Add: 550 Wuding Road, Shanghai 武定路550号
Phone: +86 (21) 5266 5536
Price: 250-350; wines by the glass 68-98, bottles from 300
Visited: May 2020
With physical travel now a distant dream, SOiF is possibly just what I needed. This natural wine bar, which materialized quietly at the end of last year on a somewhat unlikely stretch of Wuding Road, would feel at home anywhere from New York to Paris to Copenhagen — a tantalizing spiritual getaway in these trying times.
SOiF is the kind of place you want to revisit. You’ll want to bask in the chill yet welcoming mood. You’ll want to sample all their wines by the glass, and then dive into the sizable cellar curated by the team behind Vinism, one of Shanghai’s earliest and most well-liked natural wine bars. And most assuredly, you’ll want to work your way steadily through the collection of exceedingly likable small plates conceived by Mr. Freddy Raoult of The Nest Group.
Often at wine bars, food can be relegated to a supporting role, a few bites of this and that to keep the wine flowing — not so at SOiF. It is little surprise that Mr. Raoult, who helms the kitchens of perennial hotspots The Nest and The Cannery, understands laid-back refinement as well as any other chef in the city. For SOiF, he has pulled together a menu that is endearingly easygoing, but underpinned with the kind of gentle expressiveness and quiet sophistication that we experienced at his two-month pop-up The Perch last fall. The food is hardly groundbreaking, yet nearly everything I’ve sampled here has made me want to come back for more.
At first glance, most dishes on the menu appear to be fairly self-explanatory: duck liver mousse, sardines on toast, white asparagus with Iberico ham… Once you dig in, however, you will start to see those little sleights-of-hand that Mr. Raoult has tucked into every crevice. They are too polite to yell for your attention, but they smile and wave when you notice them.
Take that highly convincing duck liver mousse, rich and airy and velvety in a glass jar — everything you want it to be. Yet what makes it stand out is the uncommon heft and body it gains from the additions of sweet plum wine and nutty brown butter, blending into a singular, enveloping decadence.
It isn’t exactly news that white asparagus takes well to Iberico ham. But you might not expect how readily this spring delicacy responds to the bright acidity of fermentation; or how dots of blue cheese cream can transform the whole image when they reveal themselves in unexpected, delightful explosions. All the flavors are sharply defined, full of angles and character. For sardines on toast, the kitchen dips the toast in a vibrant gazpacho, whose fugitive tomato sweetness helps modulate the punchy sardine. The toast – and the sourdough accompanying that duck liver mousse – both come from local bakery MBD, and they leave nothing to be desired.
Every wine bar should have charcuteries. Self-respecting ones, like SOiF, make them in-house: streaky coppa that melts on the tongue in a wave of luscious fat; pork sausage spiked with paprika (also used to break up a bowl of lavish Bolognese laced with a gentle, thrilling heat); mounds of rich, luxurious pork rillette… But my favorite, after several encounters, remains the ruby-colored duck prosciutto lined with ivory fat: savory, inviting, and endlessly intriguing — this has depth and dimension in spades.
So do gleaming slices of cured trout, elegantly equipped with trout roe and crème fraîche, all to be piled upon thick chunks of warm, weightless blinis. So, too, does the vivid bowl of oxtail Borscht that tastes almost contrary — tangy and radiant enough for summer, yet simultaneously deep and satisfying enough to offer comfort in the dead of winter.
While certainly not the goal here, many of these dishes can easily stand on their own. The charcuterie platter and the assertive Borscht, on the other hand, definitely call for some wine from SOiF’s striking glass cellar, which shows off a respectable collection of natural wines that includes plenty of quirky bottles. I would have liked to tell you that it was love at first sight, but in truth, the Sauvignon Blanc from the Czech Republic recommended by the sommelier on my first visit fell a bit flat.
Fortunately, I had much better luck on subsequent visits, when I decided to play it safe and order from the by-the-glass selection, scribbled in cheerful yellow block letters on the mirror behind the bar (six to ten wines on any given day, with almost no overlap across three visits). So far, this approach has yielded a perfectly poised Sancerre; another juicy Sauvignon Blanc, also from the Loire Valley; a crisp, refreshing Chenin Blanc from South Africa; as well as a zesty Savagnin from Jura.
Just as you would find at homologs in Paris or New York, some of the dishes at SOiF are inflected with a contemporary, global-minded understanding. The ubiquitous beef tartare gets perked up with matchsticks of zesty pear, a persistent undertone of sesame, and a jolt of sharp, spicy kimchi. The menu bills this beef tartare as “of the moment,” which begs the question of what Mr. Raoult will pull out in a few months.
Equally captivating is the “Shanghai-Toulouse” cassoulet. Looking at the dish, you might mistake the confit duck leg on top for the star. But it is the spicy white bean stew underneath that draws you in with its evolving heat and flowing acidity, to say nothing of those little goodies that turn up every other bite: curls of soft, gelatinous pork skin; savory hunks of tender pork shoulder; tripes that retain just enough bite to be interesting; and nuggets of creamy, spreadable blood sausage with an appeal similar to ‘nduja, fortifying the beans with just a hint of iron tang. This border-crossing bowl is a scintillating balance of comfort and excitement.
Dessert produces a familiar face from The Perch: the piercing melange of shredded beetroot, raspberry and yogurt is a fail-proof cure for wine-fueled drowsiness. If you’d rather not be shocked wide awake, there is also a dense, bacon-sprinkled chocolate cake to prolong the haze.
One obstacle — and quite possibly the only one — to whiling away an entire evening here is the sound level when the house is full (which, from what I’ve seen across several visits, appears to be every single night). The combination of good food, flowing wines and hard, unforgiving concrete can amplify conversation to eardrum-pounding decibels. But to be fair, this would probably be par for the course at any wine bar that performs as well as SOiF.