A Rollercoaster of a Meal at Japanese Izakaya Ma-ia-ki

By Sophie Steiner, February 24, 2023

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The Place

Ma-ia-ki is the newest in Shanghai’s long lineup of izakayas, brought to us by the renowned Vos Families Food & Beverage Group (Vinism, SOiF, Ottimo, Le Daily, the Warehouse, Suzie) and located in Surpass Court on Yongjia Lu. 

READ MORE: 7 Izakayas to Satisfy Your Yakitori Cravings in Shanghai

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The space is sleek and dark, with 16 seats circumnavigating the restaurant’s focal point – a backlit binchotan Japanese charcoal grill; one that brings more heat and less smoke, so diners can enjoy the grill master at work without smelling like they just left a bonfire.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The name, pronounced “My Yaki,” is also a reference to the kind of food served – all things “yaki,” meaning “cooked over direct heat” in Japanese.

More than just a yakitori that customarily focuses on chicken, Ma-ia-ki specializes first and foremost in yakihato, or open-fire grilled pigeon, along with more traditional skewers, sashimi, small plates and sides. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Vos Families venues are lauded for their curated wine selections, a defining characteristic of each restaurant’s ethos that they have their hand in.

So, it’s no bombshell that wine of all varieties share center stage at Ma-ia-ki – from classic La Rioja reds to modern German chardonnays; from elegantly complex sake to refreshingly sweet plum wines, there are ample pairing opportunities with every course. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

On paper, Ma-ia-ki reads like a sure-fire win, but the meal itself proved to be a rollercoaster, with a few lows that distracted us from the meal’s high notes... ones that would typically leave us raving. 

The Food 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

With 17 years working in the Japanese cuisine industry under his belt, Head Chef Guo Wen-Fei is no stranger to the grill.

He spent three years perfecting his skewering techniques and five butchering, with 15 behind the flames themselves (he multi-tasks), making him one of Shanghai’s elite master grillers who truly understands it all – from the meat to the charcoal to the smoke to the sauce pairing. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Chef Guo applies these techniques first and foremost to the restaurant’s 10-14 days dry-aged Chongming Island pigeon, an ingredient that seems to be that latest buzz word ingredient in Shanghai.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The Aged Thigh’s (RMB68) taut skin puckers and crisps, charring to a rich, dark brown that – when pulled away (preferably with ravenous teeth) – reveals the juiciest of meat underneath. 

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In the same vein, the Aged Breast (RMB68) is denser, yet still equally tender, highlighting the protein’s deeply gamey and complex flavor.

There is a reason the pigeon is their specialty, and they treat it with the respect it deserves.

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Continuing up the peak of our metaphorical rollercoaster, it’s hard to go wrong with high quality Sashimi (RMB188 for 3 types, RMB298 for 5 types), with ultra-thick Tsujiji Fish Market-quality slabs of mackerel, scallop, scampi, salmon, otoro, chutoro and the like.

But the rest of the small plates are where the bottom begins to drop out. 

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The menu isn’t particularly daunting in size – yet the minimalist descriptions can make it difficult to choose.

Poultry parts and sashimi cuts that require no further introduction aside, small plates like Cherry Tomato (RMB38) can usher in a fun surprise – soaking in an olive and herb oil marinade with pineapple spheres and fresh mint. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Or, on the flip side, Squid with Cream (RMB78) is really more a butter-based vegetable stir-fry with a few unremarkable pieces of squid and no cream whatsoever...

Not exactly making it easy for diners to zero in on those winning dishes. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

In Shanghai, Wagyu is thrown around all too casually, usually in places where it doesn’t necessarily belong, or cooked in a way that doesn’t honor its delicate marbling. Case in point: the Wagyu Spring Rolls (RMB58).

Instead of highlighting the quality, the meat gets lost in the fray, buried in a crispy wonton wrapper and fried. We have nothing but love for spring rolls – and Wagyu beef for that matter – but it’s sad to see one wasted on the other. 

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However, the Wagyu A5 Ribeye (RMB358) is the antithesis of those abuse cases. The skin blisters, the fat melts and pools, the charred crust gives way to juicy licks of beef that draw upon deep, primal urges within for increased meat consumption.

It is exactly how Wagyu ribeye is intended to be consumed. 

DSC08214.jpgDuck Breast Ham (RMB68), Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The yakitori section of the menu follows this same pattern of hits and misses.

A succulent Chicken Oyster (RMB30) blade, that firms without scorching, releases a welcoming dribble of chicken juice down your chin...

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

... yet it’s quickly forgotten when followed by a Chicken Meatball (RMB28) that’s predominant texture is gelatinously crunchy from oversized cubes of chicken cartilage. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Furthermore, with minimalist cooking like yakitori, the narrow spectrum between bland and delicious can be measured in flecks of salt, and Ma-ia-ki struggles to find that balance; – where some plates feel like they’ve got the measurement down to a science, others should be served with an extra glass of water. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Diners can expect other everyday cuts like chiffonade perilla leaf-adorned Chicken Thigh (RMB28), Wings (RMB26), and ruffled pleats of Skin (RMB24) that needed just a few seconds more on the grill for that necessary crunch. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

For more adventurous eaters, there’s springy Diaphragm (RMB28), parsley pesto-dominated Neck (RMB20) (where the meat is regrettably overpowered by its condiment) and – again – flip-flopping to the rewarding, Chochin (RMB28) – underdeveloped, pendulous eggs still attached to the chicken ovaries, where diners can relish in the erupting egg yolk, an ooze reminiscent of that first bite of an Eggs Benedict.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The Blackthroat (RMB188) is a type of deep-sea perch that consumes bioluminescent shrimp. These tiny crustaceans dissolve in the fish’s throat turning it black, hence the name. Science lesson aside…

Crispy skin. Check. Buttery flesh. Check. Citrus drizzle balanced by flaky sea salt. Check.

It’s a 10. 

DSC08365.jpgAsparagus (RMB18), Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Two other winners that could easily be overlooked due to lackluster (non) descriptions include the gooey cheese-filled, grilled Rice Cake (RMB26) wrapped in crispy seaweed; and the charred Baby Corn (RMB18), a type of glutinous corn native to Asia with a texture that mimics sticky rice – chewy and naturally sweet, with a contrasting sear on each individual kernel, making every bite more addicting.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

And don’t forget a finisher of Rice with Foie Gras (RMB108), sprinkled with furikake seasoning and topped with salmon roe – because Shanghai’s middle name is gluttony. 

If this write-up flip-flops somewhat, that’s because it mirrors our experience. Some bites clocked in as remarkable stand-outs, others as let-downs.

It was a struggle to navigate between the two on the menu.

The Vibe 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

For as shadowy and intimate as the space is, they bump an upbeat playlist, encouraging diners to remain lively and continue drinking – an equally important partner to the food.

For that, there’s a lineup of Highballs (RMB88)  in funky flavors like mung bean, coffee, hawthorn with black sugar, and Jasmine sake – and Cocktails (RMB98), in addition to the wine program. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

For those who value conversational intimacy over grilling visuals (not sure who would want to miss the show), there are two private rooms (for 2-4 people and 6-8 people, respectively).

There is also an outdoor area – as is a requisite these days for any venue interested in jumping on the patio porn bandwagon. 

Price: RMB500-1,000
Who’s Going: Vos Families fans, the Surpass Court contingency, Japanese izakaya cravers
Good For: Yakitori consumption, date night drinking, highball sampling

ma-ia-ki, 1/F, Bldg 2, 570 Yongjia Lu, by Yueyang Lu  永嘉路570号2栋1楼,近岳阳路.

[Cover image by Sophie Steiner/That's]

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