If you know Shingo Gokan as the man behind Speak Low and Sober Company, The Odd Couple could not be more surprising. Understated and discreet himself, the Japanese bartender has built his Shanghai presence on a Prohibition-era aesthetic and his speakeasy par excellence. So, when you ascend the stairs of Gokan’s latest Shanghai project, blitzed by a wall of coloured lights set in compact discs, an LED screen projecting Pac-Man and ’80s throwbacks on the speakers, the contrast is stark.
It can’t be a couple with only one, and the second half here is US barman Steve Schneider (formerly Employees Only). The Odd Couple grew out of Gokan and Schneider’s long friendship and complementary bartending approaches. Where Gokan is studied and meticulous behind the bar, Schneider is quick and freewheeling – the neon lights and Pac-Man music of the relationship.
A tribute to the 1980s, the pair’s new Xintiandi spot percolates with an infectious energy on busy nights. Cocktails are a labour of love, and the menu has undergone its own private evolution during the bar’s infancy. A disappointing, thin Red Eye – vodka, lambic and tomato juice – later disappeared from the menu along with a few other weak links.
Labours of love don’t come cheap, with drinks hovering around 120RMB to 130RMB. A section of ’80s throwbacks offers takes on popular drinks of the era; the potent Long Island Iced Tea sees rum, gin, vodka and Cointreau, combined and spiced. The Odd Couple classics cover traditional drinks heightened – an espresso martini almost imperceptibly scented with truffles, a Paloma served with black lava salt.
Gokan and Schneider each play with the same flavours, expressing themselves through two different drinks. Schneider’s Sound Off! considers the tea flavour through a clarified cocktail marrying rum, cinnamon and earl grey. With similar inspiration, Gokan arrives at his Speak Loud, drawing on bubble tea and matcha along with rum and sherry.
The Odd Couple is an on-going conversation between the pair, each complementing one another and drawing out something new, which is exactly what the best of friendship does – makes us unfurl those parts of ourselves we didn’t know existed, but that once found, we delight and revel in.
By Cat Nelson