Middle Eastern Meets Southeast Asian Fusion Brunch at MESS

By Sophie Steiner, December 8, 2020

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MESS by name, but not by nature, it would seem. The new restaurant out by the Modern Art Museum is the full character embodiment of its larger-than-life, human dynamo, gregarious host of a head chef, Shahaf Shabtay, and it involves throwing an ambitious amount of elements together. But it works.

WechatIMG9.jpegImage by Sophie Steiner/That's

The Israeli chef graduated from the École Grégoire-Ferrandi culinary school of cooking Arts in Paris, and then worked his way around the world. The result? An integration of different cultures, connecting the worlds of East and West – via the Middle East, of course – to an experience of colors, tastes, textures and techniques.

Image courtesy of MESS

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

First, let's talk about the place. It is funky from the off, with large windows letting light in during the day and offering views out at night. The layout of the restaurant is divided into five zones over two floors. Upon entering the restaurant, you find yourself in a groovy retro Middle Eastern vibed reception lounge. 

Image courtesy of MESS

The rest of the first floor is dominated by an open kitchen facing the main dining room, with a main bar area housing counter seating and a DJ booth. Near the entrance is also a full child play area (only open on weekends), equipped with cartoon videos, Legos and Nintendo Switch, to keep the kids busy while the adults dine. There is a double height connection to the second floor and Middle Eastern elements abound, like the engraved copper lanterns and tea sets. 

Image courtesy of MESS

The second floor plays host to an open dessert bar with an outdoor terrace and a more Western chic feeling dark wood private dining room. The music is a mix of classics and hip song covers you can't help but Shazam and add to your own playlist.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Right, onto the food. Chef Shahaf has taken the basics he was grounded in through his studies and brought them to the Asian kitchen. His area of expertise is Southeast and South Asian cuisine – Singapore, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and India. This is not to say he limits himself to just that; he intertwines all he has found on his travels and his culinary explorations.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

We've already visited three times – most recently for an expansive weekend brunch – which is served at the center of the table for a shared experience similar to brunching in Israel. A large spread of dips, breads, salads and nibbles are just begging to be mixed and matched every which way. 

WechatIMG22.jpegImage by Sophie Steiner/That's

The weekend brunch is available every Saturday and Sunday from 10am-4pm for RMB350 per person, which includes enough food to keep you full until the wee hours of the next morning. From an overflowing tray of baked goods – fresh baked challah bread, brioche toast, Jerusalem bagels, focaccia, cheese and spinach puff pastries, and pita with zaatar – to a copper platter brimming with Middle Eastern dips, spreads and sauces – babaganoush, cabbage slaw, cauliflower salad, roasted red peppers, Lebanese cheese, tomato salad, olives and pickled peppers and the most authentic hummus we’ve had outside of Israel – to fusion bites that seem eccentric on paper yet fit together harmoniously in all their flavor-bursting glory, it truly is a Middle Eastern feast befitting a sprawling kingdom-ruling royal court.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Cue the Columbian Arepas, warm cornmeal buttery biscuits, stuffed to the brim with seared foie gras and creamy egg salad. We dare you to try to eat just one. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Similarly, the Papaya Salad is a visit to Thailand in a bite. With crisp green papaya and young mango coated in chili jam and cham-cham sauce mixture, we totally get how this is one of the restaurant’s signature dishes. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Other heavy hitters include the Beef Dim Sum, a beef short rib-stuffed dumpling coated in tangy Thai curry sauce, chili oil and cooling coconut milk and the Empire Saigon Roll, a Vietnamese fresh prawn roll in an apple and sesame sauce. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

And did we mention that all of these starters (a loose use of the word, since the quantity alone really covers starters, finishers, and everything in between) are totally free flow. If you aren’t unbuttoning your pants by the time your mains make their way to the table, you are doing free flow wrong. 

Now, onto the mains. Just like the starters, some are straight Mediterranean, others are standard brunch and, finally, a few are modern fusions that make us happy to live in such an international city. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The Shakshucurry is a mashup of Shabtay’s roots and passion – a coconut curry spin on a traditionally tomato based baked egg dish, served alongside another textbook challah bread knot.  

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

For those feeling carbs, the Singapore Beef Noodle sports some seriously tender short rib seasoned with an unexpectedly aromatic pepper, shitake and truffle sauce with Shaoxing wine. Think Singapore Pepper Crab meets noods. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Our favorite of the lot is the Thai Shrimp Coconut, a Southern Thai style curry that really delivers. From the galangal and lemongrass to the sweet coconut milk and basil, it is clear that Shabtay has put in the leg work perfecting those true Southeast Asian flavors. 

Other mains include steaks, shrimp with Israeli tahini and black beans and Thai-style stir-fried beef. For the kiddos, there are both sweet and savory options, like an omelet with ham, mushrooms and tomato (RMB88) or a banana roti with caramel (RMB88). 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

When selecting the best Shanghai brunch, the drinks side of the menu is just as important as food, and MESS surely holds its own. Free flow options start at RMB150 for soft drinks and wine and go up to RMB250 per person with the addition of prosecco and mixed drinks, with the usual suspects making an appearance – G&T, rum & coke, vodka tonic and whiskey soda. The cocktail menu, printed on a fabric scroll, includes classics like Whiskey Sour and Mulled Wine, as well as creatives, like a warm port wine, rum, and milk tea cocktail for RMB90 or a whiskey-spiked hot cocoa.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Make an entire day out of your visit to MESS by opting for the Brunch with Art special for RMB398. This includes the full brunch at MESS plus a visit to the Modern Art Museum, an RMB478 value. 

See a listing for MESS

Cover image by Sophie Steiner/That's

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