Bites & Bottle-O
Add: 246 Dan Shui Road, Shanghai 淡水路246号
Tel: +86 (21) 5308 5998
Hours: Mon-Sun 12:00pm-12:00am
Visited: May 2016
Will return: Definitely
– Please note that this was an invited tasting. –
The crème brûlée arrived at the table at 4 o’clock, infused with pandan leaves and covered with a thick crust of dark brown caramel – hardly your textbook crème brûlée. But then, it was just what I expected after three hours at this tiny restaurant by Joey Cheong and Anthony Chow, where very few things were done by the book.
First, there was the Modern Scallop Ceviche (68) made with cooked scallops. Yes, cooked. Why? Because Anthony doesn’t like the sliminess of raw scallops. So he poaches the scallops sous-vide to remove the offending texture, and then chills them to restore some form of tradition to the dish. From there he goes rogue again, marinating them with an abundance of citrus but no spice, and finishing with some chopped grapefruit and mango and a shower of fragrant lime zest. The sharp acidity and subtle bitterness that hit my tongue gradually mellowed off into the delicate sweetness of the scallops.
The formidable-looking Black Garlic Hummus (38) was a revelation. Two months of fermentation had taken away the harshness of the garlic, leaving behind a rich, almost chocolaty flavor. The chickpeas got a bit lost, but I didn’t mind.
Traditional pastas can be found on the menu, served with mushroom cream sauce or spicy Italian sausage. But we entered uncharted waters with the Scallion Oil Pasta (68). Scallion oil noodles hold a special place in the heart of many a Shanghainese. Anthony and Joey substitutes the noodles with capellini, and tops it off with tender slices of char siu and an onsen egg. The pasta coated with scallion oil was fragrant and delicious on its own, but when enriched by the egg and the sweet char siu… good old-fashioned scallion oil noodles will never be the same.
With rebellion such an integral part of the meal, the non-traditional Crème Brûlée (45) could not have been more appropriate as a finale. The pandan leaves, a herb often used in southeast Asian cuisine, imparted a wonderful flavor to the creamy custard, sharpened by the slight bitterness of the dark caramel.
Perhaps the reason why food at Bites & Bottle-O tends to deviate from tradition is that Joey and Anthony don’t have the most traditional background. When they moved to Shanghai years ago – Joey from Singapore and Anthony from Australia – both of them were working in advertising. Finding themselves single expats in an unfamiliar food scene, each of them started learning to cook because, as Anthony put it, “it was so hard to get a bowl of decent pasta in Shanghai back then.” What they started with this simple goal in mind gradually turned into get-togethers with a couple of friends, and then grew into dinner parties for thirty.
At times, eating at Bites & Bottle-O still feels like being at a dinner party. The tables that seat just 20 guests are positioned unusually close to one another, but this is as much an accommodation for the small space as a deliberate design by Anthony and Joey to bring their guests closer together. As the evening draws on, you just might find yourself at a different table than the one you sat down at earlier, sharing food and wine with people you didn’t even know a few short hours ago, and laughing together at one of Joey and Anthony’s anecdotes.
Being self-taught cooks, Joey and Anthony are not constrained by rules or recipes. Coupled with a predilection for thinking outside the box fostered by their background in advertising, it is hardly surprising that their restaurant defies definition in so many ways, right down to the very type of cuisine it serves. Hiding just beneath the illusion of traditional Spanish tapas are wildly different flavors influenced by cuisines from all around the world.
But their adventurous approach to cooking hardly means a total neglect of traditions and age-old techniques. The very first things they served us that day were some delicious oysters whose brininess was accentuated by an Asian dressing made with Anthony’s father’s recipe. The bloody Mary oyster shooters on the other side, however, were a bit overpowering with their strong dose of vodka and heat.
Their crispy roast pork, christened Thunder Pork (58) for its loud crunch, showed impeccable techniques with a crunch that was indeed loud as thunder and a meat that melted into pure pleasure in my mouth. Anthony and Joey spent three months learning and comparing the techniques of different siu mei (烧味) masters before deciding on the one they were going to use. But of course, they added their own little twist with some sweet Indonesian soy sauce, bringing a little southeast Asia into this traditional Cantonese delicacy.
The hulking Grilled Lobster (148 for half) was cooked to perfection. Preceded by the enticing waft of garlic butter, it arrived at the table charred on the outside but glistening within. Add a squeeze of lemon juice, and each bite was a direct route to happiness.
However, what shone through the most during my meal, even more than the creativity and the techniques, was the passion that stole both men from their careers in advertising, the care that they put into every single dish, and the honesty on every plate. The Garlic Prawns (58), each one tender and succulent and crispy around the edges, were served in sizzling extra virgin olive oil and a mouthwateringly aromatic garlic confit that was made to order.
A crowd favorite at Bites & Bottle-O, the Spicy Clams (58) – which was actually not so spicy but was a unanimous highlight of our meal – was another testament to the amount of care that Anthony and Joey put into their food. Rather than closing the lid and waiting until all the clams are cooked, they hover over the pot constantly and pluck each clam out the moment it opens. The result, each clam a plump little pocket bursting with flavorful juices.
The House Cured Gravlax (78), which is bought by Joey and cured by Anthony, is sliced table-side and served on a slab of white marble. The marble is meant not only to look sexy, but also to retain coolness and preserve the best flavor of the fish, allowing guests to appreciate the dish at a more leisurely pace. The subtly sweet salmon was firm instead of flaky, and tasted clean rather than greasy like it is prone to be. As Joey described most eloquently, it tasted just like “a flower blooming in your mouth.” Just as remarkable, the lemon caper cream was incredibly light, but somehow enhanced the flavor and fragrance of the fish and prolonged its finish. It is little wonder that this is a long-standing best-seller.
Another dish that invites guests into the preparation of their meal is the Blow-Torched Steak (218). After poaching to an even pink throughout, it is brought to the sushi-bar-esque counter and finished with a blow-torch. There was a certain magic in witnessing the Maillard reaction (the chemical reaction between sugar and amino acids that is responsible for the flavor in browned food) happen right before our eyes.
The beautiful steak is then sliced, and served with a roasted garlic and a dollop of mustard made 100% in-house. The garlic was sweet and rich, acting almost as a cream, while the house-made mustard was incredibly tangy.
Of course, there wouldn’t be “bottle” in “Bites & Bottle-O” if they didn’t have a great selection of wines. This beautiful steak was paired with Joey and Anthony’s favorite wine, a lovely Barossa Shiraz (468/bottle) with a striking name (“Mother’s Milk”) and an even more striking bottle.
Other wines at Bites & Bottle-O range from fruity whites from New Zealand to biodynamic reds from France. Every single wine on the shelf was tasted by both Anthony and Joey and liked by both. In Joey’s words, “We don’t believe in serving what we don’t like.”
The decor at Bites & Bottle-O is the product of two former admen living out their dream of owning a place in the former French Concession. The dining rooms overlook a quite, “Old Shanghai” street just steps away from Xintiandi. Given their background in advertising, Anthony and Joey were very particular about how they wanted their restaurant to look – which ultimately resulted in their firing the interior designer and designing every inch of the space themselves. And their attention to detail shows in the chairs, the cushions, and the seven different lamp shades about the store.
Bites & Bottle-O is also the product of two adventurous souls exploring and pushing their limits in cooking. Everything on the menu is created with their inspiration and their recipes. They are currently developing a new menu, which we can expect to see in a month or so. Also in the works is a new location in the near future, maybe even with a new concept – say quick service lunch dishing out southeast Asian flavors?
But above all else, Bites & Bottle-O is the product of two foodies-turned-chefs-and-restauranteurs bringing together their passion for food and their enthusiasm for making new friends. You won’t find anything fancy here, but everything that comes out of the kitchen is moreish, often unexpected, and always made with heart.
Special thanks to Arqiang for providing some of the photos.