Taian Table

Website: taian-table.cn
Hours: closed Sun & Mon; Tue-Sat 6pm-late
Add: disclosed upon reservation

 

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Full disclosure: I work with Taian Table to create their digital content. So if you follow Taian Table’s WeChat or Instagram — thank you! — you will have seen my writings and photos there.

Given this relationship and what some might perceive to be an inherent partiality, I struggled over whether to write this. But as my longtime readers would know, Taian Table has been my favorite restaurant in Shanghai since long before I joined. And as the restaurant gained a second Michelin star last Thursday, this feels like as good an occasion as any to look back on that journey.

If the past 17 months of working with the team have changed my view in any way, it is only to offer new perspectives and insights into this restaurant that I have loved from the first.

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1.

I visited Taian Table for the first time in June 2016, two months after it opened at its original location and namesake Tai’an Road. At the time, I knew very little about the concept, or about Chef Stefan himself, whose previous restaurants in Shanghai I never had the chance to visit.

That first dinner was eye-opening in every way, from seating arrangement (20 counter seats wrapped around an open kitchen, offering an unhindered view of the chefs finishing each plate before your very eyes), to menu format (a single 14-course tasting menu that changes completely every month), and of course, the food itself (spirited, inventive, and unfailingly engaging).

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The cooking was more freewheeling than anything I had previously experienced in Shanghai. It wasn’t confined by geography, running the gamut from a Middle-Eastern baba ghanoush to a togarashi-spiced seared tuna. There was no shortage of luxury ingredients, but even with the plainest of vegetables, the outcomes were no less accomplished. Plump little butternut squash gnocchi got their force from the radiance of pickled pumpkin and a streak of black garlic. A beetroot and celeriac number that, on its surface, sounded rather ill-timed for June somehow tasted exactly in tune with the energy of early summer.

IMG_5054-EditMenu No.2 | Butternut squash gnocchi, golden mushrooms, kale, black garlic, pickled pumpkin

And of course, that roasted cauliflower, which has since entered the hall of fame known as “Taian Table Classics,” assured a place of honor on the menu even as other dishes come and go. With its thrilling darkness and endless intricacies, that cauliflower was more dramatic and forceful than a vegetable had any right to be.

In short, I was impressed.

IMG_0879-Edit-EditTT Classics | Roasted cauliflower, air-dried beef cheek, smoked egg yolk, pickled mushrooms, brown butter hollandaise

 

2.

Over the next two years, these visits grew to be a ritual, each new menu a source of excitement and anticipation. I didn’t miss a single menu — a kind of pride that I imagine coin or trading card collectors would relate to — except for when the famous misadventure in September 2016 put the team on a brief hiatus, and cut Menu No.4 short before I was able to catch it.

Then, in the middle of my dinner last March (Menu No.13), Stefan came over to stand across the counter from me between one course and the next, and asked if I would be interested in doing some content for Taian Table, catching me entirely off guard. My day job was — and still is — far outside the realm of F&B, and my food blog was more a pastime than anything else. Still, if I were to work for any restaurant, Taian Table would surely be the one.

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3.

Working with Taian Table is a joy. It is like having a backstage pass at the theater. Or perhaps more aptly, like having a front-row seat to an episode of Chef’s Table happening in real time — and at my favorite restaurant, no less.

Every time I go into the kitchen to photograph the rush of dinner service, or to interview the chefs for our WeChat posts about how each new menu came together, I learn a little bit more of what makes Taian Table the well-oiled creative engine that it is. The level of planning and consideration that goes into every dish is simply astounding, but what strikes me even more keenly is the passion and drive that I observe at every turn.

It is listening to Stefan speak of each new dish with pride in his voice.

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It is seeing chef-de-cuisine Johnny scribbling away in his stack of notecards filled with ideas and inspirations.

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It is hearing executive sous chef Alex talk almost obsessively about fermentation, all gleaming eyes and infectious energy, so eager that he would slide into Shanghainese from time to time.

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It is shadowing the team for a whole day, and witnessing all the previously unseen efforts that go into the long and arduous prep work before guests arrive.

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Those are the times when I am proudest to be part of this incredible team.

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4.

There are downsides to working for one’s favorite restaurant. Dining at Taian Table is no longer the same, because for me, a logical experience now happens before the sensory. More often than not, I have delved deep into the dishes, documented and photographed every step in their creation, long before I sit down at the counter to taste them.

IMG_9765-EditSpecials, April 2019 | White asparagus, 5J Iberico Bellota, Flemish sauce

Still, some things never get old. Every time I bite into the sea urchin toast — another all-time favorite that has advanced into the ranks of “Taian Table Classics” — its perfect juxtaposition of flavors, textures, and temperatures is just as beguiling as the first time I had this in Menu No.11 all those months ago. The muscular, iron tang of pigeon liver sauce is still just as riveting, the butter-soft richness of fried langoustine just as hypnotizing.

IMG_3868-Edit-EditTT Classics | Sea urchin, sourdough bread, brown butter

IMG_1252-EditMenu No.21 | Grilled pigeon breast, fregola sarda, fava bean mash

IMG_0794-Edit-EditSpecials, August 2019 | New Zealand scampi, chanterelle mushrooms

And every so often, I can still manage to be surprised. All the research and writing in the world couldn’t have prepared me for how the dehydrated and rehydrated watermelon, riddled with layers of smoke and acidity, breaks through the August heat like a crystal clear mountain spring; how the natural sweetness of carabinero shrimp and baby squid is cleverly modified by a vivacious tomato consommé that thrums gently with spices; or how the sensual softness of confit razor clam glides across the palate in a smooth, languorous caress.

IMG_2638-EditMenu No.22 | Watermelon, water kimchi, radish

IMG_8140-EditMenu No.20 | Razor clam, shallot confit, clam jus, samphire

Or how the duet of seared scallop and porcini mushroom floods the senses with a visceral sort of pleasure, their seductive tenderness thrown into relief by a brittle shard of bacon. Every time I encounter such an unassuming and apparently straightforward plate that turns out to be strikingly vivid and wonderful, words can feel so utterly inadequate.

IMG_0614-Edit-EditIMG_0541-Edit-EditSpecials, August 2019 | Seared Hokkaido scallop, porcini mushrooms, dashi butter, bacon jam

 

5.

When I interviewed Stefan and then chef-de-cuisine Jeno in the summer of 2017, I asked them whether there was any particular style to the cooking at Taian Table, to which Stefan gently replied, “I think it’s too early to say ‘style.’”

His response didn’t surprise me as much as it could have. As I had experienced firsthand since my very first visit, a large part of Taian Table’s appeal was the lack of formula and limitation, the very absence of a defining identity to the hundreds of dishes coming out of the same kitchen. But 23 menus, over 300 dishes, and a changing of the guard later, something akin to a style seems to be emerging.

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By the very nature of an ever-changing menu, creativity has always been front and center at Taian Table. The dishes are rarely simple, many of them elaborate enough in their preparations to warrant a small essay. Yet with each passing menu, the kitchen seems to grow more adept at rendering these complex ideas with clarity, focus, and a seemingly effortless grace. The flavors, still modern, global-minded, and full of adventure, are slowly being pared to essentials and honed to pitch-perfect precision, often hitting us beyond an appreciation of flavors and textures, and bringing forward a deeper, almost emotional response.

“We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves; otherwise we harden.” This has been a motto at Taian Table since the very beginning, an unwavering conviction in the necessity of growth. And grown it has, like a teenager out of his edgy, long-limbed adolescence, shedding a veneer of self-consciousness for confidence, self-assurance, and poise.

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6.

I am writing this on September 15th, a few days before this year’s Michelin Guide will be revealed. I have just spent last night shooting the kitchen action for the new Menu No.23, an array of fresh products and novel ideas, heady spices and inspired compositions.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t eagerly anticipating this year’s Michelin announcements. But whatever the outcome on Thursday, I know with all my heart that the journey ahead will be full of energy and excitement. Just as before, every month and every menu will be uncharted territory, a gleaming page waiting to be filled.

That is the beauty of Taian Table.

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Posted by:journeys of a gourmand

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