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November 22, 2009

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Mr Willis simple and splendid

IT is often the case in many creative pursuits that when artists pare back their work, reducing embellishment for simplicity, they often achieve some of their greatest creations.

It might be the musician who forgoes the complex classic arrangement to focus on the sound of a human voice or the painter who catches the soul of an object in a single brushstroke instead of a flurry of paints and pots. With chefs, the confidence to resist ornate garnishes, confounding molecular contortions and ostentatious artistry in their food comes usually from the realization that they no longer have anything to prove.

If a dish at Mr Willis, the new Anfu Road eatery of former Wagas group chef Craig Willis, best exemplifies this creative state of mind it is his tender roast chicken.

Simply cut up and served with roasted pumpkin gratin and a small pot of light jus, the dish is classic, simple food that relies on a great recipe, fresh ingredients and correct cooking technique.

In Shanghai's more than 27,000 strong restaurant landscape, where many of its Western eateries often put more thought into the interior design than the food, a diner discovering simplicity done well can feel like they have found a needle in a haystack.

Willis grew up on the family's orchard in Australia's northern New South Wales where the kitchen was filled with aromas and tastes of traditional country fare and he has returned to these roots with his latest venture.

Saying he wants people to feel like they are sitting in a friend's living room, the menu is designed for people to share a number of different dishes like they would at a dinner party.

"For some people they open a restaurant and it is just another outlet. It might be Thai one week or Spanish the next but I just wanted to open my restaurant," Willis said. "I want to know the people that eat in my restaurant and it's meant to be comfortable, simple and local."

The restaurant has warm intimate corners of soft couches and an open kitchen where it feels like diners can chat to the chef.

The roast chicken with its crispy skin with warming, fragrant hints of freshly ground Sri Lankan cinnamon and curry leaves is an example of a menu filled with cozy comfort food.

Other hearty rustic offerings include a suckling pig roasted for four hours and accompanied with a vibrant green apple sauce.

Simply apple, mustard and butter, it has wonderful sweet and sour overtones and a slightly fiery finish, reflecting a simple aesthetic in the menu of classic flavor pairings and traditional light sauces.

Another memorable main is the whopping 800 gram Australian Angus roast beef served on fried potato wedges and accompanied with small pots of accomplished bearnaise and bordelaise sauces.The high fat content of the meat allows Willis to create a crispy roasted crust while keeping the meat tender and juicy.

In the starters, Willis again opts for some classics and, in a nod to the Danish part-owner, the menu includes Scandinavian favorites like a salmon gravlax and a fish tartare made with sea bass.The salmon comes with slices of fennel and a traditional mustard, dill, honey and mayonnaise sauce, while the tartare has robust flavors of capers, anchovies and is finished with a zesty flourish of freshly grated lemon rind. Desserts include an elegant but rich velvet chocolate cake served with a sugared red rose petal from a recipe from the Four Seasons in New York. The toffee banana pudding also has wonderful sticky, caramelized flavors.

Mr Willis has a laid-back, relaxed quality where the food is prepared with a lot heart. For a chef that has been at the center of the ever-bustling M on the Bund kitchen before taking on Wagas, it is a return to simple, classic food that never goes out of fashion.

"Now I want to enjoy this, the food and the customers," he said.


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