Yaya's Italian-Chinese Pastas: The Exception to Fusion Failures

By Sophie Steiner, July 28, 2021

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Chef Dan Li (previously of Bird), Andrew Moo (Taste Collective, Le Daily) and Mike Liu (Lucky Mart) just launched a test ‘R&D’ popup kitchen in X Bar for their new project, Yaya’s

Named after the Chinese word for ‘tooth,’ the goal is to serve perfectly al dente, toothsome pasta, with that springy chew you’d expect from an Italian restaurant, but incorporating Chinese flavor profiles. 

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Yaya also has a connotation with family – meaning ‘Grandma’ in Greek and ‘Grandpa’ in Shanghainese, further linking the name to the goal of making honest, homey dishes that act as comfort food with a dose of surprise. 

"None of us are Italian, but we aren’t trying to serve Italian classics like everywhere else. We want to specialize," says Moo, slurping down a wriggly, sauce-coated pappardelle strand. 

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When we hear the word ‘fusion,’ our gut reaction is to cringe. Throwing together multiple aspects of different cuisines doesn’t always make a dish creative, exceptional or – for that matter – better. We’ve seen it fail too many times. 

But Yaya’s is the exception. 

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The concept – in a nutshell – is Chinese flavors with an Italian pasta backbone in a neighborhood pasta bar setting. Sounds like something that would come out of the trendiest Brooklyn backstreet, but only in a city like Shanghai does the successful execution actually come to fruition, resulting in a bastardization of multiple cuisines, in the tastiest of ways. 

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The team of imaginative creatives – at their core – understand true regional Chinese flavors, and have coupled that with a deep dive in Italian pasta making. And we mean deep. Like hand-making-pasta-every-day-for-the-last-six-months deep. 

The result? Arguably more authentic Italian pasta than most Italian joints in Shanghai, paired with lick-your-plate-clean sauces, stewed meats and unique produce-highlighting bites. It’s still comfort food, jut a wildly creative version of it. 

The Food 

The menu will change nearly every week as they work through new ideas and test out recipe combinations – the main purpose of this popup – but here’s a sample of what made our tummies happy during our most recent visit.

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A deliciously corrupt version of carbonara, the Mafaldine Smoked Pork Cheek (RMB58), sees ribbon-like waved noodles coated in a buttery burnt-onion and cured salted egg yolk sauce – Asia’s answer to umami-rich parmesan. Meltingly tender chunks of guanciale – or caramelized pork fat slivers – are sprinkled throughout, while the ripply noodle edges become coated in shreds of one-year aged Parmesano Reggiano. 

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Pure tomato inception is the only way to describe the Paccheri Marinara (RMB48), a labor of love that involves caramelizing the sh*t out of three different kinds of tomatoes – cherry, Chinese heirloom and an imported Italian canned variety used by most Michelin chefs. 

The liquids and solids are first separated – a process that Chef Dan has mastered to the point of peeling over seven kilos of tomatoes per hour – reduced down into a thick stew with wine, and then filtered so the rounded richness is accented by tannic minerality.

The final product is some #basicbitch goodness that seems so simple, but you can taste the work that goes into it, as it glazes tubular noodles that deserve a double ‘c’ in thickness. 

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Replacing Xian’s youpaomian – or oil splash noodles – with Pappardelle (RMB48), you get the slick, chili flake crisp sauce-coated rope-like noodles, along with gooey egg yolk crunchy okra slices and fruity pink peppercorn. We will now take splashed chili oil on everything from here on out, so hand us a spoon or look away as we lick the plate clean. 

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Tying in Dan’s hometown’s flavors, the Pappardelle Lamb Ragu (RMB68) sports a French-style stewed white ragu made with Xinjiang spices and a big kick of Sichuan peppercorn oil. If Italy and Xinjiang had a steamy seduction, this plate would be the resulting love child. 

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Paying direct homage to Shanghai’s congyou banmian, or scallion oil noodles, the Mafaldine Scallion Oil (RMB38) is a souped up version of this corner noodle stand classic. Instead of the fried-until-black scallion shreds that customarily adorn the top, this alternative sees an emulsion made from a mix of half flash-fried and half fresh scallions, plus vegan oyster sauce for a refreshingly herbaceous explosion of the soul of this beloved Shanghainese dish. 

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Like a better version of tempura mushrooms, the Mushroom Fritti (RMB48) involves batter-coated and fried spears of king mushrooms drizzled in a deconstructed liangpi sauce. First separating out the liangpi’s chili oil, chef Dan makes an oil splash aioli that is creamy, salty and spicy – and deserves to be awarded condiment of the year. 

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Inspired by an herb-laden, pan-fried pig ear dish common in Italy, the Braised Pig Ear Fritti (RMB48) is battered in an ultra-crispy cornstarch-heavy batter, similar to funnel cake. A hit of lime and a drizzle of that same homemade chili splash aioli make it our newest bar snack addiction. 

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The traditional molten mozzarella center Arancini (RMB48) gets a facelift with fiery marinara upgraded by Hainan yellow lantern peppers. If you’ve ever had these spicy capsicums, you know they don’t mess around when it comes to packing a heat-forward punch. 

The Vibe 

Right now, you’re in X Bar. We walked through that creepy alley before midnight for the first time ever, and were surprised to see what X Bar actually looks like without throbbing, sweaty bodies grinding on each other, sticky drinks coating the floor. 

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There are tables. Who knew? Now you can crush a menu of carbs every Wednesday-Saturday from 8pm-late as an alternative to crushing not-so-good-for-your-body substances back in the good ol’ days when X Bar was The Parrot. 

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But, this kitchen is only temporary. The crew is looking for a full-time brick and mortar shop where they can be open daily for lunch and dinner, offering a fuller menu of 6-10 pasta dishes, snacks, wine – knowing this trio, probably heavy on the natural and organic varieties – and fun drinks, with a rotating selection of food specials. 

Dan and Mike both have design-related backgrounds, so we are expecting an ergonomically pleasing, well designed space.

In the meantime, slurp those quintessential fusion noods at beyond reasonable prices, paired with synthetic techno and X Bar’s surprisingly solid natural wines or half price cocktails before 11pm daily.  

Price: RMB48-68
Who's Going: Carb addicts, fans of chewy AF noods, the foodie community that gets off on following imaginative chefs (us included)
Good For: Late-night noodle consumption, solo noodle consumption, group noodle consumption, just all-around noodle everything


See a listing for Yaya's. Read more Shanghai Restaurant Reviews.

[Cover Image by Sophie Steiner/That’s]

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