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[Radar]: The Purple Onion

Only the latest & greatest from David Laris, bringing his consultant touch to the secluded patio and tiny indoor area that was once A Future Perfect. He's installed Aussie chef Lex Hauser, who's turning out a punchy and bold mix of Mediterranean and comfort dishes for sharing, in a determinedly "offbeat" Romantic Goth dining room. The expansive outdoor area is still a gem, but spaces are limited and The Purple Onion is popular, so reservations are a must.
2010-07-09 12:07:00
Area: The Purple Onion hides at the end of a Huashan Lu lane. It's connected to the Old House Inn, used to be A Future Perfect, and is not that far from the Velvet end of Julu Lu, the Hilton Hotel, Jing'an Temple, and the Huashan Hospital. I think those four cover all eventualities. Zooming out, that's right on the murky border of Jing'an and the French Concession, in downtown Puxi.

What it is: David Laris delivering his monthly restaurant. Oh, you didn't sign up for his Restaurant of the Month Club -- twelve easy restaurants delivered to your door for one low, low price? No worries. This one's open to the public. He's taken this restaurant's less than perfect past, stripped it back to the essentials -- a lovely, spacious, and secluded outdoor terrace and an intimate lanehouse dining room -- and re-tooled it. He's done a good thing by installing Aussie Lex Hauser in the kitchen.

Lex had been locked away in the M on the Bund juggernaut for a few years. Now he's ex-pavlova. Laris has given him some room to breathe and do his own thing, and dammit if he's not doing it. The "it" is a casual jumble of bold Mediterranean dishes and some comfort food, organized into a menu that starts with a couple of pages of dishes for "grazing" and then builds through salads and four pizzas to a few main courses. The desserts aren't shabby either.

Let's pick a couple dishes that illustrate what he's doing:

1. The Caprese salad: a DIY platter of good cherry tomatoes on the vine, a mound of basil, nice bocconcini, a pile of sea salt, a dish of olive oil, and a dish of syrupy aged Balsamic. Expensive ingredients, minimal fuss.

2. The chicken liver mousse/parfait: a twirl of airy and creamy chicken liver mousse, a stack of melba toast, a tart salad of cress & herbs, and the house's deep, dark purple onion jam. Simple dish, minimal fuss.

3. Garfish: a fairly off-the-radar small fish, filleted, stuffed with eggplant, peppers, and pine nuts, put back together, wrapped in sorrel and roasted, with a pair of grilled lemons and some excellent thick-cut fries. "Fish and chips", minimal fuss.

4. The chocolate sandwich: two crispy chocolate wafers, a bitter chocolate fondant, a spoonful of clotted cream. It's the kind of thing Oreos teach their children to aspire to.

There's more. A hearty chorizo and tomato dip with goat curd, soft cooked eggs, and grilled bread; two whole sardines on toast (on a tomato jam); bombillini with sherry -- six hot glorified doughnuts with chocolate and a glass of sherry. Lex's pizzas are something special, as well. One of the four should end up on your table.

Atmosphere: Offbeat, by design. Inside seats about 25 people and is done up in -- what's this? -- quirky goth. Black walls, black light fixtures, massive red portraits of dead, Romantic Europeans -- on the ceiling. There's a plastic resin buck's head mounted on the wall, too. That's a design trophy. The maroon carpet on the floor spouts some contrived weirdness with the text laid out like an eye doctor's chart. There's a small bar & lounge area, as well. Click picture #2 up at the top to see that. The space sparkles outside, though. The house's secluded terrace was no small part of A Future Perfect's initial success, and Laris hasn't done much more than put in new black wicker furniture, and, eventually a canvas covering to keep out the rain.

Damage: The grazing menu is the way to go. The tables are small, so order a few plates, eat 'em, order a few more, repeat. The grazing dishes are all 48-88rmb, the pizzas are all 58rmb, and all the desserts are at 68rmb. If there's a thread that ties Laris's recent places together, it's that he realizes how money-sensitive all you people are, and he keeps his places eminently reasonable. Without getting into the drinks menu, which the guy calls "old European cocktails", you're looking at maybe 250rmb per person. Of the many places to crop up in Shanghai's Summer of Chefs, this one falls at the cheaper -- price, not quality -- end of the spectrum. I count 45 wines under 300rmb on the list.

Who's going: Not that many people at a time, really, because it's small. The F&B people have descended on it during the last weeks, as they slowly ramped things up. The crowd seems pretty hip. You know how Laris does.