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Find delight in the food, not the decor

MANY people believe the food and beverage industry is one of the most treacherous to navigate. Things can get pretty hot in and about a kitchen and there is no doubt that the culinary greats gracing our city have barrels of stories to recant.

A quick purvey of assorted novels, such as Anthony Bourdain's classic "Kitchen Confidential,?will reveal the business to be laden with seedy characters, from crooked suppliers to shady health inspectors, and this is before you even factor in the chef's ego.

With all this in mind, anyone opening a restaurant is either very brave or incredibly stupid. Full of beans, or devoid of brains. Yet we see new restaurants popping up all the time.

In the case of Osteria, you have to admire the determination of Canadian proprietors Rudy Guo and Zoltan Szabo.

The pair's initial project was stung by construction problems last year resulting in their talented young chef grazing new pastures at Napa Wine Bar and Kitchen.

Striking while the iron was hot, industry veteran Eduardo Vargas stepped in with a venue and a partnership where the Canucks could set up shop, sharing his connections and contacts.

Now I have never seen him at any of his restaurants except for when I was meant to meet him there. I have never seen him work the floor, nor have I had the privilege or hearing the secret of his success. All I know is when someone needs to start a business, they turn to the Peruvian Vargas.

Naturally, none of this should really matter to the average diner. What you should really care about is enjoying your meal, and, by golly gee gosh, you are in for a treat here.

Let's get the negative out of the way ?there's really nothing special about the parts, especially not the decor.

It looks like any of Vargas?other joints, that same mesh of cookie cutter motifs and kitschy lighting; his designer probably thought "ah, Mediterranean sounds brown,?and left it at that.

The other partners have been promising a new way to eat and drink, and, after eating at Osteria, I can't believe it took us so long to get here. For 192 yuan (US$28), you get the prix fixe menu served family style ?the full list of appetizers and pastas to share (and seconds, if necessary), and all you have to do is pick a main course.

This is genius on so many levels, mainly because it helps the kitchen get through stock faster, and it means customers get fresh, seasonal produce. The seared sea scallops (starters are 78 yuan) benefitted from being fresh, plump and juicy while the cauliflower puree offered a slightly bitter astringency.

The assortment of cold meats was forgettable, but the grilled calamari, while slightly chewy, had a nice grilled, slightly singed character. The cured salmon was exactly as it said on the tin.

The seafood pasta in tomato and chili sauce is just the ticket for winter, with the tartness enhancing the prawns and little clams while the spice props up the flavor, although the homemade mushroom gnocchi was a little dull.

The main courses, nothing spectacular, but not at all are trying to be. The roast pork loin with wild mushroom sauce was cooked just right, still pink in the middle, and had both bite and tenderness.

The lamb rack was judiciously encrusted with herbs and not at all a bad piece of meat.

Desserts can be had in portions of three or five and each is just the right size ?enough for a taste without the need to stuff yourself silly.

The wine program here must also be championed. Hot shot sommelier Zoltan Szabo has put together an impressive selection of affordable and versatile drops, and lists them under three prices ?298 yuan, 398 yuan or 497 yuan for a bottle.

These can also be had in tasting or full glass sizes, or as a flight of three.

With both on the floor, service seems cozy and intimate. Guo's conviviality, coupled with Szabo's enthusiasm, give good reason to visit again and again. Osteria is clearly more than just a sum of its parts.

Address: 226 Jinxian Rd., Shanghai

Tel: 6256-8998

Diced Chicken with Peanuts

(Gong Bao Ji Ding)

Better known as Gong Bao Ji Ding in Chinese, this classic Sichuan dish (below) is named after Ding Baozhen (1820?6), who had served as governor of Shandong and Sichuan provinces during the middle Qing Dynasty. In its authentic version, diced chicken is typically mixed with a prepared marinade.

The wok is seasoned and then the chillies and Sichuan peppercorns are flash fried to add fragrance to the oil. Then the chicken is stir fried and vegetables, along with peanuts, are added. Shaoxing wine is used to enhance flavor in the marinade. Sometimes pre-roasted peanuts or cashew nuts are dropped into the hot oil on the bottom of the wok first, then deep fried until golden brown before the other ingredients are added.


340 grams boneless, skinless, chicken breast, cut into bite size pieces

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons white cooking wine (Shaoxing)

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1/4 cup shelled raw peanuts

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 1/4 cup chicken broth or water

4 whole dried red chilies, stems and seeds removed

2 green onions, sliced into 2.5-centimeter pieces

2 tablespoons minced ginger

1 tablespoon minced garlic


1. Season chicken with one tablespoon of soy sauce, and all of the salt and wine. Sprinkle with the dry cornstarch and mix well.

2. Steep the peanuts for 30 minutes in lukewarm water. Remove the skins and stir-fry them in two tablespoons of oil until brown and crisp. Remove.

3. Combine the remaining soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and cornstarch paste to make a sauce.

4. Pour the remaining oil into the wok and heat until near smoking. Add the chilies, and after they have started to brown, add the chicken and stir-fry until cooked.

5. Add the onion, ginger, and garlic and stir-fry for 30 seconds.

6. Stir in the sauce, add the peanuts, and stir-fry for a few seconds.


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