Trendy reboots of traditional Asian cuisines tend to attract plaudits and vitriol in equal measures, but if anyone can tip the balance in favour of the former, it’s celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. His latest project sees him share the spotlight with his Korean-born wife Marja, marrying the ‘staunch traditionalist flavours’ of her birth country with a ‘modern Korean restaurant’ concept. CHI-Q aims to offer the same authenticity of flavour as cheaper restaurants such as Benjia or Zheng Yi Pin in Gubei, but packaged with an altogether more chi-chi ambience for The Bund.
It’s an experience which starts with the space, decked out courtesy of – who else? – local interiors darlings Neri and Hu, who have brought warmth to their signature minimalist lines with blonde wood accents and chocolate leather seating. Each table has its own barbecue pit, as well as innovative cooling fans underneath each grill, so there are no big steel column vents interrupting the flow of the design (and you don’t need to fling your clothes into the washing machine after your visit).
The menu, Jean Georges tells Time Out, is ‘probably 70 per cent Marja and 30 per cent me’ – with the Michelin-starred chef offsetting the traditionally dominant pork and beef with more veggie and seafood alternatives. They certainly haven’t meddled with the banchan (free side dishes). You get a rotating selection of six from a twenty-strong list, which might include spinach, zucchini and preserved perilla leaves along with Napa cabbage kimchi. Expect a gentle buzz rather than a palate-scouring punch.
Of the two categories of starters, ‘Fresh and bright’ has a more pan-Asian feel. A salad of sweet white crab meat, crisp snow peas and just-ripe avocado, drenched in a light soy, lemon and chili vinaigrette (128RMB), is textbook Jean Georges in its execution, and easily one of the best dishes we sample. Classic Korean bites, such as honey-glazed chicken wings (68RMB) make up the ‘Crispy’ (read: deep-fried) section, but kimchi pancakes (68RMB) turn out to be disappointingly tasteless. A more flavoursome option is the seafood and scallion pancakes (98RMB), but so far it’s 1-0 to Jean Georges.
Marja claws the lead back with CHI-Q’s main draw, Korean barbecue. Once you’ve finished your starters, dexterous staff will whip off the wooden lid of the table grill and slide in a shovel of glowing coals. As the grill heats up, all the barbecuing accoutrements arrive: frilly lettuce, serrated perilla leaves, white rice and addictive red ssamjang (thick, spicy bean paste) for creating perfect bite-sized parcels.
Barbecue fodder comprises ‘baskets’ of two kinds of beef, seafood (198RMB), chicken locally-sourced organic vegetables (88RMB). Although the petite portions may come as a shock to those used to Benjia’s largesse, a single meat basket supplemented with the cheaper vegetable option is easily enough for two when padded out with a bibimbap.
The grain-fed beef (268RMB) offers fat chunks of juicy, gamey Australian short rib, milder strips of ribeye and ground Angus beef patties that look like mini burgers. Meanwhile, the locally-sourced, organic bamboo, peppers, asparagus, broccolini and shiitake mushrooms which make up the vegetable basket (88RMB) are beautifully presented and farm fresh.
One of the most successful fusion dishes we try is an authentic, crunchy-based bibimbap topped with roasted foie gras (118RMB). Although the foie’s subtle flavour can’t compete with the blazing gochujang (chilli pepper paste), it adds a moreish, unctuous texture. If you want a table flowing with booze and meat at bargain prices, then hightail it to Koreatown. If you’re in the market for a more upscale experience that still manages to feel authentic, CHI-Q is worth a try.