Add: disclosed upon reservation
Hours: Tue-Sat 6:00pm-12:00am (last order 8:00pm)
Price: [14-course] RMB1288; [10-course] RMB998
Visited: June 2016
Will return: Definitely
“We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves; otherwise we harden.”
Johann Wolfgang von Göthe (1749-1832)
There is a curious shortage of tasting menus in Shanghai’s fine dining scene. Sure, Jean-Georges offers seasonal chef’s menus, as do Joël Robuchon and a few other restaurants on the Bund, but their tasting menus tend to come across more as an often haphazard collection of dishes pieced together from their à-la-carte menu, than the purposeful progression of a coherent experience designed with intent. Table No. 1 gave me the most cohesive – albeit relatively short – tasting experience I’ve had in Shanghai, but I still find myself missing the longer and more elaborate versions like the one I had at Restaurant Story in London.
Taian Table comes as a breath of fresh air. It is a private dining concept and the latest brainchild of Chef Stefan Stiller, who has always wanted to have a small restaurant with an open kitchen, serving a single, seasonal tasting menu. The small dining room is dominated by a rectangular counter with just 20 seats, surrounding an open kitchen helmed by Chef Stiller as well as chef de cuisine Jeno Racz, whose impressive list of experience includes Noma in Copenhagen, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in London, and most recently, Joël Robuchon in Singapore. The menu changes every month, with the full 14 courses priced at RMB1,288, and a truncated 10-course menu offered at RMB988. A 6-glass wine pairing is available for RMB768. Reservations can only be made on their website, and guests won’t know the location of the restaurant until after booking – although I can tell you it’s on Tai An Road 😉
Dinner starts with drinks and welcome snacks at their champagne bar – the Spicy Macadamia Nuts and Crispy Nori Chips make for a wonderful snack – before moving on to the main dining room.
Among the trio of amuse-bouche, my favorite was the shot glass of punchy, umami-rich Trout Broth with Spanish Red Prawn and Cous Cous. Alongside it was a slice of Salmon cured with Earl Grey and Lime, as well as a sumptuous Foie Gras Praline atop a sweet and slightly alcoholic jelly.
The first course was a refreshing Vegetable Salad with a melange of fresh and pickled garden vegetables. What looks like a cherry tomato at the center was in fact a creamy and slightly herby Goat Cheese covered with a tomato glaze. These were served atop a sweet homemade ketchup and a dollop of baba ganoush, a Levantine cream made with burnt eggplant, which tasted a lot lighter than it sounds.
Taian Table’s interpretation of a Scallop Ceviche was stacked with oyster and sea urchin, all sitting in a vibrant dressing of coconut milk, lime juice, coriander, and green chili. The sharp acidity and gentle heat were followed by a rush of brininess and a mild sweetness from the oyster, and finally melted into the sweetness of the scallops and the rich, creamy sea urchin.
One of my favorites of the evening, the King Crab was obscured beneath a canopy of squid ink chips. The crab’s creamy dressing brought out but didn’t overpower its natural sweetness, which was further accentuated by the low murmur of wasabi, the powerful bursts of tobiko, and the tangy cubes of fermented cucumber.
Next, an Onsen Egg sat on top of spinach and garlic purée, both hidden beneath a blanket of Iberico bellota ham and crispy threads of fried spring roll wrapper. The thin but assertive ham sure knew how to get along with the rich, silky yolk.
Another highlight of the evening was the Celeriac and Parmesan Cream on a bed of Beetroot Custard. It was curious for me to see the use of celeriac and beetroot, both winter vegetables, when we are well on our way into a hot Shanghai summer. And this dish would have tasted like a winter afternoon spent curled up in a sofa beside a glowing fireplace with a mug of steaming tea, but for the raspberry vinegar in the beetroot custard and the tiny balls of pickled beets on top. The tartness cut through the sweetness of the beetroot and enlivened the earthiness of the warm and comforting celeriac cream. To take these winter vegetables in late June and make them taste like summer is a true testament to the talents of the chefs.
With the soup serving as an interlude between starters and mains, our dishes gradually became more substantial. A perfectly cooked piece of succulent Black Cod was crusted with pistachios, served with crunchy sugar snap peas, fat, juicy stalks of green and white asparagus, and a fragrant saffron sauce. The dish had my mouth watering with its fragrance while it was still being plated, but the flavors, while good, were not particularly memorable.
But the dish that followed was unquestionably memorable. A baton of Yellow-Fin Tuna was crusted with Japanese togarashi spice, yet the rest of the plate was unmistakably Mediterranean: a dollop of cheerful pepper coulis amid verdant arugula pistou, a swirl of confit tomato around the plate, grilled artichoke, smoked and burnt onion (which tasted so much better than the one I took exception to at Restaurant Story), a curl of red pepper and a single black olive. This was a flawless marriage of Japanese and Mediterranean. The sweetness of red peppers was followed by a kick of togarashi that brought out the delicate umami of the tuna, rounding out with the sweet onions and fragrant arugula pistou, before ending in a lingering spicy and savory note.
Watching the Butternut Squash Gnocchi being plated was like seeing a work of art come to life. Strokes of black garlic and pumpkin purée were artfully brushed onto the plate, followed by several minuscule balls of pickled pumpkin dotted here and there, and a heap of kale and golden mushrooms in the center. These were then surrounded by three pillars of squash-colored gnocchi, and finally crowned with a delicate sheet of parmesan crisp.
Interestingly, the gnocchi contained no flour or egg; instead, it was made with kuzu, an incredibly starchy root vegetable that is widely used in Japan, and also frequently used by Chef Ferran Adrià (formerly of El Bulli) as a thickener in his modernist cuisine. The kuzu gnocchi cut just like regular ones but tasted softer and less chewy. It would have been even more impressive if they had been al dente, but I suppose that would be asking a bit too much of eggless, flourless gnocchi.
I loved the different dimensions of sweetness in this dish from the black garlic, the pumpkin purée, and the butternut squash in the gnocchi, as well as the layers of texture with the stringy mushrooms, crunchy pickled pumpkin, and the weightless parmesan crisp. Definitely art for our taste buds as well as our eyes.
A floret of Roasted Cauliflower that sounds like a recess on paper was anything but. The usually delicate texture of cauliflower collided with a dark, fearless char, and met the bold and smoky influence of salty air dried beef cheek, crumbly smoked pigeon egg yolk, and rich brown butter hollandaise made with the butter that roasted the cauliflower. The dish was brightened by tinges of acidity from the tiny Shimeiji mushrooms pickled with Chinese black vinegar scattered around the plate.
The real recess came with the Watermelon Sorbet. Chef Racz used liquid nitrogen to flash-freeze mint leaves, and ground them in a pestle and mortar. The ground mint was then sprinkled on the sorbet, alongside pickled watermelon flesh and skin and some borage flowers.
Chef Racz described this palette cleanser as “taking a shower at the end of a hard day,” especially a sticky one like the ones Shanghai has been seeing lately. And it was exactly that. The sorbet was cool and clean, the pickles bright and crunchy, and the mint at the back strikingly refreshing. I wish I could have this waiting for me at the end of every humid day.
At this point in the meal, I couldn’t help but notice the divergent choice of tableware. It was slightly disconcerting to jump from smooth, pristine porcelain plates from the whitest white-tablecloth restaurants in Europe, to speckled amber dishes that looked like they were fashioned from a giant pebble, to matte black bowls with a swirl of white paint ripped straight from a painting in MoMA, and then to a Japanese-looking aquamarine creation with a wavy relief. That is not to say that each piece did not work for its respective dish – for instance, the swirls of white paint matched nicely with the spiraling tomato confit, while the aquamarine looked exactly as cool as the palette cleanser tasted. But when put together all in one meal, they became a little overwhelming.
But back to the food. For the final main course, we were presented with a stunningly plated trio of Mulard Duck. The breast was flavorful and slightly gamey, balancing well with the beetroot ketchup, although I would have liked it a bit juicier. The liver sitting on a bed of cherry compote was rich and meltingly creamy.
But my favorite was the duck heart skewered with leeks. The heart was tender and juicy, flavorsome but not metallic, and paired exceptionally well with the slightly charred leeks. A little tea powder dusted on the side of the plate added an unexpected dimension to the dish.
The menu we had that evening was Taian Table’s second since it opened in April, and the only dish it had in common with the first was this beautiful “Umeboshi” Cream Cheese with Matcha and Dried Strawberries. The umeboshi (Japanese salt-preserved plums) brought a saltiness that worked wonders with the sweetness of the meringue and dried strawberries and the richness of the cream cheese, while the matcha added not so much a bitterness as a slightly astringent mouthfeel. The balance of sweet, acidic, and salty notes acted as a wonderful transition between mains and desserts. A fantastic symphony of flavors and textures that I am glad they kept on the menu.
The first dessert felt like a tough act to follow, but the next one was just as magical. A quenelle of homemade almond ice cream sat upon slivers of semi-dehydrated nectarine subtly spiced with star anise and Sichuan pepper, next to a pillow of almond and white chocolate mousse and streaks of raspberry coulis. The almond ice cream was so incredibly concentrated in flavor that I had to make myself slow down and savor it. I wasn’t a fan of the skin left on the nectarine, and the sorbet was weeping even before I started taking photos, but nevertheless, this was a tremendously satisfying end to a marvelous meal.
With a 14-course tasting menu, there is always a risk of the meal feeling fragmented. Although it doesn’t carry the same ingredients across different dishes as Restaurant Story does, Taian Table’s menu still manages to create a coherence in flavor. The dishes are well-paced but thoroughly satisfying at the same time.
Is it worth the bucks? I think so. Taian Table fills a large void in Shanghai that I’ve been wanting to see filled for a long time, with a consistent level of creativity, thoughtfulness, precision, and poise from the first dish to the last – a combination rarely, if ever, found at other restaurants in Shanghai. And the cost, while certainly not inconsequential, is by no means exorbitant when you consider the price tag on a 7-course chef’s menu at Jean-Georges, Joël Robuchon, or Otto e Mezzo Bombana, just to name a few (which, in case you were wondering, all exceed the price of Taian Table’s 14-course menu by several hundred kuai). That is enough to lure me back for their next menu.
But if I were to hold Taian Table to an even higher standard, I would like to see a more distinctive style and story. Right now, the menu for me can be defined as creating masterpieces that explore culinary boundaries, using often humble ingredients. But with a bit more character and self-awareness in its creations, Taian Table has the potential to stand among some of the best restaurants I’ve visited anywhere in the world.