That ineffable X-factor, that unbottleable ‘it’ atmosphere – The Commune Social’s got it. From their electro-swing soundtrack to their quirky global menu to their white-on-white ‘dessert bar’ with the lovely Kim Lyle dishing up sweets to order, The Commune’s already won hearts and minds in its first few weeks.
The project is a partnership between Jason Atherton, who gained fame as a top deputy for Gordon Ramsay, and Neri & Hu, the design firm that created the space for Atherton’s first Shanghai restaurant Table No 1 as well as a multitude of other famous names in Shanghai and beyond, most recently Mercato at Three on the Bund.
The slender restaurant, fitted in beside Neri & Hu’s Design Republic showroom in an old red brick former police station, feels a bit like a miniature Manhattan subway station – there are cement steps up and down in seemingly random places, every room is narrow and the dessert bar is even done in white tile. There’s a casual chic urban speakeasy vibe (it’s extremely unfriendly for buggies, so leave the babies at home), with plain dark wooden furniture and a spacious interior courtyard which recalls the one at The Waterhouse. It’s not about comfort here, it’s about cool; there’s not a chair cushion or a scrap of upholstery to soften your seat in the house – though the cheerful staff make you feel at ease.
The chefs previously at Table No 1 are now heading the kitchens here – Scott Melvin on the hot side, an open kitchen surrounded by a narrow eating bar, and Lyle doing desserts. The food is not that dissimilar to the unfussy global cuisine at Table No 1 but it’s a bit more playful and eclectic here. The short menu with headings such as ‘Eggs’ and ‘Grill’ is built of small plates for sharing and it’s easy to try just about everything if you come in a group of four, or certainly six.
If you do have four diners, you’ll want two plates of the sea urchin and pepper butter on ciabatta (58RMB), thin little toasts with red and yellow roasted pepper and dollops of mustard-yellow uni. The creamy sea urchin gives a saline freshness to this unique combination. Scallop ceviche (78RMB) in a bright yuzu dressing is like a spring ocean-side scene with slivered disks of scallop, the multiple greens of cucumber and apple and the red rims of razor-sliced radishes. The baby squid paella (78RMB), which feels less paella and more a juicy scarlet-coloured risotto, is even better. It’s a beautiful, complex-flavoured bowl full of tomato, red pepper and smoky aromas, while the squid on top is effortlessly tender. Then there’s the miso grilled mackerel (78RMB) topped with cucumber cubes, wasabi avocado mousse and a jewel-green jelly made of cucumber skin and lecithin. The blackened skin of the fish is not visible but you can absolutely taste it – it’s pungent enough to stand up to the many textures and tastes layered on top, creating a stunning, delectable scorched-aroma bite.
From the vegetables section, the salt-baked beetroot (58RMB) is the most remarkable. Red and yellow beets are paired with a little mound of burrata, a few fresh green leaves, and what looks like a pile of crumbly feta on the side but is actually pine nuts, almond powder and gelatine (to hold it together). The crumble brings a salty, nutty crunch to the soft beets and the unlikely mélange comes together with peculiar success.
In the meat and grill sections, the baked smoked bone marrow served with sour dough topped with ‘gentleman’s relish butter’ (98RMB) wins rave reviews and the chargrilled Iberico pork and foie gras burgers (98RMB) are soft, sinfully fatty, smile-winning little sliders paired with avocado mayonnaise and baby pickled cucumbers.
But the stunner of the night is the suckling pig (128RMB) with roasted pineapple. It’s the dish that elicits that elusive ‘oh my god’ moment one imagines every chef hopes to inspire. The skin is resplendently crisp, encasing a melting layer underneath. The meat is sticky, soft as a marshmallow, yet textured like pulled pork. It bathes in a sauce made of Guinness with a little pool of apple sauce beside it. According to the chef, it’s simple to create: he rubs the suckling pig with lemon, salt and pepper and sits it overnight, then roasts it for several hours at two different temperatures. Voilà.
After you’ve been fattened up at the kitchen bar or dining room, you head to the dessert bar, a clean and bright space with all the dessert mise en place on display where your final course is carefully composed right in front of you. As soon as you arrive, you get a sweet amuse bouche such as miniature sangria popsicles with a cinnamon undertone and the tiniest buzz of wine.
Top from the sweets is the deconstructed ‘pb&j’ of peanut ice cream, salted peanut caramel, mulberries, strawberries and fruity jam (55RMB). It has crunch, crumble and cream and the salty-sweet clash that is so satisfying for children and big people alike. The Commune Social may be just born, but it’s already a grown-up restaurant, mature in its design, its staff and its menu. It’s ready for the big spotlight and the inevitable big crowds.