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[On The Radar]: Luxe Italian, Da Vittorio

Outdated, overpriced, fully booked. What's going on here?
Last updated: 2019-07-11
Photos: Brandon McGhee
On the Radar is a SmartShanghai column profiling new restaurants, bars, and other new places we find interesting. Sometimes we stumble upon these places, and sometimes we are invited, but in both cases, we are never paid to write an opinion, rather, these are our honest first impressions, and not a formal review.

Da Vittorio

Quick Take: Only the latest European three-Michelin star restaurant trying to cash in on China.

What It Is: Frighteningly expensive Italian seafood for the global elite. Da Vittorio opened in 1966 in Bergamo, a husband-and-wife restaurant cooking seafood in a place not known for it. Twelve years later they won a Michelin star, and then in 2010 they were awarded a third Michelin star. Now they are a budding international business, with a Relais & Chateaux hotel, a second restaurant in St. Moritz and their sights on China. Da Vittorio Shanghai opened on June 9 and Da Vittorio Beijing is scheduled to open in August 2020.

It’s the latest in a string of Michelin three-stars to land in China and bathe in the cash of the elite. It could generously be described as a global wealth transfer, done one caviar-topped egg at a time.

First Impressions: First, the good.

The service. The service was excellent. The kind of overbearing attention that makes you apologize for ever having gotten a bread crumb on the table, which must now be dutifully scraped up with a silver tool, or for taking a sip of sparkling water, which must be immediately replaced. Every interaction with a member of staff — and there are so many — was professional and courteous and well-intentioned, from the blue-suited captains to the chefs who came out to do a little tableside fluffery like stirring cheese in an otherwise finished pasta dish or filling pastries at the end of the meal.

They nailed the service.

And then they nailed me — to the fine-dining cross.

From the moment I opened the menu, and saw prices that climbed to the better half of four figures, I felt persecuted. I knew this was coming; I had done my research ahead of time. I even tried to rationalize that it might be an international bargain: only 888rmb for the Egg a la Egg dish, when it sells for 160 Euro (1,235rmb) in Bergamo! A steal!

Egg "a la Egg" and caviar, 888rmb

Quickly, however, my senses came back. My sense of indignity, in particular, and my sense of rage at someone charging almost twice the price of a dish that caused me to get indignant and ragey a few years back, and so, on principle, I skipped the signature Egg of the 1%. I chose five other dishes to split with my dining partner: two appetizers, a pasta, a fish and a beef dish. We spent 470rmb on three glasses of wine. And still, when the bill came — 3,854rmb — I felt crucified.

Special chargrilled scampi, bacon foam and pickles, 598rmb

White codfish, clams salad and spicy lettuce, 368rmb

It’s true that there are more expensive restaurants than that. I’ve spent 3,500rmb before on fancy hot pot for three people, allowed Liangshe to rip my employer off for 4,800rmb (and the place is outright theft, on many levels), and been fortunate to sit through all three of Ultraviolet’s menus, for which 3,854rmb won’t even get you a seat at the table. I gave Robuchon too much of SmartShanghai’s money for an experience I didn’t, one could say, enjoy. I barely let Ultraviolet off the hook, and I love that place.

And so my criticism of Da Vittorio leads down two roads.

The first is the immediate experience. While the service was good, the food seems unchanged from the mind of Vittorio Cerea, who started the restaurant more than 50+ years ago. The Steamed Fish Salad turned out to be just that, a few bites of various fish and impressive-looking shellfish, with — not “light” — minimal flavor. Mayonnaise on the side.

Warm steamed fish salad, 498rmb

The Foie Gras in three ways was a bit more modern, going for the look of a fake cherry (note to chef, Akimbo Café Lab, a coffee shop from Shenzhen, does better looking fake fruit dishes), and then pressed into a disc and topped with mild black truffle, and done in a third way so forgettable that I have forgotten it.

Our three ideas of foie gras: cherry, parfait, escalope... 418rmb

The 198rmb signature paccheri pasta, the cheapest thing on the menu, comes to the table in a shiny copper pan and the chef pretends to be doing something important as he sprinkles in parmesan and olive oil.

"Vittorio" style Paccheri pasta, 198rmb

It’s passable, and in a twist that says much about the menu, stands out for being one of the only typically Italian things on the menu; the Tournedos Rossini, a French dish sold at the very Chinese price of 888rmb, seems calibrated to people who didn’t come to the Italian restaurant seeking Italian food. Unsurprisingly, it’s not on the Bergamo restaurant’s European menu. Sadly, much of the European menu is not offered in China.

Wagyu tenderloin "Rossini" style with black truffle, 888rmb

The biggest mis-step, which I believe illustrates one of the bigger flaws with Da Vittorio, came in the form of a fish. A kinki fish, a red-skinned and bug-eyed specimen that, for 698rmb, the chefs will braise with ginger, celery and onion, and proudly garnish with baby bok choy. Besides being over-cooked, it seems a blatant attempt to please local customers. Do Chinese people really want or need to come to an overpriced Italian restaurant to eat braised seafood with ginger and bok choy?

Kinki fish, raw and braised, 698rmb

Ultimately, the food ranged from disappointing to passable. For 4,000 kuai, I want fireworks over the Huangpu River spelling out my name. I want exceptional, thought-provoking food. I want to be wowed. Da Vittorio does not do anything of those things for me.

Tiramisu, 198rmb

What it does is make me acutely aware of the unfair privilege and excessive wealth some of us have. It’s a playground for the extremely rich, munching away on 888rmb eggs, while the rest of us cringe at paying rent. It’s a play by an enterprising Italian family, who clearly have heard about China’s new billionaire class, and want to built a tunnel into their bank accounts.

Are they trying with the food? Sort of. The Italian chef I watched through the window into the kitchen was sweating, hustling to plate all of the dishes, to make them all pretty, but it’s a pointless and futile exercise. He’s busting his ass to make recreations of outdated dishes, selling a fantasy about Italian food while serving French beef dishes, and for what?

To extract wealth from those who don’t care about spending more than the Shanghai minimum monthly wage (2,480rmb) on a Thursday night on the Bund. Did you know that one of three people in Shanghai — one of threemake less than 4,500rmb a month?

I come from the fine dining world, and once in a while, I still drop back into it to see how things are going. More and more, I’m alarmed at the leftovers served to China at premium prices, and at just how distasteful the entire industry seems when you look closely at both what it claims to be selling and what is on the plate. Da Vittorio does not provide anything thought-provoking, like Ultraviolet, or, perhaps a more accurate comparison, does not provide the luxury of obviously high-quality ingredients and cooking, like 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana. Like Robuchon, it’s a relic trying to cash in.

Shanghai loves it, for better or worse. I cannot understand the appeal, and the appeal is strong; it took me two weeks to get two of their 75 seats for a weekend night. Perhaps this is another restaurant that is more about face, and showing off your bank balance, than it is about the food, which doesn't live up to a starring role. In that case, it's well-suited to Shanghai. It will sell many eggs. As for me, one time was enough. I have neither the expense account or the inclination to try again. Da Vittorio is not the first restaurant to sell a name and an aura of prestige, usually conferred by the holy tire company. And it certainly won’t be the last.