Familiar meets fabulously quirky at el Willy, Shanghai

Friday night in Shanghai, and what better way to end the working week than with another cracking meal, on top of what had already been a pretty impressive showing on the food front. One of my Shanghai colleagues (and friend) had organised a group dinner with some of the other expats in the office as a fun way to end the week, and from what I could make out, another great excuse (as if any at all were required) to go back to what is arguably their favourite and most frequented restaurant in the city. It helps that the partner of one of these expat colleagues is the head chef, but I have zero doubt that it would be the same situation were he not. It’s a very cool place.

When I was told that this dinner had been arranged, I was told that it was Spanish, tapas. ‘But like you’ve never experienced before – really different, cool stuff, just wait and see!’ No pressure then elWilly! It delivered, and was exactly on brief.

First off, it’s a great location, on the Bund, with views of Shanghai lit up at night. And the interior décor is cool and quirky, you can immediately feel that this place has personality. We had a particularly special welcome (which included cava) having connections to the chef and all, but regardless of that, the staff were warm and welcoming, you’re immediately off to a good start. Then the food starts coming. As per traditional tapas style, the menu is designed to be shared for the table. We did the chef’s menu, so just let him bring whichever treats he fancied showing us.

It is the perfect mix of traditional Spanish meets modern cooking – a new take on ingredients, Spanish or otherwise, but not going as far as molecular gastronomy. Just really interesting unexpected textures and flavours.sea urchin

So we started with traditional; pan con tomate, tasty toasted olive oil bread with perfectly seasoned ripe tomatoes. Simple. But delicious. Then a little of the inventiveness, little crispy squid ink crackers topped with soft salty sea urchin. Next came what is one of their signature dishes and my favourite; smoked salmon drizzled with truffle honey on top of a crispy ‘explosive’ pastry shell filled with sour cream. Amazing.

salmon

Then back to the traditional with juicy garlic prawns and croquetas (although these were truffle croquetas, so a little modern twist on the jamon perhaps), modern interruption again with lobster ceviche in little taco shells with chilli and lime, and turning perhaps South American in influence with sea bass with sweetcorn & coriander & celery leaves.

The came a couple of very clever modern twists on classic flavours; egg and chorizo, and ham and cheese. The first was a soft little choux bun, topped with crispy chorizo and a savoury egg white meringue. When you cut into it, a soft quails egg yolk oozed out.

The second was a crispy torbacon and cheesepedo-shaped bread stick wrapped in hot serrano ham and filled with gooey cheese. Both delicious.

By this point, whilst they were all little morsels, we were getting fairly full. But what Spanish meal would be complete without Spanish omelette, patatas bravas and some good meat? All dishes perfectly executed and the steak cooked wonderfully rare.

And then, just to make sure we didn’t leave hungry, the last savoury dish was the rice. Not paella but risotto – cheesy, truffled and with the sweetness of butternut squash.

There was a well-needed pause before the pudding finale. ‘Are you ready for the sexiest of desserts?’ asked the chef as he popped out to check on us. Yes we were, and yes it was sexy. And cheeky. And fun. Two crisp sugar shells placed like a pair of boobs on a board, with perfectly crafted chocolate nipples. They were filled with light mango passion fruit mousse and surrounded by all sorts of sweet treats; chunks of chocolate brownie, truffles, jellies, chocolate crisps, and mini panacotta squares. The perfect end to a personality-filled menu.dessert

elWilly, South Bund 22, 5/F, 22 Zhongshan Dong Lu, Shanghai, China

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