Healthy eating is anathema to Shanghaiist; why deprive oneself of all the deliciousness in the world just so one can live a few more extra years? However, we understand that folks here sometimes need to feel a tad better about themselves after one too many 3 a.m. lamb skewers outside [insert overpopulated club of the moment here] any given morning. Thank goodness for RU? Cafe and its aim of providing balanced and nutricious offerings in a small but sleek setting. Since opening the middle of last year, we’ve found ourselves recovering from many a late night over a big mug of coffee, freshly baked bread, and the cafe’s homemade yogurt. The mushroom risotto is pretty delightful as well, striking a good balance between richness and flavor.
We floated some questions for the chef (Eric) and the three co-owners (Owners) about what it’s like to try to do something new in Shanghai…the rumor on the street is that the Shanghai restaurant scene is kinda sorta competitive. Their answers:
In your experience, how much of a challenge is it in Shanghai to get your hands on the fresh produce, meats, and other ingredients that you need for a venue like RU?? Do you find yourself competing with larger chains or hotels for a limited pool of stuff out there?
Eric: The challenge is actually self-imposed. Fresh quality ingredients are a base line at RU?, and much can nowadays be sourced in Shanghai without finger-biting difficulty, e.g. a crisp fresh garden salad is pretty standard in many western oriented restaurants, cafes and supermarkets.
The rather difficult challenge is to find some specific nutritional elements that we want to incorporate in our dishes to build upon the idea of nutrition and diversity. For example, the flaxseed oil we add to our granola & homemade yoghurt is bought overseas. Other more specific raw materials like bread yeast and organic flour originate from Europe.
So for the raw materials that we source in China, the competition is not for quantity but for quality at the most reasonable price. As for those sourced from overseas, well, it’s a matter of logistics.
Shanghai has shown itself to be ridiculously competitive for upstart cafes and restaurants (and bars and boutiques and English-language magazines to boot). What inspired you to jump into the ring and duke it out?
Owners: Passion for food, passion for business. And simply because we can do it.
For all of us, RU? came about as the desire to materialize what we felt was missing in Shanghai and our passion for living a good life: a place to comfort the urban nomads from Shanghai’s excessive pace, through renewed connectivity with others, nutritious food and simplicity.
We built this concept aside from our full time jobs. While this means a challenge on the amount of time to dedicate, it also means we can try out new ideas, a luxury that most other restaurants may not have. If there’s any place in the world right now that favours the gutsy, it’s Shanghai, so we figured “it’s now or never”.
Is there anything unique about preparing food for customers in Shanghai than other places where you’ve worked?
Eric: Shanghai is like many other urban centers I have worked in, such as Singapore; Shanghai urbanites always seem squeezed in a time crunch. Not only do their dishes need to arrive fast, quality needs to remain high. Shanghai customers’ palates are demanding!
RU? promotes itself as a purveyor of healthy and wholesome dining. As a chef, what rules (if any) do you follow when devising new items for the menu? I am assuming we won’t be seeing bacon cheeseburgers show up anytime soon.
Eric: Probably no bacon cheeseburgers! Though the perception of nutrition and health differs from culture to culture, we try to combine the mainstream perception such as “fries make you fat”, “red meat has the highest content of iron” or “green vegetables contains good level of anti-oxidants”, with other lesser known topics such as alive yogurt bacteria in yogurt fights LDL cholesterol and builds up the immune system.
Fundamentally, our guiding tenets are Balance (of carbohydrates, protein, fat, sugar and fiber), Nutrition (addition of specific active ingredients), Moderation, Variety and Great Taste.
What were some of the more unexpected and surprising challenges that you faced while starting up a restaurant in Shanghai from scratch?
Owners: While most of the surprises were actually expected, the amount that came our way was still a surprise! The art of communication tops the list! For example, we firmly believed that SMS ordering would take off like a wooden house on fire. During implementation stage, it was impressed upon us just how much energy is required to be different from existing “market practice”.
Food ordering via the phone in Shanghai is mostly a painful and hit-and-miss experience. We therefore wanted to offer an idiot proof alternative via a very commonly used channel – the SMS, which we believe to be Shanghai urbanites’ most common mode of communication: simple & hassle-free. We hope SMS ordering helps drive simplicity in “fooding!”
We’re always curious about where chefs and restauranteurs like to eat during their off-hours. Leaving competition aside, what are you favorite spots to get a bite in our fair town?
Eric: After cooking a variety of cuisines during the day, I enjoy coming back to basic and traditional. Asian traditional, that is. Best way to enjoy my supper is at a small Taiwanese restaurant on Huaihai Rd called Charmant; they simply serve the most authentic Ba Kut Teh (Singaporean pork rib soup).
Owners: We’re pretty sure most foreigners in Shanghai have been inducted into the all-you-can-eat-sushi phenomenon … typically followed by 2 days of stomachache, brain damage and 3 months (and for some, it’s a lifetime) of raw fish and sake abstinence.
Now, pleasure means more to us. Comfort comes easily with simple, homey Moroccan Chicken at Ginger (Fuxing rd) or curries at Thai Gallery. If you are passing through Beijing, don’t miss Pure Lotus. When in the mood for a scaled up experience, Jade on 36 remains our Mecca of creative food in Shanghai; not every dish is to our taste, but for sure they always are surprising. And for simpler indulgence, Whisk’s warm chocolate pudding brings it home.
If you haven’t heard, Macau billionaire Stanley Ho recently paid $330,000 USD for a white truffle weighing 1.5kg. If he were to give that truffle to you to create something for your restaurant, what would you have in mind for our crazy expensive fungus?
Eric: Would this chance be given to me, then likely I would tone the nutritious message and head for Goose liver & truffle terrine with balsamic Banana salsa on a bed of truffle scented cream cheese.
RU? Café – 1521 Xinzha Lu, near Xikang Lu (新闸路1521号, 近西康路), Tel: 6247-0715, Hours: 7:30am-10pm (closed on Mondays)
Eric Hu is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news and gossip about Shanghai’s food scene to food at shanghaiist.com.