At first, the Commune Social looks like a twin of 22 Ships in Hong Kong. Both serve tapas-inspired dishes, both are run by Jason Atherton, and both aim to provide a very contemporary dining experience. Dig a little deeper, and the Commune Social shows its very own distinct personality.
In a city that seems to be plagued by empty dining rooms (in Western restaurants), the Commune Social must be one of the most successful recent openings: even on a Sunday morning, people queue for one of the very few tables available. The atmosphere is as cosmopolitan, vibrant, and relaxed as we have seen during our trips to Shanghai, and the music, the people, and the serviceall come together to make this a delightfully different place in Shanghai. There are moments when the service is a little overwhelmed, the staff is polite, friendly, and efficient.
When it comes to the food, the Commune Social offers a few Atherton classics, but also serves dishes that seem to be the creations of chef Scott Melvin and his team. The honeycomb, goat’s cheese, and yogurt dessert is available, as are a number of egg dishes, but more adventurous diners should try some of the other dishes.
Melvin’s brigade dishes up bold, daring, and mostly very convincing small plates of food. They are far more intricate than those served at 22 Ships, and mostly wouldn’t look out of place in Michelin-starred restaurants. One of the weirdest sounding dishes is whipped salt cod with chicken skin, caviar, and paella jelly. What sounds odd turns out to be a harmonious, gourmand plate of food that boasts big flavours, and highly interesting textural contrasts. The richness of the cod is given a savoury kick by the caviar, and the chicken skin almost works like a slice of toast to scoop the whole thing up, and give some crunch. This is cooking that is far more complex, and simply enjoyable than most of what we have had in Mainland China.
Equally convincing is a beef tartar. Spiced with cinnamon, and served with pickled mushrooms, shallots, and an egg-yolk croquette, this is another dish that is remarkably complex: the tartar itself packed with flavour, and perfectly seasoned; the cinnamon perfectly judged, and adding a great touch to the dish, whilst the other elements bring freshness, acidity, and texture to it. Making something as classical, and simple as tartar so exciting is rare. In this case the result does not disappoint.
More ‘primitive’ is a tuna tartar “DIY”. Not unlike the carrot tartar that you have to season yourself at Eleven Madison Park in New York, this dish features chopped tuna, and all sorts of seasoning elements that you can apply as much of as you want. The result is a delicious tartar that is the perfect way to start a meal here, and simply makes you smile.
The food here is remarkably in tune with the surroundings, and this makes the experience here so fun, and enjoyable. But there is more to the Commune Social: in a country where most European restaurants still are rather stiff, uninspired, and devoid of interest, this is one of the few that is not pretentious. It is relaxed, and yet manages to serve some of the most elaborate, and exciting Western food we have had in Mainland China. The combination of a very laid-back dining room, and food that is technically impeccable, and packed with flavour reminds us of Son of a Gun in L.A., even if the Commune Social serves very different food. It is great to see such restaurants appear in Mainland China, which for so long has been devoid of competent, and lively French, Italian, or Spanish restaurants. After a number of dull, and uninspired Western restaurants, it looks like Shanghai is the first city where this is changing, and restaurants such as this are very much at the forefront of it.
The Commune Social is one of Jason Atherton’s very best restaurants. What is impressive about it is the quality of the food, the relaxed service, and the pure joy of eating here. There are very few restaurants in China that manage to make great food so enjoyable. That alone is reason enough to come here.