When it comes to group dinners when an abundance of affordable meat and liquor is called for, so often the result ends up being cheap teppanyaki. I think teppanyaki sucks. Isn’t an offer of all-you-can-eat sashimi, steak, beer and sake for under 300rmb suspicious? Where are they making their profit at a price like that? I’m not sure I want to know.
Allow me to humbly introduce you to an alternative, far more fun way to feed delicious meats to your friends and colleagues while getting them so full of liquor they fall over: Japanese BBQ Ajiya. So dependable is Ajiya, that over the years and in spite of several vicious hangovers, it has become a mainstay in my top three favorite restaurants in town.
Going by the name Ajikura in its home of Shibuya, Tokyo where it holds a fairly respectable 3.18 score on restaurant ranking site Tabelog (consider that Sushi Jiro, of movie fame, has a 4.47), Ajiya Shanghai is a place of refuge and respite for homesick Japanese expats. There are always tables of them here, pounding prodigious quantities of sake or, more commonly, whisky highballs. Know where I’ve never seen Japanese people? At 300rmb teppanyaki restaurants.
For starters, the food and drinks come quickly. I mean like, five minutes after you order quickly. Granted, you must cook everything yourself, but that's half the fun – because barbecuing bite-size chunks of meat is much easier than real grilling.
Secondly, the drinks are lethally cheap: just 25rmb for a Kirin beer topped with an amusing turd-like swirl of frozen foam, or 26rmb for a Suntory whisky highball. Sure, you could also get a Jim Beam bourbon highball for the same price, though I think we all know that for relaxing times, it really should be Suntory.
There are many different beasts to barbeque on Ajiya’s menu, but I like to order an all-beef program. This is easy since there are 21 different cuts to choose from, excluding offal (more on that later), with prices that range from 39-139rmb a plate. Start off with the leaner cuts first: things like tenderloin, marinated flank steak, or tongue, which will cook in a matter of seconds over the sear of hot charcoal.
The next step should be an Ajiya best-seller: short-rib with garlic butter, which melts in an aluminum pot on the grill while the steak cooks next to it. Does a fatty cut like short-rib really need to be dipped in butter? No, is the short answer, but god damn does it taste good.
Next, delve into what I like to call “the snake charmer,” a terracotta pot stuffed to its brim with long strips of either skirt steak or short rib, marinated in sesame oil and chopped scallions and a paltry gaggle of vegetables, present only for aesthetics. Use meat scissors to snip the strips of meat into agreeably-sized pieces and have at it.
A non-negotiable order is the “special rib-eye of cost sales” – a single, plate-sized slice of wagyu heaven for 139rmb. Though many of the other fattier cuts work well with a bit of char on them, and are scored in such a way to maximize their surface area for crust, this prime-dime rib-eye wants just a few seconds over the charcoals before it’s ready to be enjoyed. Ideally, you would do this with Ajiya’s specialty rice, topped with sesame, white pepper, scallions and a raw, quivering egg yolk.
For those with tastes unburdened by constraints, offal is the next level. You can go as hardcore as pig uterus, all four bovine stomachs, hearts or sweetbreads (which charmingly go by the French ris de veau on the menu), but miso-marinated beef intestines are the way to go here. Charred, smoke-infused and wonderfully fatty, beef intestines have none of the farm odor of their porcine counterparts.
Lastly, cool down with a bowl of iced noodles flavored with salty and tangy Japanese pickled plum, tomatoes, cucumber and shiso leaves – the only vegetables I eat at this most primal institution. I once saw a girl nearly lose an eye trying to grill a platter of exploding sweetcorn here, so it's really for your own safety.
Sure, there are other, vastly more luxurious yakiniku restaurants than Ajiya, where the beef is so marbled it makes foie gras look lean and smiling kimono-clad servers do the grilling for you. But there’s nothing quite like walking into a place where the cheerfulness of affordable DIY BBQ reigns, where you can sink five whisky highballs, eat rib-eye and and still walk out with change for 300rmb. Nobody comes here begrudgingly or leaves feeling miserable, and I suspect the true power of Asian barbecue is its ability to bring even the most socially awkward people together over the shared fun of an all-meat diet.
Ajiya is at 4/F, 1333 Huaihai Zhong Lu, near Baoqing Lu. For the full listing, click here.