404 Izakaya – Controlled Chaos or Just Plain Confused?

By Sophie Steiner, January 20, 2021

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The Place 

As you step inside the unassuming front door of 404, the newest venture from the Oha Group (Oha Eatery, Bar No. 3, Pass Residence, Dead Poet), the smell of grilled chicken skin, crispy charred meat and a hint of miso fill the air of this cozy, dimly lit restaurant.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The garnish station, grill and bar sit in the center of the space, with a variety of seating options surrounding it – an eclectic mix of bar stools, plush Chesterfield-like accent chairs and standard folding chairs with plaid-covered cushions.  

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The emerald green tufted sofas and lounge chairs fit the jazz music emanating from the speakers, creating a whiskey and cigar bar vibe that seems like a curious choice for a Japanese yakitori spot – a place that usually involves a bustling shotgun bar with smoke-laden layers of controlled chaos composed of speedy skewers and flowing highballs. 

And this is where the confusion set in, and continued to pervade throughout the entire meal – an almost never-ending dinner of slow service, too-small-to-share bites and over-charred meats.

The Food 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The menu is divided into yakitori, mains and snacks with an extensive cocktail list. Since 404 is known for being an izakaya, we went hard on the yakitori order, a decision that ultimately led to buyer’s remorse.

First to arrive was the Chicken Skin (RMB8), a usual crowd pleaser of the fattiest, naughty bite that sets the tone for the rest of the meal – flaccid and lacking flavor. The skin could have benefited from being cooked for another 2-3 minutes; only one side was charred, while the other was flimsy and gelatinous. Excessively chewy, unsalted fat is not what we expected when ordering what should be a shatteringly crisp, flavorful morsel. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

For yakitori lovers that aren’t looking for a lesson in chicken anatomy, a lot of the classic skewers are arguably better. The Chicken Thigh (RMB15) is tender and juicy, but sadly lacking in the soy ginger glaze promised on the menu.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Similarly, the Chicken Breast (RMB15) arrived over-charred, as if the grill hadn’t been cleaned properly before the skewer was placed on it, resulting in singed ash residue sticking to the skin. The accompanying spring onion tasted just plain burnt. 

This could have been due to the fact that they had forgotten this item on our order and then rushed to bring it to us, but we’d rather not receive it rather than be served a scorched piece of average-at-best cooked chicken. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Moving away from the poultry, the Pork Belly (RMB15) is grilled quite well, flavorful and fatty in the best of ways, but we searched for the kimchi mentioned as a paired side on the menu, yet none was found. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Splurging on the most expensive skewer on the menu, the Wagyu Beef Skirt (RMB26) lacked salt, flavor and sear, resulting in leathery rather than tender beef. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The best grilled item on the table was easily the Wild Mushroom (RMB12). Smoky and charred with crispy edges yet a tender base, this is possibly the only yakitori bite we would return for. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Moving along from the yakitori, the snacks did step up the restaurant’s game, but came with a few unexpected curveballs. 

Our favorite bite of the night came in the form of the Chicken Liver Mousse (RMB58), a cream cheese textured, intensely rich spread served atop a shmear of soy miso caramel with puffed shrimp crisps. The mousse itself is quite funky, as if blue cheese is a main component, but – oddly enough – this divisive flavor isn’t mentioned on the menu. What turned out to be a pleasant surprise for blue cheese lovers like us could instantly be off-putting for others. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The refreshingly light Yellowfin Tuna Tartar (RMB58) is presented with identically shaped and colored fish and watermelon cubes that aren’t discernible until plopped into your mouth, making each bite a surprise. A sprinkle of ponzu and shredded nori add brightness and texture. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Arriving with a similar presentation, the Silken Tofu (RMB38) also comes topped with ponzu and nori, alongside crunchy red radish slivers and cubed pickled daikon. Each bite is delicately light, but beyond that, fairly unmemorable. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The Fried Cauliflower (RMB38) came highly recommended, with a dense, golden layer of crisp breading on the outside, along with a messy coating of chili miso glaze. Our initial bites tasted divine, but a few of the smaller pieces seemed to be fried for too long, resulting in a bitter aftertaste. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Feeling optimistic after the more promising snacks, the mains ultimately took a turn… for the worse. The bland Chicken and Pork Meatball Udon (RMB68) came with soggy, unseasoned tempura-fried eggplant, dry meatballs and an excessive amount of bonito flakes in a thin, depthless curry sauce. Think fishy chicken noodle soup sans the soup, but with mushy udon noodles. Does not compute.  

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The Beef Short Rib Noodle (RMB88) took us further downhill with fatty beef – in an unrendered, stringy way, rather than the melt-in-your-mouth short rib we hoped for. A miso mustard dressing tasted a lot like the uninspired curry sauce on the udon noodles, and copious amounts of bonito flakes again made everything exceedingly fishy.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Cocktails are in the style of other Oha Group venues – inventive and whimsical with clarified this and fat-washed that, ranging in price from RMB65-90. We can really get behind the loose operational definition of highballs applied on the menu – spirits plus bubbles of any kind. The modest highball’s essence is expanded from a simple interpretation to a higher-end version, replacing soda water with anything from Moscato to tonic. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Presentation is simple and direct with minimal garnish, allowing the flavors of the drink itself to shine. Like everyone else, we love ourselves some fancy ice cubes, and the perfectly transparent rectangular-shaped cube that filled each glass looked nice, but resulted in a very small cocktail – three mouthfuls and you’re done – again adding to the skewed ratio between value and quality. 

When selecting items from the menu, we assumed we had ordered too much but realized quickly, given the petite portions, we would most surely be making a pit stop at our neighborhood chuar spot on the way home; rather than order another round of lackluster mains or slightly burnt grilled meats – which would also involve at least another 20-minute wait – some grilled street meat for a fraction of the cost and time sounded more appealing. 

The Vibe 

404 wants to be a more refined izakaya, but doesn’t seem to take any steps in that direction when it comes to the food. We understand the demand for a place to enjoy souped-up versions of Japanese ‘street food’ per se – balanced with an upscale vibe. However, in this case, the venue setting and the food execution do not match – the value just isn’t there. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Service is rather slow and somewhat inattentive. The waitstaff didn’t return to our table to check on us throughout the evening, to ask about the food or to see if we wanted to order more; getting someone’s attention to place a drinks order took more than 20 minutes. 

On multiple occasions, a beverage or food order was missed despite the restaurant only being at about 60% capacity, and waitstaff tended to linger about while dirty, empty dishes sat on the table untouched until the next course was served – sometimes more than 15 minutes later. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Remove the izakaya aspect from the equation, and 404 is a fine pre-dinner date spot for a cocktail, a (hopefully) pre-vetted appetizer from the snack menu coupled with some enjoyable elevator-esque jazz. Yet, in Shanghai, just okay pre-dinner cocktail spots are a dime a dozen, so if that’s all the venue has going for it, we don’t even see ourselves coming back for that. 

Price: RMB250-400
Who’s Going: Oha Group fans, well-off locals craving all things Japan, date night drinkers
Good For: Funky highballs, jazz bar vibes, small appetites

See a listing for 404. Read more Shanghai Restaurant Reviews.

[Cover image by Sophie Steiner/That's]

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