Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Commune Social

The new best restaurant in Shanghai is a wild ride.

Yes, Jason Atherton's newest concept, Commune Social, is perhaps a simple Spanish tapas bar in theory, but it's an audacious 'choose-your-own-adventure' narrative in experience.

The restaurant would be located in a relatively random area of Jing'an, except that it adjoins the Design Republic Commune, the founders of which designed, among many of the city's acclaimed restaurants, The Waterhouse, which (water)houses Jason Atherton's previous place, Table No. 1.

This space has a much more special feel - the complex of rooms tells a story, leading diners from an open courtyard terrace set for sundowners to an authentically Spanish tapas bar in the back, into the depths of a dark-wooded dining room, through to the shiny subway-tiled 'Dessert Bar' in the front, perhaps even ending with a drink in the cocktail bar upstairs. It's as though you're eating in a fun house, built to seduce and guide you through your evening.

The dining room.

The Dessert Bar.

Although defeating this intriguingly-designed system, we settled down in the Dessert Bar area, the counter at which not only allowed us front-row seats to watch pastry chef Kim Lyle's in sweet swing, but also for more space to fill with our chosen dishes.

We definitely needed the space - although neither myself nor my dining companion are what I would deem 'restrained', we seem to bring out the worst in each other's gluttonous tendencies. So 'The Enabler' and I set to work ordering almost everything that caught our eye - and there was hardly a menu option that didn't.

All Spanish but set apart in sections, the menu allows diners to construct their own narrative for their meal itself as well - it's a mix between more traditional 'tapas' plates - padron peppers, fried squid, fried egg with black pudding - and more complex but complete dishes - scallop ceviche, miso-grilled mackerel, suckling pig.

We quickly waved away many of the more basic tapas options, leaving them for another night in perhaps less rapacious company. We ended up with shatteringly-crisp salt-and-pepper squid served with squid ink aioli, a "salt-roasted" beet salad composed with mini mozzarella balls and an interesting almond-and-pine-nut crumble, a spot-on albeit unexciting seared tuna salad, some decadent Iberico-pork-and-foie-gras sliders, and even more indulgent baked bone marrow.

At this point, as you can see, we were clearly overwhelmed by dishes. This was really the only yet continuous error of the evening - the service was alternately overattentive and negligent, the former resulting in confusion and the latter in poorly timed plates. As just recently opened, however, I'm sure it will sort itself out.

All of the dishes were delicious. Really - some of the best Shanghai has to offer. But because of this unfortunate timing, I didn't feel like I could fully enjoy anything as the plates piled up. This was especially true of those that should have been served hot - by the time we reached the marrow and sliders, they were much past their prime. Even as admitted Gluttons (capital 'G'), we both found the sliders especially rich, left lukewarm and uncut even by anything served with them - the avocado cream and super-sweet pickles did nothing to fight the fattiness in the bite-sized artery-busters.

We were also given an extra dish by accident - basically the most sublime grilled cheese you can imagine topped with fried quail's eggs.

 Not something I would have ordered as it was quite basic and too filling for our feast, but they were fantastic. Most unfortunately, it somehow took the place of the scallop ceviche we really did want to try. I guess you have to leave something for next time...

Anyway, on to dessert.

We were at the 'Dessert Bar', after all. And after seeing the never-ending parade of sweet stuff, we couldn't not.

Although there were many Spanish-inflected options, we chose to go for what popped off the page: "olive oil brioche" with chocolate ganache, pistachio, and sea salt and a peanut ice cream with "red fruit" and salted peanut caramel.

Palate cleansers: ginger-spiced sangria popsicles. A thoughtful touch.

Kim Lyle at work.

The former was an elegant chocolate and pistachio dish, although unfortunately the "olive oil brioche" was misnomered as the leading element of the dish, appearing as crouton accents rather than the dense cake centerpiece expected. It was lovely nonetheless.

But the latter was a reason alone to revisit - the comparable composition belied a modern take on comfort food. The peanut ice cream was surrounded by spoonfuls of a light but chunky peanut butter, scoops of rich berry jam, and a stick of peanut brittle - your mom's PB+J, if your mom had been a punk-rock pastry chef.

Lest all of the previous commentary/complaints leave a bitter taste in your mouth, let the PB+J serve as a reminder that I have only been tough on this spot because it can take it. It's quality is among the highest in the city, and although there are some misses on the journey, the hits more than make up for them.

To extend into metaphor: as a favor for staying seated during the restaurant's wild ride, we got given little sachets of seasoned flour to make fried squid.

Probably one of the most random gifts to leave your diners. Suffice it to say it left me with more questions than answers: it wasn't immediately accessible (can I eat it now? Why would I want something I can't eat without adding extra elements?), it was labor-intensive (you want me to fry my own squid? Where does one even get squid in Shanghai?), it wasn't even necessarily something that would remind everyone of their time at the Social (what if they hadn't ordered the squid?)... my mind spun.

But perhaps that's the beauty of a meal at the Commune Social - you come curious, explore until satisfied, and still leave with enough questions unanswered to bring you back.

Commune Social
511 Jiangning Lu, near Kangding Lu

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