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New Eats: Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill

The man. The brand. The don of frozen pizza and cookware. His restaurant just opened in Xintiandi...
By Jul 22, 2015 Dining

TELL EVERYONE

Shanghai has seen a slow and steady trickle of celebrity chef ventures over the past decade. Jean Georges and Jason Atherton have both staked successful claims. Far more have failed or simply backed out, like Justin Quek. And apparently even Marco Pierre White had something going here for a minute. And now, Wolfgang Puck -- or at least the company bearing his name -- has thrown his hat into the ring.

In American gastronomy, Wolfgang Puck is a name that carries a lot of weight. The man was a celebrity chef before that term even existed. Throughout the '80s and '90s his Los Angeles restaurant Spago was one of the country's hottest tables, and a haven for Hollywood A-listers. More importantly, he brought fusion and California cuisine to the national stage and influenced an entire generation of chefs.

From there he built an empire that has grown to over 100 restaurants, a line of frozen pizzas and canned organic soups, and even home cookware. Nowadays, he's a brand just as much as a celebrity chef. With outposts in Singapore and Dubai, Shanghai would seem an inevitable next step. And Wolfgang Puck went for the obvious choice: Xintiandi.



Whenever a celeb chef opens a restaurant in Shanghai, there are some pro forma questions.

1. Will the namesake chef be in the kitchen?

The answer: Of course not.

2. Did he at least write the menu?

We were unable to get anyone on the phone to field this question, but the FAQ list on Wolfgang Puck's website addresses the question thusly:

"Wolfgang has a presence at all of his locations and is an integral part of all menu concepts and design; he loves to cook almost every day! He is respected for cultivating talented and professionally trained executive chefs who can showcase their innovation and skills in conjunction with Wolfgang's culinary influence and style."

That's PR-speak for "no."

This probably means Puck sets standards and guidelines for an army of executive chefs around the world. This may demystify the Wolfgang Puck experience for some you. But who are we kidding? One man can't micromanage an empire this huge. That's just how scale works. It's not necessarily a bad thing either. Plenty of other celeb chefs run their companies the same way and to great results.

But I'm not so sure I can say that about Wolfgang Puck's Shanghai outpost. The look and feel of the place is nothing remarkable. It's dim and non-descript, with plain black granite tabletops and dangling naked light bulbs. Wooden ribs undulate along a vaulted ceiling overhead. The music in the background runs a weirdly wide gamut of anything from poppy dance tracks to Grand Funk Railroad's "We're an American Band".



If your server follows the "suggestive selling" protocol from the restaurant's training manual, you'll start with one of their signature cocktails, like the Shanghai Sour or the Pearfect Martini. They're adequate, but 98rmb for drinks mixed with Four Roses bourbon or Absolut Pear vodka is borderline extortionate.



Food is easy and approachable with (surprise, surprise) a focus on Italian flavors. There are lots of pastas like seafood linguine, spaghetti with tomato-basil-garlic sauce, or rigatoni with turkey Bolognese. The word "gremolata" appears more than once. Even the pizzas are more Italian, foregoing the toppings that made Spago famous, like barbecue chicken or smoked salmon, in favor of prosciutto, fontina, fresh mozzarella, etc.

Much like the décor, few menu offerings excite or capture the imagination. There isn't that one item that jumps off the menu, begging -- even daring you -- to order it. On my visit, the only dish that came close to this was an appetizer of Spanish grilled octopus. Grilled perfectly tender and served with a classic romesco sauce, it is an expertly executed dish.



WP's baby beet salad takes a close second to that octopus. Roasting brings out the natural sweetness of the red root veggies. A tangy yogurt dressing laced with citrus zest brings balance and texture variation.



But in my experience, both were merely an enticing overture to an otherwise unremarkable meal. Take the Flat Iron Steak Frites, for example. For all its simplicity, steak frites can be a religious experience. At its best, it's the kind of dish that inspires culinary pilgrimages. Just ask the French. WP's take on this staple is by no means bad. It's a fine cut of meat cooked to the proper temperature. And let's face it -- you can't say that about a lot of steaks served in Shanghai. The massive skein of shoestring fries is nice and crispy, too. But nothing about this dish transcends mere meat and potatoes. It lacks the kind of wow factor one should expect of a steak with the name Wolfgang Puck on it.



Unfortunately, the same goes for the Scottish Salmon, too. They sear a fillet until a brittle, salty crust forms on the outside, sealing all of the tender flakiness within. Then they serve it between an arugula and shaved fennel salad and a white bean ragout. Again, there is nothing wrong with any of it. It's properly executed, but simply predictable.



Portions are generously American-sized, so you probably won't have room for dessert. Should you be tempted, though, offerings are safe and typical, like a vanilla bean crème brulee, Valrhrona chocolate soufflé, and bread pudding with hazelnuts and toffee sauce. The latter looks like this...



…And it's okay. But is "okay" really the bar that Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill should be setting? Particularly when a dinner for two with two courses, a shared dessert, and two cocktails could easily set you back somewhere north of 900rmb? When you come to dinner with such high expectations, that price tag is going to sting. For many, those are "special-night-out" prices for something that really isn't that special. Even the service -- which, by the way, is actually excellent by Shanghai standards -- scarcely makes up for it.

Bottom line: if this celeb chef brand wants to get a foothold in Shanghai, it needs to make a better effort. It's already late to a race in which the likes of Jean Georges and Jason Atherton are leading the pack. WP has long game of catch up to play, but there is something about the endless flow of customers in Xintiandi that lulls its tenants into complacency. I'm not too confident that Wolfgang Puck Bar and Grill will come out ahead.

TELL EVERYONE

6 comments.

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  • 4 years ago bprichard

    You guys should really read some Kenji Alt-Lopez. Both this article and the steak recipe published earlier contain so much received wisdom that is completely unscientific that it boggles the mind. Check out this article for steak (http://www.seriouseats.com/2013/06/the-food-lab-7-old-wives-tales-about-cooking-steak.html), and I can assure you that searing fish is not different. The browning is what makes it good, not any sealing in of deliciousness.

  • 4 years ago Justin Fischer

    Thanks, bprichard. I'm well aware of Kenji Alt-Lopez's work. I also understand the basic physics and chemistry of cooking meat. However, when you've got a cap on your word count, sometimes so-called "received wisdom" simply works better as a shorthand. If I start going into a lesson about the Maillard reaction, or whatever, just to describe how a piece of meat tastes in a restaurant review, most peoples' eyes will glaze over.

  • 4 years ago TSkillet

    It's been decades since Wolfgang Puck has really been relevant beyond his frozen pizza and airport restaurants though. I mean, growing up in LA in the 80s- obviously Spago was THE place in town - and he basically invented the celebrity chef culture. But when's the last restaurant that he opened that didn't have a chain restaurant feel? Even Emeril has Commander's Palace in New Orleans and Vegas . . .

  • 4 years ago handoogies

    bprichard are you aware that Kenji Alt-Lopez killed his last dog due to negligence? Let the poor thing run into NYC traffic and it got nailed by a cab. He got a new dog a week later and I wrote 'don't let this one off the leash' and he banned me from seriouseats. Fuck him. And besides, no real man takes his wive's last name.

  • 4 years ago Justin Fischer

    @TSkillet: Couldn't agree more. My experience was about as mediocre as I expected it to be.

  • 4 years ago sanadouro Unverified User

    Having booked a family meal that was sold as a "Christmas Eve Dinner" I can only say that I was extremely disappointed. From the over-intrusive waitress, who actually argued about our booking, to the dismissive restaurant manger, who merely waved away our concerns and complaints. The meal itself was poor, on so many levels: Over-cooked seafood, processed meat, and a bland excuse for a soup.
    In the end we were so fed up we decided to leave to take away the dessert, only to discover, after arriving home, that it was no more than a cup cake. What an insult! Avoid this place like the plague.

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