. The second pasta in a chili-tomato sauce had a generous serving of seafood but it didn't taste fresh and the presentation was sloppy.

Six dishes later, our main course arrived. We ordered the succulent veal shank on fried polenta and the yellow tail snapper that somehow achieved the perfect balance of crispness and moistness. If I can offer some advice, go easy on the pastas and save room for the mains. They are well-proportioned and worth the wait.

It's difficult to imagine going to Osteria and not ordering the prix fixe menu. To do otherwise would be a false economy. The calamari and pea shoot salad is 78rmb on its own and the mains are 128rmb. Even if you skip the pastas, the fixed menu is a great deal. Add another 98rmb and your server will select three types of wine to accompany each course. (It's called a wine flight and yes, its good value for your kuai.) Wine is available separately as well at a fixed price for several vintages.

With Osteria, Vargas has enhanced his reputation in Shanghai's restaurant business and offered us something different yet again.