Mr. Willis came recommended from a few of my Shanghai friends, comfort-food home to Australian chef Craig Willis, former executive chef at a popular Shanghai chain of cafes called Wagas.  We headed there on Saturday night, slightly dressed up enough by typical Shanghai standards for this to constitute a date night.  For reasons described later, this delicious dinner became for me the Wayne Brady dinner.

Upstairs after three short but narrow woodlined stairs, the restaurant is in a Wagas-owned complex on Anfu Lu surrounded by food and aromas: the first floor is La Strada, Mr. Willis’ sister pizzeria, and the second floor is Mi Thai, a relatively new classics-plus-fusion Thai joint, and Sushi Raku.

From the outside, the ambiance is hushed, the noise carefully contained to each restaurant’s own space, but once you step inside, you can feel the dim space warm up (quite literally) and the voices and laughter reverberate off the high arched ceiling and the restaurant’s dark plush corners.

Interior at Mr. Willis

We weren’t quite hungry enough to go after the menu’s larger cuts of meat, namely its signature steaks, but we did get a few appetizers and entrees to share:

Straciatella bruschetta, figs, burrata, walnuts, pomegranate

Gay’s sauteed scallops, roast tomato chutney, curried lentils

The bruschetta was especially delicious, with Kadota fig season just starting, the light sweetness paired with the creamy burrata was a great opening note.  The scallops were nicely seared, the tomato chutney had a pleasant sharpness, and random as it is, I liked the flavor of dried bay leaves in the curried leaves.

Crispy skin snapper with porcini mushrooms and truffle
Half roast chicken with Provencal pumpkin gratin and chicken jus

While we weren’t too crazy about the mains, both the snapper and chicken were nicely cooked and tender.  The Provencal pumpkin gratin we both agreed was our favorite:

Provencal pumpkin gratin

One of the reasons perhaps for our inability to totally tune into our food was the same reason I texted Myra halfway through dinner, with a mix of amusement and frustration: “Why is it that almost every time we go to a nice place in Shanghai, we have such interesting conversations next to us?”

I can’t say that it’s necessarily the somewhat abbreviated distance between tables at the city’s higher-end restaurants, but this old couple spent the whole dinner in plain earshot talking as if on some inane political talk show.  The conversation consisted almost wholly of the man’s authoritative assertions and the woman’s insistent that she was only saying, not debating otherwise.  The lady prattled at the half-bald wad with his sloppy off-white short-sleeve button-down about her push-up workout at the gym, then they talked about:

1. gun violence in the States

2. the propriety of the Gulf War

3. the relative casualty figures in the two World Wars (her: “World War I was definitely higher”)

4. the Greatest Generation (thank you, Tom Brokaw)

5. the progressive tax system in America (this is the part of the conversation where the man made some nice underhanded racist remarks about welfare recipients)

6. and other bogus nonsense that made me want to go Wayne Brady on them.

It was like watching a live-action hour of the 700 Club.  The last time I was at Madison in February, there was what looked like a breakup conversation happening at the next table.

Luckily, the dessert was good enough to offer a final distraction before the couple left to go proselytize their hearts out to each other:

Dark baked chocolate with salted caramel ice cream

Normally the soufflé comes with vanilla ice cream, but Myra made an excellent impromptu request after seeing salted caramel ice cream as one of the separately-listed house flavors.  I was rather impressed with the appetizers and the dessert, and perhaps with a hardier appetite might venture to try the suckling pig or any of the beef cuts next time.

Mr. Willis
3/F, 195 Anfu Lu,
near Wulumuqi Lu