Add: disclosed upon reservation
Hours: Tue-Sat 6:00pm-12:00am (last order 8:00pm)
Price: [14-course] RMB1,388; [10-course] RMB1,088
Will return: Definitely
It is rare to have the chance to watch a restaurant find its voice and grow into its ambitions. When that happens, the experience can be fantastic and thrilling. I found that thrill at Taian Table, the private dining concept centered, both figuratively and literally, around a grand open kitchen helmed by chefs Stefan Stiller and Jeno Racz, serving a single 14-course tasting menu that changes every month. Over the nine months since it opened, it has been a pleasure watching the evolution of each menu, and seeing the restaurant get into its rhythm.
Pleasure comes in many forms at Taian Table. It can be the satisfaction of watching simple components join forces to deliver surprising impact, like a piece of cured salmon wrapped in shiso leaf and dotted with salmon roe and lemon gel, coming together in elegant layers of sweetness, bitterness, and umami. Or the beef short rib, which popped with dashi-marinated mustard seeds and crunched with charred lettuce and a sprinkle of cashews. The short rib was brined for seven days and cooked for three, giving it a wonderfully rich, deep flavor.
Kombu-cured salmon, bitter lemon gel, shiso leaf
Slow-cooked beef short rib, mustard seeds, cashews, lettuce
Pleasure can also come from the excitement of complicated symphonies. A seared scallop sitting on a bed of barley and apples had a complex and intricate sort of balance. The barley soaked up all the scallop’s flavor and umami. Fresh apples brought some sweetness and crunch, while the ashes of burnt apples scattered on top lent a hint of smoke and darkness. The next time I saw scallop two menus later, thin discs of water chestnut had taken the place of the fresh apples. Corn was trying out the role previously played by barley, and the once tentative sketches of smokiness were fleshed out by cubes of chorizo.
Scallop, roasted barley, yeast (Menu 3)
Scallop, chorizo, corn, water chestnut (Menu 5)
The only dish that had the honor of inhabiting three menus in a row was a dessert. Shards of meringue studded with dried strawberries were lodged in a plinth of cream cheese infused with Japanese salt-preserved plums, finished with a dusting of matcha. The blend of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter was so uncannily moreish that I was sorry to see it gone on Menu Four, never mind that I’d had it on each of my last three visits.
“Umeboshi” cream cheese, matcha, dried strawberries (Photo credit to Serena Q)
Every so often, happiness is found in seeing humble vegetables transformed into something new and unexpected and marvelous, such as the butternut squash molded with kuzu into little pillars of gnocchi, sweet with pumpkin purée and bright with tiny globes of pickled pumpkin. On a recent visit, a confit egg yolk provided ballast to chunks of pickled parsnips, while the swoosh of yogurt and spinach oil laced with slivers of katsuo was inexplicably gratifying.
Butternut squash gnocchi, golden mushrooms, kale
Confit parsnip, katsuobushi yogurt, egg yolk
And sometimes, the joy comes simply from the impeccable skills with which ingredients are cooked, like the wonderfully seared Mulard duck breast sitting on a swirl of beetroot ketchup, or the strikingly succulent Carabinero prawn in a frothy, intensely savory sauce of confit tomato.
Mulard duck, cherries, leeks, duck jus
Carabinero prawn, quinoa, artichoke, confit tomato
But the highest pleasure appears when, every once in a while, the chefs pull something completely unforeseen out of the blue. One evening, there was a cube of tuna otoro tasting impossibly clean and delicate in a clear pool of chilled dashi flecked with drops of olive oil, the normally fatty cut acquiring an almost lyrical lightness. Sardine was made surprisingly mellow, its natural pungent flavors softened by sweet tomatoes and a dab of yuzu.
Tuna otoro, Kaluga Queen caviar, chilled dashi
Charred sardine, sauce vierge, basil, yuzu gel
A bowl of onions, on the other hand, came at me out of nowhere with its forcefulness and intensity. The onions’ sharpness was dulled by the sweet, creamy depth of kohlrabi espuma, perked up with slashes of acidity from some pickled shimeji mushrooms.
Burnt onion, kohlrabi, chives, shimeji
Sometimes, that ultimate of pleasures is disguised beneath a veil of plainness. You might be taken aback at first by how bland the carpaccio Carabinero prawn tastes. Then you bite into the crispy fried head, and a burst of savory and mineral umami explodes across your tongue. Take another forkful of the carpaccio, and you’d wonder how you could have missed its sweetness.
Carabinero carpaccio, lime, grapefruit, crispy head
A poached lobster could appear underwhelming, right up until the rich depth of the lobster custard, salty with caviar and smooth with dill oil, floods your palette, and everything falls into startling alignment. The chefs don’t go out of their way to shock or impress. That only makes these moments so much more dramatic and bewitching when they come.
Lobster, dill oil, caviar
Taian Table is at its most thrilling when it pushes my boundaries with strong, bold flavors. But there is a fine line between daring and off-putting, and occasionally a dish would find itself on the wrong side. A few months ago, there was an endive dish on the menu. When done right, the bitterness of the endives, intensified through grilling, gradually gave way to the acidity from some sautéed chanterelles, the creamy, nutty walnut dressing, and finally the sweet, crisp slices of pear. The flavors were layered with exceptional clarity, each bite revealing a new dimension. One night however, the endives’ bitterness was staggering, lingering stubbornly on the back of my tongue and blotting out everything else on the plate.
Grilled endives, pear, walnut dressing, sautéed chanterelles
Each month, anticipation builds with every new dish that rolls onto the menu. But there is also a singular pleasure in witnessing old dishes grow from one menu to the next. I liked watching the evolution of the roasted cauliflower floret swabbed in brown butter hollandaise. Crowded in a bowl the first time, it opened up onto a plate the next. The cauliflower was less charred but more crispy, the contrast in flavors less overwhelming, but the contrast in textures more pronounced. The time after that, the cauliflower was replaced by broccolini. The char grew fierce again, perhaps too much so, but the hollandaise reworked with confit tomato was magical.
Roasted cauliflower, smoked egg yolk, pickled mushrooms, brown butter hollandaise (Menu 2)
Roasted cauliflower, smoked egg yolk, pickled mushrooms, brown butter hollandaise (Menu 3)
Roasted broccolini, smoked egg yolk, confit tomato hollandaise (Menu 3)
The debut of a lentil salad was given a rippling charge with a dressing of balsamic vinegar and wasabi mayonnaise, but the paving of shaved raw mushrooms on top got a bit lost in the process. In its next incarnation, the lentils were cut back in portion, allowing the mushrooms’ fragrance to come through. In another subtle but powerful touch, dried beef cheek took the place of Iberico ham, its surreptitious sweetness adding more depth and dimension to the dish. Nothing is more telling of how much thought and finicky attention the chefs put into their cooking than this restless tinkering.
“Le Puy” lentil salad, Iberico “cebo”, mushrooms (Menu 5)
“Le Puy” lentil salad, dry beef cheek, mushrooms (Menu 6)
Of course, like any other restaurant, Taian Table isn’t perfect. If you go with a large party, the kitchen can still crack a little under the pressure, and both cooking and service can suffer.
Occasionally, some dishes could benefit from more clarity. A pigeon dish on a recent visit clearly had a lot to say, but almost made me wish that it wouldn’t say them all at once. The pigeon breast and mulberries made a fascinating pairing. So did the black quinoa and artichoke cream. When put all together on the same plate, however, they tasted somewhat jumbled and confused.
Pigeon breast, black quinoa, artichoke cream
The menu saw a brief lull just after the restaurant reopened in December after a three-month hiatus, playing it too safe and producing a few too many ordinary moments. That evening tasted of a kitchen trying too hard to rein itself in. But my last visit revealed a kitchen that’s gotten its rhythm back, as well as a new-found sense of balance. The flavors didn’t push hard or far enough to lose their focus, but were more than exciting enough to keep me on my toes. Each dish felt like part of a conversation with the chefs, a journey for the mind as well as the taste buds.
When we go out to eat, the first thing we look for is an evening of delicious food. But when I go to Taian Table, I know I can expect something more: an evening of discovery – of food, of the chefs, and every now and then, of myself.