[Shanghai] seul & SEUL

seul&SEUL

Add: 3/F Taikoo Hui, 789 Nanjing Xi Road, Shanghai 南京西路789号 兴业太古汇3楼
Tel: +86 (21) 5299 9889
Hours: Mon-Sun 6:00pm-11:00pm
Price: [10-course tasting menu] 498 (+10% service)
Visited: August 2017
Will return: Probably not

Author’s note:

On August 18th, a week after my dinner at seul&SEUL, Restaurant André in Singapore, where seul&SEUL’s chef-owner Johnny Jiang previously worked, issued a statement through a Beijing-based law firm, challenging the originality of seul&SEUL’s food and design. With the details still unclear, I will refrain from commenting on the dispute.

This review was written before the dispute came to light, and judges seul&SEUL on its own.

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The tasting menu format has been steadily gaining prominence in recent years. There is something undeniably liberating and, at times, rather elegant about receiving the best that chefs have to offer without having to agonize over the menu.

But that trend has been focused mostly in a particular type of restaurants, where polished silverware gleams on immaculately starched tablecloths, and dinner for two can easily run upwards of RMB3,000.

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seul&SEUL tries to bring the tasting menu format down to a more approachable pitch. Set in the newly opened Taikoo Hui, seul&SEUL is an expansive space with dark, moody furnishings, reflecting the restaurant’s attempt at casualness and familiarity. With its bare, dark wood tables placed within arm’s reach of one another, seul&SEUL’s setting is certainly more energetic than the white-tableclothed halls where a lot of tasting menus occur. If the tables were slightly too high to be comfortable, and all of it felt a little less put-together than other fine-dining venues, we tried to convince ourselves that it was part of the package.

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seul&SEUL serves a 10-course tasting menu for RMB498, making it one of the cheapest tasting menus in the city. And yet, rather contrarily, the restaurant’s PR team has put great emphasis on the fact that its chef, Johnny Jiang, used to be executive chef at “Asia’s No. 2 Restaurant,” Restaurant André in Singapore. It’s almost as if the restaurant wants you to believe that you can get a RMB1,500 experience, but pay just one-third the price at the end of the night. However, as the meal unfolds, it becomes clear that you won’t get more than you pay for.

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The evening began on a high enough note with a delicate rice wafer laden with Japanese sweet shrimp and dollops of green curry. The spices emerged slowly, like a train out of the darkness, accentuated by briny, caviar-like bursts of sea grapes. Yet that start turned out to be tougher than the rest of the meal, with few exceptions, could follow.

IMG_6702Rice, ama-ebi, green curry

Some of the ideas that popped up over the evening were nice, but the results were impaired by ingredient quality. The vibrant ocean trout surrounded by a colorful ring of mini vegetables looked like a celebration of summer, yet the trout was mushy and uninviting, and the vegetables unaccountably inert.

IMG_6713-EditOcean trout, mini vegetables, quail egg

The marriage of scallop, water chestnut, yuba also had promise, but the scallop fared only marginally better than the trout, leaving a fishy aftertaste in its wake. The veil of yuba on top was an intriguing idea, and would have complemented the scallop nicely if the scallop hadn’t been rubbery.

IMG_6737-EditIMG_6741-EditScallop, water chestnut, seawater

But some of the ideas didn’t just suffer because ingredient quality was wanting. They could also suffer all on their own.

A halved sphere of fried gluten overpowered the sea urchin on top with its oily taste and powdery texture. The foie gras fried in a wrapping of potato was overcooked and greasy, lacking the kind of oozing richness we expected, while the pickled onion on top was too timid to get its voice across.

IMG_6706Fried gluten, seafood tamara, uni

IMG_6708-EditFoie gras, potato, onion

A dish called “squid, squid, squid” was presented in two parts, one more successful than the other. The cubes of squid on top of a squid ink chip were a little tough, but the chip itself and a few dots of chili-infused mayo produced a gust of smoke and darkness at the end, waking up my senses from their slumber. The shoestrings of squid – served raw and cooked at the table by a hot squid broth – were also quite chewy, but unlike the chili mayo, the broth was too weak to redeem the dish.

IMG_6744-EditIMG_6749-EditIMG_6754-EditSquid, squid, squid

One of the least complicated dishes of the evening was also one of the best. Strands of angel hair pasta were perfectly al dente, taking their force from a glossy coat of sakura shrimp sauce that had both sweetness and depth in spades.

IMG_6768-EditIMG_6775-EditAngel hair, sakura ebi, chives

A slab of slow-cooked M7 Wagyu beef was accompanied by a delicious purée made from Gillardeau oysters, one of the more successful flavor combinations of the evening. But I’m not sure slow-cooking is the best way to approach such a fatty cut, which gave the meat a greasy rather than juicy quality.

IMG_6783-EditWagyu beef, spring vegetables, Gillardeau

Desserts were reasonably pleasant. A quenelle of vanilla ice cream was served on a bed of various fruits, drizzled with wild honey, and showered with a frozen strawberry snow. The elements came together in elegant swirls of honey, vanilla, and fruity freshness, while some unexpected explosions of popping candy gave the dish a playful touch.

IMG_6792-Edit-18°C fruit snow, wild honey, vanilla

A sorbet made with beetroot and raspberry was sheathed in a chocolate mousse dispensed table-side through a whipped cream charger. While the presentation was somewhat unfortunate and should probably be re-examined, I liked the balance between the rich chocolate and earthy beetroot.

IMG_6810Chocolate, beet, raspberry

seul&SEUL’s advantage is obvious. At RMB498 for 10 courses, it is one of the cheapest tasting menus in the city. With a few nips and tucks, it has the potential to become an acceptable entry-level fine-dining restaurant. It doesn’t need to compete on the same playing field as some of the higher-end, Michelin-starred restaurants in town.

But by advertising itself as helmed by the former chef of a 2-Michelin-starred restaurant named “Asia’s No. 2,” seul&SEUL invites this kind of comparison. As it is now, it falls short.

IMG_6818-Edit4 textures of chocolate

What seul&SEUL does bring to the table at the moment is a tasting menu format delivered at a relatively friendly price, but with more ceremony than quality. Whether we are willing to pay for that format, or prefer places that sit in the same price range, like Phénix or the Chop Chop Club, but offer higher standards with less ceremony – that is a decision each of us will make for ourselves.

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