There aren’t a lot of good Italian places and fine dining in general in Shanghai, so dinner at 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana, the Shanghai offshoot of the Italian original, was an exciting proposition, if only to see what the fuss was all about. It also was my first time dining with a chef, in this case the former executive chef at one of l’Ateliers de Joel Robuchon. The experience was interesting, in part to see how one chef cooks for another (that he respects, presumably) and to see what kind of comments our fellow guest had to the food, the service, etc, and our guest certainly did not lack for opinions. It was illustrative of how nuanced one can be in enjoying and/or evaluating a dining experience, and also things must go right, how many details to which it is important to pay attention, when trying to create a memorable or just good meal for a discerning patron.
8 1/2′s own chef, Allen Yu, customized a tasting menu for us and was kind enough to come by, say hi, and talk a bit of shop. The first courses were a seared scallop and then a foie gras / terrine combination (with Piedmont hazelnut sauce on the liver and fresh eel on the terrine). The dishes hinted (strongly) at the French theme that would dominate the meal. Despite 8 1/2′s Italian menu, Chef Allen’s extended working history had mostly been in French restaurants, and it showed through the selected dishes and their execution, not to any particular negative way, other than that it was a bit at odds with 8 1/2′s stated Italian identity. Our guest pointed out that foie gras was atypical in traditional Italian cooking, in which fresh liver was more common (sometimes marinated in cream for a day so as let soften as it soaked up all the fat particles). I’m looking forward to trying that version sometime.
The next courses were pasta: cavatelli with seafood ragout and (not pictured) vegetable risotto with braised beef tongue. The seafood broth and the cavatelli pasta were both quite excellent. I only noticed the overcooked lobster because our dinner guest pointed it out, since the pieces were small, but I tried to think of the point more as a learning exchange, something to notice next time, which is useful to the point that one can imagine how incrementally better the dish would be if the buttery lobster were less chewy. The risotto, while cooked well, was a bit heavy and uninspiring, although I did uncover my strong preference for beef tongue braised, and not grilled.