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Photograph: Cat Nelson
3 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu
Back in 2012, Three on the Bund was a struggling location for dining. In 2010, Laris had vacated the premises citing differences with the building management while long-term uneven standards at both Whampoa Club and top floor New Heights made the latter’s name seem painfully inappropriate. In the midst of this, only Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s signature restaurant provided a culinary reason to visit. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that Three on the Bund asked Vongerichten himself to help revitalise the building’s gourmet reputation.

Mercato is the celebrated chef’s answer, featuring a menu inspired by his popular ABC Kitchen in New York. Together with Mauro Colagreco’s signature restaurant and tapas lounge Unico on the second floor, Mercato is the third pillar in Three on the Bund’s strategy to entice diners back to this historic address. And it’s a thoroughly convincing one.

With a rustic chic interior from designers Neri & Hu, the new Italian is a more relaxed space than Vongerichten’s eponymous fine dining restaurant on the fourth floor, an approach reflected in the reasonable prices. While Mercato isn’t cheap, it provides better value than any comparable restaurant on The Bund, withstanding Mr & Mrs Bund's late night menu.

The menu is Italian in a broad sense, dotted with quirky touches from Vongerichten and head chef Sandy Yoon, rather than a faithful adherence to tradition. One of Vongerichten’s personal favourites, and ours too, is the brilliant housemade ricotta with strawberry appetiser (78RMB, pictured right), which pairs a ring of the light, creamy cheese with a crown of fruit compote. Served with four toasted slices of sourdough bread, this dish is an archetype of Vongerichten’s virtuosity at combining multiple textures into a single gratifying bite – creamy, sweet, fruity, chewy and the just-barely bitter char of the toast.

The spicy crackling cheese polenta (38RMB) is another terrific starter. We actually select this from the side dish menu, but our waitress doesn’t bat an eyelid when we request it served as a starter, an indication of the faultless service that follows throughout the meal. The dish itself lives up to its name, with light pieces of polenta and cheese covered in a spicy crisp coating that’s mild in flavour but pops on your tongue.

Mercato’s pizzas, the centrepiece of both the menu and the restaurant, come hot out of the massive wood-fired Italian brick oven planted centre stage in the dining room. The crusts are thin and delightfully blackened in spots, but they’re not cracker-like – they have a satisfyingly puffed up chewiness. As our Venetian waitress puts it, ‘They’re not Italian Italian, but they are tasty.’

Pizzas start from just 68RMB for the minimal, but well-balanced garlic, chilli and crushed tomato and rise to 168RMB for the Prosciutto San Daniele, four cheeses and arugula. In between, price-wise, is the broccolini, spicy salami and ricotta (118RMB), paired with a slice of lemon you can squeeze on top. This pizza is so finely done it makes us reconsider our opposition to broccoli on pizza.

The pastas and entrées include rigatoni and meatballs (78RMB as appetiser; 118RMB as entrée), a flavourful and filling dish doused in a rich chilli ragu. Salt and pepper 7 star sea bass (38RMB/100g) is a gourmet take on fish and chips but with pop-in-your-mouth summer peas instead of chips. The fish is battered in a shell so crispy it recalls tempura, and the snap of the peas, crack of the batter and juiciness of fish make for another brilliant Vongerichten ode to texture.

Vongerichten is known for some curious flavours at Jean-Georges with his desserts, but here presents it a bit more straight, while still playful. The bittersweet chocolate budino (58RMB) pairs a rich chocolate mousse with a salty, chewy caramel crumble topping. It’s a salty-sweet combo that could prove divisive, but we’re firmly in the ‘love it’ camp. A peach cobbler (58RMB) with buttery crumble on top and ripe warm fruit inside is a luscious summer sweet.

Mercato is slickly run already thanks in part to the expertise of Jean-Georges's service engine that's already been running full-power for years in the building. With this foundation and the great value of the menu, Mercato is a stellar addition to The Bund’s dining constellation and a restaurant that puts Three on the Bund firmly back on the culinary map.

Charles Miller
Venue name: Mercato
Opening hours: 5.30pm-1am daily
Metro: Nanjing Dong Lu
English address: Sixth floor, Three on the Bund, 3 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu, near Guangdong Lu, Huangpu district
Chinese address: 黄浦区中山东一路3号3楼, 近广东路