What's The Big Idea?
Imagine a world where, instead of a crumpled lukewarm pizza, you answer the door to the finest dining a WeChat account can offer. A world where the food you order has been lovingly crafted by world-class chefs flown into a top-of-the-line food lab in Seoul and that recipe is then sent back to Shanghai where it's prepared by different chefs, vacuum-sealed and ferried to your microwave. That world now exists.
That's how I imagine the pitch meeting for Via Stelle went. It's Nosh in a tuxedo. In the run up to the launch they've splashed out on advertorials in media platforms all over town proclaiming...
But really? Seriously? Is it? It's it any good? Let's just see about that...
Let's Try That App!
The app's not actually out yet. They're still in "soft opening". Yeah, you read that right, it's an app in "soft opening". Delivery services have soft openings too. For now, you can access their Chinese/English WeChat mini-program which, honestly, is fine by me. Less clutter on my phone, hail the WeChat ecosystem. But maybe some people prefer the bespoke, personalized experience a separate app can offer. Soon they shall.
Hit up their WeChat channel at 汇星堂VIASTELLE. It's got two options, both in English. Off to a great start.
About Us takes you to a lovingly formulated, cutting-edge introduction to the company. Here's the highlight reel:
2. ... the latest and most sophisticated technology, such as texture analysis, temperature controllers, rapid cooling systems, vacuum systems, and cooking equipment that communicate wirelessly.
3. We study ingredients holistically...
4. Our chefs ensure that every single process and method is synchronized with methodology preset by star chefs.
5. The most difficult part is deciding between our range of exquisite dishes, rest comes easy.
God that sounds amazing. Take me to your "Order" button.
The Ordering / Delivery Process
Logging in is easy. Just hit WeChat icon and it's done. Otherwise, you can use your phone or QQ account. FYI, I used the Android version but the iPhone version is virtually identical because it's basically a webpage.
Soon as you're in, you're greeted with a scroll menu of dishes. They are, as of the moment of writing;
Grill Beef Tenderloin Steak with Truffle Potato Puree (180rmb) from Chef Frank McClelland of L'Espalier
Seared Pork Belly with Apple Puree (98rmb) from Chefs Rupert & Carrie Blease of Lord Stanley
Braised Short Rib with Confit Potato (158rmb) from Chefs Rupert & Carrie Blease of Lord Stanley
L' E. S. P Hot Dog (76rmb) from Chef Frank McClelland of L'Espalier
Grilled Young Pork Loin and Belly With Porride (Sold Out Every Time I Checked) from Chef Frank McClelland of L'Esaplier
They provide a lot of information on each dish in soothing, well-designed text boxes. There's a little schpiel about the chef and the restaurant, including a list of their awards (and, fantastically, a legend that explains a little about what each award actually is). They also include the ingredients and nutritional information about the dish. That's not bad. Highlight; they have a much-touted and professionally produced plating guide video added in, for those who, according to the aforementioned advertorials...
More on that later.
Add one or more to your basket of Michelin-stars, and it's time for check-out. Work your way down the form from the top; I found that it sometimes has a habit of deleting your information if you do them out of order. Setting the address to your fabulously expensive hotel suite/seventh-floor walk-up apartment is straight-forward, though the UI did have me stabbing an unresponsive street address occasionally. You have an option to leave the package outside your door, so you don't blind the delivery guy with the crispness of your Neiman Marcus tailored suit.
For now, delivery slots are in one-hour increments between 4pm-10pm, final orders have to be in before 9pm. There's a "Regular" and "VIA STELLE Premium" delivery option, regular is done by a third-party service. Pay up with your e-payment service of choice, select a coupon or promotion (the richest people in the world are often the most avid couponers of all, you know), and await delivery.
I ordered the Tenderloin and the Short Rib. The delivery arrived promptly in large white paper bags, with a letter from the managing director thanking me for my interest their service, promising they'll be adding "1-2 new menus every 10 days" when they're fully operational. The regular delivery guy did not wear a tuxedo, but was polite and professional. Three Tire Guy stars for that dude.
The Actual Food
This is the crux. This is Via Stelle's USP. Food is supposed to be top-notch. Michellin-standard is a word that is bandied around. The advertorials trumpet...
So my expectations are high. Galactic. The food is prepared in that fancy central Shanghai kitchen which is "a state of the art innovation, leading our gastronomic creations and re- creations," then vacuum-sealed and packed into an aluminum bag with an ice pack to keep it chilled so -- and we turn again to the advertorials...
Thank God they've got an ice-pack in there, no rancid food at Via Stelle. All of the packets are delivered in a little brown box that you can use to microwave the ingredients in. Yes, it's a lot of packaging. So, let's finally open this baby up. First up, beef!
Grilled Beef Tenderloin Steak with Truffle Potato Puree - 180rmb
Courtesy of Zagat Survey-, AAA FIVE Diamond- and James Beard Foundation Award-winning Chef Frank McClelland of Boston's L'Espalier, this baby comes in 7 packets including glazed shiitake mushrooms, roasted baby carrot, grilled green onion and onion sauce.
Funny anecdote: I spent five minutes trying to figure out where ingredients 6 and 8 were before I realized that wasn't a 9.
Each dish comes with specific heating instructions both on the packaging and on the WeChat page. While the WeChat instructions say 700W (my microwave doesn't show watts), the copious documentation that came with the delivery specified "medium." Okay, microwave set to medium, I got to work.
Like an idiot, I started just microwaving each ingredient in order from the top. Truffle Potato Puree, 30 secs; grilled steak (medium rare), 1 min; grilled green onion, 30 sec, etc. Half-way through the green onion I realized the puree's already going cold. Fuck. So I had to reheat some things. This is probably where I ruined everything. Via Stelle stresses the scientific rigor involved in recreating these dishes. I failed in my commitment to that ideal and I guess therefore my experience is null and void.
When the ingredients seemed about the right temperature, I thought I might take a crack at that plating guide video. How hard can it be to spoon mashed potatoes onto a plate?
Hubris is the most human of flaws. Set to jaunty music, clean well-manicured hands dabbed puree in streaks on the plate before alighting the tenderloin upon a bed of mushrooms, somehow coming away without juice stains. I did what I could to follow, like Quasimodo mashing Grace Kelly's feet in a foxtrot.
For comic effect, here's how it looks in the marketing material.
And here's how it looks by the time I was done massaging it into shape like an arthritic gorilla braiding its own nosehair.
I had to reheat it because by the time the last carrot was draped like a sad clown's mustache onto the beef, the whole thing was lukewarm again. But hey, it tasted great! I mean, that came out of a microwave, and it definitely didn't taste like it. The advertorials:
Eh. That one's maybe on me. Next one.
Braised Short Rib with Confit Potato
Having learned my lesson from the previous meal's botched timing, this time around, everything went in the microwave box together and I took them out as they passed their allotted time. This worked way better. If, for some reason, the SmartShanghai readership takes to this service in droves, I cannot stress this enough; just microwave all the ingredients together and remove them one at a time. Less stress, less mess.
I still have no advice for plating. The meat was so tender and succulent it fell right off the bone, leaving me to piece it together for the photos like an 18th century medical student sewing up a cadaver before the rector finds out. The spinach sauce was over-microwaved and runny because, yeah, I left it in the box too long. I'm not very good at this.
Having stumbled across the finish line on these two, it was time to leave a review.
Certain advertorials have recommended that you...
Personally, I thought the food was delicious, for what it's worth. Maybe it's because I've never had anything that ambitious in my living room before. Maybe it's because it's been scientifically, exactingly recreated in a lab according to the exact, nanometric instructions of star chefs. In theory, it should taste exactly the same as if the man Chef McClelland seared that sous-vided beef himself. That's maybe not reflected in the look of the dish itself, but yeah, it tasted good! Really good, even.
So Who Is This For Exactly?
-People who think spending 200rmb on food delivery isn't a) enough food to bloat a yak, b) mostly the delivery fee because you live in Baoshan, c) totally unacceptable.
-People who don't experience any cognitive dissonance with the idea that you are ordering food that you then have to cook yourself, which is...
-People who suffer from bowel-clenching agoraphobia and a highly refined palette.
-People who told a poorly-thought-out lie on a first date and need to double-down.
-People who flew in on a cushy package and just remembered agreeing to cater tonight's big dinner party at yesterday's martini lunch.
-People who used to be be sous-chef at L'Espalier.
-People who can follow instructions on a box way better than I can.
With practice, you could probably get it looking just as good as in the pictures and really impress some guests. If you've got 150rmb to drop on every plate, at home, in Shanghai, a city where it's perfectly acceptable to go out and eat at a restaurant every night of the week. Or maybe just embrace the insanity of replicating world-class cuisine with plastic cutlery, a rusty microwave and enough counterspace to rest one, but not two, elbows at a time. If you do that, and ignore how much money you're spending on it, it's actually a lot of fun, and the food at the end feels like a genuine reward.
Oh, they included a salad too. Green Organic Spinach Salad & Black Olive Chips with Basil Pesto Dressing. It was amazing.
Because I just had to open the box and eat it.
Yeah... the packaging... egad.
Via Stelle will be fully operational from October, and they'll be adding in 1-2 new menu items every 10 days.
Update: On September 22, they added in a lunch menu available from 11am-3pm (orders can be placed from 10am), including that delightful Spinach Green Salad with Basil Pesto and Black Olive Chips (45rmb) and Boeuf Bourguignon (72rmb). Via Stelle: Also Lunch!