Check Please is a quick round-up of some of the latest café and restaurant openings around town. In here we spotlight Three on the Bund’s latest, Canton Table; Sichuan fine dining space The Peacock Room, and intimate izakaya-vibed Oha Eatery. 2018 is likely to see an influx of contemporary Chinese concepts—so far sentiments are commendable, but successes vary.
Address: 5F, Three on the Bund, 3 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu (near Guangdong Lu) 中山东一路3号5楼 (近广东路)
The latest opening from Three on the Bund group, Canton Table is yet another Cantonese restaurant trying to modernize the classics. But before you sigh at the thought of more dim sum and barbecued pork (which in our opinion is never enough), hear this: the food is excellent, and the prices are much lower than you’d expect at a Bund-side establishment known for its high-caliber, upmarket venues. Here, dim sum plates start at RMB22.
About that dim sum—it is damn good. There are crusty milk buns (RMB36) packed with sweet charsiu (roast pork) and tangy pineapple, and steamed dumpling purses filled with veggies that gleam like gems in their crystal-clear shells (RMB28), and egg custard tarts topped with delicate slices of black truffle (RMB42). All divine.
Steamed Truffle and Mushroom Dumplings
Main dishes rival the dim sum. Like most Cantonese restaurants, the menu is massive, so let’s stick to the standouts. First, the must-order salt-baked free range chicken (RMB268 for a whole bird) is crispy-skinned, amply salted beauty, presented in a way that’ll have you grabbing for your camera as flames lick the edge of the brass dish.
Starters of cloud-like, melt-in-your-mouth tofu puffs on a bed of perfectly fried garlic (RMB58) and deep-fried Yunnan mushroom spring rolls wrapped in crunchy bean curd skin (RMB48) make for the ideal way to begin your meal. Both dishes are easy crowd pleasers.
Deep-fried Yunnan Mushroom Rolls
The barbecued and roasted pork (RMB128), a quintessential dish for any Cantonese restaurant, is simple but wonderfully done. The roast pork is capped with a golden crackly skin, to be dipped in a light mustard sauce, and the honey barbecued pork plump and juicy. The pan-fried lotus cakes with water chestnuts (RMB88) are savory little pork patties of pleasing textures, with tender bites of minced and mashed meat assuaged by a crunch from the root veggies. The list of masterful favorites goes on and on.
Barbecued and roasted pork
One last hot tip: don’t miss the sugar artist’s ornate works of burnt caramel creations (or at least take a moment to watch him work).
Traditional Sugar Art
The look of Canton Table almost outdoes the superbness of its fare. Colossal flowers and Shanghai ladies in jewel-toned clothing painted directly onto brick and cement walls make for an edgy but sophisticated look that lends a bold stylistic counterpoint to glass museum-style cases bearing Chinese antiques.
Altogether, the design creates a unique setting reflecting a difficult-to-achieve success that can come from meshing old world ornaments with modern artwork verging on street-style.
The main dining room is enough for entertaining groups of up to eight, even 10 per table, but if it's privacy you seek, there are also plenty of private rooms for that.
Address: Taikoo Hui, Room 301, 789 Nanjing Xi Lu (near Shimen Yi Lu) 南京西路789号兴业太古汇301 (近石门一路)
From the forces behind lavishly designed Sense 8 and modern Sichuan restaurant Maurya comes The Peacock Room, a shinier version of Sichuanese cuisine that strays far from preconceived notions of the province’s mala-centric, family-style fare. Located in the south complex of Taikoo Hui (Shanghai’s most confusing and poorly designed shopping center), The Peacock Room gives meaning to the term opulent, from its opalescent stemware and gold-dipped framework to the jewel-crusted peacock that greets you upon entry.
Dining commences at a long line of tables that stretches the length of the restaurant. It's much the way you’d expect to be seated in the great hall of an imperial palace, a place where the glitter and shiny adornments are most pleasing to an emperor.
Designed by Andy Hall (the same guy between killer spaces The Cannery and The Nest), it pools together artistic elements beginning in 19th century China with contemporary Western design, apparently intended to serve as a consideration of the relationship between art and money. The look is lavish, yet remarkable—in truth, it outshines the cuisine.
The food surprises, and not always pleasantly; pushes boundaries, but not always impressively. An artful dim sum starter of little edible purses and packages begins things on a high note, but a crab soup served in a tiny pumpkin framed by billowing clouds of dry ice( a tiresome parlor trick, we might add), doesn’t impress.
Dim Sum Platter
One of the other starting plates, a set of candied, paper-thin slices of beef accompanied by chewy sugar-coated cubes of savory pork, better presents the chef’s prowess as he plays with common flavors in uncommon forms.
Traditional Spicy and Sour Crispy Beef; Spiced Crispy Pork with Sesame; Okra with Surf Clam in Vinegar
But then, braised beef scalp—a misleading and terrifying moniker for something that's actually beef cheek—arrives with promise as you slice through the layers of buttery meat and sticky fat. Here, the flavors are almost too robust for our palates, and instead taste a bit like the smell of a farm. A similar route of ups and downs follows: consistently winning presentation, but with flavors that can’t always keep up with their polished looks.
Braised Beef Scalp
This place is worth a try if you’re interested in seeing how far a chef can stretch the boundaries of regional Chinese cuisine. But with pricey set menus only (RMB500-600), The Peacock Room is likely a place you’ll go once, but perhaps not run back to.
Address: 23 Anfu Lu (near Changshu Lu) 安福路23号 (近常熟路)
Helmed by the team of Bar No. 3 and recently shuttered Blackbird Cafe, and led by new-in-town chef Blake Thornley, Oha Eatery brings a lovable concept to Shanghai that currently suffers from a lack of finesse.
Jumping on the up-and-coming "small plates and intimate izakaya-vibe" trend, Oha centers its meals around a communal table. Here, chefs are able to float around to each of the counter-seated diners, introducing the dishes and closing the gap between guest and kitchen. The idea is there, but in its early days, Oha’s execution of the "Eastern flavors, Western techniques" style has a ways to go. The drinks, however, are great, with stiff bottles of pre-mixed Bar No. 3 cocktails starting around the RMB60 mark. The natural wines are worth a try, too.
Crunchy pork mini burger and a Bar No. 3 Manhattan
The inspiration for the bulk of the fare here comes from Guizhou; home province to many of the restaurant’s staff members. At first glance dishes seem cheap, but being small plates, the bill adds up quickly. A few things hit the right notes: curried cauliflower and turnip (RMB75), partnered with sticky-sweet date and cacao nib galettes crusted with corn flour, is a wonderful surprise of a dish that brings together unexpected flavors that work. A final touch of celery leaves brightens the dish.
Crispy Date; Cauliflower, Turnip, Curry, Cocoa
Most of the other selected dishes need work. A little bowl of gray pidan (preserved egg) mousse and marinated peppers (RMB22) is reminiscent of eating ammonia-tinged soil. Seriously. Why? Preserved eggs have been through enough already.
Burnt Bell Pepper and Preserved Egg (hidden beneath the folds)
Slices of beef tongue (RMB38), a popular ingredient gracing many tables these days, don’t have their promised char. Instead, the pieces are chewy, dry, and lacking the proper treatment that the delicate meat so deserves, despite a five-hour sous vide. It's thrown together lackadaisically with slices of watermelon radish and thick chunks of leek.
Charcoal BBQ Beef Tongue
Then, there’s the seared sea bass (RMB110). It has a sugared pomelo puree which goes through a rigorous blanche, boil, and reduction process to temper the bitterness of the rind (the whole fruit goes into the puree). The process seems moot, as the bitterness from the rind remains to be persistent. It also comes with a side of chili dust, a powerful additive that trounces all other flavors you might taste. The dish feels disjointed, and for what it is, quite overpriced.
Seared Sea Bass; Pomelo Puree, Carrot, Sesame
Despite the shakiness of the restaurant’s start, there’s promise, and with any luck, the kitchen will work out the kinks and make this into a destination that lives up to its concept.
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