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September 17, 2009

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Where there's a Willis, there's a way

SYSTEMS, food costs, training, recruiting, designing menus and generally tightening the ship that is the Wagas 14 cafe empire has been a constant challenge for Australian chef Craig Willis.

Currently managing the opening of two new restaurants, Willis' new culinary direction might not be quite as frenetic but it is certainly as challenging.

Simple flavors and fresh produce will drive both La Strada, a classic Italian-style pizzeria, and Mr Willis, an intimate small eatery celebrating home-style cooking.

Both are in what the Wagas team describe as their "village" - a historic building on Anfu Road in Xuhui District that features Amokka and, a few doors down on the ground floor, the rustic looking La Strada.

A Japanese eatery will be housed on the second floor and Mr Willis, a 50-seat restaurant, will be in a cozy loft space.

Chef Willis says he wants to provide tasting-style dishes where the meal is a collection of communal dishes much like a shared dinner at a friend's house.

Hearty, wholesome dishes such as roast chicken with potatoes and pumpkin, roast pork with apple and mustard are just some of the rustic-style dishes that will be on the menu when the restaurant opens its doors next month.

"It's just like dining or entertaining at home but without the washingup," he says.

Willis says he wants the new eatery to feel like a friend's kitchen and the menu will change regularly to showcase the best seasonal produce.

"I want to ride down Wulumuqi Road and see what is in the markets and have it for dinner that night," he says. "I want it to be relaxed and sophisticated at the same time but driven by fresh produce and my whim."

When he first came to Shanghai in 2000, Willis was a guest chef at M on the Bund. He joined Wagas in 2005 and set about being one of the driving forces behind the expansion of 10 stores and four restaurants, including the more upscale projects Roomtwentyeight in the carbon-neutral URBN Hotel on Jiaozhou Road and Bistrow by Wagas.

Willis' cooking reflects his upbringing on the family's orchard where hearty country fare was a vibrant childhood memory.

La Strada, which Willis co-owns with Wagas co-owner John Christensen, is a paired back and simply stylish pizzeria.

It is already getting a dedicated following attracted by its piping hot authentic thin-crust pizzas made in a copper-clad Di Fiore Forni pizza oven imported from Italy.

Gas-fired but with some wood added for smoky flavoring, the oven pumps out crisp light pizzas that are slightly blackened in all the right places.

With its whitewashed brick walls, almond-colored banquettes and reclaimed wood floors, La Strada has a charming rustic feel that suits its laid-back atmosphere and simple, classic pizzas.

Willis, who originates from New South Wales state, has modeled La Strada on the bustling pizzerias and small eateries that can be found in Leichhardt or, as it is commonly known, Sydney's "Little Italy" in the city's inner west.

While not slavishly traditional in its pizza varieties, this Sydney-style pizzeria still provides classic styles such as the timeless Margherita and Quattro Formaggi.

A good example of the new combinations is the rucola which comes topped with fresh rucola, prosciutto crudo and zucchini with fresh mozzarella, grilled zucchini, artichokes, olives and anchovies.

Pizzas range from 48 yuan (US$7) for a basic aglio with garlic, oregano and lemon to 88 yuan for the rucola.

It also offers a range of antipasti including a seafood salad and cheese selection for between 72 yuan and 98 yuan and there are also basic pastas and salads.

In keeping with its Italian heritage, La Strada makes its own limoncello and provides a pared back but interesting list of digestives and aperitifs.

"We wanted to provide limoncello like mama and papa would have made but without going overboard about it," Willis says.

An Italian wine list is good value with bottles ranging from 200 yuan to up to 450 yuan.

Address: 195 Anfu Rd, near Wulumuqi Rd

Tel: 5404-0100


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