On The Radar is a weekly SmartShanghai column where we profile new venues that you might like to know about. Here are the facts and our first impressions.
What It Is: Pierre Gagnaire is another one of these monumentally revered French chefs, who was making hit songs – er, dishes – before most of us were born.
Gagnaire has had a restaurant down in Hong Kong for many years now, and it looks like he finally got his China bank account set up, because like many before him, he’s now here in mainland China to deliver his particular flavor of fine dining to the poor, starving masses of Shanghai.
This is at the Capella, an ultra-luxury all-villa hotel on Jianguo Xi Lu. It used to be lanehouses. Now it’s a mix of retail and the hotel, and the whole thing is called Jian Ye Li.
First Impressions: Better than Robuchon, the obvious comparison and the last mega-chef to wash up in Shanghai. (No one seems to have noticed Marc Meneau at Wanda Reign, so…) Let’s start with what they get right: the food.
Gagnaire may have gone full-white up top but his cooking is not old. He is contemporary and his dishes are truly his own, the mark of an excellent chef. He doesn’t have to rely on three-decade-old buttery mashed potatoes and an overpriced egg to draw in diners (even if he does have one on his menu, with Oscietra caviar and Champagne sauce, for 488 rmb – what is with these guys and their precious eggs?). In this respect, Gagnaire has more in common with Jean Georges, a sort of “French food meets the world’s flavors” thing going on.
To wit, a very refreshing dish of thinly sliced pineapple with sweet crab and a carrot foam – a bright and summery combination – and a tartare of beef, foie gras and smoked herring, an earthy and deep dish that is the polar opposite of the crab.
The rest of the menu veers between avant-garde combinations like the above, and Gagnaire’s takes on French classics: gougeres (er, cheese puffs), a delicious frog en cocotte with tons of garlic and parsley, and then main dishes, which is where the restaurant really shines. The ginger-flavor lobster fricassee, with cinnamon-spiced semolina and apple, even at 408 rmb for half a lobster, is very nice, and I’m a cook-your-own kinda guy.
I can’t tell you what a Tchatchouka is without Googling it – and neither could our waiter, a problem we’ll get to in a minute – but I can say it’s part of an excellent lamb dish, with grilled cabbage.
After all of that, I only had room for one dessert, a frozen nougatine with apricot and rosemary — good enough to recognize that there is some pastry talent in the Gagnaire kitchen, and enough to tempt me into going back when they open the bakery downstairs.
The service. I know. Whining about service is as bad as getting bad service but at a restaurant with the pretensions that Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire has, the poor guy dressed up in waiter’s clothes ought to know how to play the role. Explain the menu. Know what the dishes are. Be able to answer questions in at least one language. Chinese is fine! C’mon, guy. “This is China” is no longer a valid excuse in 2017 Shanghai. I get better service at Wagas. My theory on service is that it’s only worth mentioning if it’s either really bad or really good, and the service at Gagnaire is not really good.
And then there’s this, which the hotel GM wants you to know he doesn’t condone, but I didn’t notice any “soft opening” discount on my bill, so I am going to give my full opinion. As my date and I were settling the bill and getting ready to leave, one of the European managers came over to make conversation, asking us how everything was, and we told him. Food, great. Service, pretty bad.
He agreed and then told us something to the effect of “oh you know, it’s impossible to train those Chinese people”.
What? That’s the goodbye you’re going to leave us with as we walk down the staircase and out into the night, after spending 1,500 rmb on dinner? The irony – in a night of bad service, the worst came from the European guy, trying on some casual racism against the people he’s meant to be training.
Nope. Not going along with your stupid expat solidarity here. Go to Din Tai Fung or Hai Di Lao, Belgian Guy, and then let’s talk. In the meantime, give me back the bumbling but at least well-intentioned Chinese waiter.
Teething problems! They are painful!
Great food. Bad service. Less expensive than you might think. Nice looking place. A sort-of Jean Georges for the French Concession. That’s what Gagnaire has brought us so far.
- All photos by SmartShanghai / Brandon McGhee (except that one of Gagnaire)