THE reason for dressing up and going to a fine restaurant can be a big occasion like a wedding proposal, 50th anniversary, or to celebrate admission to an Ivy League school.
Few will challenge the motive for splashing out on an expensive meal for such an occasion. But defining a fine dining restaurant leads to a good debate as some chefs claim the price to cost ratio is a guarantee of quality while some critics say expensive ingredients alone don’t equate to fine dining.
This puts pressure on upscale restaurants to deliver something unique. Premium ingredients, innovative dining concepts, celebrity chefs and top level food and wine pairing dinners still entice diners to open their wallets and splurge on a great meal.
Daisy Ding has worked for several fine dining restaurants on the Bund and says the difference between fine dining and regular eateries compares to the distinction between economic and business class on the same plane.
“Expensive doesn’t necessarily equate to tasty but in most circumstances it means a great experience,” Ding says. “An expensive meal generally means less noise and no crowds. There is a nice distance between tables and the wait staff take better care of customers.”
“There will always be occasions when we want to spend generously on an exclusive dining experience,” says Jiang Nan, a local food lover who just celebrated his wedding anniversary at Jean Georges, an upscale French restaurant at Three on the Bund.
The selling point of such restaurants is commonly the ingredients. If a Chinese restaurant serves abalone, sea crab, shark fin and spotted garoupa on a set menu, the average cost is usually at least 1,000 yuan per person. The check will likely reach similar levels if lobster, caviar or Wagyu beef is served in a Western restaurant.
Paul Eschbach, executive chef at Jean Georges, says the biggest factor in pricing is covering the cost.
“If you are interested in quality products then of course it costs more,” he says.
But there are some who say upscale restaurants inflate prices.
Food critic Xu Qianlai, founder of the popular food review app daguaimaishi, doesn’t buy Eschbach’s explanation.
“It’s a weak argument to say ingredients are the reason for such high prices. Quality ingredients cost money, but not that much. They are not endangered animals after all,” Xu says.
Ding says such prices are only worth it if a restaurant uses ingredients that others don’t.
Both Xu and Ding agree they will only pay such prices for rare ingredients and an exclusive experience.
“The price should be due to unique culinary techniques, creativity and the chef’s personality,” Xu adds.
Ding adds that any dish that is also labor intensive, a stock broth stewed for more than 48 hours or a texture only achieved through very fine cutting for example, is also often worth the money.
Restaurateur Philippe Huser, owner of Napa Wine Bar and Kitchen on the Bund, says restaurant pricing is more complicated.
“You can not simply say a menu costing more than 1,000 yuan is expensive,” he says. “There’s a thin dividing line between expensive and value. A 5,000 yuan menu could be great value because of the quality of dishes and wines served, while a 300 yuan menu is a complete rip off for the same reasons.”
Shanghai Daily explores some of the most expensive restaurants in town.
The tour starts with Ultra Violet, which promotes a “pyscho taste” concept and costs 4,000 yuan per person. There’s also a Chinese restaurant that dishes out five dumplings for 438 yuan, a Japanese restaurant known for its amazing sushi and Napa Wine Bar and Kitchen, which has a 1,880 yuan set menu highlighted by Bordeaux first growth wines.
This French restaurant on the Bund belongs to Jean Georges Vongerichten, a Michelin three-star celebrity chef known for reinterpreting classic French cuisine with an Asian touch. He excels at using spicy chili, sour fruit and fragrances to liven up dishes.
The menu reflects Vongerichten’s passion for premium ingredients including glazed potatoes with caviar and baked lobster with black truffle butter and shoestring potatoes.
The restaurant serves only set menus with the most expensive being an eight-course meal with wine.
This set includes seared beef tenderloin with spinach, herbs and sweet chili emulsions.
Connoisseurs can pay an additional 998 yuan to replace the normal beef with Blackmore Wagyu striploin (marble score 9). The set also includes kingfish sashimi with fresh wasabi and dill, highlighting Vongerichten’s culinary vision.
According to executive chef Paul Eschbach, most of the dishes are labor intensive.
“It takes a lot of work for all our recipes, from the agar set gels made with citrus with all the pith removed to making fermented chili paste,” Eschbach said.
Head sommelier Stephen Lim has earned a strong reputation within the industry for some unorthodox pairing rules.
“My pairings are not fixed just on wines,” he said.
“Sometimes I will match a dish with other alcohol beverages such as sake, cognac, whisky or others.”
The eight-course set includes some wines rare in the Chinese market. “I found a wine from Yamanashi using a native Japanese grape called Koshu. I like to match it with our famous kingfish sashimi, coated with yuzu dressing,” the sommelier said.
Price: The set menu is sold at 1,458 yuan plus 10 percent service charge. Wine pairing charges 1,088 yuan plus 15 percent. Prices may change according to the truffle season.
The Chinese restaurant in The Peninsula Shanghai may just serve the most luxurious dim sum in the city.
Try the set of five dumplings.
The steamed cuttlefish and water chestnut dumpling with XO sauce has a black translucent skin (from the ink of the cuttlefish) sprinkled with gold foil. The filling is extracted from various seafood and is tender and juicy. Xiaolongbao (steamed buns) is filled with Wagyu beef and foie gras.
Shaomai, a dumpling with an open top, features a whole abalone. Another dumpling filled with silky sea cucumber and minced shrimp and topped with caviar features a rich texture and layers of flavor.
The traditional shrimp dumpling has been replaced with lobster and shredded bamboo shoots to create a bouncy and crunchy texture.
Executive dim sum chef Lai Wing Koon insists on making each dumpling by hand, and doesn’t add oils or seasonings to highlight the original flavor of the ingredients.
“I try to source the best produce worldwide, caviar from a local Chinese farm, foie gras from France, fresh lobster, Wagyu beef from Australia and sea cucumber from Japan,” Lai said. “Preparation is time consuming, for example, the sea cucumber needs to be soaked in water for two days.”
Fortunately for him, numerous diners believe it’s well worth the effort and price.
Opened by celebrity chef Paul Pairet, known for his use of molecular cuisine, UltraViolet is pricey but still has one of the longest waiting lists in Asia.
Each seat costs 4,000 yuan (US$644.05) and needs to be reserved at least three months in advance since only 10 guests are served each night.
Diners are not even told where the restaurant is, they meet at the Bund and are transported to an old recording studio near Suzhou Creek, where lights, projections, sound, music, air flow and different scents are changed throughout the meal.
Upon arrival, diners are led into a dark reception room with violet lights and the sound of a beating heart. Then the dining room door opens and everyone can see a long table. Each guest’s name is projected onto a plate.
The meal covers 20 courses, each paired with wine, and every diner has his own server.
UltraViolet separates itself from the competition with its focus on all the senses, not just taste.
When the dish “micro fish no chips,” made from capers and anchovies, is served, the air turns humid, slightly cold and the sound of rain falling fills the room.
An image projected on a wall shows a rainy scene in London to echo the love for fish and chips in Britain.
The song “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” by the Beatles plays in the background.
“No shark fin soup” is made with tomatoes and peaches. When served, the air smells sweet with a hint of fresh peaches. Projected images turn to Chinese lanterns and the song “Sweet Honey Honey/Tian Mi Mi” by Teresa Deng is played.
Price: 4,000 yuan/person
Departing address: Main entrance of 18 Zhongshan Rd E1
This small yet fine Japanese restaurant serves what many consider to be among the best sushi in town. Both a la carte and set menus are available. But the premium set is why many come because it’s prepared exclusively by executive chef Yuji Suzuki, who has been making sushi for more than 40 years.
The sushi is more expensive than at other Japanese restaurants due to the use of premium ingredients and labor intensive preparation methods.
“Ingredients, especially the rice and seafood topping, are the keys to sushi,” Suzuki said. “Seasonings should take a back seat in order to highlight the original flavor. The same ingredients can taste different in the hands of different chefs. The amount of force and technique used in cutting sushi decides the final texture — not too firm, not too fluffy is perfect.”
The nine-course premium set features appetizers, salad, dobin mushi (a traditional Japanese seafood broth steamed with matsutake), sashimi, main course (usually they serve top grade Wagyu beef), grilled food (a combination of fish, lobster, cod and seasonal vegetable), tempura, dessert and sushi. The menu varies slightly from day to day depending on what ingredients are available.
All the ingredients are sourced from Japan and highlighted by fangtooth fish from Chiba. The area’s distinctive temperature and ocean current give the fish a natural sweetness.
The tuna is from Nagasaki and caught by hand. Such tuna costs five times more than fish caught by net, which damages the skin of the fish.
Sashimi is another highlight. The firm abalone, sweet and fresh prawns and silky smooth sea urchin are also recommended.
The fatty otoro, the most desired part of the tuna belly is another signature dish. Before the tuna is cut it is gently rubbed with wine to remove any unpleasant fishy taste.
Mineral salt is served with all sashimi. Dip each bite of fish on the block of salt for more vibrant, complex and balanced flavors.
Napa’s four-course set is in demand due to Chateau Margaux, known as the most elegant and feminine of the Bordeaux first growth wines. The set includes four glasses of the winery’s signature wines. Napa’s executive chef Martin Bentzen once worked for Noma, a restaurant in Copenhagen with the longest waiting list in the world. He’s now serving his “new Nordic cuisine” in Shanghai.
Philippe Huser, Napa’s owner, says the goal is to make top wines approachable to more people.
“Often, the price of a full bottle can make people shy away from buying it,” he said. “Offering such wines by the glass makes it easier to afford.”
The set starts with Norwegian scallops on a bed of cauliflower couscous paired with Pavillon Blanc 2009, a Margaux white known for its strength and elegance. The scallops are flown in from Norway twice a week.
Then comes the roast pigeon with Chateau Margaux 2002, followed by the Angus beef short rib with Pavillon Rouge 2010, which Bentzen says is his most impressive pairing.
“We have a very fatty and glutinous beef. To balance its heavy flavor we use lightly picked carrots and onion. But I keep a comparatively low acidity so as not to disturb the elegant wine,” he said.
Bentzen’s signature candied apple with soy caramel and chocolate soil provides a distinguished ending to the meal.