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First Sip: Maison Camus, And Other Reincarnations Of The Bar At The Portman Ritz

Jul 15, 2015 | 12:24 Wed
Ever since The Portman Center opened in 1990, a succession of bars have occupied the space where wine bar Maison Camus stands. Back in the day, the second-floor space arching around the front of the complex was quite the spot. Looking out over Nanjing Lu and the Stalinist Exhibition Center across the street, it filled up with moneyed business travelers staying at the Ritz Carlton, foreign lifers in from Malone’s and Big Bamboo around the corner, and skeezies spilling up from the nearby Tongren Lu bar slum.

But in the past 10 years the place has rather fallen behind the times. Despite several makeovers and rebrandings, it’s never drawn much of a crowd. These bars' recipes for success -- involving expensive pints of Heineken, baffled tourists, misplaced notions of grandeur and deserted ladies’ nights -- may have worked 25 years ago, but thankfully Shanghai now has more to offer.

Maison Camus has changed things up, creating a split-level bar offering food and a huge wine selection. They still have the interior second-floor space, but they’ve also opened up the terrace downstairs -- a fantastic, airy platform that looks out over the street. Drawing from the Ritz Carlton’s huge cellars, Maison Camus claims to offer the largest selection of wine by the glass in Shanghai. The menu has over 100 wines, almost all available by the glass. Some are ridiculously expensive. There’s a 1995 Latour available for 1880rmb per glass, or 10,800rmb for a bottle, and many of the offerings are around 150-450rmb per glass. But there’s also plenty of wine for 60-80rmb.

The pours are quite small, and the glasses rather large, and the entry-level plonk was no better than the wine for similar prices available all around town, but for sheer variety, Maison Camus is impossible to beat. They also offer three tasting menus -- five glasses of white, red or sweet wine accompanied by five mouthfuls of paired food. The red flight came with beef capaccio with truffle dressing, grilled lamb, smoked kebabs, grilled octopus and a sphere of foie grass, for 488rmb. Didn’t try it, but it looked pretty tasty. The cocktail menu is also very large and mostly around 78rmb. Beer on tap is 48-68rmb for a pint. OK, not cheap, but pretty average prices and we’re kind of drinking at the Ritz, here. They also have an excellent two-for-one deal on all wine, by the bottle or glass, from 8pm until close every Wednesday. Similar twofer deals run most nights from 8pm, and Friday night girls get free sparkling and house wine. Eh.

The downstairs area is more interesting than the upstairs, indoors bar, which looked a little gaudy and harkened back to days when this place was called CVRVE, and was run by one of the guys from M1NT. Bottles of champagne on every table, that kind of thing. They serve food up there, and it might be a better bet when Shanghai gets properly hot, but for now the downstairs area is where you want to be.

On the second visit, the wait staff seemed a little bumbling and confused. I asked whether cocktails were two-for-one (I’d read this on the menu). The lady said that had ended at 8pm. I pointed out that deal was meant to start at 8pm and she went off to converse with others, one of whom eventually returned to tell me there were a few cocktails offered two-for-one. No matter. No one was rude -- just typical service vagaries.

A few signs boast an evening menu from 98rmb. That “from” is key. There are a couple of pasta dishes for under 100rmb but everything else hovers around 130rmb or more. I tried the roast chicken, which came with mash and asparagus. It’s from one of the kitchens at the Ritz, so the quality is far above what you’d expect from bar snacks. All in all, the quality-to-price ratio is very reasonable here -- and the space is great.

OK, the commercial house doesn’t need to be blasted quite so loudly from that set of struggling monitors, and maybe the projector screen running MTV videos is a little at odds with the elegance of the wine list, but I could imagine a fun night here with friends, drinking long and late, and enjoying Shanghai’s fine, clean air.


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