It’s a rare feat, even in Shanghai, when a Chinese restaurant serves authentic dishes in an atmosphere that is style-conscious, laid-back and affordable. Spicy Moment manages all three, so it’s no surprise to learn that the owner, Lao Deng, owns a quirky interior design shop just across the street and constantly moves between the two spaces. His jaunty hats reveal an eye for style, and perhaps this Hunan native can take some credit for turning Wuyuan Lu into one of the former French Concession’s hottest browsing – and now eating – destinations.
Spicy Moment specializes in the smoky and spicy flavors of Hunan, a cuisine made famous by Chairman Mao’s oft-professed, undying love for the dishes of his hometown province. Don’t expect to see any posters of Mao here, though. Exposed concrete and simple light fixtures, coupled with interesting art and savvy seating arrangements, make it a lovely place for any occasion. And did we mention that they serve basic cocktails – also a rarity for an “authentic” Chinese restaurant?
We always order an array of cold appetizers to enjoy while waiting for the rest of the meal. These liang cai are also good to come back to when the main dishes get too spicy. This is, after all, Hunan cuisine, which means a smoky spice that will fire through your sinuses and make the eyes and nose run. The shredded chicken with chilies is a good starter to get your taste buds fired up. Apart from red chilies, Hunan cuisine relies heavily on fatty, smoked pork to bring flavor to the tofu and wok-fried vegetable dishes. The cauliflower and tofu entrees should not be missed, and there’s a reason why the mouthwateringly spicy lamb is on just about everyone’s table here. The tender-to-the-bone chops are covered in cumin and have us licking our fingers for more.
For solo diners at lunchtime, there are a variety of spicy beef and fish noodle bowls that are sure to satisfy but just aren’t as much fun (or easy) to share with a group of friends over dinner. It’s also a relaxed enough ambience for a long lunch; since many of the local noodle joints tend to be more of the “eat as quickly as possible with your head down” style, it’s nice to have a more leisurely option.
We often come in and simply ask Deng what’s new. On a recent visit he was experimenting with Hunan chilies and spices in raw oysters, a truly unexpected explosion of flavors. Just as with relationships, a little experimentation with food can lead to some memorable spicy moments.
It’s clear that the atmosphere and the dishes are a hit with the young and creative Chinese crowd. The food must be good, because it appears they’ve actually put down their iPhones and are eating while having real-life conversations. Look for the menu on the wall near the kitchen, place your order and let your sinuses flow.