Jason Atherton’s new Shanghai venue in Jing’an is similar to his 22 Ships, another quirky tapas-inspired outfit in Hong Kong. He’s imported much of 22 Ship’s menu and design elements, albeit in a much larger space, with a terrace, an open kitchen, and a dessert bar. The Neri & Hu-designed space makes use of a funky first-floor layout of an old police station, where the middle terrace commands the most space, flanked by three disparate rooms with slim, intimate interiors. For Jing’an, it’s one of the first Western restaurants with a modern, interpretative flair, a presence the neighborhood has sorely lacked.
Beyond these place-setting menus, the daily specials are written on chalkboards propped along the walls. We chose to sit by the open kitchen and watch the action, although these might have had something to do with it, too: From the paper menu (we skipped the daily specials, most of which were brunch items, heavy on eggs), we ordered a few items that I’d tried and liked in Hong Kong, and a few new dishes as well: The foie gras & Iberico pork mini-burgers and the Manchego & Iberico ham toasties were my favorite, greasy, toasted, pork-charged finger food that highlight their respective ingredients. Even if they are ported over from Atherton’s other establishments, they still outclass the resident pan-European restaurants in the neighborhood, which are either hotel-based or lesser-quality, often standardized fare (e.g., La Strada, La Poste, Malabar). The squid, shrimp, and corn all had nice, peppery flavors, smokiness offset with bright dashes of acidity, but the underlying textures weren’t all there. The seafood was a bit too dry (although the ink aioli was a nice touch), and the corn not quite crisp and sweet enough (although such versions are notoriously hard to source in China).
Afterwards, we migrated to the dessert bar, in part because it’s a cool space and concept reminiscent of New York’s late-night dessert bars, but largely because we wanted to stare at the prep line of sweets and sorbets and such: After a complementary dish of dry-iced caramel popcorn, we dug into Commune’s play on PB&J (with peanut ice cream, blueberry sorbet, salted peanut crunch, mulberries, peanut brittle) and a daily special of seasonal fruit and flowers, with a lemon mint ice cream (although I forget some of the details, dragon fruit, lychee, peach, honeydew, meringue, with a fizzy fruit soda). I discovered that I could eat salted peanut crunch for days. The sorbet was wincingly sour; unfortunately, the fruit wasn’t sweet enough to successfully follow that citrus set-up.
We came back for dinner a few days later and tried some new dishes. DIY tuna tartar, with an array of seasoning and ingredients; salt cod brandade with toast; salt-baked beetroot; baby squid paella; white asparagus with soft-cooked egg; and baked smoked bone marrow, onion jam and sour dough with gentleman’s relish butter. While the tuna mix was a bit too unrestrained (not all combinations of seasoning are made equal), the brandade was briny and delicious, and the bone marrow (which seemed more like oxtail ragout with bone marrow blended in) was a heavy pop of richness, while the gentleman’s relish (anchovy paste with butter) had a contrasting funkiness vaguely like onion jam. It hits you in the arteries, but hurts so good. On our third trip there, another dish that I really liked was the foie gras and duck empanada, which did have onion jam, a perfect companion for the fat-heavy duck-filled pastry.And there you have it. The prices are a bit high, and the service hasn’t yet hit its stride (my guess is that it’s hard to navigate and communicate given the discombobulated layout). But I still enjoy the sense of adventure in the cooking, with the rather lengthy daily special options each time we’ve gone, and that there is a set of reliable dishes to serve as a departure. And though I’m not a fan of the derivative styles that have crept into many new eateries, the bare-bones, industrial chic warmth of Neri & Hu has grown on me, in part because of this restaurant and Mercato’s good cooking.
Commune Social is what I had hoped Henkes (in Reel Mall, near the Jing’an Temple metro station) and its cousin La Poste would be, or what I hoped might have cropped up on the same bar-laden block of Wuding Lu as Malabar and Café des Stagiaires. Regardless, it’s a pleasant, whimsical addition to the neighborhood.
511 Jiangning Lu, 江宁路511号