Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet
Expectations are high when stepping into the black-lit altar of Paul Pairet. If your name is on the list for one of the ten coveted seats at Ultraviolet, you have probably been waiting three months for this evening. This is how far in advance the restaurant is usually booked. It is likely your birthday, or a special occasion, one that you wouldn't mind splurging on. Since its opening in 2012, Ultraviolet's price per head has increased 25% to 2,500 RMB, or $408 USD at last conversion. An email directs you to Mr & Mrs Bund, Pairet's other modernist French eatery on the Bund at 6:30 to be shuttled to 'a secret location'. You sip on a glass of pear cider and size up your dinner companions for the night, a group of immaculately dressed strangers. A palpable sense of anticipation builds with every passing minute.
Already, elements are at work, influencing in your mind what Pairet calls "psycho taste", the preconceived idea of what taste should be based on memory, imagination, experience and culture. This is what your mind is anticipating, all of the expectation you have built about your meal up until now. What Pairet wants to probe is how this 'mindset taste' impacts actual taste.
From this moment on, you surrender all control. Every moment is orchestrated in fine detail, all to drive the plot of Pairet's greatest work yet, the operatic feast that is Ultraviolet. Down a dark alley in the depth of a parking garage, doors open, lights flash, the dramatic overture of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" fills the room, and you start to get an idea of the night ahead.
Ultraviolet, what Paul Pairet calls "the project of my life", needs almost no introduction. The first restaurant attempting to unite food with multi-sensory technologies to create a 'fully-immersive' experience, the restaurant parades some astonishing stats. 30 tons of steel, 146 light bulbs, 56 Sennheiser speakers, 7 projectors and 10 screens creating a 360 degree HD view, custom created dry scent diffuser from a French fragrance house, 4,500 pieces of tableware from names like Raynaud, Ercuis, Zwiesel, and one of the most advanced kitchens in the industry featuring a custom-made, heavy-duty stainless steel Molteni, all for a cool $2.5 million USD. It's no wonder the concept was under development for more than 15 years, Pairet needed an investor crazier than even himself.
He found this partner in JC Chiang, Chairman of a luxury footwear company and the VOL Group, credited with outfitting the historic Bund 18 complex with such wildly successful establishments as Pairet's Mr & Mrs Bund and hedonist dreamland Bar Rouge. This brings us to Shanghai, a city constantly racing to reinvent itself. With all the pieces in place, ground was broken for the world's most expensive restaurant per head. Just to break even, Ultraviolet would have to charge 5,000RMB per guest. Do the math and you can see why there were so few takers, and why others likely won't catch up anytime soon.
Paul Pairet was born in France, lived and cooked at a young age in Hong Kong, Sydney and Jakarta before honing his skills under Alain Ducasse in Paris, developing a new French style all his own. After a stint in Istanbul, Pairet landed in Shanghai where he changed the fine dining game at Jade on 36. Recipes honed and perfected then reappear on his menus at Mr & Mrs Bund and Ultraviolet, where devotees can still find signatures like the Truffle Burnt Soup Bread.
These days, Pairet spends most of his time at Ultraviolet, either in the kitchen or his office on the second floor. He presides over two large Apple screens, where he shows me an elaborate spreadsheet he uses for menu development. It describes each course in painstaking detail, the inspiration, mood, down to the weight of the ingredients. From his desk, he peers down a tinted glass window at his kitchen crew, preparing for nightly service. To his left, a large LCD screen displays closed circuit video of the dining room from several angles. This looks more like the set of a sci-fi film than behind the scenes of a fine dining restaurant. But it's not all just steel and glass, the fireman's pole connecting the second floor office to the kitchen is a throwback to the childhood schoolyard, a window into his boyish, playful nature.
A week before my meal, I spent an evening in the kitchen with the chefs, watching as they moved swiftly and silently under the guidance of head chef Greg Robinson, a seasoned 30 year old Ohio native who has been cooking since the age of 13. Timers and video footage of the dining room ensure every moment is orchestrated to precision. A tech team cued music, lights, smells and projections on host Sascha Speckemeier's direction. The chefs resoundingly agree with Pairet's philosophy that the only way to serve food at its utmost level, is with full control of all other elements. The intense focus in the room is comparable to kitchen stadium. There is no room for errors.
Meal 317 begins like every other meal before it. The eclectic group that gathered included a rotund German industrialist, his much younger Russian girlfriend, the proprietor of a popular Italian restaurant on the Bund, and several Chinese girls in their late twenties, one of them a model who spent most of the evening taking selfies with her iPhone at the table. We are handed our menus, rice paper sheets the size of two index fingers that fold out like a map, charting the course of our meal.
The journey that followed was absorbing, at times psychedelic, full-on, often parodic and playful. Pairet says he tries to create the best possible context for the food, everything else is supporting. "Imagination is a magnifier that transforms appetite into desire…You should, here, believe a specialist: imagined taste is generally better than reality". Since the database from which we judge or imagine taste is mostly cultural, the more experienced one is, the more there is to draw from. If there is anything about Ultraviolet more exclusive than the price, this might be it. A rich taste bank is the ultimate luxury.
For an oyster course, we are transported seaside, surrounded by the sound of waves crashing and the smells of the ocean. Handed a shucking knife, we are instructed to open our own oyster. Inside is a pocket of frozen salt water encasing briny chunks of meat dotted with caviar. Each mouthful recalled another memory of the sea, while simultaneously creating new ones, of being in this moment, in this place. This recalls a view subscribed to by many, that good chefs transport you to a time and place, while great chefs create a time and place.
In Pairet's efforts to illustrate a wonderland of context, at times what seems to be lacking are the subtleties and nuances that often play more to one's imagination than a full-blown exposition. The "Micro Fish and Chips" course on menu UVA is a prime example, served to the soundtrack of the Beatles' Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da while visuals of a rain splattered Union Jack envelop the room. As Pete Wells famously criticized of Eleven Madison Park, 'show, don't tell'.
Some of the flavours were transcendent. The 'Tea-Weed Crab Melba' found its perfect pairing with Lagavulin mixed with lapsang souchong iced tea. Cutting into the "Sashimi Steak Frites" with our custom Fontenille Pataud steak knives in the lively setting of Tsukiji fish market felt monumental, electrifying. Pairet's signature 'Truffle Burnt Soup Bread' has been known to bring grown men to tears, and I could finally see why. Set in a mystical forest, surrounded by the smell of damp moss, the intense flavour of cigar smoke recalls a personal memory of Pairet's, truffle hunting in Dordogne.
Some dishes aren't what they appear to be. In 'Royco Deluxe', set in a neon Chinatown, we are instructed to empty a packet of instant soup powder into what looks like a small bowl of hot water. When mixed, it becomes an umami-rich mushroom soup and a base for 'coco-noodles', a coconut emulsion that you squeeze out of a needle into perfect coils of 'instant noodles'. Backstage, Robinson had shown me a large Rotovac that has previously reduced the soup by 90%, the evaporation disguising as the 'hot water' while the distilled flavour was then freeze dried into crystals. Combining the two results in the original soup. In "tomato and mozza, 8 differences", we are given laser pointers and a puzzle to solve, then instructed to do the same with the two identical plates in front of us. The final postlude of the night, 'room service', consisting of eggs suzette, toast, and fruit served a la "Tiffanys" once again surprise with flavours that trick the senses.
Several times, I was left feeling like there couldn't possibly be anything that could make the dish better, an affirmation of Pairet's ethos that “a dish is ready when there is nothing left to add or take away...above all flavors should taste divine, assertive, sending taste buds into raptures”. Whether it was imagined taste impacting actual taste remains unclear, but one thing is for certain, the memory of this meal won't soon be forgotten.
As the credits roll after the last course, our names splash across the screen, honoured as Guest Stars in Pairet's greatest masterpiece. Together we put on a hell of a show.
Complete set of pictures from Ultraviolet Dinner 317 on Flickr
[Oyster] 2Caviar - Pepper - Lemon - Sea Iodine Soul - Ocean
Tea-weed Crab Melba Green Tea - Kellogg's Graphic Wave - Moby -paired with Lagavulin & Lapsang Souchong Iced Tea
Sashimi SteakFrites Mustard - Miso - Ugly Fries France - Japan - Allons Z'Enfants - paired with Chateau Minuty Rose & Or - On the Rock
The Bread Truffle Burnt Soup Bread Autumn Soil - Cigar & Carnivalse -paired with Chardonnay 2010, Domaine Jean Marc Boillot, Burgundy
Royco Deluxe DIY Instant Coco Noodle Soup 888 Lucky Noodles - Slurppp
Black Cod "Tupperware" Rice - Fennel - Mayo Picnic - RTL -paired with Hermitage Blanc AOC, E Guigal, 2007, Cotes Du Rhone
Tomato Mozza and Again 8 differences Arcimsoldo - Tu Vuo Fa L'Americano - paired with basil tomato - peach water
The Bread Repetta Truffle Burnt Praline Soup Bread Twin - Cuckoo Cuckoo - paired with Champagne Praline
American Breakfast Egg Suzette - Sorrel - Bacon - Peas - Toast Room Service - Breakfast at Tiffany's - paired with passionfruit 'mayo', raspberry 'ketchup', blueberry tea