Commune Social – 30 August 2014

I learned of a fellow called Jason Atherton not too long before I was due to visit Shanghai. He had opened a new restaurant in London called City Social, and upon further research, I discovered that he had what appeared to be a near-global empire of restaurants. My trip in 2014 spanned three countries, and thus began my own journey to sample the Social chain.

I was full of curiosity about the presence of a Western restaurant in Shanghai. Sure, it’s the international hub of China, but society and culture there caused me concern about the restaurant’s consistency and success – in a way it was a great opportunity to begin benchmarking restaurants and service levels around the world. The restuarant was an open courtyard, and in a preliminary visit before actually going, we were advised that the food portions were very small – but luckily I had known that already, it being fancy and tapas style, so I was prepared. The downside was, I had never ordered tapas style food for more than four people, so it became awkward when we were dividing tiny portions into six! I should have doubled all the orders, and that would have been enough.

Not only is this kind of food grossly more expensive in China, but I felt that there was a far lower level of service than in a Western country – perhaps it was just this visit though. I also admit to having no experience or knowledge about how to adequately staff a restaurant, but I’ve been to a fair few and every now again observe the waitstaff observing customers because it’s interesting to watch. The waiters looked a little stressed, and I had no way of knowing if they had staff call in sick. That being said, I was excited that I frequently saw the dessert chef popping out to present her dishes.

Beetroot, burrata, gingerbread

I was pleased with the prettiness of the plating, but having had only burrata once before where it came whole, this one was already broken up for sharing and just as tasty. I really liked the gingerbread component here as well.

Black sausage, duck egg, potato

I love black sausage, so when I saw this combined with egg, I had to order it! It’s always a winner for me – especially when it comes in a cute little pan.

Cured salmon, lotus root, bok choy

As this was on their board menu, I can’t remember what the sauce was. Possibly wasabi, possibly miso? I really liked the salmon here and that vegetable with the pink bulbs on it was something I enjoyed, and reminded me there’s so much more food that I need to learn to recognise. This combination worked quite well for me, especially as I usually find bok choy to be quite boring.

Marinated sea bass, pickled kohl rabi, apple

I didn’t realise this was a raw dish as I tend to avoid it while in China – otherwise I would have chosen the beef tartare! This was quite nice though and all the vegetables complemented the flavour of the fish.

Char grilled octopus with beetroot

This octopus was quite tasty, though it was probably a little tough for a few others at the table.

And here is some fried chicken! Three tiny morsels per plate, and I had to order a second place as soon as I saw this one come out. Fried chicken never fails and I would have loved to have more.

Heirloom tomato salad with black salt. It was certainly a very unique presentation!

Iberico pork and foie gras burgers with avocado and pickles 

What cute little sliders! I wasn’t too sure where the foie gras was, but I assume it was mixed in with the pork to create tender and juicy burgers. Those pickles were perfect too, to the point where I devoured the other two plates of any leftover pickles.

Grilled veal tongue and zucchini

And there’s so much more to this plate that I can’t remember, but it didn’t matter so much because that tongue was so tender and well cooked! Had I known this was going to be so delicious, I would have ordered a second plate of this too.

Caramel popcorn

We saw these go out to every table and wanted some for ourselves, and it turns out it’s complimentary! Tasty caramel popcorn served with liquid nitrogen.

Vanilla and chocolate ice cream

I’ve always been interested to see how restaurants approach the presentation of ice cream because of how simple “just ice cream” is – and this is the first time I’ve seen two flavours served in separate bowls, on ice, in a bowl, and doused with liquid nitrogen. Overkill much? But it did produce something quite theatrical so why not!

Lemon meringue pie with basil sorbet

This guy has a thing for basil in sorbets – and I love him for it. The deconstructed lemon meringue pie was already a winner, but even though I was sitting across the table, I could smell wafts of the basil sorbet and oh wow, it both smelled and tasted so good – plus I actually love the richness of the green colour as well! Even though this wasn’t the dessert I had ordered, I couldn’t get over that basil sorbet.

Creme catalan

A neverfail cute cream dessert, with delicious wafers. It was the first time I’d ordered a creme catalan, and I didn’t realise at the time but I think all the desserts were pretty much deconstructions of how they’re traditionally prepared.

Banana, honeycomb, goats cheese

More liquid nitrogen! All the liquid nitrogen! Well it seems like a very popular presentation strategy here – which I’m secretly glad wasn’t used in my other Jason Atherton visit – mainly because while the smoke is very pretty, I don’t feel it was needed for all the dishes here – it’s unnecessarily flashy.

And that concludes my first fine dining experience in China. While I would have liked to sampled a Chinese fine dining experience, this will do for now. Overall the food is as good as anywhere else, however in this particular visit I felt that the service was underwhelming. It’s definitely still a place I’d consider frequenting.