Michelle Garnaut is one of Shanghai’s strongest personalities. She sits at the nexus of a certain segment of Shanghai life, where the literary, cultural and diplomatic worlds overlap. Her bar Glam, behind M on the Bund, hosts high-minded lecture series, and the restaurant itself is a landmark for tourists, terrace-seekers and people who brunch. It was one of the city’s earliest expat F&B stories. But this isn’t a puff piece.
In the last month, I’ve revisited M on the Bund, once for brunch and once for dinner, to get a sense for what it is that pulls the crowds in, night after night, in inclement weather on weekday nights and on sunny days when the terrace is shining. It’s an impressive restaurant. The service, or at least one server in particular, is excellent. The dining room still has that Deco charm. The menu, as it’s written, is whimsical, skipping around the world for inspiration. But there’s a problem. The food. It’s just not very good.
One defense of M on the Bund might go: it’s a volume restaurant, cranking out dinner for hundreds of diners a night, and that it is. But if it’s not exactly aspiring to fine-dining – choosing personality over formality was one of Garnaut’s smarter decisions – then it might be a bit gentler on price. Brunch is reasonable at 328rmb for three courses; dinner for two at 2,150rmb, as mine was, is punchy.
Another defense might go that at a restaurant that has survived so long, under so many different chefs, it’s natural for the kitchen quality to ebb and flow. That, I can get on board with. That, I can see. But as a customer? As a customer paying more than 2,000rmb for a very average dinner? What’s happening behind the scenes is really not my concern. What’s on the plate is.
There was little to remember about the eight or ten plates I shared with a date. We went for both M favorites and signatures, like the 428rmb grass-fed tenderloin (flavorless) as well as off-piste dishes like a soft-shell crab dish and a tiny portion of cured salmon. By turns boring and bland, the only bright spot among the food was a crispy suckling pig dish with seared peaches – and then, mostly for the peaches. The desserts, including the famous pavlova and a passionfruit soufflé, were both technically adept but shockingly sweet. If the cooks have a tight fist with the salt, they have an open palm with the sugar.
It’s not all negative though. M’s service is above average, worth mentioning, notable. When one of our dishes had a hair in it – hey, it happens, no harm, no foul – the waiter made up for it by taking that dish off the check and giving us a free dessert. When we made specific requests for dishes, he took them in stride, and when we needed anything else, he was there, comfortable and confident in his position – I say him because it was the same server on both of our visits – a self-assured rarity and professional in a city that too often gets Western-style service wrong.
If we break down the formula that makes M work, it goes like this: efficient service + Bund location + terrace + landmark status + 20 years of momentum + Michelle’s personality + a great wine list (and 24 bottles by the glass). There’s a lot of factors in that equation. Michelle herself sees the broad and varied menu, updated with lots of vegetarian and even vegan dishes, among others, as the key to underpinning to restaurant’s longevity and success. I would argue that she – her presence – is probably the biggest factor in the restaurant’s success.
In person, she’s charming, engaging, charismatic and direct – it’s easy to see why she succeeded in business in Shanghai decades ago, when the Bund was a ghost town at night and it was hard to buy lemons in Shanghai. She is a force. And in Shanghai, as in many cities, the restaurants that survive and prosper are the ones that are driven by an actively invested owner, and the ones that have a strong personality behind them. In that respect, M on the Bund is probably closer to a restaurant like el Willy than most people imagine. Sometimes the formula really can be boiled down to one strong personality, with a silent team working behind the scenes. Unfortunately, at M right now, the food doesn't live up to the name.