Part-way through each of our visits to Cuivre, chef Michael Wendling came bounding over to our table with a big grin to politely ask how we were finding the meal. He had no idea who we were – he was just as unobtrusively friendly to every table – but his relaxed demeanour spoke volumes of a chef who is seemingly relishing the freedom of running his own restaurant after stints in the kitchens of triple Michelin-starred chef Georges Blanc and Shanghai’s Le Royal Meridien Hotel.
Cuivre exudes a relaxed charm and quirkiness that contrasts with the stuffy Ambassy Court complex in which it is housed. The dining room is filled with original design touches – from sawn off Forever bicycles converted into bar seating, to arty light fixtures including copper coils and wooden shades that resemble the Bird’s Nest stadium. Wood, exposed concrete and, of course, copper dominate (‘cuivre’ is French for copper) and sharp lines are softened by leather bench seats and rounded armchairs in the lounge area.
The design is a talking point (though the music policy is slightly dodgy, flitting between Eurotrash dance, indie rock and Serge Gainsbourg), but it is soon superseded by the food. The iPad menu lists southern French favourites – terrines, escargots and moules – but also unique creations such as foie gras sushi (48RMB/piece) a dish Wendling created for a close friend. This stellar Euro-Asian appetiser combines pan-seared foie gras, crispy chorizo and housemade Beijing duck sauce and it’s one of the chef’s own favourites.
Classics are done well too, though a pork terrine campagne (88RMB) served with onion jam and a punchy aged mustard is such a large portion it’s a little heavy going toward the end. Just as generous is the outstanding warm goats cheese salad (78RMB), with rocket, baby spinach, soft chunks of pumpkin, toasted bread and deliciously creamy cheese, in a moreish honey-mustard dressing.
The hearty portions continue with many of the mains. A hand-chopped Australian Angus beef tartare (158RMB) is best shared, or it can become a little one note. Fortunately, interludes are provided by the excellent frites (more like thickish French fries than the traditional thin-cut chips) presented in a brown paper bag. The frites also accompany a heaping portion of tasty Australian blue mussels (118RMB) cooked Catalan-style with balls of spicy sausage meat and tomato.
Our favourite side dish at Cuivre however, is the tea cup of mashed potato and garlic confit foam dipping sauce that comes with the beautifully-judged La Volaille chicken (148RMB). The huge chicken breast is cooked at a low temperature for three hours before being grilled, creating both a smokey flavour and a perfectly tender consistency throughout. Dipped into the foam (or with the accompanying rocket for more bite), it's simply delicious.
Less impressive is the rack of lamb (148RMB). Although the meat is grilled to perfection, this is one of the few stingy portions on the menu, a crime made worse by a bed of mushy, flavourless aubergine and an overly-oily pesto sauce beneath.
At dessert, the classic creme brulee (58RMB), Jivara chocolate mousse (58RMB) and tarte au citron (48RMB) are all worth saving room for. Also noteworthy are the extensive wine list and well-mixed cocktails, such as Cuivre’s signature Kitchen Confidential (58RMB), a refreshing blend of vodka, lemon juice and crème de cassis.
There’s another pleasant surprise at the end of the meal. Given the pedigree of the chef, the French Concession location and the quality of the ingredients, the bill is unexpectedly reasonable – around 300RMB/person. It’s another sign that Wendling is aiming for something more accessible than his previous operations; and it also means that we’ll be back for repeat visits.
By Jake Newby