Four years ago, popular Julu Lu venue Mesa and Manifesto shuttered after landlord issues. Since then, co-founder Charles Cabell has gone on to launch Spanish eatery Bocado, while chef Michael Zhao headed to Beijing with an unrelated Mesa concept. Now the pair have teamed up again to launch Husk, an Australian-Mediterranean concept on Fengxian Lu.
Set in the shadow of Plaza 66, and opposite new espresso bar Uncle No Name the restaurant is part of a growing range of quirky dining options to open along one of the few undeveloped streets in Jingan. A strong design hand is evident in the enveloping space, which is all racing green leather and lust-worthy chairs, while dark wood walls and loungey booths give the rooms a cosy, relaxed vibe.
The menu is broadly Australian (read choice cuts of meat) and Mediterranean, but with Chinese inflections from Zhao’s hometown of Hangzhou. There’s a range of shareable appetisers such as the antipasti platter (128RMB/two people), which comes with juicy roast vine tomatoes, thick cut roast vegetables served cold and a creamy hummus for dipping. It’s a sizable platter with fresh ingredients, but needs a stronger seasoning hand to stop it falling flat.
Far stronger on the appetisers menu are the squishy seared scallops which come on baby cauliflower florets (88RMB). Topped off with a sprinkling of pomello segments cutting a tart note against the rich seafood, the dish is a standout blend of flavours.
From the list of Chinese-influenced wok dishes, the tea-braised wild duck (128RMB) sets our mouth watering from first glimpse, but doesn’t follow through with first bite. While the aromatic flavours and crispy skin are well-judged, the duck is a touch too fatty, overpowering the textures of the meat.
Another wok dish, the bullfrog with sea bass (148RMB) fares much better with big crispy bullfrog legs and fried sea bass on basil leaves (sadly, with difficult-to-chew stalks still in place); there are notes of the Taiwanese classic sanbei ji (three cup chicken) here but the flavours are lifted with a modern kick from the accompanying clear garlic and chili dipping sauce.
For dessert we get our order in early for the figs in burnt butter (58RMB), which we’re warned will take 20 minutes to bake, and which during our visit the kitchen only had one serving left. The resulting dish is disappointing. Again, the flavours are almost there, but execution lets the dish down with waxy, underbaked figs leaving a bitter taste on the palate. It’s a shame because the dish could be a promising winter favourite with more care and attention.
One area that does stand out is the bar. In the old days at Mesa, drinks were just as big a draw as the food and Husk looks set to continue that feel with the small drinks area proclaimed as a ‘martini kitchen’ in foot-high neon lights. From the cocktail menu comes some appealing signature sips which we’d be happy to return for. The Dirty Bay Martini (70RMB) is a light and refreshing take on the traditional brine-soaked number made with a fragrant bay leaf-infused gin, while the Sichuan Taste (70RMB), would benefit from a much more liberal dose of mala spice for our tastes, but is nonetheless still an intriguing mix of Chinese notes with whisky and cinnamon.
While it doesn’t quite hit the levels attained by its predecessor Mesa and Manifesto just yet, it’s still early days for Husk. The food and drinks are promising, while the space and the staff are welcoming and attentive. The potential is all there and we predict that the bar area will soon be packed with regulars. With a little more finesse in the kitchen, the restaurant could soon be teeming as well.
By Claire Slobodian