New & Noted: Iza

What: Sushi yakitori bar
Where: 161 Anfu Lu, near Wulumuqi Lu. Tel: 6445 9931
Why: For smoking hot grilled dishes and affordable lunch sets

Shanghai’s really excellent Japanese restaurants tend to do one thing well and focus on that: Think Sushi Oyama’s nigiri, Toriyasu’s yakitori or Ginza Bairin’s tonkatsu. Iza’s menu is comparatively slapdash - combining maki rolls and sashimi with yakimono and tempura. The broad swath it encompasses is sometimes successful, but occasionally overreaches.

Owned by the healthy food champions behind Organic Kitchen Shanghai, Iza also hopes to promote nutrition alongside flavour. Behind the blond wooden doors and shoji walls is a teensy dining room with a sushi counter buttressed by a grill station. Each is manned by a chef who cooks or slices to order as the diners’ dishes roll across the counter. The deep-frying is done in a closet-sized kitchen off to the side.

Ordering from the grill side trumped both other cooking stations. A skewer of marbled pork belly (RMB 38) slathered in teriyaki sauce was the unanimous favourite for our table, but the dense minced chicken balls – (RMB 29) also glazed in the same sweet sauce - were a close second with their meaty portions.

Our sushi assortment (RMB 68 for five, RMB 98 for seven or RMB 128 for 10) started off shaky with a crumbling foundation of rice, too loose to hold its form. Several of the nigiri pieces had a dollop of wasabi between the rice and the raw fish so big it made our eyes water, overwhelming the more delicate flavours of the maguro tuna (RMB 88 a la carte) and amberjack (RMB 68 a la carte). Slices of ark shell and surf clam (both RMB 58 a la carte) were abandoned after being found too rubbery to chew.

We happily returned to the cooked side of the counter where a basket of tempura (RMB 68) won us back over with al dente pumpkin wedges, sweet bell peppers and plump shrimp battered and deep-fried to a delightful crispy chew. Bowls of miso soup (RMB 15) were thick with extra ingredients – slivers of daikon radish cut thin as paper and shiitake mushrooms added extra oomph to the unconventionally hearty Japanese menu staple.

With less than 10 counter seats total, and a few sparse tables lining the walls, there isn’t much room for kampai-ing your sake cups. But that just means the kitchen is so close you can literally reach out and touch your friendly chef as he wafts the smoke from the grill. Reasonably-priced lunch sets (RMB 48 – RMB 88) will ensure that this place fills up fast with office workers at The Centre, and the Anfu Lu expat set will likely flock to the dimly-lit space for dinner. Expect the second floor to open soon with sukiyaki and shabu shabu specialties.