Ultraviolet, Shanghai, 2-star, 41st best restaurant in the world
The Paul Pairet (Mr. & Mrs Bund) immersive experience ferries patrons to a residential neighborhood 15 minutes northwest of the bund, and then proceeds to shock them with food as performance art.
It has been a rather hard go at blogging lately as it is highly time consuming and time is particularly short these days. But this is indeed an experience that is worth a length discussion. Ultraviolet might be the most important thing in gastronomy today. It is the closest food has come to pure art. The measures of its success are ill-defined because there is nothing that is comparable today. So the only measure that we can safely measure it on is how much happiness it creates in the poor patron who just had to fork over $600 (or $900 depending on the night) and waited for it for months on end. The verdict is that of extreme contentment. The experience is much more than food, which means that the taste of the food, though spectacular in its own right, is not always in focus. Instead, the trickery, role playing, atmosphere, humour provides the direction.
The night begins on the Bund, at Pairet’s famed restaurant Mr. & Mrs. Bund (see Shanghai guide for review). Festivities begin a little before 7pm, at a large table in the middle of the grandiose restaurant. The premise of the restaurant is well known by the 10 guests. You are to be shipped off to some obscure part of Shanghai. So now happens to be an opportune time to meet your fellow hostages. The seating mirrors that of later in the night. Two main characters are introduced.
Particular gratitude must be shown to the two hosts, both are the most convivial hosts in Shanghai. One is Vietnamese-French, speaks English with a slight accent and is always smiling. The Shanghai native also speaks superb English and walks with swag. The two probably have the most interesting job in food service. Both appear to have had healthy amounts of caffeine or something stronger in advance of service. The dinner party is predominantly Western; English is the operative language, though Chinese is overlaid if needed.
The extensive drinks pairings begins at the Bund - a fine dry cider that is funky like a good beer. It’s not at all overwhelming, the fruit muted. An amuse bouche to start the night is an exploding ball of french onion soup. The humor starts immediately, as the ball is placed on a gigantic spoon, as to signify that we have entered into wonderland and that things will no longer make sense.
A 15 minute bus ride whisks you to a residential area in the northwest. The audio-visual experience begins on the bus as a little screen pops out and shows an introductory video made of montages from old films set to Beethoven’s 9th. The secret location is not that secret, as I dutifully screenshotted on my phone. It is a dimly lit apartment building, or so it looks like. We enter through what appears to be a service door, distinguished only by the placards from the Michelin guide and Top 50 restaurants list. The casual onlooker would be fairly confused about what this random assemblage of people are doing in the dark corner of shanghai, at least until they see the two Michelin stars pasted on the wall.
Entering the complex conjures a surreal feeling, like entering into a haunted house. Maybe this restaurant is actually the front for some foodie trafficking organization. The actual complex is reminiscent of a paintball stadium - minimalist and brutalist: exposed pipes and concrete walls. The dining room has a large 10-person white-top table as the centerpiece. The table itself is an art piece. As you walk in, lights project your name at your place. Through the night helps create establish the scene, and create vertigo along with moving wall projections, or is more utilitarian, marking the spot the wine glass should be placed.
There are 22 courses, split into four “acts” (sea, land, Asia, dessert). None of the courses are cop-outs, they are each a course in their own right and worthy of discussion. The memorable dishes are described below.
The first dish of the first act “sea” is a fancifully prepared abalone (with its own theatrics); the result is a soft and chewy meat that is dipped into a perky yuzu sauce that paints the side of the plate.
The second dish is a shrimp-like crustacean called “carabinero” known for its distinctive red shell, which in this case was deconstructed and made out of lime and licorice. The shell is reminiscent of Chinese Haw flakes.
The third dish is a deconstructed scallop, the shell made of lime-sea snow foam that is cracked open with a spoon, half dissolving into the sea urchin, seaweed and scallop. The effect is a variety of temperatures and textures aligned by a common sea-like brininess. One reason the plate is memorable is the Beethoven piano sonata playing - the famous second movement from his pathetique. This being the second time Beethoven is featured, we might conclude that Pairet is a Beethoven aficionado when he is not cooking.
The fourth dish, the surfsurfturfturf, is a surprising pairing of foie gras with oysters. Foie gras shows it can essentially be paired with anything. On top is a cuttlefish skin, the second “surf” component. Below is a “sour jus” which I believe is supposed to be the second “turf” component. The dish is wonderfully balanced, with the sea tastes coming through despite the strength of the foie gras and jus. The pairing is the best wine of the night (and the only red), a blend of Monastrell and Cabernet from Jumilla, a bold bodied wine with some clear but well integrated oak (American and French).
The service is less service than performance art. It is usually a well choreographed routine. The most special is the first part of the second act “land”, when the table is cleared and almost magically is covered with a layer of artificial grass. The waiters layered two squares of grass below picnic baskets in which our first course sat. Between the choreography, music and projections on the walls, it was as if the grass had grown out clandestinely, right in front of you. In general the service is extremely well choreographed but they are also having a lot of fun. The dish itself is fun as you construct your own sandwich “a DIYABLT” (the “A” stands for aioli?). The picnic theme is classic (see Azurmendi, near Bilbao) and the eating out of tins is distinctly Spanish as well.
The second course is served in a clear plate so that the grass underneath appears like a part of lamb dish.
The most french dish on the menu is Pairet’s signature. It is a simple mix of bread dipped in butter “liquid bread dish” - similar with the San Francisco Saison dish, but with truffles instead of sea urchin. It is luxurious in its umami.
For the mushroom dish, servers use a flame torch to sear mushrooms that are growing out of a block of earth. Then it is seasoned, cut, and served to diners.
In the intermission, an old Paul Pairet dish (called “Can't Quit Foie Gras”) is changed from a cigarette to a cigar. Alongside a mushroom egg custard is served.
The first course of Act 3 “Asia” begins with some theatrics where a candle is cut to reveal what is effectively a sous-vide treated Black Cod, coated with lavender and honey. The fish is sliced and put on a plate which is also made of wax. The dish is simple and well constructed, the perfectly cooked slices of fish go well with a white creamy sauce and a dark vinegary sauce and some foliage on the side. Theatrics aside, the course might be the night’s strongest.
The theatrics continue, now transporting diners to Singapore - you see the Marina Bay Sands from the sea at night with boats circling around. A makeshift hawker stall has beef, watermelon, lettuce and rice, served buffet-style. The dish is served with a choice of English stout and Spanish blonde beer. Continuing on the theme, a stall with a hanging peking duck comes around. Perfectly cut rectangles of the Beijing-cola duck is served on a clip.
The desserts are, in general, undifferentiated versus other fine dining restaurants. One standout dish is the second dessert dish, which is entirely made by a lovely hazelnut tahine under an assortment of crunchy pieces so entitled a “wood forest”. Dried eggplant is especially additive to the taste profile (see recipe of a similar dish here).
The penultimate dish is another self-constructed one entitled “masterguest,” a play on the popular cooking show masterchef. A mango based dessert dish with all its components are placed in front of you, and a video with instructions is played. Guests have 3 minutes to replicate the dish. Most people end up with a complete mess that is then judged by the chef or maybe even Paul Pairet. A masterguest is crowned, and you eat your own creation (which tastes good regardless because the components are all excellent to begin with). Thus the evening ends in the kitchen surrounded by chefs and other guests.
Now, a bus takes you back to the bund. You leave absolutely elated, after five hours with nine other people and 25 staff. You’ve had probably the equivalent of a bottle of fine wines, and just ate 22 courses against its own storyline. You leave wanting to come back for the other two menus (UVA, UVB). You leave elated at the novelty of the experience, at the artistic effort the creators, at the thought of having experienced a lovely piece of human culture.
4000 RMB Tues/Wed, 6000 RMB Thurs/Fri/Sat (w/ better wine pairings)
The following menu is the third and most common menu being serviced - menu "C". The drinks are associated with the 4000 RMB price.
Champagne Henriot, Cuvee Des Enchanteleurs, Brut, 2002
Carabineros de Huelva
E. Guigal condrieu, 2013, Rhône valley
Sea urchin - seaweed - lime-sea snow shell
Barco del corneta, 2014, castilla y leon, spain
Grilled oyster, cuttleskin & fois gras - sour jus
bodegas, el nido “clio”, 2013, jumilla, spain
Allium Tuberosum Dashi Broth
Tomato Basil Water
Green Grass Fed Lamb
Thierry Germain, Domaine des roches Neuves, saumure champigny, 2014, loire
Truffle Burnt Soup Bread
Domaine Jean Marc Boillon 2011, bourgogne blanc
Domaine Jean-Marc Boillot 2011, bourgogne blanc
Martell cordon bleu petit carajillo
Candle in the Wind
Lavender-Honey-Wax-Sesame Black Cod
Domaine matrot, meursault, 2013, cote de beaune
The Black Pepper Beef
Digestive Butter Lettuce
Samuel Smith Imperial Stout Beer, Inedit Birrifico estrella damm beer
Lapsang souchong - a real cup of tea
plum & rice asia libre
grand marnier slush
Hazelnut Tahine - Bread woods
Willet light bourbon whisky kentucky
No Peach Melba
Raspberry Peach Chantilly