In a city of overwrought speakeasies and neon-lit spaces meticulously crafted for social media, it’s refreshing to stumble upon an outlier from the trend. And an outlier, Ars & Delecto certainly is. Simple and unassuming, the two-storey Jinxian Lu café-bar from the Tokyo group Small Axe – who are behind Bar Trench (no 16 on Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2018), Tram and Triad – occupies the space where Citizen Café once was. Casually outfitted like a neighbourhood bar, decor on the first floor can almost be described as sparse – a few framed 1920s-style European adverts for Fernet-Branca and Campari hung on the wall, wooden café tables and a simple white marble bar.
Drinks here are equally as unfraught, with a simple one-pager menu of classics (think espresso rum martinis and a Venetian-style spritz), highballs and signatures. The rum-based Blueberry Hill arrives in a teacup, fruity from blueberry but not sweet, well-balanced with fino sherry, a touch of lemon and a dollop of mascarpone cheese cream. The very quaffable Ars & Delecto take on a Bloody Mary swaps strawberry puree in for tomato juice, layering in a sweet, fruity element on top of the vodka and chilli, with a squeeze of grapefruit for acidity.
Upstairs, where a slightly more polished sitting room and bar stretches out towards a small terrace, things get more interesting – and prices jump accordingly. Starting from 100RMB and climbing to 125RMB, cocktails here don’t come cheap, but on one chilly November night visit, every one of the five we down is a homerun. The drinks’ unfussy, clean looks belie the thoughtful architecture behind their creation. A smoky, mezcal-forward Crystal Ruby Punch comes with gorgeous, clear red, but with a wonderfully surprising velvety mouthfeel (from clarifying the cocktail with milk) and layers of flavour from Calvados, oolong tea, hibiscus and lime. Another brilliant mezcal cocktail, Blood and Root, blends beetroot with yogurt, dill and a bright spot of lime for a drink that’s at once sweet, smoky and earthy. A wonderfully aromatic riff on a Martinez sees chai-infused vermouth married with gin, maraschino and orange bitters.
There’s something sentimental and supremely comfortable about Ars & Delecto, fitting for a neighbourhood bar. The Lao Shanghai aims to recall the feeling of walking into the city’s antique shops with the smell of wood, smoke, spices and fruit skin and the heady mix of Ardbeg 10 year old, pear liqueur, cinnamon, orange peel and tiki bitters makes for a serious winter cocktail before you trundle off into the night.
Average cocktail 95RMB
By Cat Nelson