What It Is: Liangshe is not the first Ultraviolet copy in the world. Paco Roncero, who also happens to have a restaurant in Shanghai, has that honor. Six years after Ultraviolet completely broke the mold, and eventually won three Michelin stars for it, there are copies around the world. Liangshe is a blatant copy. There is no way to say that nicely. From its custom-built room, wall and table projections, modernist food and even the sequencing of the courses, with an intermission, after which you return to the room to find a verdant centerpiece running the length of the table, it has borrowed heavily from the original. It is deep in debt to Paul Pairet.
There is one big difference. To say the three-star original is driven by Pairet is not strong enough. Ultraviolet is Paul. Paul is Ultraviolet. It is his personality, exaggerated to comical effect with the use of technology and about 50 support staff. The original could not have come from anyone else.
Liangshe does not have that personality. It knows that. In Paul’s absence, it has submitted a different but equally strong personality: China. Its first menu is themed on the Tang dynasty, a particular favorite among Chinese culture-philes for its openness, its learning and its artistic achievements. It does all this within the infrastructure of Ultraviolet – the projections and all that fancy stuff -- but with its own ideas about what they want to achieve: the spread of appreciation of Chinese history.
This is intentional. Liangshe is the project of two Chinese designers, husband and wife team Zhou Ping and Wang Yang. Wang studied painting for years, lived in Germany for more than a decade, and in that time, began to appreciate her own culture more. When she came back to China some years ago, she told me after dinner, she wanted to find a way to connect the culture of past dynasties to the people of today, and eventually realized that the way to people’s mind was through their stomach. She and Zhou started a small restaurant on Yuyuan Lu to test the concept. It worked. Not enough. They needed a more modern method. One night they went to dinner at UV. You see where this is going...
First Impressions: God, where do I start with this thing, without dragging up the entire philosophical debate over the intrinsic value of a copy? (There is an entire art exhibit, by Gucci no less, currently happening in Shanghai that deals with this exact question.) I’ll say this: Liangshe should not have copied Ultraviolet. That’s bad. It’s bad to rip-off other people’s ground-breaking ideas. We know this, ok? They shouldn’t have done it. Shame, shame, shame. They have some balls to charge so much too: 4,800rmb. That’s more expensive than Ultraviolet on some nights (UV’s price ranges from 4,000-6,000 depending on the night and the menu.)
But now let me climb off my moral high-horse.
It’s done. Liangshe has been open for a month. There’s now a new immersive dinner option in Shanghai. So, as a dinner, what’s it like?
As I sat in the second-floor lounge, where you are asked to arrive half an hour before dinner, eyeing up my dinner companions, I anticipated either a profoundly stupid or shockingly creative experience. Four hours later, I left, exhausted from the 17-course menu but enlivened from meeting the young Chinese chef Zhao Yu. Dinner was neither stupid nor mind-blowing.
Liangshe’s food, and Zhao’s cooking, was the highlight of the evening. Accomplished, technical, fun and integrated with the themes of each course, from a Tang dynasty tutorial on the seven steps of putting on make-up to the golden peaches of Samarkand. If Zhao was cooking at say, The Commune Social, he would be the darling of the western food press in Shanghai. He is good. He’s not Pairet. But he’s good. And in this moral gray area of a restaurant, he seems to be the least culpable. It would have been an easy attempt (and great mistake) to try to copy UV’s food as well. Zhao didn’t do that. The food is Chinese and not Chinese. I won’t spoil the surprise. (Except for all these pictures.)
Overall, as I write this the day after, I am conflicted. I hate the copying. When I walked into the dining room for the first time, and saw my name projected on the table in a room that looks almost exactly like UV, I gasped. I felt implicated and ashamed. And then I loosened up. I got into the projections (even if they still have a way to go to match UV’s quality), I appreciated that the staff was bilingual (I was the only non-Chinese guest there) and translated dish ingredients and philosophy for me personally, and I laughed at how faithful the copy was to the original, including the break for snacks in the middle. I had fun.
I called Pairet. He knew about Liangshe already. His team had heard the food was good. I was afraid he would blacklist me for having gone. I asked what he thought about the place. He had four words: “Wish them good luck!”
Liangshe Night Banquet (良设夜宴) is located at 688 Shaanxi Bei Lu, near Kangding Lu. Dinner by reservation only, 4,800rmb per person.