Satisfying, New York-style dining â€“ in Shanghai.
NO wonder the expats here look so self-satisfied.â€? The Lord Restrain leaned back in his low chair in the â€œfarm chicâ€? loft at Mercato, located on Shanghaiâ€™s Bund.
â€œI would be, too, if I could come here to eat every day,â€? he declared, while scanning the large, open dining space. Here, reclaimed wood and warm leather tones complement exposed steel, iron and glass, and wonderful cuisine.
On a chilly Saturday evening in January, it was certainly an inviting venue and was filling up fast by 7pm.
Hardly surprising, then, that without reservations we couldnâ€™t get a Mercato table at celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichtenâ€™s recently opened restaurant. The famed three-Michelin-star chef already had a presence in the building with his fine dining namesake restaurant, Jean-Georges. So we took the window table offered near the bar, and with a not-too-restricted view of the world-famous waterway.
â€œThe most excellent starters in decades,â€? proclaimed the Lord, not leaving a single crumb on his plate. I had to agree. The Housemade Ricotta with Cranberry Compote, Olive Oil and Grilled Bread (78 renminbi/RM38.20) was not what we expected; it looked simple and, well … rustic. But the light and creamy ring of delicately flavoured ricotta topped with the delectable cranberry cooked slowly with sugar brought a luscious combination of tastes and textures with each consecutive mouthful.
The Wood-oven Roasted Asparagus Fontina and Prosciutto (88 renminbi/RM43) that followed the cranberry carnival was no less impressive. The lightly grilled greens wrapped in soft slices of prosciutto were crunchy, yet moist. Slathered in olive oil, all it needed for a sharp tang was the juice of a lemon, and a wedge was already waiting.
The Lord is a big fan of Italian food and so, with a wood-fire oven adding warmth to an already agreeable dining room, we could not help but pick the Spicy Pork Sausage, Kale and Pecorino Pizza (118 renminbi/RM57.70). And our rustic pizza did not disappoint.
This house speciality was generously topped with sausage slices and kale, while the thin-crust pizza was surprisingly chewy and charmingly charred in spots. The blend of parmesan, mozzarella and pecorina cheeses artfully married their flavours, resulting in a comfortingly creative taste.
Aided by glasses of Italian white, generous and chilled just right, the evening was just beginning. The moneyed mÃ©lange of Shanghai, both local and expatriate, were in evidence as they came for an evening of bonhomie with partners, friends and families. Noted the Lord Restrain, â€œElitist, ostentatious fine-dining restaurants should be replaced by places like this.â€? â€œLike what?â€? I asked. He pondered and proclaimed: â€œCasual … chic … really good food.â€?
By this time, the Simply Roasted 7-star Seabass (38 renminbi/RM18.60 per 100g) had arrived. Before I could even set my wine glass down, the top half of the roasted fish was gone.
â€œShould I turn over the fish?â€? I asked, with more than a hint of sarcasm.
â€œNo!â€? He confided in me: â€œI was told by many Chinese friends over dinner that I should take the bone out, and not turn the fish over, especially if we are near a port. So that the fishermenâ€™s boats will not turn over.â€? He paused and looked at me: â€œA myth, maybe?â€? Err …
Roasted with sage, rosemary, tomato and lemon, the bass stewing in its hot sauce was uncomplicated and light. The clear sauce, with tangy hints of lemon, offered a bracing piquancy to complement the fresh fish.
Chef Vongerichtenâ€™s signature flair for balancing flavours and textures was at work here. The flesh, very lightly battered in a crispy shell, slipped easily off the bone and soon the fish had slipped easily off the plate, too. â€œThe tomatoes are a little burnt …â€? the Lord announced as he popped another wedge into his mouth,â€?… but very juicy.â€?
Since the menu consists of Coastal Italian Cuisine, we decided to end our meal with a trusty Tiramisu (58 renminbi/RM28.40). This proved a wise choice, as the serving was more than enough for two, even two with such a pronounced sweet tooth. After such a great introduction to taste and texture, unfortunately, the tiramisu didnâ€™t live up to our expectations. Not only was it stark and understated, the base was slightly dry and it was difficult to finish.
Nevertheless, the disappointing dessert did not detract us from our thoroughly enjoyable evening. Great restaurant ambience, stunning views of night-time soaring skyscrapers overlooking and reflected in the shimmering river. Moreover, I was rather pleased as I had only taken one bite of the dessert and left the rest to the Lord, who was eating it with much restraint.
â€œThis is very relaxing,â€? said the Lord, slumping back in his chair, his mustard sweater contrasting pleasantly with the chairâ€™s lime green upholstery. â€œYou wonâ€™t feel that way when the bill arrives,â€? I replied. With two glasses of wine, fish weighed by the gram and two excellent coffees, the evening set us back almost RM500.
But Lord Restrain now looked pretty self-satisfied to me. As if to confirm, he leaned back in his low chair in Mercatoâ€™s loft, and muttered: â€œVe-e-ery satisfying.â€?