Shanghai dining in the dark
You can usually tell when the TripAdviser ‘reviewer’ is a little closer to their subject than might be considered objective. Who except someone associated with the outlet would wax lyrical for paragraphs with mind-numbing detail instead of just saying whether the food and service was good or not?
I have not yet eaten at Shanghai’s latest dining fad, Ultraviolet and given that it seats only 10, with one table, I probably won’t. Booking weeks ahead for an over-priced dinner just because it grants bragging right is a little old these days. Especially when it costs a cool US$320 for the pleasure of a magical mystery gastro tour.
This is the latest thing from Paul Pairet, French chef and owner of Mr. & Mrs. Bund, who, according to the enthusiastic reviewer “has long had a dream of creating the ultimate dining experience.” For which read, very expensive.
Ultraviolet is “so far beyond the average restaurant that it’s like comparing grand opera to the grand ole opry,” gushes the TripAdviser reviewer, adding that you might want to book a flight to Shanghai so you can go to Ultraviolet.
It’s beginning to sound like Shanghai's version of Spain’s controversial El Bulli. This is “experience” eating apparently. You have no idea where you’re going or what you’ll eat. It starts at 7.00pm at Mr. & Mrs. Bund. The fortunate 10 guests mingle with a flute of sparkling pear cider, not even champagne. Then everyone takes a carefully choreographed drive to dinner, with sound effects, music and onboard movie clips, as you glide from the Bund along Guangfu Road. Just like Paris along the Seine, oozes TripAdviser. No, just like Shanghai along the Bund. And then Ultraviolet’s location turns out to be “completely featureless and industrial by design.” Diners pass through sliding doors arranged to disassociate guests from the outside world. A large room with bare walls, a long dining table and 10 chairs are dramatically lit by spotlights and projections on the tabletop....pretentious moi? Namecards show the seating plan.
It seems you are now the cast in Paul Pairet’s culinary play. Floor to ceiling projection screens line the walls and every dish comes with visual images – sometimes real, sometimes animation, sometimes computer-generated – with live images of chef himself beavering in the kitchen. The sound track, the lighting and the projectors are all synchronized – as are the serving staff as they waft through the wall with the first course. There are 24 staff at Ultraviolet, including nine chefs, and the menu is 22 courses. Yes – 22 courses. The food is “an almost reckless display by an incredibly talented chef,” adds our friend, who I’m guessing is chef’s mum or very special friend.
Ginger beer accompanies a fish course; 2003 Bordeaux goes with Kobe beef. The 22 bite sized courses take four hours. “Every course has its own cutlery, its own colour palette and some even have aromas which are trapped and brought to the diner. “I don’t want to give away too many of the details because this is Paul Pairet’s show and he deserves all the credit.” Definitely reviewer is Chef’s special friend.
Accepting their word for it that this is Asia’s wackiest dining experience, the question remains - how can it survive commercially with just 50 covers a week?
Toronto’s Hong Kong Suburbs
Ever wondered what happened to those Hong Kong folks who hoofed off to Canada in the early to mid-nineties? Sure, some came back when the world didn’t end in 1997. But what of the ones who stayed? Fate took me to the Toronto suburb of Markham last week, and there that generation still lives, thriving happily. Well not all of them because there are six such “Chinatowns” dotted around the city, but this one is sprawling. It’s like Tai Po upped and moved.
The terrain is flat and featureless, low-rise buildings line wide streets on huge blocks with grass, ornamental trees and squirrels. It looks like any suburb of the American Mid-West, but with a difference. It’s Hong Kong in Canada. But the Hong Kong of 15 plus years ago, when many of them emigrated. Although mostly mainlanders have migrated here since 1997, Cantonese is the default language and no one really wants to speak English.
The vast neon-lit noisy Chinese restaurants, so much a feature of nineties Hong Kong are alive and well and stuck in a time warp. You walk in from a bleak windswept parking lot to an Aladdin’s Cave of nightmarish swirly carpets, giant paintings with gaudy frames, huge chandeliers, glittering mirrors and gilt-edged black leather sofas. Elsewhere in downtown Toronto Chinese chefs are dong exciting culinary things, but here in the burbs the food is a throwback to 1992, gleaming with MSG and sweet sticky sauces with waitresses tottering in tight traditional uniforms.
Next door the newsagent has all the Chinese newspapers, books and magazines, with not one in English. Next to that is a Chinese hairdresser, travel agent, beauty parlour and loan shark. Not one word in English. They still love their Hong Kong brands, with Tung Chun and Pearl River lining the shelves of the local supermarket. That is the exception, being operated by Cambodian immigrants.
One look at Toronto property prices and you can see why they don’t rush back to Tai Po. Just under three million Canadian dollars buys you 6,000 sq ft house on a huge grassy lot at 206 Main Street, Unionville, Markham, that’s about Hk$23million. An 1100 sq ft flat with two bedroom, three bathrooms, in a condo in Victoria Park/St Clair sets you back C$274,900, about Hk$2.3m. About HK$12.5 m gets you a 4,000sq ft house with a huge garden in Markham. And for HK$17,380 a month you can rent an 1100 sq flat in an upmarket high rise condo in Yonge/Sheppard.