Ultraviolet is a restaurant that tries to push the experience of eating further than any other restaurant in the world today. It is the most ambitious project in gastronomy for quite some time. The question that inevitably comes up, however, is whether this is a case of style over substance?
Paul Pairet, the man behind Ultraviolet, has cooked in Shanghai for a number of years already. He was the first foreign chef who really made a name for himself at Jade on 36, and later opened Mr & Mrs Bund. Over the years he worked on a restaurant that would make all of his previous pale in comparison. That particular project, however, took more than ten years of development. When Ultraviolet finally opened, it was one of the very few restaurants in the history of gastronomy that truly made a difference.
Just what exactly makes Ultraviolet so different from any other restaurant in the world? It is a place that is not really economical: it is only open for dinner, has one table for a maximum of 10 guests per service, and one menu that changes more or less once a year. That alone sounds like any chef’s dream project, and any accountant’s nightmare. But it doesn’t stop there. Pairet pushes things further: instead of simply serving a (very long) menu, he pairs each dish with a drink, visuals, music, and at times even smells. Thus, eating at Ultraviolet is an experience that incorporates elements that no one has done so systematically in a restaurant before. To top it off, Pairet adds an element of mystique as the location is unknown, and guests have an evening that is full of surprises, twists, and turns. Additionally, guests don’t see the immensely complex infrastructure that is behind the restaurant, as they only get to see the equivalent of a perfectly rehearsed operatic performance. It is the first Gesamtkunstwerk in modern gastronomy.
As Ultraviolet is even more eclectic, and eccentric than Mr & Mrs Bund, one is left to wonder whether the show effects or the food are more important here. What is it that you take away from a meal here? How does what you see, hear, smell, and drink influence your perception of what is on the plate?
Coming to Ultraviolet with a somewhat sceptic mindset, the most surprising part of it is the food itself. Nowhere near as ostentatious, abstract, or weird as it could have been, this was food that was full of flavour, technically impeccable, and mostly simply extremely enjoyable. The cooking here encapsulates the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the city, whilst drawing on classic combinations.
The best example of a humorous interpretation of classic flavours is “sashimi steak frites”. Served with a J-Pop version of the Marseillaise, this dish combines raw o-toro with an “ugly fry”, and mustard/miso condiments. The result on the plate is something remarkably easy to like. The combination of the cold, fatty tuna belly, and the hot, crunchy/fluffy chip feels so natural that you wonder why something like this is not done more often. The miso and mustard components give a bit of a savoury/spicy kick to the dish that holds it together beautifully. Whilst this could easily pass as a dish on its own, the combination with the visuals in the room, and music simply puts a smile on your face.
Perhaps the most iconic dish of Pairet’s is the “truffle burnt soup bread”. This toasted piece of bread is soaked in a truffled meuniere sauce, topped with slivers of preserved truffles, and truffle foam. What sounds remarkably simple, is in fact a dish that combines crunchy, soft, juicy, airy textures with flavours that are earthy, complex, and explosive. The truffle flavour is present, and works beautifully with the heavily toasted bread. But it are the surroundings that make this dish more than it is at Mr & Mrs Bund. Whilst you eat this, you are transported to a petrified forest, and dream-like music is softly playing in the background. Combining the undergrowth, earthy qualities of the truffle, and the soft, airy consistency of the dish with the soft music adds something to the dish that you don’t get elsewhere. This validates the argument that everything around you influences your percetion of what you eat.
Whilst it is surprising to see that the food here is more classical than what you might expect, this is a restaurant that shouldn’t be judged for its food alone. After all, it is a concept that has the ambition of surprising people, of letting them live moments that catch them off guard, and finally, to give them an unforgettable memory. In this respect Pairet and his team fully deliver.
The experience of eating at Ultraviolet might be over the top for some, but few will argue that restaurants such as Ultraviolet are not instrumental in opening minds, challenging preconceived ideas, and proposing a concept that breaks with tradition, whilst ultimately not forgetting the most important aspect of eating out: pleasure. For this alone, Ultraviolet should be visited by anyone who wants to see one chef’s vision of what the future of some restaurants could look like. Whilst replicating such a project will be difficult (and very costly!), it might offer a glimpse of what the future of haute cuisine might be…