Ultraviolet - Shanghai, China
- Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet
- Somewhere in Shanghai
- 9 January, 2019
Man, have I got one for you, folks. If you don't read ANY of my other posts, read this one.
I have been gallivanting about the glittering (at least without smog) metropolis of Shanghai, China’s technological and financial urban showpiece. After a day recovering by the indoor pool from the inevitable jetlag that takes hold after traveling halfway across the world, I ventured off to my highly anticipated meal at Ultraviolet, a cutting-edge eatery helmed by French chef Paul Pairet.
To call this place “innovative” is a woeful understatement. Pairet, his cooking called “turbulent, unpredictable, [and] unconventional,” was once a student of science before getting his chops at some of the best restaurants in France, Istanbul, and Hong Kong. He first thought up his plan for a fully immersive dining experience in the 90s, when technology and public appetite for the concept could not support his imagination. In 2012, seven years after settling and making a name for himself in Shanghai, he was finally able to launch his visionary restaurant.
The Michelin Guide, which I discussed in a previous post, is mostly known for its reviews of restaurants in the “west,” namely Europe and the US. Part of the reason for this is they tend to have a sort of imperialist bent that favors French cooking. For that reason, while Michelin has been spot on with some restaurants in Asia, especially those of western cuisine and sushi, many food critics in the region are rather perplexed by other of their selections. This, combined with what I perceived to possibly be somewhat gimmicky parlor tricks when I first read of Ultraviolet, led me to initially question whether this three-star establishment was worth a visit.
Gimmicky, you say? Let me explain. No, it is too much. Let me sum up.
“Food is ultimately about emotion, and emotion goes beyond taste.”
Let’s start with the mystery of the place. Nobody knows where it is. Well, obviously SOMEBODY knows. But the diners are kept in the dark, and meet on the 6th floor of 18 on the Bund at one of Pairet’s other restaurants, which overlooks the river and Lujiazui skyline. My mother was most concerned that this was a great ploy to kidnap me, but I arrived at the meeting point and was seated at a table with the other guests with little unscrupulous behavior. Our Scottish (read: English speaking) host, David, introduced himself and poured a glass of cider from Normandy. I was the only English-speaking guest, so David was sort of my babysitter for the night while the other host, Colin, spoke Chinese to the other guests. The cider was nice and funky, and very effervescent without being too sweet.
We were brought just down the table to be briefed on the procedure for getting to the restaurant, and presented with a first bite, which was served in a massive Chinese soup bowl with a soup ladle sticking out. When opened, it revealed a tiny bite, which was French onion soup. It was essentially a crispy outside with the soup liquid inside along with some caramelized onions, then truffle parmesan on top. Tasty little thing.
We were ushered onto a bus to be transported to the restaurant. They showed a "video" on the way, which was really just the Ultraviolet logo with a weird ass soundtrack that included, among other things, a speech by Churchill, a French jingle ad for perfume, Beethoven's 9th, and a WEIRD, alien spacecraft-sounding rendition of Satie's Gymnopedies (Satie would have been v pleased); eventually they showed scenes from a few old movies spliced together in a way that I'm sure has meaning, but whatever it is was lost on me.
We arrived in a parking garage––yes, a PARKING GARAGE––and were escorted to a secret door marked only by the plaque awarded by Michelin for the restaurant's 3 stars. We entered a very purple-lit room with chain link walls, and this is about where I thought "ok, mom was right... I am definitely getting kidnapped." It was like a ride at Disneyland. After a few more theatrics and explanations, the door to the dining room inally opened.
“Emotion is influenced by your mood, your memories, your surroundings…”
The room is dark, windowless, and featureless, with a mere single communal table in the center and ten seats. That's right: only ten people are served each night, and all of them experience the same meal simultaneously, much like a piece of theatre. The table is surrounded by white walls upon which are projected various HD images that change with each course throughout the meal. The table, too, is a canvas for these precise projections, and the lighting effects match the images that surround the diners to create a fully immersive visual experience.
“…the lighting, the memory of music, the realism of a sound, a view, a particular scent…”
Throughout the meal, as the projected images and lighting that make up the visual "scenes" shift, so, too, do other environmental factors. A soundtrack of music and sound shifts from course to course. Various scents are sent to the diners through vents. Even the temperature in the room changes should the course demand it. In sum, this is unlike any other restaurant before it––it is fully immersive, with every element of the diner's environment controlled to influence the way they taste and experience the food. Pairet calls this "the psycho taste." He says we all "psycho taste" before we actually taste. When you see an orange, your mind recalls memories that tell you the flavor of that orange before you even put a slice in your mouth. When you smell the orange, you taste it. Perhaps a particular place, or sound, or context, makes you think of oranges. Who has ever had two beverages in front of them, say, a glass of Sprite and a glass of sparkling water, and (without visually confirming) assumed they were drinking one and in fact take a sip of the other? It can be a very jarring experience!
"The psycho taste is everything about the taste but the taste."
The table and room were lit in intense purple and blacklights, with our names projected onto the table for our seating assignments. Precise spots shone down on the metal water glasses, creating a really wild effect that made the metal inside project a cool glow. We were offered still or sparkling water, and welcomed, before the journey started.
Act I, scene 1: "Abalone primitive"
Pairet divides the meal into four "Acts," the first being "The Sea." As soon as the room went dark, we heard over the sound system a wild, primitive singing and deep drum hits, growing in intensity, as the wall toward the end of the table moved and opened, revealing a lone chef in a dark kitchen lit by a single spot in front of a large pot. He theatrically lit a blowtorch and ignited the contents of the pot, allowing the fire to burn a bit before closing the lid over it. He then ignited a saucepan next to him, the liquid inside burning an eerie blue, and opened the pot again to pour the flaming liquid and create a second fire.
The walls moved back into place, and we were treated to a gigantic projection of an abalone, little hairs and all, on the wall. Spots revealed a place for our wine glasses, and we were presented by servers clad in Paul Pairet's signature outfit and hat a 2002 Champagne from Françoise Bedel, "L'Âme De La Terre." The spots made the glasses cast a circular glow on the table, which was a cool effect.
The projection of the abalone also begins to appear on the table, a sort of otherworldly blue, grey, and brown of the shell scattered across the surface. The abalone course was brought out, which had been flame-cooked by the chef from the little theatrical event in straw and served with a Thai lime, dill oil, and yuzu custard (or was it yuzu oil and dill custard?). The abalone was delicious––really smoky and tender, and the lime added a zing to complement. There was a sort of "primitive" quality of the food that was brought out from the dark room and deep drum beats, and the simple cooking over flame, although looking at a kinda nasty abalone shell the size of a whale projected on the wall wasn't the most appetizing thing. In any event, it seemed the theatrics, at least so far, were generally proving to be effective!
Scene 2: "Carabineros de Huelva"
The lights shifted to a bright red and orange with hints of purple, and on the wall was projected a really bizarre abstract scene of triangles in the color scheme moving about the room. Not sure what scene he was trying to evoke, but alrighty. We were brought an E. Guigal Condrieu (viognier), one of my favorite white wines, to go with the next course––carabineros, which are giant red prawns, from the coast of Spain. The "shell" of the prawn was edible and flavored with lime. The prawn was lovely, with a delicious sweetness that reminded me a bit of a spot prawn, and the effect of the shell was really cool, although I embarrassed myself by asking David what the shell was made of, fully knowing it wasn't real, to which he responded "don't worry, it isn't a real shell." Yeah, thanks.
Scene 3: "Very-sea sea-scallop"
Not sure what the title of this one means, but it's definitely all about the sea. The scene slowly shifted to a sandy beach in the evening, with a rowboat and the gentle sound of waves, and the table was turned into a beach with projected sand. A beautiful piano adagio, which I'm ashamed to say I couldn't identify, was played, creating a serene mood. We were served a Spanish verdejo (white wine) for the course, which was unremarkable but quaffable and tasty. The dish was a few slices of scallop served with itty bitty uni from Korea and seaweed. Atop was a lime meringue scallop shell, which we were instructed to strike lightly with the spoon to break it up and stir everything together. This was a nice dish, and I really liked the sweet, characteristic uni flavor with the scallop, while the lime "shell" added a nice acidity and tang. This was the most effective scene so far, and definitely changed the way I experienced the scallop.
Scene 4: "SurfSurfTurfTurf"
As the sun set on the beach and the room went dark, the lighting of a campfire was projected on the walls, with the sound of crackling wood and the scent of campfire smoke pumped into the room. Shortly after, they started playing the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," which made me laugh audibly, but I was the only one and got looks. We were brought our first red wine of the night, a Bodegas tempranillo-cab blend nicknamed "El Nido 'Clio'" from Spain, which was tasty and had a good amount of oak, working well with the smoky dish and the overall scene.
The dish was, as you can imagine, two things from the sea and two from the land, all grilled for a nice smoky flavor like you'd get over a campfire. From the sea, we had cuttlefish skin and a gigantic oyster, neither of which were really appealing to me; the skin was kinda weird and didn't have a lot of flavor beyond the smoke, and I'm not a huge fan of big meaty oysters, and this one seemed out of place. There was, however, a grilled foie gras in the mix that was super tasty, which was one of the "turf" pieces, but I was a bit mystified by what the other "turf" bit was supposed to be (maybe the barley??). Rounding it out was a tangy jus, which helped cut through the richness of the foie.
Scene 5: "Infusion"
During the last scene, two infusion percolators heated with flame from below and filled with dashi and allium (type of green onion) stems had been brought in to either end of the table to start boiling. David explained as he was preparing the dish that because the boiling broth filled only about half the vessel, some of the allium would be boiled and some steamed, creating different textures and flavor profiles. They brought the lights down to almost dark and placed candles and bases in front of us that cast a cool glow, and we drank the broth from a teacup kept warm by the flame to the sounds of Van Morrison's "Crazy Love." The broth was good and had a nice subtle green onion flavor, but I definitely didn't get the different "textures" the minced allium in the broth was supposed to have.
Act 2, scene 1: "Picnic tin," or "D.I.Y.A.B.L.T."
Act 2 was called "The Land," and it started with the servers taking everything off the table and putting astroturf down to cover it. A grassy hill with trees and big puffy clouds was projected, with the sound of breezes and birds chirping. The servers appeared with ten gigantic picnic baskets, one for each of us, and placed them in front of us, picking up the basket to reveal our plate underneath. On the tray was a tin can with a pull-off lid, a small piece of cut baguette with avocado and lettuce on it, some disposable silverware and tongs, and a little silver tube of sauce.
We were instructed to open the tin, which had bacon, cherry tomatoes, and some type of sauce, and begin constructing out own BLTA (ABLT?) sandwich, with the little tube containing a garlic "mustard" to pour over the top. This was served with tomato-basil water, which sounded kinda gross but was surprisingly tasty. This was a cool and fairly tasty dish, albeit a little hacky, but certainly just kinda tasted like a BLT.
Scene 2: "Pasturage"
The wall projections zoomed in on the grass, and green grassy "stripes" were projected onto the table. We were served a 2014 Thierry Germain Samur-Champigny 100% cab Franc from the Loire, a lovely, silky wine with good structure which I really enjoyed. Louis Armstrong singing "Cheek to cheek" with Ella Fitzgerald started to play, and the lamb was brought out. a couple little cubes of "green grass fed" lamb were presented atop a garlic and parsley sauce and a really pretty herbal salad with arugula, parsley, cilantro, and mint. I really liked this dish and the pairing, and found myself singing (gravelly voice and all) along to Louis, much to the entertainment (chagrin?) of the wait staff and my Chinese dining companions.
Scene 3: "Bread"
The next scene projected was a misty forest in the winter (or late autumn?), with leaves covering the ground and the scent of damp wood pumped into the space. This would serve as the setting for the next two courses, the first of which is Chef Paul's "masterpiece" and "signature"––a piece of French bread torched on one side and soaked in a butter sauce on the other, topped with thinly shaved black truffles from the Yunnan province and a buttery foam. The presentation, though, added an extra element: the dish was brought out covered by a cloche filled with cigar smoke, which they removed and (sort of obtrusively) put near your face to smell the smoke.
This was really good; the truffle was the star, of course, but the decadent and slightly tangy butter sauce and two different textures of the bread were really effective, and subtle flavor and scent of the cigar smoke brought it to the next level. Definitely worthy of being considered a "signature" dish, and nicely paired with a pretty robust and tropical Domaine Jean-Marc Boillot chardonnay from Burgundy that surprisingly reminded me of California chards. This is the only dish that appears on all three of the UV menus, as well as at Pairet's restaurant Mr. and Mrs. Bund, where we first gathered to go to Ultraviolet.
Scene 4: "Mushroooommssss"
The forest was still projected on the wall, and little centerpieces of still-growing shiitake mushrooms were placed on the table as well, and an extra splash of the Boillot was poured. The course, as you might have guessed, consisted of several different types and preparations of mushrooms. David explained that Chef Paul wanted to emphasize the different flavors and textures that come from the various cooking (or lack of cooking) techniques. Sadly, this dish was a huge miss for me, which really surprised me considering how much I love mushrooms. I didn't think it had a lot of the rich, umami-driven flavor I'd expect from mushrooms and generally found it unexciting.
The little bite that followed, however, which was individual shiitakes from the centerpieces brushed with oil and torched by the waitstaff (creating a really incredible aroma in the dining room, incidentally), was outstanding, and we collected them on little toothpicks on our way to our "intermission" that divided the two halves of dinner.
Intermission: "Espresso royale"
We were given time to check our phones (although the Chinese guests were on their phones CONSTANTLY during dinner), chat, use the bathroom, etc. during the break, and spent the time in the "nightclub" which was adjacent to the dining room and all lit up in bright purple, lined with wavy-patterned walls that created little shelves upon which our next few bites sat. These bites were manifestations of Chef Paul's famous overturning of your expectations of taste from your visual cues. The first was what looked like a cigar put out in an ashtray, which was actually something crispy and savory that I can't recall exactly––was spending the time more focused on chatting with the cute (but straight) Scottish host. The espresso cup next to it had a "sugar cube" in the spoon which I was instructed to add to the "coffee," and when I took a sip, it was not coffee at all, but a rich mushroom soup. Really cool and tasty. The last was a glass of "cognac," which didn't really look like cognac, but whatever; instead of cognac inside the glass, there was, guess what, the espresso and sugar flavor we'd been tricked into thinking the previous bite would be. Was a really cool course.
Act 3, scene 1: "Candle in the wind"
The third act was titled "Asia." We were summoned back into the dining room and led there by waitstaff wielding these really stupid giant Chinese lanterns. The doors opened to reveal an absolutely stunning transformation of the dining room lit only by dozens of candles on the table and the projections of floating lanterns. Traditional Chinese music was playing, and there was one giant candle in the middle that had an embossed "Candle in the Wind" printed on the front. A tableside prep cart was wheeled in, and David proceeded to very slowly and dramatically move the giant candle in the middle of the table to the prep table at the head. He held the candle before us like it was Simba, and said in a slow, deep voice: "This... is the candle in the wind. This... is the black cod."
He turned the candle on its side and sliced one of the wax sides off, revealing that the candle was in fact hollow and was filled with black cod in the middle, and the side that was removed had a layer of honey, sesame, oregano, and lavender in which the cod was poached within the beeswax candle. He "Simba-ed" each half for us again, and took the fish out, announcing, again rather dramatically, that he would be "slicing" the black cod into portions based on the natural flake lines of the fish.
This whole dramatic presentation was really fuckin' stupid, but GODDAMN the fish was good. The poaching in the wax must keep a bunch of moisture in, and each of the flavors of the poaching "stuff" were beautifully infused into the fish. It was served with a nice but forgettable spinach salad and a fairly unimaginative Matron Meursault that had a lot more brightness than the previous chard, which seems backwards. Or maybe that was the point?? hmmmm.
Scene 2: "The black pepper beef"
Turns out these dramatic antics were just going to get more and more ridiculous as the meal progressed. In a complete turn, the next course changed scenes suddenly and dramatically to feature a projection of the iconic triple-tower with the frisbee-looking thing on top of all three that's found in Singapore. Various bright colors and Asian characters were projected on the table, and neon plastic trays were presented to us.
A wall on the right side of the dining room opened, revealing a really dumb looking Asian street-food stand with a chef in costume behind, to which we had to take our trays to collect the dish. It was so silly that I neglected to photograph it, however, a friend of mine, who has been to Singapore, told me that he would have been really impressed by this presentation, since it was very much like going to a hocker food stand on the streets of Singapore.
The dish itself was a "grade 12" Australian wagyu beef with black pepper sauce, butter lettuce, watermelon, and steamed rice. The black pepper sauce wasn't my favorite, and I found it a little heavy handed––cloyingly sweet/tangy and too salty––but I think that's just kinda how black pepper sauce tastes. The beef was VERY marbled, and was really delicious, so I was overjoyed when they brought more pieces around for those who wanted them! This course was served with a choice of an English stout or a Spanish blonde ale, and I naturally requested both, and enjoyed the way that each beer brought a different element out, with the stout speaking to the heft of the beef and the ale providing a lightness and funk that helped keep the palate from being overwhelmed by the rich marbling of the beef.
Scene 4: "Think;" or "A real cup of tea."
A bizarre video with a flashing lightbulb against a black backdrop was the scene for the next course, and was accompanied by some avant-garde philosophical pontification over the soundtrack that I had a hard time making sense of. It ended with the word "think," and a little plate with a teacup and pot were presented alongside the identical instruction from the waitstaff: "think." I had kinda figured this out by now, since the "subtitle" of the dish was "A real cup of tea," but was instructed to "pour the tea." Surprise: no tea. Instead a tiny amount of grey powder, which was flavored with essence of tea, came out, and I was instructed to eat the cup, which was actually a frozen shell flavored by citrus, with the powder in it. Cool presentation, but the flavor itself wasn't particularly memorable.
Scene 5: "Beijing-Cola Duck;" or "Ten Years"
The sound and smell of cooking duck accompanied a video of a duck being roasted, and we were presented with a strange corrugated metal plate with altered Coca-Cola logos that read "Beijing-Cola Duck." A metal clip was placed on the corrugated metal that held a small rectangle of crispy duck skin, and this was somehow connected to an ingredient in Coca-Cola...? That part was never made clear to me. In any event, the skin was delicious, and a small bowl of cooked strawberries and basil was brought immediately after to cleanse the palate before a second helping of duck skin was served. This dish is subtitled "Ten Years" because it apparently took ten years of work and experimenting for Chef Paul to perfect. This was served with a beverage called "Asia Libre" which used sake and plum wine as its base, which was fine but nothing remarkable.
After the absurd image of the roasting duck was cleared away, the room went dark with the exception of the spotlights for our drink settings, and we were served a cup of tea as well as a Grand Marnier "slushie." The tea was good but the slushie was sort of dreadful; didn't taste like much, and could have used some extra sweetness, which I'm kinda surprised the liqueur didn't do on its own.
Act IV, scene 1: "Lunar Mushroom"
The fourth act, "Dessert," started with an entertaining graphic of floating donuts before the room went dark and we were treated to a visual of a cartoon rocket taking off. Once the craft reached "the moon," they played some Sinatra (guess which song) and served us the next course, one of Pairet's famous desserts––the "Lunar Mushroom." The lighting moved around the plate to create different shadows from the "mushroom," which was cool the first three times and then just sort of comically lame. I'm honestly unsure what this mushroom consists of, but it had some sort of pumpkin and nutmeg component and I think the "cap" was made of crystallized Grand Marnier. Tasted fine, and I appreciated the Sinatra, but the presentation was almost disturbing.
Scene 2: "Wood Eggplant"
Into the woods again for the next course, which was presented to us in what looked like a hollowed-out log. This dessert was pretty cool, because it had a couple different preparations of eggplant, and two of them were very different (spiced and something else) but looked identical, playing with the expectations that the visual "psycho taste" created.
To pair, we were served a Willett Light Bourbon from Kentucky, which I was really jazzed about when I saw it on the menu, but WOEFULLY offended when it appeared not just with ice, but significantly watered down. I mean rocks is one thing, but 50% water is just a tragedy for a good whiskey. David told me they butcher it so everyone could drink and enjoy it, but I insisted they pour another one for me, this time neat. This iteration of the bourbon was one of my favorite drinks of the night, and I enjoyed the slight oaky notes in the bourbon with the "woody" dessert.
Scene 3: "No Peach Melba"
Bright projections of red, orange, and purple filled the room next, and floating balloons were projected on the walls. We were served a martini glass with what looked like a sorbet scoop on top, and each diner was told the dish was "The unbearable lightness of a lot of nothing." The sorbet was actually a thin frozen layer of raspberry sorbet, and underneath was some peach stuff, the idea being that what we perceived as a full scoop of sorbet was actually just an illusion. A cool idea, and a tasty and refreshing dessert.
Scene 4: "La Peanut"
Next came what was (supposed) to be the final course of the night, and a gigantic PacMan game with an image of a peanut as PacMan moving about the game. This same projection was also on the table, and a little tart with a single peanut in the middle was served alongside a small glass of Sauternes. While I appreciated the whimsy of the projection, I really had a hard time figuring out what the point of this dish was. There always is a point to what he chooses, but it was lost on me.
Given that the "PacMan" course ended with "GAME OVER" projected on the wall, I figured, that was it! What an experience. Turns out, we were not done.
David and Colin entered the room with microphones and announced that we were to participate in a competition for the "Master Guest" in the style of "Master Chef." We were given a tray with multiple ingredients for a mango-passionfruit dessert and played a video with instructions on how to replicate it. I thought I had this thing made in the shade, but it was REALLY hard to remember all the steps after all the beverages I'd consumed, and David tried to help me but ended up throwing off my groove by plating things for me in ways I found less than tasteful. I think he thought I was kinda dumb for much of the dinner...
The walls to the kitchen opened and the kitchen team and Chef Paul himself invited us in with our desserts. We huddled around the kitchen counter as the kitchen team selected their favorite plating of the dessert. Surprise: wasn't mine. Thanks David!
We all shared the rest of the Champagne and had a chance to talk to Chef Paul and his staff, including his head chef, who is a fellow Yankee. At the end I told Chef Paul that I enjoyed my meal, and talked to him about the presentation and how it did, indeed, affect the way I experienced the food, and that it was unlike anything I'd experienced.
He said, "It's all about the food, man."
So look, this was a really cool experience, and I am really glad I did it. Was it gimmicky? Sure, sometimes; from time to time it was just way over the top, like an amusement park, but it also had some really cool elements, and even the few gimmicky, ridiculous presentations were (usually) entertaining and enjoyable.
My worry about gimmick is the quality of the food. You can have an experience like this that is, overall, something you are glad you did, but some things fall flat. There were several courses that I found to be absolutely outstanding, and among many of those, I found the presentations and environment were valuable, and sometimes very much so, in enhancing the experience. Pairet is definitely on to something with this concept, and definitely uproots the way we think about tasting food.
My concern is that there are too many dishes here that are misses, and one that was an utter miss, for a restaurant that has three Michelin stars. Much of the cuisine is consistently good or even outstanding, but there shouldn't be inconsistency like this at a restaurant of this caliber. Moreover, some of the presentations, while entertaining, felt like they dramatically upstaged the food and were just hella unnecessarily dramatic. Finally, there are other elements, like being presented fish in a candle in the style of Rafiki holding Simba, or the waitstaff engaging in hacky choreography, that definitely cheapened the experience a bit.
Don't get me wrong: this is an extraordinary restaurant with extraordinary food, and I think that if you find yourself in Shanghai with some cash to burn, it's absolutely worth an evening. Chef Paul is an artist, and he sees his canvas much more broadly than almost anyone in the food world. Despite that this canvas sometimes gets muddled with unnecessary or misguided strokes, the overall world he paints is pretty incredible.