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Mr Willis

Oct 19, 2009
by Christopher St Cavish

Area: Mr Willis is on the third floor of a building that's been converted by the food arts: 195 Anfu Lu. The first floor is Craig Willis's new boutique pizza parlor, La Strada; the second floor is under construction, but heading towards a Japanese restaurant (the last we checked); a portion of the first floor is an as-yet-unannounced concept -- a prepared foods takeaway slash deli slash grocery? That's just speculation. Third floor is Mr Willis.

Amokka, a neighborhood cafe, is next door, the Dramatic Arts Center is across the street, and Enoteca is across Wulumuqi Lu, on the next block.

In the bigger picture of things, that's towards the top of the French Concession.

What it is: Craig Willis's homebase. Willis has spent the last several years as the group chef for Wagas and its related ventures. You might have guessed from the name -- this one's his own. It's a big, relaxed sigh of relief, this place, the kind you might have after opening 4,987 stylish sandwich-and-smoothie shops, and then doing something for yourself. He's taken all that hard-earned experience and applied it to something personal, an intimate, casual little restaurant that's dressed as an apartment, seats fifty people, and feels like a friend's dinner party.

If you had a dream kitchen, a team of cooks and dishwashers, and some motivation, you might make this stuff at home --- grilled scallops and curried lentils with an intense roast tomato chutney, a frisee salad with bacon and a poached egg, rack of lamb with mashed peas and mint sauce, Mr Willis fettucini with mushrooms, butter, and thyme, a simple but delicious roast chicken with pumpkin.... It's comforting, casual bistro stuff. Right underneath the 800 gram Mr Willis Roast Beef (for two), the menu reads: "Vegetarians -- Talk to Mr Willis".

If you want pizza, there's the full menu from La Strada, downstairs. If you want a plate of French unpasteurised cheese, it's 128rmb. If you just want some easy antipasti and a plate of prosciutto or bresaola, that's there too.

Atmosphere: You're in the guy's apartment. And he's got a nice place. You've got to truck it up three flights of stairs to get there, but once you do, you're home. There's a lounge-slash-living room, knick-knacks on shelves, and a dinner table, off to the side of the dining room. Floor-to-ceiling folding windows frame a tiny terrace overlooking the street; an open kitchen -- what's this called in apartment-speak? integrated kitchen?; and a nice mix of rustic touches and modern design: rough reclaimed wood floor, delicate Japanese ceramic vases, low-hanging lamps that look like the Kremlin's onion domes, and warm rugs. It's the apartment you'd like to have, but will never, ever own. You can have dinner in it for a night, though.

Damage: I'd use Mr Willis in three ways and at three different prices levels, paralleling the growth of a relationship. First, as a date place. It's positively dripping with date atmosphere, the menu doesn't demand any kind of intimidating food prerequisites, and the big plates and presentation of the food encourages you to share. Interaction. It's key. First date, I'd expect to spend 500rmb per couple. That's not including wine, but there are plenty of nice bottles under 300rmb.

Once that blossoms into something long-term, I'd use Mr Willis as my Sunday night dinner spot -- the committed couples' date. Something simple and comfortable. Maybe the roast chicken for two, with the frisee, poached egg, and bacon salad, and some mashed peas with mint, or a pizza from La Strada, a green salad, and a bottle of wine. That'd be a bit cheaper -- 400rmb, maybe, without the wine. Two hundred a piece -- by this point, everyone's paying their own way.

Finally, when you've turned dating into marriage, and your socializing involves taking the kids along with you, I'd use it as a spot to have dinner with another couple and their kids. Split the 800g steak, get the kids some fried potatoes with rosemary and garlic, or a bowl of fettucine, and linger with a plate of cheese and a bottle of Bordeaux. That's a bit more expensive.

Who's going: I saw all three of these situations last weekend. I'd guess the crowd here is going to trend young thirties and forties, moderately stylish, possibly employed in eco-friendly business enterprises or the "creative industries". If you've gotta compare, Mr Willis is much closer to roomtwentyeight than Wagas, and you'll probably find people who enjoy the former here as well.
First week of October

3/F, 195 Anfu Lu,
near Wulumuqi Lu


5404 0200

Daily, 5-11pm

Salads and starters, 42-78rmb;
Mains, 78-218;
Desserts, 48-56rmb
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