Before you go to a restaurant, what do you want — or need — to know most? In this new series, The Rundown, we’re sharing all the essentials about newly opened (as well as favourite) Resy restaurants.
Sounds familiar. Isn’t Mr Ji a chicken shop?
That’s right. Founder Samuel Haim first broke onto the city’s restaurant scene with the seafood restaurant Hook in Camden, before opening the first Mr Ji as a pop-up in Stables Market in 2017. He went on to establish Mr Ji – then a grab-and-go spot specialising in fresh Taiwanese-style fried chicken and bubble tea – in Soho. This incarnation of Mr Ji will be the first sit-down iteration of the restaurant, a buzzing spot with table service and innovative cocktails with a vibe inspired by Taipei’s canteens and late-night bars.
The restaurant originally opened for a soft launch last December, with an official opening date slated for January; but the most recent lockdown pushed the team’s plans back. So, after months of waiting after the first previews went live, the restaurant is finally opening to the public. And while there’s the same focus on all things chicken and a Taiwanese influence evident in the menu and décor, much of the menu will have a broader East Asian influence, with food designed to pair to the bar’s cocktails.
Who’s behind the menu?
There’s much to get excited about at Mr Ji, but the fact that the owner recruited the chef duo of Ana Gonçalves and Zijun Meng of TĀ TĀ Eatery and TŌU to create the menu is what has really got people excited.
In the food world, the Sino-Portuguese pair have the golden touch, with cooking that’s thoughtful, innovative, but never less than absolutely delicious; their food leans into zeitgeist without ever following it. From the internet-breaking Iberian katsu sando in 2019 and an impossible-to-book residency at Tayēr + Elementary, where they lead, others follow.
Are there any new dishes?
You bet. The original menu teased at the end of 2020 will remain intact – highlights included a Sichuan-spiced chicken thigh sandwich in a Hong Kong-style pineapple bun, a brioche prawn in ‘toast’, and a gorgeous poached soy chicken with a sauce that cried out for rice. However, upon reflection, Meng wanted to consolidate the restaurant’s identity through new additions to the menu.
“The previous menu was trying to move away from what Mr Ji was, but it didn’t move far away enough,” he says. “I said, ‘we either go one way or another – we can’t be stuck in the middle.’ And obviously the bar is a new addition to the new Mr Ji, and so I thought, maybe based on that, let’s come up with a couple of small dishes that would go well with the drinks.”
Those new dishes include a salad of chicken gizzards braised in Chinese five-spice, mixed with vinegar, soy and coriander, and finely chopped into a tartare and served with smoked cream cheese and Doritos. “It’s like a little dip,” he says, “and you pick it up with the Dorito. It’s pretty good.”
Additionally, there’s a ssam-style dish of breaded chicken hearts, wrapped in lettuce with sweet curry sauce and garlic mayo, perfect for drinking. “This is one of my personal favourite ways of eating things. It’s kind of clean – you don’t need cutlery, you just pick it up and have a bite,” he enthuses. “You have the crunchiness, you have the juiciness, you have the seasoning. So, everything in one bite. Whereas when you go with cutlery, sometimes you don’t pick up certain elements of the dish.”
Yes, there’s rice – sort of. And lunch will be a gamechanger.
One early piece of feedback from those attending December’s soft launch was the supreme tease of serving a saucy soy chicken without accompanying rice. It’s something that they’ve addressed, albeit in a way that fits Mr Ji’s identity. “After we read all the reviews from [the soft launch], some mentioned that there needed to be rice on the menu”, he laughs. “And literally I was going to do a bowl of rice, but then it just felt like it was too filling.”
“I don’t think Mr Ji will ever be a proper ‘restaurant’ – it will always have a bar vibe into it. So, in order to please both worlds, we made onigiri on the menu. So, it’s a rice thing, but you can pick it up with your hands.” Expect lots of hasty rice smushing when they reopen – that is, at least, for now.
Those looking for the traditional meat-and-rice offering (“like a biàn dāng”, offers Meng) will have to wait until the restaurant starts offering lunch later in the year. “That’s going to be a little while. I don’t know when – we’re just playing it step-by-step basically”, he says.
Here, the drinks are just as important as the food.
The late-night vibe at Mr Ji wasn’t created by accident. Haim’s desire to emulate the nocturnal hangouts he frequented in Taipei meant that the focus on drinks play a huge part in any visit here – and outdoors, the cocktails (designed by bar maestro Cyan Wong) will make for excellent sipping on dusky Soho nights.
The cocktail list incorporates elements of modern-day Soho with East Asian elements, with an emphasis on tea (a favourite of Wong’s), each designed to be enjoyed with Gonçalves and Meng’s dishes. On the lighter end, a playful cocktail with melon, pear eau de vie, condensed milk and cardamom recalls sticky summers in Taipei, while a salted plum negroni with Japanese umeshu, vermouth and tequila packs a heavier punch.
Notably, this isn’t the first time that Wong and the TĀ TĀ Eatery team have worked together, with the former having developed drinks for the latter’s residencies through 2016 and 2017.
What’s it like inside?
Decked out in raw concrete and punctuated with LED lighting and canteen-style tables, there’s a marked industrial feel to the interior, a knowing austerity softened by the presence of hanging plants that welcome guests into the dining room.
A single, floating counter in the room is ideal for groups – when, of course, indoor mixing is permitted. The net effect creates a nocturnal, late-night feel perfect for gathering with friends over rounds of cocktails or Taiwanese beers, while snacking on some outstanding food.
Indoor dining will not, of course, be possible until May. That’s not a bad thing, says Gonçalves, as they were already slammed with reservations before even getting out of the gate. Still, since Soho’s roads only clear after 5pm, it’s an opportunity for the team to gel: “Everyone’s eager to slowly grow. Because last year, we never opened, right? We only did the soft launch. No one really worked with each other before, so it’s nice for us to take our time to know each other and work with each other,” she smiles.
Mr Ji is open for outdoor dining Tuesdays through Saturdays from 5.30 to 10.30 p.m. (Saturdays 12 to 10.30pm).
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