Maolago – A Sanctuary of Guizhou Comfort Food

By Sophie Steiner, March 22, 2021

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The Place 

It’s a bold move to name a restaurant after a vine tomato. But when a restaurant’s signature dish is all about showcasing said Guizhou-grown vine tomato that forms the base of the region’s most famously addicting fermented sour, spicy fish soup, then we get it. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Maolago, the newest venture from the Oha Group (Oha Eatery, Dead Poet, Bar No. 3, Pass Residence, 404), is a sanctuary to all things Guizhou comfort food, with an emphasis on Miao cooking heritage.

IMG_1335.jpgImage by Sophie Steiner/That's

Residing in the space that used to be Daga Brewpub on Fuxing Lu, and decked out by OHA Design, this three-in-one concept: Bar Maolago on the first floor – focusing on a wide selection of low interference wines from around the world, as well as cocktails and small plates; Guizhou hotpot dining on the second floor; and a terrace plus rooftop herb and vegetable garden on the third floor, that grows seasonal produce to compliment the menu. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The three floors cater to different clientele, yet the imaginative cocktails and cooking are the common thread connecting each level. 

The Food

Chef Zou Mingyang, who worked with and learned from Blake Thornley at Oha Eatery, is behind the menu’s inventive design. Where Oha Eatery can sometimes go off the deep end – think smoked ham covered in moss and fried tree bark – Maolago is more refined, with a strong focus on honoring regional ingredients. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Whimsy is definitely still a key defining factor, especially in the small plates, but there is a streak of restraint that makes each dish enjoyable to a broader audience, not just those with a deep understanding of Guizhou’s vegetation ecosystem. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The restaurant’s must-order dish is a Fish in Red Sour Soup (RMB98/500grams) with buttery Guizhou river catfish boiled in a Guizhou-grown fermented tomato soup broth, seasoned with mujiangzi – also known as mountain demon berries, a lemon and numbing spice-flavored berry that grows in the mountains of Wulong – as well as green pepper, coriander, lemongrass and fresh yamana. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The soup is served in a handmade clay pot over an open flame, and the Fermented Chili Egg Fried Rice (RMB18) serves as the ideal base for soaking up the extra broth that bubbles and thickens into a richer, fish fat-flavored, spiced stew. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The underdog in this hotpot situation is the pre-prepared dipping sauce that sees a blend of fermented soybean, chili, mujiangzi, shallot, coriander and garlic come together into the most balanced hotpot sauce ever created.

There are also other hotpot soup bases, like Oxtail in White Sour Soup (RMB158/500grams), Mushroom Meat Pie (RMB120) and Dry Pot Beef (RMB128/500grams). All soups come with a different dipping sauce. Additional vegetables, meats, mushrooms, beans and root vegetables can be purchased at typical hotpot additive prices (RMB6-48). 

If you can’t commit to a full hotpot of the signature soup, the Employees Rice with Fermented Sour Soup (RMB38) is a much smaller portion, served on both the downstairs small plates and upstairs menus. While the soup is worth coming for in and of itself, it would be a true shame to miss out on the small plates, divided on the menu into chilled, fried, grilled, stir-fried, rice, boiled and steamed. 

DSC08417.jpgLobster Crackers & Crab Salad (RMB52), Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Like most of the cold dishes, the Smashing Cucumber and Jicama (RMB26) is humble, with the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Smashed cucumber is interspersed with green radish slivers and jicama cubes that taste crunchier and sweeter with a more concentrated flavor than any jicama we’ve ever tasted – a telltale sign of the expert ingredient sourcing that is noted across all dishes. 

In the same vein, the modest Frosted Tomato (RMB20) is a simple presentation of seasonal fresh tomatoes injected with sugar water and sprinkled with sugar flakes to evoke the look of glistening snow. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

A Fried Potato Cake (RMB38) is the perfect marriage between a glutinous mochi and an American South brunch hash brown. A crisp outer layer gives way to a gooey, melting center, a textural contrast further accentuated by the ribbons of pickled purple carrot served on the side. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Thick, cured Guizhou bacon is folded into a jueba envelope – a gummy rice cake-like wrapper made from a local fern in the Fernhead Sticky Cake with Smoked Pork (RMB48). Tangy vinegar-soaked capsicum is julienned alongside it, coupled with a fiery, citrusy chili paste. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Primal urges kick in with the Grilled Beef (RMB82) – deliciously delicate, smoky mountain beef further heightened by a hit of fermented chili and daikon, plus lightly citrus-dressed baby spinach for a pop of acidity. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Customarily eaten in Guizhou on holidays, the Crust of Rice (RMB22) – or guoba to those with a rice obsession that rivals ours – is served in a concave dome on a small metal wok-like pan rather than flipped over and served convex like we’ve traditionally seen it. 

The guoba here retains some of the rice’s original chew, so you can enjoy the best of both worlds – a pleasantly greasy, crunchy exterior with a fervently salted, pork mince and scallion-sprinkled, chewy interior.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

In true Blake Thornley form, cocktails are anything but the standard. Pre-batched libations, known here as Drip Wine, are available by the glass and the bottle, along with a few dressed up highballs – because Shanghai’s thirst for this utterly simple yet oh-so-crushable drink can never be quenched. 

The Drip Wines are made from cold-pressed, filtered and slightly fermented organic fruit, vegetable and herb-based juices, that are then infused with a base liquor. After a clarification process, the resulting beverages are funky – like natural wine – yet delicate, with an equally subtle presentation. 

Softly sweet lychee unfolds into layers of citrus and a touch of peaty smoke from Islay scotch in a glass of Snake (RMB97), while salted plum is balanced with matcha’s earthy bitterness in a tumbler of Wawa (RMB82) – Maolago’s most popular drink. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The smoke-laced whiskey base of the Flower Mantis (RMB99) is discreet rather than egregious when paired with blanc vermouth, balsam pear juice and elderflower, yielding an appealing cocktail to whiskey lovers and haters alike. Helping to cut through the spice of the food, the cocktails serve as a perfectly calibrated palate cleanser while still shining in their own uniqueness. 

The Vibe 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Maolago is not another 'modern Chinese' restaurant where the aim is to make food more appealing to Western palates, insinuating that Chinese cuisine – as is – isn’t good enough. It’s the opposite; showcasing how memorable and distinct Guizhou food, a mostly unexplored cuisine by the average Shanghaier, can be by utilizing air-transported local produce and region-specific vegetables to make the entire experience as authentic as possible. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The food, drinks and overall vibe are more accessible than other ‘fine dining’ Chinese spots, with more interesting and superior quality food offered at a significantly better value. The understated yet elegant ingredient presentation is approachable to anyone who falls on the spectrum spanning an interest in Chinese cuisine. Plainly stated, this is food to be excited about. 

Price: RMB175-250
Who’s Going: Oha groupies, spice addicts, hotpot lovers, Guizhou food fanatics
Good For: Group hotpot dinners upstairs, cocktails and nibbles downstairs, introducing visitors to authentic yet approachable Chinese regional cuisine

See a listing for Maolago. Read more Shanghai Restaurant Reviews.

[Cover image by Sophie Steiner/That's]

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