db’s resident foodie, Lucy Shaw, heads to Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main London pop-up for Shanghai lobster, Peking duck and a glorious glass of Graves from 1983.
The concept: Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck brought his pioneering Asian fusion restaurant Chinois on Main in Santa Monica to his London steakhouse Cut on Park Lane for four days last month to celebrate the venue’s 35th birthday.
In a neat twist of fate, I dined at the pop-up on my 35th birthday. Given the increasingly cut-throat nature of the restaurant business, a venue that turns ten is impressive. One that is still going strong at 35 puts it in a rarefied league of success stories.
Having launched his career in the US with Spago on the Sunset Strip in 1982, Austrian born Puck expanded his empire a year later with Chinois on Main, an early adopter of fusion cuisine that married Asian flavours and fresh local ingredients with French techniques.
The restaurant was a hit from the get-go, attracting the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Madonna. Marking its 35-year milestone, the London pop-up paid homage to some of the signature dishes at the Santa Monica original, which were served alongside new courses created exclusively for its London stint.
The décor: Given the brevity of the pop-up, the interiors stayed true to the timeless elegance of Cut, which opened at 45 Park Lane amid much fanfare in 2011.
With its warm brown wood panelling, plush red leather booths, retro lamps and Art Deco accents, it’s the kind of place you can imagine Don Draper relaxing with an Old Fashioned after a punishing day at the office.
The food: Puck crafted an eight-course tasting menu for the pop-up, as the number is considered lucky in Chinese culture. Formed of a series of sharing plates, the menu is inspired by the concept of yin and yan, where seemingly opposite forces are in fact complementary.
The feast began with a prettily platter of amuse bouche sourced from the sea, including creamy oysters fragrant with Thai basil; flappingly fresh shrimp ceviche invigorated by a dressing of chilli, ginger and lime; and a sweet, summery snap pea filled with salty globes of caviar and a layer of crème fraîche.
Among the highlights of the night were the prawn spring rolls with a honey eight-spice dipping sauce that shared a platter with curious crystal chive dumplings laced with fiery mustard.
Artfully wrapped into parcels with ends fashioned to look like fish fins, the crispy golden batter housed juicy prawns that were so fat and sweet, it seemed torturous to be served just one each.
Signature dishes: With an à la carte offered at lunch and the tasting menu at dinner, Puck pays homage to a number of the dishes on Chinois on Main’s first ever menu, including wok fried loup de mer with ponzu, scallions and fried rice; and Shanghai lobster risotto with pickled ginger and crispy emerald leaves.
Both are theatrically served. The former arrives Som Saa style with its head still on. Sprinkled with coriander and spring onions, the delicate flavour of the sea bass was so pure, it didn’t need jazzing up with the accompanying dipping sauce.
The Shanghai risotto was another high point of the evening and demonstrated Puck’s talent for subtle spicing. The perfectly al dente rice mingled with meaty shards of lobster bathed in a creamy, nutty, Korma-like sauce with an assertive thread of lemongrass running through it.
One of the more unusual dishes of the evening was a daring combination of seared foie gras in a cinnamon plum wine glaze served with chunks of roasted pineapple, which was as rich as it was sweet. Cutting through the fat was a refreshing plum saké, which proved a masterful pairing for the decadent dish.
We were back in business with the arrival of an abundant platter of Peking duck served with fluffy bao buns, the sweet meat made all the more luxurious with lashings of red plum sauce.
The drinks: Finding wines that marry well with spice is always a challenge, which our sommelier rose to, kicking off with a lime-laced Austrian Riesling from FX Pichler to pair with the oysters and ceviche, then moving on to a creamy Condrieu by Pierre Gaillard as a pairing for the dumplings and spring rolls.
Among the more daring pairings was a zero dosage Franciacorta from Ca’ del Bosco, whose linear citrus freshness cut through the crispy skin of the sea bass. A cherry-scented Italian Pinot Nero from Friuli meanwhile, stood up to and harmonised with the richness of the risotto.
In homage to the year Chinois on Main was founded, the pop-up served a selection of wines from 1983, including Lanson Special Brut Reserve from magnum, Bordeaux first growth Château Margaux, and cult California Cabernet, Martha’s Vineyard, from Heitz Cellar.
Having mentioned to the sommelier that is was my 35th birthday, we were treated to a glass of Graves cru classé Château de Fieuzal 1983. Trying any wine from your birth year is a special experience and the vintage Bordeaux didn’t disappoint.
Time had softened its tannins to silk and turned its bright black fruit into an intoxicating medley of autumnal aromas of forest floor, truffle and saddle leather that mingled with vegetal flavours of summer peas, warm earth and wet leaves with a subtle and savoury balsamic finish in an exquisite taste of liquid history.
Last word: The Chinois on Main experience doesn’t come cheap – the eight-course tasting menu cost £165 per person, but for Puck fans keen for a taste of his Asian fusion flavours, it provided a rare opportunity to enjoy a slice of the Chinois on Main magic outside of the US.
The ever-restless Puck is keen to keep his pop-up concept going and will be collaborating with Argentine meat maestro Francis Mallmann at Cut for three days from 3-5 October.
Cut at 45 Park Lane, 45 Park Lane, London W1K 1PN; Tel: +44 (0)20 7493 4545