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Archive for May 14th, 2008

I had 2 very different dining experiences in the last 2 nights. If I had only gone to one restaurant, I would be convinced that Shanghai is the gastronomical epicentre of the East. If my experience had been limited to the other, I would have left thinking that this city proves yet again that money can buy many things, but good taste is not one of them.

First the disappointment: the M in M on the Bund must stand for mediocre. A cheap shot at an expensive restaurant but well deserved. I had my usual order: 3 appetizers with accompanying wine, all suggested by the maitre de. I find that an appetizer and a main do not offer enough of a stage for the chef to display his or her talents, and often, it is too much food as well. 3 small plates served in courses works well for me, in volume and in variety. So the view of the Bund at night, with the river boats and high rises of the Pudong all lit up in flashing colour is spectacular. And if madam is cold on the terrace, a wrap will be provided. All around me, groups of business colleagues celebrated with champagne and cigars, and large parties of family and friends toasted their special occasions. A festive place warmly lit and elegantly presented. Shame about the food.

I was prepared not to have my culinary socks blown off: it was presented as Shanghai’s first gourmet restaurant (since 2000), not her most innovative now, but a definite must do for visitors. I was expecting something along the lines of Scaramouche or Canoe in Toronto: lovely views of the sparkling city below, comfortable surroundings, and solidly executed cuisine with luxury touches in ingredients and presentation. A place to take out of town business colleagues or go for a special anniversary dinner with family. Well, the lobster and shrimp bisque was the color of brown lentils, tasted mostly of celery and smelled vaguely of fish. If a crustacean came anywhere near this bowl, it was merely waved over the surface to satisfy the description on the menu. The small bird in the roasted pigeon salad was appropriately crisp, richly brown and juicy. Needed salt however. Or some flavour. The accompanying dollop of coriander puree and undressed leaves were green. Nothing more can be said. The final course consisted of 4 small lamb dumplings with a yogurt sauce and a bit of chili: everything was adequate alone but did not hang together as a coherent dish. And the dumpling dough was tough and thick: a sad comparison to the light and delicate pork dumpling wrappers I had that day at a dim sum chain at a quarter of the cost.

The place was packed and so they were in a hurry to turn my table: the courses came swiftly and I was seated and gone within an hour. With so successful a franchise, I suspect that the chef does not see a need to stretch himself or his loyal clientele. In fact, it does not feel like there is a chef at the helm at all, more a corporation. Indeed I understand that they are looking at opening up a location in Beijing. They should save themselves and diners in Beijing the bother and the boredom.

In contrast was my meal on Monday at T8 in the trendy Xintiandi area in the French Concession. I found the place down a dimly lit cobblestone alley, glowing with the candles of other restaurants and cafes. Decor was all Asian inspired antiques, warm wood, stone and comfortable upholstered chairs and low couches. Anyone would look good in such an elegant atmosphere, but who needs to when the food is this stunning. I was first sat at a quiet table for 2 by the window, and when I said it was a little too isolated, and asked if I could sit at the bar, I was quickly moved to the “chef’s counter”. You know, that highly coveted seat right at the open kitchen where you can watch the chef and brigade go through their paces and see everyone else’s dishes come together. A perfect perch for a food voyeur.

The young man you see on the right is the Chef: born in Hungary, Jeno Friedl trained in Austria, Germany, and spent 3 years in Marbella, absorbing the latest in Spanish gastronomy (so says the website) In softly accented English, he was the one who advised me on my meal selection and took the order from me. After each course, he came and asked me how I was enjoying my meal. Oh happy day.

The first course was marinated scallops: on an 18” long narrow white plate, the thinly sliced perfectly tender scallops were nestled in a row of crème fraiche studded with chives. Over the top he ran a wide translucent ribbon of shimmering ginger jelly. The dish was strewn with yellow and purple nasturtium petals, perfect ½ inch cubes of hot pink watermelon and pale orange melon, and sprinkles of red rice that had been popped in hot oil until crunchy. (I know, because I asked him what the intriguing little red bits were) Not only was it the most exquisite presentation I have ever seen on a plate, it tasted literally dissolved on the tongue as you inhaled the sea and spring all together.

But wait, it gets better. The next course was a beef Carpaccio with arugula. Sounds like a tune we all know the words to. Not in the hands of this man, who is literally a painter on a plate. On a large, 18” long, and 10” wide shallow platter (I mention the plates, because every dish had its own unique presentation and special serving dish ) he placed the tender deep red beef in a large rectangle, over which there was a lattice work pattern of a creamy aioli, topped with bright green baby arugula. A few petals of grilled portabella mushrooms added a color contrast and toasted macadamia nuts were sprinkled over the piece. The whole effect was like looking at a red brick wall with a delicate green vine, trained on a lattice, climbing up it: a small mound of deep crimson beet sorbet in the middle looked just like a rose. And it tasted sublime.

My last course was an arugula risotto, perfectly cooked to a al dente texture: the vegetal flavour of the rich green rice was complemented in taste and texture by the earthiness of poached quail eggs and truffled ice cream. Oh baby! The way that ice cream melted into the hot rice was a sensual experience on the tongue that I could have enjoyed for a long long time. Ineed, I was never rushed, and it was the best, most attentive service I can remember having in a restaurant anywhere.

Both meals came in at a little over $100 each, without tax or tip. I confess to having an extra drink and dessert on the terrace at M on the Bund just to prolong my stay! So the meal at T8 was more expensive: it was also more substantive in volume and in the use of luxury ingredients. And of course, in the quality of food, the inventiveness of the menus and the care in presentation, the two establishments are literally at opposite ends of the high end dining spectrum. I know where the smart money is going.

Postscript: I read some reviews online in preparation for writing this review, and discovered to my regret, that T8 is one of those few restaurants in China that does encourage tipping. And I thought it was just my charming Canadian accent that inspired such attention!

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