Just a few metres separate Bocca from the relocated El Willy at the South Bund 22 complex, yet the two restaurants are worlds apart. Despite the move from its popular Donghu Lu location, El Willy still offers the Spaniard’s signature vibrancy, both in its casual menu and the brightly coloured decor – an ebullient environment which is in stark contrast to its Italian neighbour Bocca’s restrained, studious interior and refined atmosphere.
That’s not to say Bocca is dull, but it clearly has its sights set on being a high-class Bund-side establishment to match the likes of M or Jean Georges, and the decor and prices mirror these lofty ambitions. If you’re dining as a couple (and Bocca is very much a date restaurant), and order a bottle of wine with your meal, you’ll be lucky to walk out spending less than 1,000RMB. Such a price bracket is hardly unheard of beside the Huangpu, but it does mean expectations are equally high.
The quality of the ingredients is good, the cooking skilful, and thankfully, Bocca doesn’t take ‘upmarket’ to mean ‘miniscule portions’. But for the most part, Bocca fails to bring anything outstanding to the table, and it’s not a place for blow-you-away culinary invention. This is evidenced with dishes that are pleasant but not particularly memorable, such as the starters of caprese (148RMB) and gnocchi (138RMB), the latter dominated by the flavour from slices of truffle despite a rich tomato sauce.
Mains include salmon (178RMB) which comes atop thin slices of fennel stalk and is garnished with orange segments and balsamic, providing a light, citrusy balance to the chunks of extremely tender fish. On the heartier side is a large grilled T-bone steak (368RMB), which is served on a slate with a neat stack of sliced potato, a small pot of slow-cooked cannelloni beans, and – somewhat superfluously – a cup of ‘aromatised ash oil’.
Bocca gets the basics right, carefully following the well-trodden path of Bund-side dining, but something makes you long for a bit more excitement, a bit more flair. For that, of course, you needn’t look too far.