Ones to Watch: Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire, Akme, Seul & Seul
The Western dining scene in Shanghai has seen another wave of new openings this summer. Meanwhile, in the local blogshpere (including review sites such as DianPing), many had fought in a war of reviews.
Alas, in this enormous metropolis dwells tens of millions of people, everyone has a mouth and every mouth has an opinion. In the begining of the day, the fine balance between one opinion and the opposite had always been the foundation of modern civilization. After all, it's interesting to hear something different.
So I guess I'll have something to say as well.
Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire
Add: 480 West Jian Guo Road
Hours: Weekends 17:30-22:30 Weekdays 17:30-22:00
Avrg. Price: 5 - 600RMB
A couple weeks following the opening night, I was there with a few friends, all of us curious about what the great man and his team has to offer for Shanghai. As the name Le Comptoir suggests, it's a bistro with a facelift, decidedly casual, however, with certain references to Chef Gagnaire's signature dishes and requires no less than the level of precise execution found in many of his fine dining institutions.
The kithcen is helmed by Romain Chapel, son of the legendary French chef Alain Chapel. Speaking of the French, the youngsters might still rock a dream of touring the world, while the rest seem to be a little conservative. Working in Shanghai (not New York, not Tokyo, Shanghai! ) is a big deal for anyone in the culinary world, a bold move and usually a reflection of an open-minded, forward-thinking personality.
It was busy, bustling - a result from both the name of Pierre Gagnaire and heavy marketing with local wechat accounts and media. It felt a little cramped as well - a re-incarnation of cozy, authentic Bistro experience in a beautifully refurbished 1920s Shanghainese shikumen building - for these old lanehouses, AC doesn't work well during the hot and humid summer days of Shanghai.
(I figured it's getting better.)
赶时髦去了次晚餐，行前瞄到几张照片和菜单，一看都是单点，连个套餐影子都没有，便知是高级Bistro路线，看到菜就更印证了这一点（而且名字里的Comptoir也很不言自明，法语的Countertop，听听也知道是Casual Concept）。菜色休闲轻松，和带上老爷子名字的fine dining相去甚远，但制作手法依然教科书般精细，也看得出一些致敬之处。
Thanks to Odette and UltraViolet, I've started building up appetite for foie gras and oyster (or any kind of seafood that makes sense). The soup boasts a creamy, dense texture that works well with a piece of bread, or two (exactly what I did). Make sure you have a glass of something to neutralize the bold flavor, as the umaminess tends to linger on.
The eggplant terrine also has a surpringly concentrated flavor. All I had was one bite (stealing from friend's plate). Not enough!
They say DO NOT ORDER CHICKEN at a restaurant but I always do. An improved, adult version of Mac & Cheese, whimsical and playful but still fits in the image of a Pierre Gagnaire restaurant. FYI, it's MIX IT YOURSELF. However, it's a challenge not to overcook a piece of chicken breast...thighs could be better!
主菜部分，忍不住点了我最爱的鸡。鸡胸肉配Macaroni，外国人从小吃到大的Mac & Cheese的精致版本，分两盆上桌，一盘素面朝天的弯管面，一盘挂满芡汁的雄壮鸡胸，一时没了主意，亏得小伙伴聪明，说你要不要试试把鸡的Sauce混面里试试？这！就！对！了！鸡胸肉有点柴，没吃完，若用的是腿，不定是道有趣有料的菜。
In a sentence, this place intends to attract an educated audience that come in small groups (2 to 4) who don't take either themselves or the dinner experience too serious. The pricing is not cheap, but still slightly cheaper than the renowned Villa Le Bec, and the vibe was a little more rigid than expected.
Maybe it's the Capella package?
Sharing Dish分量不算大，人多的话要多点几份。简单来说，是个三两个朋友开瓶小酒轻轻松松吃顿饭的地方，价格甚至比类似定位的le bec还便宜几分，不过氛围有丢丢太正式了，也可能是要衬得上Capella的规格吧。
Add: 55 South Wulumiqi Road, 1F
Hours: 17:30-23:00 Monday thru Sunday
Tel: 021-64289799 021-64699969
Avrg. Price: 7 - 800RMB
Taking the ground floor of a charming four storey luxury villa around the corner of Heng Shan Lu and West Wulumuqi Lu, previously owned by a local wine importer ASC Wines, nestled in the heart of former French Concession, AKMÉ opened its door with a determination but had stayed very quite until recently.
I was among the first ones who set foot in this then mysterious property back in April. Food was impressive but there were a few things to be fine tuned (it was soft opening) and I decided to wait. Two months later, the Chef Owner came in town and I was summoned for a tasting and an interview.
Akrame Benallal, a successful chef-owner with a sharp mind and great business sense (10+ locations around the world), embarked on a trip to Asia as the kitchen in Paris is currently under renovation. The main purpose is to check out his outposts in Shanghai and Hong Kong, to develop new recipes on site and to make sure everything is on the right track. The Chef heading this Shanghai project is Louis Pacquilin, trained under the awe-inspiring Alain Ducasse, came to Shanghai straight from Quebec City, Canada.
At the begining I was concerned as Louis didn't work for Akrame for long. But my worries was put to rest as the young master seemed to have a tight control over his kitchen and knows what he's been doing - through a large window diners were invited to watch the live kitchen show. At least for the three visits I had over the past few month, it was quite consistent.
最近主厨Akrame Benallal趁着巴黎餐厅翻修，跑到亚洲来出差，趁机和厨房一起研发新菜。掌管厨房的是年仅25岁的Chef Louis，曾在Alain Ducasse门下修业，一看就是科班出身的好少年，和生在贫民窟、阿尔及利亚裔的Akrame形成鲜明对比。
My favorite dish goes to Grilled Blue Lobster. It's best cooked medium rare, slightly opaque white with an unique hue of a pearl, was as tender and juicy as you could imagine.
The lobster tail was grilled at the side of the table using a portable grill - a little trick to engage the diners and makes the food seemingly tastier (usually works very well). An educated diner should avoid having it grilled for too long (skip instagraming this one!). Otherwise this previous piece of lobster would easily be overcooked and for this you can only blame yourself not the kitchen.
The pigeon, roasted precisely medium with sage and buckwheat, was close to perfection. The key is to use fresh farm-raised pigeon instead of the frozen ones prevailing the market. The foie gras flan, which I finally gave a try third time in, proved to be rather delightful and was the highlight of that night.
The famed black dessert, consists of roasted pineapple, vanilla ice cream and a heavy dose of bamboo charcoal powder, was both tasty and instagramworthy, the only downside: get ready for a pair of blackened lips.
Four Course Prix Fixe priced at 588 was not a bad deal. Feel free to pick your favorite dish such as Lobster (paying a substitute fee) and Piegon.
FYI, it looks modern but the sauce and seasoning sticks to the core of French cuisine. You need a bottle or bottles of sparkling water to refresh your palate for each course. Btw, there's a charming little garden in front of the villa, ideal for wedding receptions...
Prix Fixe 588，可以吃四道菜，而且是自选，所以又可以选龙虾又可以选鸽子简直完美！听说楼上还有家粤菜好吃，不过价格不菲，改天去瞧瞧。
seul & SEUL
Add: 798 West Nanjing Road, Taikoo Hui N301
Hours: 18:00-23:00, Monday thru Sunday
Avrg. Price: 7-800RMB
This one is the lastest opening among all three. Apart from the 10 course tasting menu priced at 498, there's also a tapas menu served in the lounge area and outdoor terrace. The pricing strategy somewhat reminds of Sabor, a similar concept near the bund from Spanish Chef Diego Guerrero.
As a project headed by former executive chef at Andre, seul&SEUL is born to be phenomenal (or controversial) from day one. The Chef, Johnny Jiang, born and raised in Shanghai, finally made his way back to hometown after 12 years of expedition with lengendary Andre Chiang.
The owner, Bill, was a former colleague of Johhny's from Bund 18 era. This is the partnership every chef dreamed of: having someone from hospitality (ideally from the kitchen) to be the boss. Makes life a lot easier.
Menu looks like a replicate of Taipei's raw...not that I care, I always skipped reading the menu as I believe it's best to keep it a surprise.
A few things that made my night: sweet shrimp(Amaebi) with a hint of green curry on top of a rice craker was a delightful kick-off. Potato croquette with foie gras stuffing plus a topping of pickled onion, a bitful of classic and authenticity, no more, no less. Squid Squid Squid (Squid 3 way) was one of my favorites of the night, especially the soup!
With the Chef being a hardcore Shanghainese, localization is a must. Crispy fried gluten balls paired with sea urchin (not a fan though...), Scallion Lomein using angel's hair and sakura shrimp, and a piece of beef steak resting on top of a dash of sauce made from Gillardeau oyster, possibly a nod to a famous local delight, oyster sauce stir-fried beef.
This wagyu cut has a decent marbling (suggests a premium quality) with an appetizing red and pink color...I was told this was tri-tip, similar to Skirt Steak & Flank Steak, a "cheap cut" popular in the US. More and more decent restaurants started using these cuts for their flavor and texutre, much underrated by the grand steakhouses and the general public.
Well, I'm a big fan of cheap cuts, as long as it's prime quality and done right.
Throughout the meal, I did not see any groundbreaking technique or anything over the top. From what I've seen, seul&SEUL is probably not pitting itself against the ambitoious biggies in town. Like Sabor from last year, its ambition lies in making the so called "high concept" more accessible to the general public. As an entry level option for someone who's not ready to spend $$$ on a meal, it's more than perfection.
这块和牛肉，等级很好，油花丰富，切面桃红樱粉交错，煞是好看，吃半天没吃出是什么部位，猜测是小馆子爱用的“冷门部位”，问厨师，答曰"Tri-tip"，果然不出所料，和Skirt Steak、Flank Steak很类似的一块三角形牛腰腹肉，大牌牛排馆子一般觉得这种肉“不上台面”，但如果肉源足够好，风味和口感的表现，通常被低估。
Time for something serious
1. Who told you it's Fine Dining?
Big names sell. This also applies to restaurants. In the most extreme case, someone who interned at a michelin starred/worldly famous restaurant can have "michelin executive chef" in his/her title, which is rather ridiculous. Besides, the trick also incorperates words like luxury, opulent, prestigous, VIP only...anything suggests a $$$ experience is good.
And then the diners found out the truth. Oi, this looks different from what we had at the signature restaurants in Paris/Hong Kong/London/New York!
I mean, not that the food isn't good. It's all about expectation management. Who told you a celebrity chef can only go for Fine Dining institution? For a rising market, someone likes to go all force with the most luxurious dining experience, some tends to be conservative and to test the water with casual concepts...it's a difference in business and investment strategy, based on study and understanding of local markets.
2. Who to blame for the bad service?
Almost all the western restaurants have had this. Bad Service!
They got me the wrong bottle...the explanation was way too brief...my plate for the main dish was cold...they only care about the expats...my wine bottle slipped into the wine bucket and I tasted water...they could smile a little more often...
As for diners, we've had, more or less, all of these bad experiences with service.
Meanwhile, all the restaurants had been complaining about how difficult it is to get service people. Not like some other industry where people tend to build their career by staying long on one position, F&B is the industy you've seen people come and go. The boom of restaurant scene in Shanghai has caused a severe shortage in staffing. And it's not just the people serving your table but also managers and even higher management that requires a relevant working expriences and education background.
Back in the states, one of the very basic common sense was, the girl waits your table might be a senior student from the arts college nearby, or a model/young actress who just moved from West Coast who's trying to support herself in the city. Thanks to the tipping system, it's probably the best incentive program I've ever seen in modern life.
China? The lacking of systematical training, fixed compensations and very rare part-time openings in higher end restaurants all makes it difficult. Not to mention our service people do not grow up eating the food, some of them probably have never seen 99% of the stuff listed on the menu...On the other hand, local diners, in general, tend to be condescending and do not treat service people with enough respect, which also contributed to a low self-esteem among service people.
To give you an example, a girl friend of mine, years of studying oversea, good looking, born with a decent family background - happens to love F&B and has devoted herself to service - has always encountered the following comments:
- Why do you get into service after all?
Apart from the staffing shortage, the management of any new opening usually need sometime to fully understand the market (well you can say they didnt do the homework) and figured out the solutions to issues that's been exposed through daily opertion: dim light, loud music, cramped space...
On the other hand...if I ask you to pick me a perfect restaurant in Shanghai, would you be able to name a few?
3. Let's give them a little more time
As the Chinese saying goes, every begining is a tough one. In this world, no one was born perfect.
The best food critics (the New York Times or The Guardian folks), usually wait a little longer until the fad died down a bit.
I can't agree more.
Someone might say, if you are not ready, don't open the door, don't go for any promotion. But in the real world it works a little different. No one is ready until the clients actually come in and eat at the restaurant, not even the most experienced team of service and kithcen.
On the other hand, as the diners of Shanghai, shall we be a little more tolerant and patient as the market just started to open up. If you can't tolerate anything that goes wrong, waiting for another 3 or 6 months would be a better and smarter option.
After all, all that matters is good food (and experience. )
I had a coversation with Chef Louis at AKMÉ a few days ago. They checked DianPing reviews and took it very seriously, the restaurant is set to fix the lighting issue (too dark); if someone orders a prix fixe and would love to have everything on the table at the same time (to share), the kitchen will try to meet the requirements...
Text & Photo ：喜北 aka Xiaoyi