Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Table No. 1


The week that some of the best and most exclusive restaurants in town reluctantly crack open their doors to scrubs like me who trundle in, all giddy-like, for a taste of the high life at a fraction of the cost. Wait staff have to handle staggered services, poor chefs have to suffer through turning out the same 9 dishes over and over for 7 days, and we plebs pour in, plop down, and start salivating at the prospect of food previously out of our wallets’ grasp. A pretty good deal, if you ask me.

Although overwhelmed with options, my first pick when perusing this year’s choices was Table No. 1 at The Waterhouse – I had gotten a drink at its lobby bar earlier this winter and scoped out the menu while waiting for my Negroni, leaving me ravenous to try the Table at the next possible opportunity.

The restaurant is in a super-modern space at The Waterhouse, a boxy boutique hotel that is a contemporary take on traditional lane house structures, as I learned from its architect at a talk for the Shanghai Literary Festival last week. It was opened by Jason Atherton, chef of acclaimed Pollen Street Social in London, another place I intended on trying but never got around to, which made it all the more alluring. If it weren’t so far away (all the way over on South Bund, adjacent to the tragically-named Cool Docks) I wouldn’t have waited, but now there was no better excuse to give it a go.

Three of us scamps scampered into the dining room, dark and striped with colossal communal tables. We immediately got to ordering – one of us (ahem, shame game) doesn’t share (ahem, only child, ahemmm), but the other and I decided to divide and conquer as much of the menu as possible.

We kicked off with cocktails – a refreshing Hendricks gin cucumber martini (regrettably served in a martini glass, my archenemy – are they not designed specifically to be spilled?!) – and also plumped for the pairing option. We even got bottled water. Welcome to the 1%.

A breadbasket appeared with warm focaccia slices and a carafe of olive oil, immediately proceeded by our starters and without our wine. An unfortunate crisis of choreography, but the wine arrived forthwith and we made it work.

Apologies in advance for the pictures - I did mention it was dark!

The bread was yeasty and light, perhaps too light for a properly textured focaccia, but the oil was fruity and rich. For starters, our Only Child had ordered a roasted carrot soup, beautifully poured tableside. Three Siblings and I were served the black tea-cured hamachi with pickled strawberries and an ‘herb gel’ (no picture, unfortunately) and the one item that had immediately caught my eye, the “Duck, Duck, Goose” – grits, confit duck, and foie gras. Trifecta.

The hamachi was very fresh and the dish was an interesting mix of flavors, although it was as substantial and satisfying as its ‘herb gel’ (still unclear) when compared to the bowl of flavor in front of me. The grits were sweet with corn, enveloping the duck and foie gras underneath, all with a perfectly poached egg on top for extra ooze. There could have been more texture, but taste was spot on.

For mains, we moved on to pan-seared seabass with clams, chorizo, and white bean as well as the roasted pork loin with polenta, Dijon, wild mushrooms, and truffle.

One would have thought the former would have been a Spanish-style white stew steeped in flavors of the sea, but instead it arrived as a fish who had gotten lost in a garden – the seabass was woefully underseasoned, all elements were lukewarm, and the flavors didn’t come together.

The latter, however, was one of the better plates that's been put in front of me in Shanghai. The two pieces of pork were perfectly-cooked and placed atop the best ‘polenta’ I’ve eaten, if it can be called that – it was a square of tender corn custard, almost a polenta flan. Under lay a mix of wild mushrooms (mysteriously missing the truffle?) and over was poured rich onion gravy, all surrounded by a swath of grainy mustard seed. Each element was incredibly flavorful on its own, but together they were transcendent.

Both of the reds I was served, an Australian Shiraz (Twin Beaks) and a French Pinot Noir (Maison Kerlann), were light and surprisingly snappy, successfully cutting the richness of the dishes.

For dessert, we split a dryish bread and butter pudding with fabulous pecan ice cream and a smear of salty caramel and the “Cookies & Cream”, a trio of cookies, ‘milk’, and cream.

This second spread was a hint at Atherton’s playful side, more fully exposed by the Dessert Bar at Pollen Street Social. The cookies could have been better (they were no Strictly Cookies…) although the ‘milk’ was like melted ice cream. These were both paired with sweet desert wines, of which I am no expert but I could tell you they were indeed a sweet end to an evening.

It’s a great week to be alive and eating.

PS – If you want to try and scrape a last-minute reservation at one of Shanghai’s top spots, go to the Restaurant Week site.

Table No. 1
The Waterhouse
1-3 Maojiayuan Lu
South Bund (near the Cool Docks)

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