In the search for the newest and trendiest restaurants in Shanghai, older, established venues will often become eclipsed in the public's eye. In "Revisited," SmartShanghai sends reviewers out for seconds at the city's familiar and long-lasting restaurants, eateries and cafes to find out what has enabled some restaurants to succeed and improve when others have been little more than flavors of the month.
Shanghai was a different place in 2002. Maybe you’ve heard. Pudong was one giant rice field. Everyone wore Mao suits. The Pearl Tower was just a sprout, one ball and no neon. No one had cars and the subway (one line!) was pulled by water buffalo.
It was into this backwards, pre-modern Shanghai that Shintori
, the restaurant, was launched, a beacon of outer space, futuristic design with crazy and creative twists on Japanese food, and a whole lot of polished concrete and glass. It was verified by Wallpaper* magazine and fawned over by those early citizens. It was achingly hip and painfully expensive.
I went back to Shintori the other night to see how it’s aged after 16 years in the Shanghai restaurant world, notorious for chewing up and spitting out restaurants at an alarming rate. It was Wednesday. The place was moderately busy. It was hard to see in the low lighting. It was still hip. It was still expensive. Some things haven’t changed.
My first mistake, apart from coming to Shintori and hoping for a great Japanese meal, was with the giant, wooden entry door. I reached out to open it, and it slid away on its own, leaving me on the bamboo entry path with one stupid hand out. I anticipated the second giant entry door, which backed away automatically, but not my reaction to the first glimpse of a restaurant I haven’t been back to in a dozen years. The lights were low and concrete stairs rose up on several sides, with the kitchen perched on a ledge, like a theatre set. This was dramatic. This was cool. This experience had aged well.
From there it was up to the mezzanine overlooking the main square, to a table with highly accurate spot lighting that beamed down onto my menu, the table and the front half of my date’s face. The atmosphere was palpable. I made a joke about this being a ‘Shanghai freshman year’ restaurant, the type of place you come early in your first year living in this city and then never return to again, while secretly hoping my own years in Shanghai and in the restaurant world would allow me to pick my way through the menu, navigating past the overpriced and outdated dishes to a respectable, if expensive, meal.
That was my second mistake.
The "Rock & Roll" salad was first to the table, a glass vase full of greens, to which a server wearing a matching black headband-and-wristband set added dressing and then shook. When he was finished, he poured the dressed greens into an oversized bowl already on the table, and then sprinkled dried Japanese bonito flakes on top. It was very 2002. It cost 120rmb, for a few leaves, a carrot stick or two, a piece of cucumber, and a radish.
That salad set the tone for the rest of the meal: mediocre and expensive. The sashimi was passable, and perhaps understandable at 320rmb, but the rest was not. Not the 180rmb single, overly sweet piece of eel on rice, the restaurant’s number one dish. Not the miso cod, a small slice of the firm fish, as sweet as a case of Skittles, and at 220rmb, about the same price. Not the soggy tempura battered avocado-and-tuna plugs (130rmb). And certainly not the beef served in a hoba leaf, six measly slices of over-sauced, overpriced meat, served on a hot stone (220rmb).
Shanghai has changed, and in some ways, it’s still the same old Shanghai. Style over substance. Sugar over flavor. Drama over skill.
Early in the evening, I posted a picture of the set-like open kitchen on my WeChat Moments. By the time the bill came, 1,330rmb for the two of us, with a single drink, it had racked up more likes, messages and comments than anything else I’ve posted in a long time. The majority came from people who have been in this city for a decade or more, feeling nostalgic for old times, I suppose, and being surprised that this dusty old memory is still going. Shintori represents a more naïve version of Shanghai, we want to believe, and a naïve version of ourselves, a time when everything in the city was new and exciting, and the possibilities for the future seemed endless. To hell with the food when the lighting is so good. Don’t we look beautiful?
I wanted to recapture that feeling on my return, and in that respect, Shintori delivered.
Shame about the food.
Shintori is at 803 Julu Lu and Fumin Lu