Wine Bar Gula Commits More Than Just 1 of the 7 Deadly Sins

By Sophie Steiner, November 18, 2021

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The Place 

“Where does the name ‘Gula’ come from?” I asked upon entering the new spot on Yanping Lu.

“Something in Spanish…maybe Portuguese. I think it’s something like ‘eating too much.” 

Thank you, Google, for clearing up what the restaurant manager was unsure about; the venue name means ‘gluttony.’ Like one of the seven deadly sins. A curious choice for a new ‘family bistro’ wine bar.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

My next question, “What exactly is a family bistro wine bar?”

“We want this pet-friendly space to be chill, for kids and dogs to feel welcome to hang out with other diners in a globally-inspired place.”

Hmmm. The tightly seated wine bar is only open for dinner, with empty glass bottles lining floor-to-ceiling shelving – not how I would envisage a kid- or dog-friendly space, but what do I know? I have neither kid, nor dog. 

“How did you design your wine program?” 

“I’m a common wine drinker, and I met some suppliers through friends. I order what sounds good from about 10-15 suppliers. Right now, if I had to guess, we have about 100 varietals,” says Leo Wang, the operating partner amongst the group of friend owners that decided to together throw their hat in the Shanghai wine bar craze ring. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

“And how was the food menu curated?” 

“Our chef, Peiran Gong, used to work at a casual eatery in London, The Chinese Laundry Room, before it closed. Chef brought some of the dishes from there over to create our Chinese fusion menu.” 

“And you said your top selling items are Edamame with Pesto, Vietnamese Pizza, Apple Cake and Pork Ribs?” I’m not really grasping the Chinese fusion element – or menu cohesion either – for that matter. 

“Our logo is based off my dog who hangs out at the restaurant a lot. Want to see a picture of him?”

“No thanks.”

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

So, let’s get this straight – it’s a wine bar for families – two concepts not usually put together; dogs are allowed inside the busy space; the wine program is pretty lax; the menu is even looser, described as Chinese fusion yet seemingly lacking the Chinese side of said fusion; the logo is a cartoon puppy; and the name means gluttony. Phew.

Right. Ok. Let’s get on with the review. 

The Food

Food is served fast, in whatever order the kitchen finishes it. This is expected in a neighborhood noodle shop. Not so much at a wine bar. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Appetizers begin with a bowl of candied Coriander Peanuts (RMB28), sweet and crunchy to pair with other bites like garlic-forward Edamame with Mixed Pesto (RMB28) – served cold and seasoned with cumin, chili powder and raw onions. The pesto is spiced and herbaceous, a solid snack for sipping wine. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

But then, after two sips, I ran out of wine. Not because I drink wine like shots of tequila, but because the pours are noticeably small.

Like half the size of a standard 150-ml pour. 

This could be growing pains with a new place and training staff, but seems like an egregious error for a glass that will set you back RMB78-88. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The Viet Pizza (RMB98) – a rice paper shmeared with egg yolk and sprinkled with chopped clams, bacon, pickled greens and crushed peanuts – is not far off the streetside version I crushed far too many times in Vietnam, even down to the scissors it’s served with for somewhat cumbersome self-cutting.

It’s good; I have no complaints about flavor or authenticity. But in Vietnam it’s roughly RMB6, and even considering an adjustment for cost of living and restaurant service, it’s still – at its core – an RMB6 Vietnamese street food that is consumed in about four bites. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The Canned Mackerel with Tomato (RMB78) is bought fresh, marinated and preserved in-house in custom-made tins with tomato and pickled shallots. I’m all for doing something in-house to make it more unique to the restaurant, but not when it’s just under-seasoned canned tomatoes and a slab of mackerel. 

Some mains arrived before or at the same time as the above appetizers, and dessert – melting ice cream and all – was served about 30 seconds after a heaping plate of pork.

Not really ideal timing for enjoying both dishes to the fullest. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

But, let’s enjoy that Pork Rib (RMB108), because it deserves to be enjoyed. I get why this is Gula’s signature dish – unctuous meat, slathered in a sweet BBQ sauce with a heaping dollop of lush sour cream.

It’s yummy. And for the price point, it’s a very generous portion. That said, skip the indelibly bitter, undercooked endive on the side; just pretend it’s not there. 

DSC02998.jpgSea Bass Filet (RMB138), Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

I can get behind seafood-forward dishes, but the Roast Cabbage (RMB88) is next level ocean tidal wave. Swaddled in an ultra-rich brown butter and shrimp miso sabayon, the cabbage is then dusted with a fried baby shrimps and panko butter crumble.

It’s interesting. And different. But the novelty wears off quickly when you realize you still have 500 grams of shrimp sauce-soaked cabbage to get through. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

There are certain dishes that are near holy, and to alter them would be sacrilege. Apple pie is one of those things. The Apple Mochi Tart (RMB88) has all the flavors of apple pie – cinnamon, brown sugar, stewed apples and even vanilla ice cream – but the glutinous, gummy mochi that kept sticking to my molars, making it uncomfortable to chew, just had me wishing it was a buttery crust instead.

I apologize in advance to my dentist. 

The menu also has some upsell items, like Sea Urchin and Aubergine (RMB185), Abalone Rice (RMB188) and a Cheese & Ham Platter (RMB198), where prices aren’t expensive per se when compared to other similar wine bars in the area – but the value isn’t there when the food is average at best.

The Vibe

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The space should be quaint, a cute little neighborhood spot that those in north Jing’an pop into on a casual weekday for a glass and some nibbles. Instead, the pebbledash walls remind me of cheaply decorated Florida stucco vacation homes; the folding chair seating of attending a neighborhood community book fair put on by the Parent Teacher Association; and the partially fake flower bouquets in cookie cutter Taobao vases of something my grandma has had as decoration in her bathroom since 1982. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Yet, it was surprisingly busy at 7pm on a Wednesday night. Nearly all 45 seats were filled. I could chalk that up to living in a city of 25 million people that need to eat dinner in some fashion, or the ephemeral new opening hype, but also it could be that I’m just not getting it. 

Which is fine, I don’t have to love every place I visit. I guess I'm just not a glutton for punishment. 

Price: RMB300-500
Who’s Going: Wine bar socialites, Jing’an dwellers, well-to-do 20-somethings that enjoy drinking wine in the vicinity of their dogs
Good For: Wine-heavy date nights, pork rib consumption, girls that like to take photos with an array of dog-themed drinkware

See a listing for Gula Bistro

Read more Shanghai Restaurant Reviews.

[Cover Image by Sophie Steiner/That’s]

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