The Sinan Mansions branch of upscale Japanese restaurant Uo Kura, the fourth in Shanghai and now its flagship, is an almost reverently subtle restaurant that eschews gimmicks in favour of presenting imported fish simply, but with devout attention to detail. Two top chefs from Osaka aim to recreate the experience of eating in a city often dubbed ‘the nation’s kitchen’.
The restaurant is split into two kinds of eating, with emphasis on the set menus (you can also order à la carte). Diners sitting in one of the many private rooms can order from the kaiseki menus (450-1,200RMB), which offer the Japanese equivalent of tapas; delicately prepared bites of cooked and raw foods. The 495RMB menu on our visit included eight courses with dishes including Hiroshima oysters, red snapper roe and grass-fed Wagyu beef. Consulting chef Hideaki Matsuo flies in monthly to oversee the kaiseki menu, from his Osaka restaurant, Kashiwaya, which has three Michelin stars.
The other option – which is unique to this branch – is to sit at the long L-shaped sushi counter and order the omakase menu (usually 650RMB), which consists of more than 14 courses of mostly sushi and some sashimi. Sushi chef Yutaka Kinjo, also from Osaka and heading the kitchen here full-time, was previously chef at Sushi Hirano, one of Osaka’s most prestigious sushi houses and a breeding ground for four Michelin-starred chefs.
There’s a pretty lofty pedigree, then, and the restaurant seems to have been designed to distract as little as possible from the food – the light wood space is elegantly spartan, with faint piano jazz tinkling gently in the background and brighter-than-expected spotlighting.
The first dish from the omakase menu is a tray with five tiny bowls – one contains a sous vide-poached egg yolk on snow crab jelly with shrimp and avocado pieces, a curiously tasty mix of soft textures; there’s sake-poached East Sea monkfish liver, which is slightly meatier than foie gras; and a near-ascetic fresh tofu cube topped with bitter-salty sea urchin (not to our taste).
Then comes a subtle broth filled with tofu and Hiroshima oysters, followed by the first of the raw fish plates, all served on simple granite slabs by the smiling sushi chefs behind the counter. A platter of fleshy yellowtail, red snapper and lean tuna sashimi is served with freshly-grated wasabi that disintegrates and spreads the moment it touches the soy sauce. Radishes and cucumbers appear to cleanse the palate (something repeated throughout the meal).
Numerous sushi dishes follow, which are elevated by the perfectly yielding-firm rice, a texture partly the result of the ‘extra soft’ double-filtered water they use. Sushi pieces all come with a trace of wasabi, so you don’t need to use any soy sauce. A highlight is the gold-horse mackerel sushi (45RMB/piece à la carte), a speciality imported from Nagasaki, that’s glazed with a mix of soy sauce, alcohol and sugar, left for a day and then re-glazed and served with ginger and spring onion on top.
The gold standard raw fish is the blue-fin tuna (120RMB à la carte for the regular, up to 180RMB for the fatty premium version), which Uo Kura sources through their own trading company. They say it’s as high a grade of tuna as you’ll find in Shanghai, and it’s gorgeous – rich, silky, firm pieces of marbled dark red meat that your teeth slide through like samurai swords.
Other tasty dishes include a delicate slow-cooked teapot broth with tuna stock, clams, ground roe and bamboo shoots, and a bowl of crispy crab on sushi rice topped by large fish eggs that pop in your mouth like tasty juice-filled bubble wrap. The meal is finished off with a fresh milk panna cotta with strawberries and kiwi fruit.
The selection of around 200 sakes and excellent English-speaking waitstaff round out a truly impressive experience. This isn’t a riotous restaurant – the clientele seem largely business-y, and there’s a hushed atmosphere that borders on the stiff – and nor is it cheap, though most people could happily share an omakase menu. It’s a place for food purists, which is almost OCD in the execution of the tiniest details, and with food that works like a slow seduction.