President Obama's go-to purveyor of Hawaiian cuisine opens his Shanghai venture in the Ritz Carlton. SmSh dropped 2 grand on a meal to try it out.
Any time a big name chef rolls into Shanghai there’s reason to be skeptical. Wolfgang Puck
(unsurprisingly) landed with a thud
, but others have fared better -- see Jason Atherton’s Commune Social
and Table No. 1
, or the Jean Georges
Bund empire, for instance.
Late last year, Alan Wong’s Shanghai
softly opened on the second floor of the Portman Ritz-Carlton
. Alan Wong is known for helping establish the Hawaii regional cuisine movement in the early '90s, which sought to define Hawaiian food internationally and placed an emphasis on working closely with local suppliers. His flagship restaurant
in Honolulu has received accolades since opening in 1995, including top listings in the early 2000s in Gourmet Magazine
and Bon Appetit
, and remains a staple of President Obama’s trips back to his home state. He also judged an episode of Top Chef
, for whatever that’s worth.
Alan Wong’s Shanghai is a big space, with the bar and dining room bisected by a hallway lined with semi-cosmic neon lighting and racks of wine. The bar is intended to evoke Hawaiian waves, and feels... exactly like a hotel bar in China trying to evoke Hawaiian waves:
The main dining room is book-ended by two open kitchen areas -- one, a small station with some Iberico ham and this red snapper sending chill vibes:
And on the other side, an impressive and seriously staffed open kitchen:
All in, the space seems too influenced by its relationship to a luxury hotel and its likely clientele: wealthy locals and business travelers with expense accounts.
A friend of mine has a theory that only the best restaurants serve pointy bread, and they turned in high marks in that regard. The bread is indeed very pointy:
Off to a stellar start. Bonus points for the house aioli -- spicy but not overpowering or too rich.
For drinks, we sampled the Spiced Cucumber Smash, a gin-based refresher with a nice zip, care of some Thai chilies, for 78rmb. Solid and interesting, but light on booze. Our 128rmb "Dark Side of Pudong" was two maraschino cherries dropped into a cup of bourbon, scotch, sweet vermouth, and bitters. It tasted just like you’d expect: strong, and it was well executed. But 128rmb for one drink is tough to justify. One could argue that no drink is worth more than 100rmb, unless it’s a pint glass of Glenlivet or something, and a bar situated on West Nanjing Road isn’t the Long Bar
by a long shot, where there’s at least cultural heritage or a city-spanning view making a case for the price inflation.
The meal started off strong with shrimp and pork hash dumplings served with a sambal emulsion, which added a surprising and welcome kick -- the spice really complimented the perfectly cooked, chewy wrapper and rich filling. So far, so good. It’s also the cheapest of the starters at 68rmb, which head north all the way to the 448rmb chilled seafood salad.
The poke from the appetizer selection -- as opposed to the raw bar, which may have been our error -- is a layer-cake-like number with the ahi tuna, avocado ginger salsa and soy wasabi perched atop a circular bed of stringy fried wonton chips. This was a big swing and a miss at 248rmb. The quality of the meat was tough to pinpoint amongst the hubbub, and the chips played a too-central role in a dish in which the ripeness of the avocado was also called into question -- a faltering step here.
Perhaps the other poke on the menu fare better -- a Hawaiian Style Shoyu Ahi Poke and two types of Japanese-style poke available from the raw bar. They’re cheaper too, ranging from 88rmb to 168rmb.
Next up: “Da Bag” (actual name, quotes and all). Here we have a good ol’ fashioned meat and seafood sack -- lobster, some huge-ass razor clams, Hawaiian kalua pork, Andouille sausage and a few other things -- all steamed up and served on a cart with a dash of pomp for 428rmb. They sliced that sucker open, then returned to the kitchen and served up portions for the table.
The lobster and sausage stood out and retained their character, but the rest was a somewhat bland buttery pile. If you’re with a big group and looking for something with a splash of showmanship, go for it, but if your headcount is low, steer clear.
The Twice-Cooked Soy Braised Short Ribs -- President Obama’s favorite, it must be said, according to one of our servers -- are reminiscent of Chairman Mao’s favorite hongshao rou
. (What is it with heads of state and fatty cuts of meat? Possibly, the true "ultimate aphrodisiac"?) The short ribs were bathed in a sweet ko choo jang
sauce and boasted the perfect fat-to-meat ratio -- a thick ribbon that didn’t dominate the cut. I expect this one will go down well with the locals. Four gingered prawns served on asparagus tips came along for the ride but were mostly in the shadows.
We also sampled the unfortunately forgettable Five-Spice Iberico Pork Loin Medallions (348rmb). The pork was oily, the Brussels sprouts lacking and the mushroom peanut salsa didn’t pack much flavor. Whatever "Iberico-ness" was intended seemed lost in the shuffle -- I’d have been just as happy with a pork cutlet on the block for 7rmb.
Closing our meal was a coconut sorbet served in a chocolate shell with fruit and a tangy passion fruit sauce. This thing was a beaut for 88rmb, and is right on the money. They put some work into this sucker.
Ultimately, we discovered that with a big name comes some big prices. Two cocktails, a bottle of Hawaiian water, five dishes and a dessert set us back over 2,000rmb, including a 15% service charge. Prices here are higher than in his Hawaii shop, though that’s not too surprising with the combination of ingredient costs, an official affiliation with the Ritz -- unlike most of the F&B spots at the Portman complex -- and, frankly, Shanghai’s grossly inflated market expectation for high-end food and drink.
But over-inflated market or not, until Alan Wong’s Shanghai is firing on all cylinders your 2,000rmb is better spent elsewhere. Plain and simple. That’s a lot of coin, and the soft open doesn’t include soft prices. Alan Wong told SmartShanghai over email that the team in Hawaii has spent significant time in Shanghai over the last two years of menu development, and that was evident in the excellent floor service, but less visible in the kitchen. Portions of the experience resembled a 2,000rmb dinner, but it was an uneven effort at best. His reputation suggests that with work -- and an on-ground staff that can keep up standards when he’s not around -- this restaurant might be worth the splurge one day.
And if you need that Hawaii regional cuisine vibe, head to Goga
-- proprietor Brad Turley spent seven years working under Roy Yamaguchi, one of the other founders and international faces of Hawaii regional cuisine, and those restaurants have been delivering with consistency for years. Or drop by Little Catch
for a bowl of their poke -- it ain’t fancy, but it’s damn good. Full disclosure: One of my dining partners happens to works at said establishment. Not a competitor, really, but connected tangentially to the business of poke at the other end of the food chain.
is Alan Wong’s Shanghai currently worth the sticker price? In a word, no. But it did have its moments.