Welcome back. So, after last month's low-rent trip to the Westside and some cheaper options, we spent a bundle on The Bund (sorry), then rolled back to Julu Lu for a Shanghai classic.
Good for: Families, and friends who haven't gone to bed yet.
Available: Sat & Sun, 11.30am-3.30pm
Remember the kind of deals we used to get in Shanghai seven years ago when Azul was on Dongping Lu? It was always way more than anyone should reasonably ingest. Since those bygone days, it has been tough to find a brunch deal of equal measure in terms of quality and quantity. el Willy’s new brunch comes very close, at 200rmb per person, or 300rmb with free-flow cava. The food is lighter fare, but with five courses, you will get your fill. Plus, the no-frills Spanish is a boon to those of us who need something healthy to help with recovering from the weekend.
The restaurant feels quite different from a typical Bund venue -- no dim lights highlighting a dark wood floor here, and the space is flooded with sunlight from windows that surround the dining area. If you’re hung-over, bring sunglasses. It’s bright to the point where make-up is necessary to hide those pores if you want to take advantage of sunlit brunch photo-ops. Otherwise, make sure your after-party crew are all on the same level of hot mess. On this occasion, the Latin music was a bit too loud, but once the live Spanish guitar got going, that’s when it all felt rustic and familiar.
At 11.30am, just five tables were occupied, but the place was full and jumpy by 1pm, mostly with a mixed crowd of families. Luckily, all the tykes seemed very well-behaved.
So, the food. For 200rmb, you get to choose five dishes from several categories: Cold Tapas, Organic Eggs, el Willy Rice, and Hot Tapas. On this occasion, three diners ended up trying 15 dishes. The mind-boggling aspect of the menu is that it is all entirely traditional. Those expecting the creative twists and small bits of pizazz that Willy infuses his dishes with might be surprised by the flavors and presentation here, which differ very slightly from Las Tapas or Bocado. But at 200rmb for five dishes, this brunch is still a steal.
Despite the food lacking any "wow" factor, it's fresh, authentic, and satisfying. Croquettes are often too heavy, but the truffled ones here are quite nice, their small size countering their creamy richness within. The gazpacho is going to be a favorite in the summer. First, it’s hard to get wrong, and second, who doesn’t like a good gazpacho? Tag on an additional 100rmb for free-flow cava, and you’ll have yourself a spoiled, carefree afternoon.
One point: this is not a brunch for a hot date. The brightness of lunchtime means a meal with more familiar friends, lovers, or family. Take your honey to el Willy in the evening instead for a proper dinner.
Full brunch listing
Good for: Nordic fare, families, and Bloody Marys
Available: Sundays, 11am-2pm
Bacardi-backed gastro lounge The Nest recently began their new Sunday brunch series, offering a “smörgåsbord of north country inspired brunch dishes and Grey Goose cocktails.” The Nest pulsing with shrieks of children and illuminated by soft morning light rather than that massive neon vertebrae is a decidedly more sobering experience. The crowd is a split of expat families, fu-er-dai’s glued to their iPhones, and upwardly-mobile Chinese couples with little emperors in tow, like a suited up, hipper-than-thou six year old with an electric blue hairdo and leather pants. We are not worthy.
So, 198rmb gets you three dishes and a “Yakult Fizz” welcome drink, which is just Grey Goose and that drinking yogurt Yakult. It's faintly flavored but goes down easy enough. Additional dishes are 68rmb and Grey Goose brunch cocktails start from 58rmb. They don't give out free water so be prepared to splash out on 48rmb bottles of Acqua Panna.
The menu is split into sections based on characteristics like "Eggy", "Crispy", "Fishy", "Meaty" and so on, with the seafood section dominating, unsurprisingly. The Nest’s Nordic take on eggs Benedict turned out to be the star of the show, a perfect 65-degree egg served on a toasted brioche topped with house cold-smoked Norwegian salmon. The dollop of lightly-whipped hollandaise sauce with a hint of dill is a nice touch.
Oysters also get a Nest treatment with the Oyster ‘Rockbund-Fella’, four small Fines de Claire baked with herbs and buttery croutons. As for the rest of the food, the Cod Fishcakes, a collaboration with Icelandic fish-purveyor-about-town Biggie, has the same addictive vodka-spiked batter as The Nest’s famous fish and chips, but the codfish gets a bit lost in the mushiness of potato inside. The Brioche French Toast was one of the best dishes, perfectly glazed and caramelized, with a light Bacardi rum sauce.
Lithuanian ‘Kugelis' -- crispy potato pancakes topped with bacon bits, sour cream, and chives -- were perfectly textured, but severely over-salted and basically inedible on this visit; maybe just an oversight on that day. Then there is the Brunch Flap Meat ‘Platter’, a modest serving of tasty charcoal-grilled Aussie Wagyu flap meat paired with steak fries rather than the proclaimed mixed greens, but what are details anyway? It’s also worth noting that The Nest’s famous Sunday oyster deal is not available during lunch hours, which we discovered upon receiving our bill despite explicitly asking our server for the 98rmb oyster special.
If the food doesn’t perk you up, the drink specials will, especially the Espresso XO Martini, a potent dose of Grey Goose and Patron XO tequila with double bitter espresso, and what is probably the best Bloody Mary in town -- heavy on the seasonings and spices and served with ricotta-stuffed tomato and olive.
Overall a very solid option for brunch, with reasonably priced food and drinks, and a space open enough to remain chill despite the inevitable ‘families-with-hyperactive-kids’ set.
Full brunch listing
Good for: Chill vibes and vegetables, a bit of escape, and lots of food for not much money.
Available: Daily, 11am-2pm
Shanghai has a caste of F&B royalty that have made it (or nearly made it) to the 15-year mark. These rare places include Time Passage, Cotton Club, C's Bar, M On The Bund, Jenny's Blue Bar, Da Marco, and Nepali Kitchen. That last one, which will live on forever in the pages of Lonely Planet, has been on Julu Lu for 15 years for good reason -- solid food, friendly service, big private rooms, and the feeling of leaving Shanghai and fading into an upscale hostel full of plants, Nepalese art, and cushions. One friend from Nepal described it thus: "It's legit. It's run by actual Nepalese dudes, not Indians pretending to be Nepalese", though the menu does involve quite a bit of Indian fare and Tibetan influence.
They serve a few set menus daily from 11am to 2pm. Technically that's brunch time on the weekend, but whatever you call it, it's good. The 55rmb set is meatless and involves lentils, cauliflower and potatoes, some spinach with cumin, sweet yogurt, and some sauces, plus coffee or tea. You will walk away full, but not in that oily, gut-clenching way that can happen with South Asian meals. More like, "I feel chill and spiritually cleansed." If meat is necessary (it's not), you can add beef, chicken, or lamb for 15rmb, plus the full menu is available, including beer, wine and several Nepalese dishes worth ordering, like the Nepalese grilled meats (sekuwa, choila, mutton ribs) the momos (dumplings), and the shalabey (deep fried meat patty). Unfortunately, the chai -- which is milker and not as spicy as Indian chai -- is not one of the tea options, but it's 25rmb to add.
On a recent Sunday, raindrops fell on the skylights in the serene garden zone as sunlight fought to shine through and Nepalese music flowed softly from the speakers. Despite arriving at nearly 2pm, the staff served everyone promptly, including a French family of ten. Outside, the eternal train of new new new Shanghai F&B kept on truckin', but that doesn't matter much here in the 15-year club. May they last another 15, their Dianping rating forever strong.
Full brunch listing