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[The Review]: Pirata

Spanish-inspired cuisine in a Japanese delivery system. We check out the new tapas concept by former el Willy acolyte Huang Ling.
2014-07-15 12:13:33
The Review is exactly that, a review, a thorough and critical look at newly-opened eateries, your guide to what's hot and what's not around Shanghai. To see our review guidelines, click here.

You'd be forgiven for assuming that Pirata is a Japanese restaurant at first blush. Devoid of any context, the place looks like a sushi bar. The walls are unadorned and painted a neutral tone. The furnishings are Spartan and simple. There is even a bar in the middle, complete with one of those Hoshikazi countertop coolers and three or four cooks meticulously plying their trade.

It's not until you sit down and see this kind of stuff leaving that bar that you realize what's going on here: Spanish cuisine in a Japanese delivery system. It's perhaps not as strange a concept as one might think. Tapas and izakaya cuisine both share a lot of similarities, for instance. Both are based on small plates meant as an accompaniment to booze. And Executive Chef Huang Ling — a former lieutenant of Willy Trullas Moreno at el Willy and Elefante — notes the similarities between sushi and pintxos. Both are small bites, she points out to me, but in Japan they use rice; in Spain they use bread. And in general, Pirata seems to prove this thesis correct. A concept like this could easily result in clumsy con-fusion, but Huang pulls it off. For the most part, it works.

Much of what Huang does skews toward classic home-style eats, like migas. Huang's version is simple. It starts with a foundation of bread that just begs to sop up the runny golden yolk of a sunny-side-up egg on top. It's then criss-crossed with a couple of asparagus spears and dusted with crispy fried shallots. It's a nicely executed combination of tastes and textures. She exhibits a flair for texture elsewhere on the menu, too, with items like tender calamari in a crisp batter that delicately clings to the rings and tentacles.

The centerpiece is Huang's "Favorite Tin Tins." Tinned preserved seafood is a staple of Spanish cuisine, and we've seen her mentor Willy popularize it at his restaurants, but Huang's taking an approach with it that's unique in Shanghai. The tins themselves serve as cooking vessels. For instance, she'll peel the top off a tin of smoked clams and place it directly over a charcoal grill. While the clams soak and simmer in their own juices, she grills a skewer of fresh leeks street side shaokao style. She does something similar with Spanish sardines as well, and it's delicious.

Other dishes in Huang's repertoire are great simply because she's got a good line on produce, like these tomatoes. All they really need is everything you see pictured: marinated onions, a light vinaigrette, ripped basil, a little dried oregano.

But there is one brief moment at Pirata where the needle awkwardly jumps the groove and scratches off the album. It's called "Radishes with Raw Milk Butter." It's just the kind of vague yet intriguing verbiage on a menu that pulls someone like me in hook, line and sinker. Often my curiosity rewards me. But this time it was a dire mistake.

You see the huge white slabs there under all of those daintily fanned out radish shavings? That's the "raw milk butter."

Take a few moments to ponder what it feels like to ingest that much solid butter in one sitting...

...Here is a visual aid.

If you're the sympathetic type, you're stomach is probably doing the same somersaults that mine was doing after eating just one of these things. Foolishly, I tried to power through. I couldn't get through half of the next one. And at that point even salvaging the radishes was a lost cause. I felt the aftermath of this butter bomb well into the next day, too.

Sorry, Pirata, you really lost me here.

But, to your credit, you made a graceful recovery with this...

Ferrero Rocher toast, little squares of rich, buttery brioche daubed with glorious globs of chocolate ganache and topped with crumbles of Ferrero Rocher candies. It's the kind of ingenious invention that an enlightened stoner who actually knows how to cook would dream up. Bravo.

All told, definitely worth a visit.

For listing of Pirata click here.