Oha Eatery 知觉食堂
Add: 23 An Fu Road, Shanghai 安福路23号
Tel: +86 (21) 136 2164 7680
Hours: [lunch] 11:00-14:00; [dinner] 17:00-22:00
Price: [lunch set] 68-120; [à-la-carte] 100-200
Visited: January 2018
Will return: Yes
Oha Eatery is not the easiest place to find. The storefront is an inconspicuous coffee window whose only sign is a cursive script above that simply reads “coffee.” Unless you know what you’re looking for, you are unlikely to suspect a restaurant hidden behind it, and almost just as unlikely to notice a small print on the opposite wall that says “Oha Eatery.”
But I did know what I was looking for. So, it would seem, did the dozens of guests that made up a full house every time I visited. And once I got in, I wanted to stay all night.
Walking into Oha Eatery isn’t precisely like entering a friend’s house, but it comes pretty close. The palette is neutral, warm, and unostentatious. A long wooden counter wrapping around the room is surrounded by 24 seats, none of which tend to stay empty for more than a few minutes. Ocean blue napkins are folded over smoke blue pottery, adorning the counter’s mellow wood grains like a sapphire necklace. At one corner of the counter stands a tall floral arrangement, different on each of my visits.
There are only two people running the front of house, bustling about in the narrow space between the counter’s long arms. But they move with practiced efficiency and unfailing smiles, and manage to look only a little bit frantic even when the dining room is filled to the brim. And the smooth jazz flowing through the room manages to evoke such a relaxing vibe that it seems easier to forgive some missed cues in service, like empty plates that sit in front of us for too long.
What those plates held before we cleared them could best be described as Guizhou food made with modern sensibility. One of the two chefs at Oha Eatery hails from Guizhou, so it is no surprise that many of the dishes have their roots in the cooking of that province. Those familiar with what that entails would notice the prominent role of chili all over the menu, as well as a penchant for fermentation.
But it doesn’t take a connection to Guizhou food to appreciate Oha’s offerings, or to recognize the skills enfolded within the layers of flavors. An unremarkable halved potato with an equally unremarkable name (“potato and radish”) is a pocket full of surprises, thanks to an invisible but highly noticeable purée of lightly pickled radish blended into the hollowed-out flesh of the potato. The smooth, earthy sweetness is punctuated by bits of crispy bacon, as well as pinpricks of heat from a side of chili powder. Loaded potato skin doesn’t get much better than this.
Potato and radish (28)
Preserved egg (a.k.a. century egg), a staple in many Shanghainese households but a rarity in restaurants, makes a marvelous sauce for blistered strips of bell pepper. Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?
Burnt bell pepper and preserved egg (22)
Pork and mashed beans, a less adventurous idea, still pulls off some surprises because the kitchen manages to coax such an abundance of flavors out of this classic pairing. The beans are sweet, then savory, finishing with a smoky, fermented depth and a tickle of heat. Thick slices of pork belly are addictive with their sweet smokiness, while some coarse-ground meatballs are loose in texture but packed with flavor, with little cubes of water chestnut running through them for some crunch.
Pine wood smoked beans and pork (58)
True to the restaurant’s Guizhou roots, heat and spices pop up all over the place, but they are employed with judiciousness. Sichuan peppercorn, a spice that is usually sharp and fierce, is applied at Oha Eatery with a gentleness and finesse I never imagined possible. Wafers of fried tofu skin filled with pork mince has its fragrance insinuated into every crevice, with just enough of an echo on the tongue to register. A gorgeously full-bodied beef and mushroom broth is laden with herbal freshness at the front and a whisper of heat at the back, followed by a faint numbing sensation on the tongue from some green peppercorn oil. The flavors go on and on, its echo seeming to glimmer in the air a moment before dissipating.
Fried tofu skin with meat (20)
Glazed beef shin (105)
Chili heat is also given a rare level of nuance. A thick, rough-edged sauce binds together pieces of deep-fried chicken thighs, roasted baby potatoes, and chewy konjac. The heat starts softly, picking up layer upon layer of intensity until the tongue buzzes with its force. The chicken isn’t as moist as it could be, but the sauce is perfectly addictive with some rice, and just as compelling with their lovely house-made focaccia.
Mountain style chili chicken (62)
Lard rice (20)
Smoked farmhouse pork is shredded and served like a rillette, and infused with a chili oil of uncommon depth that seeps seductively into toasted mantou slices. Whipped chicken liver runs along the same veins, underpinned with strong notes fermentation from orange coins of chili gel and the bright acidity of pickled celery. Dried strips of candied beetroot accentuate the robust flavors, and stop just there.
Smoked farmhouse pork, fermented chili (39)
Whipped chicken livers, fermented chili, celery (46)
The rillette-style pork and whipped chicken liver clearly bear the mark of chef Blake Thornley, the other half of Oha’s kitchen duo. Originally from New Zealand, Mr. Thornley got his background in Indonesian-French fusion from his years as chef-de-cuisine at celebrated Bali restaurant Mozaic. Now, he is transferring his sensibility for uniting different cuisines to his creations at Oha.
That sensibility also manifests itself in an attention to textures. Tender seared king prawns are underscored by a delicate smoked tofu purée, a soft shroud of batter around batons of tofu, as well as a sharper crunch from tempeh crumble. Pearls of tapioca, cubes of parsnip, and sweet stems of parsnip chips save a bowl of seared crayfish from ordinariness. The cook on the prawns and the flavors of the crayfish don’t quite hit the spot for me, but the ideas are clever.
King prawns and tofu (92)
Seared yabbies (90)
The only dessert at the moment is a basil mousse that plays with textures in a different way. A powdered mix of malt, formula milk, and white chocolate paves the way for an undulating wall of basil mousse and a subtly spiced turmeric sorbet. Everything melts on the tongue at the same time. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is undoubtedly intriguing.
Basil mousse (48)
Many of the dishes here lean toward the saltier, heavier end of the spectrum, and are probably designed with their wine and cocktail programs in mind. Owned by the same group as Bar No. 3, it is no surprise that Oha’s cocktails are well liked. A short but thoughtfully-curated wine list is notable both for the presence of several skin-contact wines, and for the options of half-glass, glass, and half-bottle.
At just over 2 months old, Oha Eatery certainly still has its issues. Service could be smoother, and some of the cookery leaves room for improvement. But it already has a lot going for it. The plates are unfailingly gorgeous compositions that possess a kind of lyrical sensibility rarely found in Chinese restaurants – much less somewhere you can leave very happy spending just RMB150 per head.