For Myra’s birthday, we went to Mercato, the site of a couple of birthdays past, and also one of the better blends of delicious food and Bund views.We ordered drinks (mine a lychee soda), char-grilled octopus & potato salad, and salmon tartar on garlic crostini. Mercato’s amuse-bouche of sorts is their mini arancini. The octopus was great: the intense saltiness of olives was a really nice addition to crisped chunks of octopus drizzled in olive oil. While the salmon crostini had a indulgent toasted brioche texture that I really liked, the salmon didn’t have enough flavor to make it a truly standout dish. For our main, we shared a crispy beef short rib with polenta fries. The combination of chili glaze and beef was unique, a mild, lingering spiciness, almost endlessly crunchy where I would otherwise have expected fatty and tender (too many beef ribs at BBQ joints). I would’ve welcomed more softness in the meat, both for a break from the crunch and a bit more fat to balance out the sharp, tangy glaze. But flavors were good and the polenta fries a well-chosen accompaniment. For dessert, strawberry-rhubarb crisp with zabaglione gelato and buttermilk panna cotta with mint syrup and raspberry sorbet. Execution wasn’t an issue, but the flavor combinations weren’t very noteworthy. The housemade gelati and sorbetti, which we got on previous trips here, would’ve been a better choice, especially some citrus-y flavors to cut the fried goodness from the main course.Other dishes from prior trips here that I really enjoyed –
Burrata with Sorrento lemon, sea salt, and basil:Porcini-crusted salmon, warm-leek vinaigrette and herbs:Spicy polenta with cheese:Roasted baby Brussels sprouts:White asparagus with breadcrumbs:Also, gelati/sorbetti plate with granola (my favorite dessert at Mercato):
In the past couple of years, chef-branded restaurant groups seem to have started more firmly planting their flags in Greater China. Batali has landed in Hong Kong and Singapore, Jean-Georges opened up a while ago in Shanghai (although Mercato is relatively new), Umberto Bombana (who runs the Hong Kong’s 3-star 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo) is in Shanghai and now Beijing, Jason Atherton (who cooked under Gordon Ramsay) has a few places through Asia now, Mauro Colagreco (Mirazur, 2 stars) has a spot in the same building as Jean-Georges, etc. etc.
Names more local to Shanghai (e.g., Craig Willis, Paul Pairet/VOL) have also been popping up in new neighborhoods or have otherwise relocated to more svelte locations (e.g., Madison, El Willy).
I haven’t done as comprehensive a tour of these places to weigh in on the supremacy of one or the other Michelin-starred import, although I do prefer places with menus more familiar to the American palette (Madison, Mercato, Commune Social). There’s certainly been a lot of change, a lot of new spots and faces.
In many ways, the same issues with consistency and value still plague these shiny new names adorning reclaimed warehouses and villas. Restaurant economics don’t make for a lot of meals that are worth their price tag, especially on the Bund. That overpaying is also spreading to Jing’an and the French Concession, perhaps driven by rent (although food costs play a major factor). Whoever is on many of these doors is most certainly not in the kitchen, but it is also possible (if not likely) that he or she is not even on the same continent.
In others ways, it’s great – I’m kind of rooting for Austin Hu, Paul Pairet, John Liu (of Scarpetta) and other folks with roots here. But I’m rooting for all these higher-end kitchens to become spawning grounds for a more interpretative set of chefs, hopefully many of them Chinese. In general, it feels like there’s more momentum towards quality (and creative) cooking. People can hopefully dabble more in small plates, understand better the nuances of Italian food (and be more discriminating), discover clearer meaning to terms like “Mediterranean” or “Spanish” or “soul food” even, and have better alternatives for grilled cheese sandwiches than Munchies. Hopefully there’s a demand-driven improvement in the supply chain, more locally-made artisanal products (like burrata) and more choices (and less rat meat). I’m not sure how farm-to-table would translate for the throngs of eaters here, but I’m curious to see if it will.