On Saturday night we went to Stiller’s Restaurant in the south Bund. Embarrassingly enough, I’d never made it out to the fairly new Cool Docks before this, mostly because it’s inconveniently located and full of restaurants out of my usual price range. My mom had found out about this place while reading an account of a food writer’s trip to Shanghai. Apparently the writer’s wife had deemed the restaurant’s 36-hour slow-braised beef cheek — of all things! — the most unforgettable part of their trip. So my mom, always eager to try something new, had me put it on the agenda.
The restaurant is physically connected to a cooking school by the same name, all owned by German chef Stefan Stiller. After a short ride in a dim elevator to the top floor, my mom, my grandma, and I were led through an elegant, modern-looking space with an open kitchen to a balcony-side table that gave us views of the Huangpu and Pudong on the other side.
We’d peeked at the menu online before heading out, so had some idea of what we wanted. The dishes are pricey, so we didn’t want to overdo it, but we also didn’t want to leave hungry. Worried that four dishes might not fill us up, we asked our server if we could get some bread to start…
…to which she responded by bringing us a very generous basket of warm rolls along with three types of “butter”: sesame, cilantro, and curry. They were all interesting twists, but the sesame spread was truly delicious. The bread kept us company all through the meal. (Before the bread came, we’d already enjoyed a complimentary plate of savoury meat-filled mini-pastries… mmm.)
Our next surprise was an aesthetically pleasing array of amuse-bouche, three little hors d’oeuvres centred around the lantern pepper. Our server pointed to them in turn: chopped yellow pepper “salad”, red pepper mousse, and a green pepper “soup”. Soup? we echoed, gazing questioningly at the neat, round blob on the spoon. But then we popped it into our mouths, the blob went “pop”, and our tastebuds were delighted with a burst of sweet-peppery liquid that had til then been encased in a delicate skin. Mouth amusement, indeed.
Then came the stuff we actually ordered: a turbot-crayfish consomme with crayfish sausage, accompanied by slivers of toast and a saffron aioli. For fear of an allergic reaction, I didn’t touch the sausage (which looked weird anyway, a fleshy floating finger), but the consomme was light and sweet, but because we split it in three, the portion felt a tad small.
Next was a prettily presented foie gras “cake” layered with black truffle, served with toast and spiced pineapple bits. I hadn’t had foie gras in years, after learning about the horrors involved in producing the stuff, but I’d had pork belly last night and was about to have beef cheek, so what the heck. OH MAN. It was rich and creamy, its sweetness balanced by the tang of the pineapple and balsamic jelly, a refreshing alternative to the decadent heart-stopping devil that is fried foie gras. Not that we had any illusions about its nutritional properties…
And then the mains, a turbot fillet and Boston lobster with “lemon-grass curry sauce” — though the “sauce” really was foam and didn’t taste of lemon-grass or curry. The turbot, which my mom informed me is a big (and expensive) deal in fish-eating circles, was very tasty, tender-firm and moist and with none of that dryness or mushiness that characterizes too many restaurant fish dishes.
And then, of course, the slow-braised beef cheek, which was served with a delicious cauliflower puree, Servietten-Knoedel (dish-towel dumplings), and yummy sliced potatoes. After all the anticipation, though, I have to say I was a bit let down. Actually, we all agreed that a plain steak would’ve been more satisfying. The beef was super tender — so soft, indeed, it could be cut with a fork — but came off overwhelmingly… well, beefy. It tasted more like animal than meat, if that makes any sense, and the sweet gravy that accompanied it only served to emphasize the rawness, even though after 36 hours in a pot I’m certain it was fully cooked. The plate came with an extra dish containing two more chunks of cheek, but we could’ve done without seconds on this one. By the end I was making mini cheek sandwiches with the rolls.
We were too full — and too practical — to order one of the 110RMB desserts, but our reservations were actually rewarded with a plate of tiny sweets, on the house: a waxberry tartlet, a soft fruity (berry? hawthorn?) candy, mini cream puff, and a wonderful dark chocolate truffle, which wrapped up the meal splendidly.
While my tummy and palate were satisfied, my favourite part of this experience, perhaps more than the food itself, was the thoughtfulness and creativity that went into preparing and presenting the food, as well as all the little surprises (a.k.a. complimentary stuff :-) that really made us feel like we were being well looked after (rather than being watched) and justified the 885 RMB bill. Service was attentive but not over-eager, professional but not at all snooty, and the owner-chef even came over to see us out.
It had rained all day and was still drizzling when we emerged from the restaurant. The Cool Docks resembled a deserted Xintiandi, and in the rain felt like another world, a movie set. Bellies full and hearts warmed, we caught a cab back to the hotel for a good night’s rest.
The bad news: the next morning I felt terrible, afflicted with headache, stomachache, and a desire to vomit, though I wasn’t able to. Huddled against a chair in the hotel room, I felt nauseous at the thought and sight of food (on the cover of a travel guide). By noon I managed a pear, and recovered shortly thereafter… My mom and grandma were fine, though, so the problem was probably more my body (too much meat maybe?) than the food.
P.S. While the a la carte menu offers few meatless options, Stiller’s also has a vegetarian tasting menu alongside a “regular” non-vegetarian one, which looks promising. Nice to see a restaurant tell us that fine dining doesn’t have to mean lots of meat! At 598RMB, though, these veggies (and cheeses) had better be out of this world.
Stiller’s Restaurant & Cooking School
The Cool Docks, 6-7/F, Bldg 13
505 Zhongshan Nan Rd. near Fuxing Dong Rd.