In recent weeks, I’ve been to at a fair number of Western restaurants, mostly as part of some ongoing research for a restaurant project I’m working on. A number of Shanghai’s restaurants ran the gamut of different ways to be underwhelming. It was hard to find much excitement in the city’s offerings, the few exception being Madi’s, and surprisingly, Aux Jardins, the hidden-away French restaurant at Sinan Mansion’s leafy and serene Hotel Massenet.
From the hotel’s gates on Sinan Lu just past Fuxing Lu, Aux Jardins is hard to find, tucked behind the hotel’s other onsite (Chinese) restaurant. I had to ask a nearby guard, but once found, I filed up a slender staircase and entered past the small reception (which is really just a staircase mezzanine), and into the quiet, carpeted dining room. As it was, primarily candlelit, and swathed in gray tones, the interior would’ve been more welcoming with a handful more guests and a few more notches of volume. But it was a Monday night, and even expats who adore Jose’s cooking (an Alain Ducasse alum, he’s the head chef here) don’t typically venture this early in the week.
Our introduction to Jose came via a French wine vendor named Jean-Marc, who seemed to like the simplicity and execution of the chef’s food, as well as the nostalgia it conjured of Jean-Marc’s Provencal upbringing. Jean-Marc met us for dinner that night, a bottle of Hauvette rose and red in each hand, and Jose prepared a chef’s tasting, most of which we shared.
We started with grilled octopus (with a side of green bean, artichoke, and egg salad), seared foie gras with mushrooms, soft-poached egg, and black truffles, and scallop carpaccio with black truffle. The octopus was tender and warm, and the salad alongside it was fresh and crisp. The black truffles were surprisingly nice – not that truffles aren’t, but they are sometimes pungent, sometimes overwhelmingly so – but these were thinly sliced, fragrant.
Next, black cod Provençale, atop a bed of thinly sliced potatoes in a light chicken stock with tomatoes. Jean-Marc had raved about this, partly in his nostalgic euphoria, and despite the expectations he had set, the dish was really quite good. I hadn’t had black cod in a while, and most often coated with miso, à la Nobu. The fish was delicate, buttery, contrasted with the neatness of the stock and potatoes and the acidity of the tomato slices.
The two meat dishes were heavy, and I’m glad we split them, instead of individually having to manage portions. Seared filet Rossini, topped with duck foie gras and a wine reduction, and lamb chops with a butter-and-breadcrumb crust, artichokes, and mushrooms. The chef then brought out some hairy crab bisque, appropriately hot, with some real good chunks of the tangy crab insides.
For dessert, we each were served an almond soufflé, with crème fraiche, mandarin sorbet and pistachio crumble. To share, we had apple strudel and raspberry shortcake-esque pastry with white chocolate and pomegranate whose makings escape me.
There wasn’t much to say about the service, but that it was prompt and relatively unnoticed (in a good way).
Aux Jardins (Hotel Massenet)
51号 Sinan Road, Shanghai / 思南路51号，上海