Review of The Commune Social, an excellent Modern Tapas Restaurant-bar in Shanghai

30th June 2014 / Shanghai

The Commune Social was conceived in 2013, and subsequently won City Weekend’s best new restaurant of the year award. I have taken notice of this Tapas Bar from the mouthwatering pictures on Instagram, and have been longing to visit. Last Saturday, I finally made the trip, to celebrate my acquisition of my Chinese drivers license, and also to write this review.

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Before I proceed, let me first address the elephant in the room, which happens to be the talk of many reviews I’ve seen on Dianping. The portions at The Commune Social are small. 

Are they rightfully so? Yes. For a number of reasons:

  1. The Commune Social serves modern Tapas-style food, which naturally, comes in tapas portions. You don’t visit a xiao long bao eatery and expect a burger-size xiao long bao.
    So what is a Tapa?
    Tapas are traditionally small plates of appetisers served in bars and/or drinking establishments around the Spanish region. More often than not, these Tapas are offered free, upon the order of an alcoholic beverage. I suppose the idea is, the more you drink, the more you get to eat, and the more you eat, the more you drink. Rinse, repeat, profit. Everyone’s happy.
  2. The prices are very reasonable at The Commune Social, for the quality of the ingredients and skill of the chefs. ¥178 allows you to choose from 3 tapas and includes a coffee/tea/soda, which is enough to fill a single diner. Sure, I don’t see myself having a ¥178 set lunch everyday, but for a high quality meal that easily matches many the offerings along The Bund, this is good value.
  3. Laws of diminishing returns. Unfortunately, due to human nature, the more of a good thing we experience, the less good it seems, because we adapt. That initial burst of excitement gets less exciting. You could say that we human beings are an ungrateful lot by nature. The Commune Social is the sort of place that tries to excite, and for the most part, pulls it off.

Ok enough theory-crafting. I arrived at 10:30am, expecting to have brunch as I normally would, only to find that The Commune Social only opens at 12 noon. Bummer. Eventually I returned at 11:45am, after killing some time at Kerry Center, just a few streets away.

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There was already a queue forming at 11:45am. By the time The Commune Social had opened their doors, a good 6-7 tables were taken immediately.

The interior was a cozy bar set up, with a nice well lit courtyard at the back. Thankfully, being the early birds, my companion and I got a courtyard seat (which filled up in about 10mins).

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Menu was in the form of the serving sheet on the table which housed the regular items, with the chef’s specials handwritten on a blackboard on one side, and on a whiteboard on the other end of the courtyard. At one point, I thought a fight was going to break out between people trying to crowd around and read the board menus at the same time, thankfully, the crowd at The Commune Social were above that. 

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We ordered a 3 course set, along with pan seared scallops from the regular menu and later added a serving of fries, to test the kitchen’s skills fill our carb. craving.

Service was attentive, even though the 3-4 servers were trying to attend to everyone at the same time (because the restaurant pretty much got filled up upon opening). Not bad. I spoke to our server in mandarin, but recited the dish names in English, and she had no trouble repeating my order back in English. Nice!

On to the food!

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Cured salmon with poached egg, topped with fennel and rye bread crumbs

Beautifully presented, exactly what I was expecting. The cured salmon was quite mild tasting; There was just a light smokey flavour; The taste of fresh salmon was still lingering, and it didn’t have the usual strong smoked salmon taste. The egg was perfectly poached, resting peacefully underneath layers of paper thin fennel slices together with a fennel puree.

I first tasted every component on its own, save for the egg; Fresh and clean flavours. The fennel was remarkably sweet, and didn’t have an over-powering liquorice flavour, only subtly so. I suspect the fennel might have been quickly blanched and refreshed.

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It was only after I dissected the egg, cut a piece of salmon, and tried masterfully to get every single component of the dish into one bite, that I was truly impressed by how all the flavours melded together in harmony. No flavour explosion here, but a profound zen-like balance. It all, just, worked. Speaking of explosions, there were these small yellow flowers, of which I was unaccustomed to. They had a bright fragrance, which lifted each bite containing them to a new peak.

This dish thoroughly met and surpassed my expectations. 9/10

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Next up were the pan seared scallops served with a curry sauce. My wife was initially against ordering this starter from the regular menu for ¥88, because we already had my authentic Singapore-style curry recently, but I assured her this was probably different, and it was!

Plating – Gorgeous. Staring at the photo still makes me salivate. 

Execution – Flawless – A thin and consistent seared crust on both sides, but soft and tender when cut open.

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The curry sauce had a surprisingly authentic Indian curry flavour, but the consistency was smooth, and the taste mellow and slightly sweet, perhaps coconut cream was used. The sauce paired really well with the scallops, and didn’t overpower their delicate flavours. 

That said, the carrot ribbons were really only eye candy, and didn’t do much for the dish in terms of taste and pairing. I would also have preferred if the bits of basil were omitted, because their flavours were quite strong, and on a couple of occasions, simply covered the taste of everything else. 8/10

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The curious beef empanadas were next. Back in Singapore, we have our classic puff pastry snacks called Curry Puffs. How do these spanish ones compare?

The puff pastry was nicely buttery and flaky. The braised beef filling was cooked to the point of resembling the consistency of crab meat, infact, I’ve never had beef cooked to this extent before. It didn’t taste like beef anymore, more like tuna flakes, but it was delicious nonetheless.

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Soft, sweet and savoury. The peach chutney was both sweet and tart at the same time, and helped balance out the richness of the buttery puff pastry. The slice of peppered peach was quite peculiar, and offered a sweet, fruity counterpart to the savoury pastry, though I didn’t really tasted the pepper profile. 7.5/10

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Disclaimer: I’m not a lamb/mutton eater. However, this was the most enticing protein on the chef’s special, so I gave it a try, because a foodie friend once told me: “If the lamb you tasted was gamey, it probably wasn’t prepared right”.

Unfortunately for this review, the lamb was a little gamey. Thankfully, only on the fatty parts of it. The requested medium rack of lamb was cooked perfectly, slightly pink, and easy to cut with a non-ridged knife. I actually quite enjoyed the lean parts, which were juicy and tender, with a slight hint of lamb gaminess flavour. However, the sides with bits of fat tasted quite strong, and I didn’t enjoy it. My wife, who has no problems with lamb/mutton also felt it was a little gamey. Perhaps the fault was in the choice of sauce; In this case, a spiced olive jus. For me, I couldn’t discern any obvious flavour from the sauce, and it simply tasted like caramelised onions with some browned bits.

Lamb is usually served with a stronger tasting sauce to overcome the aforementioned issues with the overused adjective. ie. A mint based sauce, which would have been too boring for an establishment like The Commune Social. That said, the potato mash was delightfully smooth and creamy. I would give the mash a 9, but unfortunately as a dish with the lamb as a whole, this is a 7/10

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Not feeling entirely satisfied from the last course, I ordered a serving of fries, after confirming with the waitress that the fries at The Commune Social were made in-house. Judging from the technical finesse of the prior dishes, I had high hopes for the frites, and they were well met. 

Thin shoe string fries that were light and crispy, but still had a soft fluffy center when bit into. Well done, though not as good as the legendary fries I had at Chef Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bistro in Las Vegas. That will be another story, for another day. 

The addition of rosemary, garlic and thyme(?) made the fries slightly different from the other bistros; Honestly, they were just distractions for me, because I was simply after the light crispy exterior but soft interior thin shoe-string fries consistency. 

For me, tasting the fries at a western restaurant is akin to tasting the plain white rice at a chinese restaurant. How well the restaurant masters the simple staple reflects on the quality of the restaurant as a whole. 9/10

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The total bill came to ¥304 for two diners. Not that shabby for a well renowned and highly rated restaurant! They gave 2 packets of fried squid seasoning upon settling the bill; which I thought was really novel!

I’m looking forward to return to taste more of their mains, particularly that aged rib-eye with chimichurri sauce.

I’m particularly very excited that such a restaurant exists in Shanghai, because this is the kind of place that is built upon down to earth food innovation and technical mastery. Read: down to earth. No service charge. No exorbitant prices on the top floor of the n-th tallest building in the world. 

Just down to earth, good food. 

Think Chef David Chang’s Momofuku empire. 

Think the State Bird Provisions in San Fransisco. 

These are the types of modern restaurants we need more of.

Opening Hours (Important!)

Tues-Fri — 12:00pm – 2:30pm , 6:00pm – 10:30pm

Sat-Sun — 12:00pm – 3:00pm, 6:00pm – 10:30pm

Closed on Monday and Sunday Evening.

TSK Rating

8.7
Food
8
Service
10
Venue
8

The Commune Social

Address
511 Jiangning Lu, near Kangding Lu Jingan district 静安区江宁路511号, 近康定路

Cuisine
ModernSpanishWestern

City
Shanghai

Area
Jing An

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