Shanghai has gone steakhouse mad of late, with The Strip, Morton’s, The MEET and, to a lesser extent, Jimmy’s Kitchen all selling themselves on the quality of their beef. CHAR restaurant (the concept also includes a bar upstairs), on the 29th floor of the boutique Hotel Indigo, is the latest, and most softly dazzling, of them all.
The dark wood interior is more feminine than Morton’s or Jimmy’s Kitchen, with patterned fabric chairs, artfully rustic floral arrangements and copper pots and pans on the wall. With low spotlighting, it’s romantic rather than stuffy, and the views up the river are a spectacular mirror image of those from Vue Bar.
But while the decor is pleasing in a design-firm generic way (designers HBA have styled just about every major Shanghai hotel you can think of), the food from Australian chef Julie Donohoe is a bit special, taking classics and giving them quirky makeovers. You can choose to eat your steak with an antler-handled knife and pair it with Fleur De Sel de Guerande, the so-called ‘caviar of salt’, one of seven choices on offer; you brush sauce on your cod with a paintbrush and eat your cheesecake from a round wooden cheese box. None of it feels gimmick-y, though, because it all works, down to the sea urchin lime emulsion sauce that you can pair with your steak.
To start, the foie gras parfait crumble with apple and red onion jam (130RMB) is possibly the best foie gras in town (even outshining a similar dish at Mr & Mrs Bund) – served in a mini Staub pot on a bread board with crisp crackers, the caramel- and pistachio-flecked crumble creates an exquisite texture combination.
Smoked salmon on potato and shallot cake (120RMB) is less of a hit, with the cakes on the dry side, though the salmon itself, smoked with hickory apple chips, is outstanding.
Other than steaks, there’s lots of seafood, including oyster buckets (300RMB/six; 550RMB/12) and a seafood tower including king prawns, Alaskan king crab, red mud crab and more (550RMB/two; 800RMB/four). The speciality is the crispy-topped black cod (280RMB), which comes with a pot of sweet star anise and lime syrup that you paint onto the fat, glossy cod with your brush.
As for the steaks, they’re Australian, starting from Grainge grain-fed (starting at the 390RMB 300g sirloin) up to super-premium Blackmore’s wagyu beef, which claims to be the best in Australia (a 200g fillet comes as part of the CHAR Indulgence, with foie gras, lobster, wild mushrooms and truffles, for 1,888RMB).
For carving your steak, you are presented with a box of six hand-crafted blades, from an American antler-handled knife to a more delicate French tortoiseshell Laguiole knife.
The 400g rib-eye (490RMB), dry-aged for 35 days and served on the bone, is paired with tiny mushrooms, radiant vine tomatoes and a little pot of sauce (Café de Paris butter for us). As well as the salts, you can choose from eight extra sauces, including four mustards, which the waiter will dab on your hot stone plate in pretty swirls. The beef is up there with anything in Shanghai – rich and tender, especially in the fleshy ring of fat by the bone.
For dessert, the CHAR banana cheesecake (70RMB), presented in a round cheese box, is divine. The texture manages both lightness and density, and the banana fragrance is lush and soft.
Drinks are good, too, with a long wine list (F&B director Ethan Tian is one of China’s few certified sommeliers) and a quirky-if-pricey cocktail list from the adjoining bar on the floor above – we like the crisp CHAR tonic (95RMB) with aperol, vermouth, gin, lime and orange peels.
CHAR is pricey, but it’s exceptional, and – like The MEET at the new Kerry Hotel – feels more alive than most hotel restaurants. There’s no irritating surcharge, and the waiters are sharp both in dress and their knowledge. Vibrant, fun and creative aren’t words you’d imagine applying to a steakhouse in a Bund hotel; CHAR is those things and more.