Paul Pairet, chef and owner of Mr. & Mrs. Bund, has long had a dream of creating the ultimate dining experience. Mr. & Mrs. Bund is usually listed as being one of the best in Shanghai, one of the top 10 in Asia and in the top 20 worldwide, so Pairet’s reputation as one of the world’s leading chefs is already well established. He is of course French - no other nationality regards a chef and his cuisine as the ultimate human achievement in quite the same way. Apparently Pairet has been thinking about revolutionizing the dining experience for at least fifteen years but in the last few years he’s been getting serious. Notoriously a perfectionist, he had twice cancelled openings but now Ultraviolet exists and is real. It is so far beyond the average restaurant that it’s like comparing grand opera to the grand ole opry.
If your lunch is a sandwich eaten on the run and your dinner comes out of a pizza box, you may not be interested, but if you dine out regularly and enjoy a variety of cuisines, you might want to book a flight to Shanghai so you can go to Ultraviolet. But make your table booking first. Unfortunately, very few TripAdvisors will ever have the Ultraviolet experience – not because it costs $320 per head but because there’s only one table at Ultraviolet and it seats ten people. Can you imagine opening a restaurant that only serves fifty people per week ?
Ultraviolet’s way, way more than a restaurant – which doesn’t explain how it will survive commercially, but it does establish a benchmark for the ultimate meal. Because it’s such a limited production, I’ll try to explain what it’s like to attend a performance by the Ultraviolet crew.
The evening begins at 7.00pm at Mr. & Mrs. Bund. The fortunate ten guests assemble, are introduced to each other and are presented with a flute of sparkling pear cider, after which everyone moves downstairs to be driven to dinner. The drive is carefully choreographed, with sound effects and music even onboard movie clips, playing as your vehicle moves from the Bund and then along Guangfu Road past the bridges that on a rainy evening might remind you of evenings in Paris along the Seine. Having lulled passengers into a romantic reverie, it comes as a surprise to find that Ultraviolet’s location is completely featureless and industrial by design. Passing through a series of sliding doors arranged to disassociate guests from the outside world, one arrives suddenly at the entrance to a large room, about 12 meters wide and 20 meters long, with completely bare walls in which a long dining table and ten chairs are dramatically lit by spotlights and projections on the tabletop with the guest’s name show the seating placement.
Basically you have arrived in an environment in which Paul Pairet is the creative director. Firstly he creates the dish, and then he develops an experience to go with it in which all your senses participate. The walls are floor to ceiling projection screens and every dish is introduced or accompanied by visual images – sometimes real, sometimes animation, sometimes computer-generated – and toward the end of the meal, we see live images of chef Pairet in the kitchen preparing the next course. The sound track, the lighting and the projectors are all synchronized – as are the serving staff as they appear magically through the wall to deliver the first course of the UVA menu. There are twenty-four staff at Ultraviolet, including nine chefs, and they seem faultless as they deliver the 22 course menu. That’s right – 22 courses. This is an overwhelming immersion in food of all kinds, an almost reckless display by an incredibly talented chef who wants to present everything in case you never have a chance to return, but the portions are designed to be eaten in one bite that blends and melds flavours and textures in a way that cannot be described as mere eating. Every course is accompanied by water and various alcoholic drinks (with non-alcoholic versions available if diners prefer), ranging from a ginger beer that accompanies a fish course to a spectacular 2003 Bordeaux that was served with Kobe beef. In case you’re reeling at the thought of 22 courses, don’t worry, you’ll handle it easily. The meal is leisurely – around four hours – and the portions are literally bite-sized, served on the most beautiful tableware you will ever see. Every course has its own cutlery, its own colour palette and some even have aromas which are trapped and brought to the diner. I don’t want to give away too many of the details because this is Paul Pairet’s show and he deserves all the credit for attempting to expand the boundaries of the most universal of all human activities – eating. It’s a work in progress and I think others will try and copy what he’s doing and develop it in even more ways, but Pairet has done it first.
If it is possible for you to be in Shanghai, if you can afford $320 and if you enjoy experiences that are both extraordinary and rare, then you should try and make a booking at Ultraviolet. For everyone else, I’m afraid you just have to read about it.
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