In a country whose culinary reach is catching up to the rest of its ambitions, I visited a restaurant that does all of that and more.
It’s named Ultraviolet. It’s physically in Shanghai but spiritually unbound, thanks to the moving, shifting images projected onto the blank walls that encircle the windowless dining room, which has one long table for just 10 people, a crew of gastronauts floating hither and yon. Now you’re in an amber field, now under a bell tower. Now amid the stars, and now pressed close against a window pearled with raindrops.
More dishes from Ultraviolet. From left: Foie Gras — Can’t Quit, a slim cigarette of liver; a dessert of melted Gummi bears; and a lamb dish.
What you hear and sometimes smell changes with the sights, each of roughly 20 courses getting its own multisensory showcase. The waves and the ocean’s aroma were for a lobster appetizer. A subsequent dish of eggplant and tahini was paired with a sumptuous visual travelogue of Greece.
Sharing drinks and desserts in the kitchen with Mr. Pairet.
Tartine Chocolat, another of Ultraviolet’s desserts.
Ultraviolet, which opened last year, is one of a mind-bending kind. But it’s also a perfect ambassador for China’s dining scene right now, capturing the frenzy and swagger of it all. The country’s flush of wealth and influx of business travelers have given rise to restaurants more varied, distinctive and imaginative than before. In Beijing, I found an elegant vegetarian place, King’s Joy, that mimics a mountaintop monastery. Mist rises from the stones outside its entrance and around its courtyard; in the main dining room, a harpist plays angelic music.
The day after I dined at Lost Heaven, in Beijing, I went back to talk with the cooks and figure out what I’d had. I wasn’t sure.
I knew that in the sensational Burmese tea leaf salad, there had been shredded cabbage, fish sauce and peanuts. But the other crunchy, salty bits? What were those?
Burmese tea leaf salad, a dish of shredded cabbage, fish sauce, peanuts and three different kinds of beans.
One of the cooks answered by handing me a plate with three kinds of beans that weren’t instantly familiar. He identified one as an Indian yellow bean and another as a dal bean. The remaining one he couldn’t name. All had been toasted, he said, to tease out a nutty flavor.
Lost Heaven, which opened last year, is more than great eating: it’s a learning experience. A teachable meal. It specializes in the Yunnan region’s cuisine, little known in Europe or the United States. That cuisine uses cheese to a degree that other Chinese cooking doesn’t, and it’s mad for mushrooms and flowers. All of this informs Lost Heaven’s menu, which additionally reflects the region’s proximity to Myanmar and Thailand, countries that the restaurant’s Taiwanese owners have lived in. Lime and lemon grass show up.
Beijing’s Lost Heaven has two identically named sisters in Shanghai. It arranges 200 high-backed seats that resemble thrones in a series of dark, sexy rooms whose Asian-temple motifs verge on kitsch.
A dish of chicken dressed in a coat of red peppers, green onions, garlic and ginger.
For a fantasia of this scale, the kitchen’s work is surprisingly precise. The menu alternates relatively ecumenical dishes like the Dali style chicken, which wears a deftly woven coat of red peppers, green onions, garlic and ginger, with idiosyncratic ones like scrambled eggs with white mushrooms. In nearly everything I had, the ingredients were first-rate and the spicing beautifully calibrated.
JING YAA TANG
There’s long been robust discussion, and no agreement, about where to find the best Peking duck in Beijing. Things just grew more complicated with the arrival of Jing Yaa Tang, which fired up its specially made wood-burning oven and began serving a rendition of this dish as superb as any I’ve tasted.
The skin of this duck! Almost as thin as paper, almost as crisp as a potato chip. And the meat! Dark, rich — the chocolate of flesh. The pancakes that went with it were gossamer-delicate, and Jing Yaa Tang’s version of hoisin sauce, made with dried dates, was less syrupy and cloying than the usual. The overall effect was sublime.
An admission and a caveat: I ate there in the days just before its formal opening, by special arrangement, because I didn’t want to miss a chance to try it. It wasn’t serving a full house and was putting its best foot forward.
Rice with oozing egg, crisp chicken skin and green peas.
But what a comely foot that was. Beyond its specialty of duck, Jing Yaa Tang skillfully executed a range of other dishes meant to represent a concise, pan-regional survey of China’s greatest hits, refracted through a modern sensibility. I was especially taken with a dish of Sichuan poached chicken and crushed peanuts in a gently fiery sesame sauce; shrimp fried rice with the restaurant’s outstanding XO sauce; and a clay pot of tender cod with caramelized baby onions.
Jing Yaa Tang occupies a handsomely appointed space inside what is perhaps Beijing’s best boutique hotel, the Opposite House, and all the gorgeous plates were designed for the restaurant. It has an additional distinction: the chef Alan Yau, who created the Chinese restaurant Hakkasan, in London, consulted on the project, the first he has worked on in his ancestors’ land.
You’re not given Ultraviolet’s address, but told to meet instead at Mr. & Mrs. Bund, the other restaurant whose kitchen is overseen by the chef Paul Pairet, a Frenchman who has made Shanghai his home for the last eight years. You and your nine tablemates are transported in a small bus to an odd, unmarked location away from the city’s commercial thoroughfares. In a blackened antechamber there, a heartbeat grows louder and louder; “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the music familiar from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” kicks in. A wall slides open, and you’re ushered into the dining room.
你没有拿到Ultraviolet的地址，只是被告知在Mr. & Mrs. Bund会合。这是由大厨保罗·派雷特担任主厨的另一家餐厅。过去八年里，这个法国人一直住在上海。然后，你与其他九名同席用餐者将乘坐一辆巴士来到一个奇怪而不起眼的地方，远离市区的商业大街。在灯光阴暗的接待室里，心跳声越来越响；这时传来了电影《2001太空漫游》中人们熟悉的音乐“查拉图斯特拉如是说”。一扇墙滑开，你被带入餐厅。
The genius of Mr. Pairet and Ultraviolet is that just when all of this starts to feel too gimmicky, too fast, too much, he slows everything down for three relatively straightforward main courses — of sea bass, rack of lamb and Wagyu — that have a classic French pedigree and leave no doubts about his mettle as a cook. They’re a pivotal breather, and they were breathtaking.
For dessert, it’s back to the circus, including a course of melted and dissolved Gummi bears. Yes, Gummi bears. The surrounding walls show footage of cartoon bears in a footrace, and as they circle the room, so do Mr. Pairet and a team of servers, running shadow laps.
Ultraviolet is luxury lunacy, costing about $400 a person, but that includes all the beverage pairings and the tip. It books up many, many months in advance. But the pinch and the headache are redeemed by its singularity, and its commotion is inextricable from the sense of wonder it stirs. In other words, it tracks the maddening and mesmerizing country that harbors it.