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Restaurant Martin

Oct 13, 2009
by Christopher St Cavish

Area: Restaurant Martin is in Xujiahui Park, abutting Hengshan Lu, the park's slanted northern border. Park Tavern is across the street; downtown Xujiahui's mall mania is a short walk away. The park itself is a calm retreat and always bustling with people doing park things -- taking pictures, sitting on benches, ballroom dancing, playing with their kids, and wondering what the hell is happening in the handsome red brick villa that was once La Villa Rouge, and the EMI Recording Studios, among other things, and is now the home of Restaurant Martin.

What it is: Restaurant Martin is Spanish fine dining, done with the help, and in the name, of Martin Berasategui. Berasategui's flagship restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain, has three Michelin stars -- 71 other restaurants in the world share that distinction. There are no greater credentials for a chef than achieving three Michelin stars; if restaurants were organized like the military, Berasategui would be a four-star general. In the world of food, he's golden.

Until now, he's been working exclusively in Spain. He's picked Shanghai for this, his first restaurant abroad.

It's easy to see how, at least in part, Berasategui was romanced into the management deal: a handsome private villa -- the only private structure in the whole of the park -- of historical significance, in a prestigious location.

Food-wise, Martin runs on dual tracks. It was originally slated to be relatively simple Spanish cooking: tortilla, croquetas, gazpacho, suckling pig, that kind of stuff. But the chefs that Martin sent over are graduates of Berasategui's San Sebastian kitchen, and with the encouragement of Berasategui, they've added a second menu of the big guy's signature, modern Spanish dishes -- things like an oyster with watercress chlorophyll; an egg cooked at low temperature with a devastatingly rich potato emulsion; and red snapper with crystallized scales.

The simpler menu is still there. Of course, being these guys, it's not just tortilla and croquetas. Here's what happens when you order the traditional tasting menu, dubbed Menu Loidi:

Our selection of appetizers to share:

Andalusian gazpacho with traditional garnish
Cold white almond and garlic soup with olive oil and herbs
Creamy croquetas of squid and seasonal vegetables

Scallops with grilled asparagus tips and herb oil
Low temperature-cooked egg, potato emulsion with olive oil
Foie gras mi cuit on brioche toast, mango, and herb salad
Cubes of cod with fried onions and chili, roasted pepper sauce
Australian lamb chops with baby carrots and their own sauce


Hot chocolate souffle with caramel and cinammon ice cream

What the hell -- here's the more contemporary tasting menu, too, dubbed Menu Martin:

Creamy croquetas of Iberian ham
Vineyard peach gazpacho with seawater jelly

Oyster with watercress chlorophyll, rocket and apple, lemon grass cream and fennel

Russian salad of lobster and Iberian ham with crisp vegetables

Red snapper with edible crystallized scales, rock fish saffron consommè

Baked sea bass with fresh peas, pea-pod juice, and bread rocks

Australian beef entrecote with creamed potato puree

Carrot cream, frozen vanilla and extra-virgin olive oil

Frozen celery with semi-cold mango slices and a brushstroke of beet and fruit compote

They also do a mean whole roasted suckling pig, but that's one of two dishes that have to be ordered well in advance; paella is the other.

Atmosphere: Restaurant Martin is elegant, with a whiff of stuffiness. It doesn't come from the fancy surrounds, but rather from the villa's heritage. Completely overhauling and modernizing a building like the one that houses Martin doesn't square with the government people, and the result is that the first floor, where the bar is, feels colonial. Lots of heavy wood and curtains. It could be the study of a university professor -- or the hangout of some very, very wealthy Chinese businessmen with a fondness for European-ness. Up a grand staircase there are several disjointed, lighter dining rooms. There's no "main" dining room, per se. They all have just a few tables, which gives dining here a fairly private air. Decor is plush and vaguely hinting at the building's musical heritage, with old record players and the like, but the overall impression I took away from the place was of being entertained in a powerful colonialist's private villa.

The restaurant's greatest architectural feature, though, is the simplest: a sunken terrace that extends from the back of the villa into the park. Surrounded by shrubbery and insulated by the restaurant's price tag, it feels like a private peninsula of tranquility and calmness. It's the VIP section of Xujiahui Park, if you will. Great place for a drink.

Damage: The two tasting menus aren't the only option. There's a full a la carte menu as well, with intriguing numbers like a roasted pigeon stuffed with foie gras and olives, but for the overall scope of the restaurant the tasting menus afford, they're the obvious way to go. The traditional one is 580rmb; modernity is at 780rmb. With wine and water, it's on the border of three and four figures. Pack cash and/or sturdy plastic.

Who's Going: The recent opening party gave a pretty good indication of where the support for Restaurant Martin lies. The lavish affair commanded the presence of almost every single Western chef in Shanghai (the food scene), the besuited and bejewelled Spanish upper crust (the wealthy Spanish scene), a few freeloaders attracted by the glamour and the free Iberian ham (the scene scene), and a small but crucial group of Chinese men with the air of absolute calm and comfort that comes only with heaping, bulging, skybound stacks of money. It's anyone's guess as to what the day-to-day mix of the customers will be, but it seems like a safe bet that it'll be drawn primarily from those four circles.
September 28

811 Hengshan Lu,
near Yuqing Lu

(Inside Xujiahui Park)


6431 6639

Daily, 11.30am-3.30pm,

Tasting menus, 580rmb & 780rmb;
Appetizers, 88-198rmb;
Mains, 200-300rmb;
Desserts, 80-90rmb
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