Chef Kenji Ishibashi had caused quite a stir in the professional food circles on his return to Shanghai, helming his new private kitchen sort of restaurant, Racines. I had only learnt of his reputation during his return, when many industry veterans were thankful to see him back, and spoke highly of the food at his previous and current restaurant. Needless to say, I placed Racines high on my list to visit.
The food at Racines is touted as French bistro food. Now, it isn’t very common to see a Japanese chef highly regarded for French cuisine, at least, not in Shanghai. That said, this is already the Japanese veteran’s second foray into a French bistro, with his first being La Queue du Chiot, of which I hadn’t had the pleasure of visiting. From what I have heard, the model and feel was largely the same. As a result of all that buzz, I arrived at Racines bearing very high expectations.
While the address and directions to Racines were clear, the entrance was not. We spent a good few minutes along with some other diners looking for the entrance. Little would we have known that the entrance was simply a tiny locked door, with a small little paper stuck beside it with “Racines” written on it. Upon pressing the bell, Chef Kenji personally opened the door and greeted us.
Upon entering Racines, one might feel that it didn’t quite resemble a typical restaurant. It felt homely, yet sophisticated. A full-height glass window separated the dining room from a little garden outside, and also another room which seemed to be a cold storage area.
An open kitchen welcomed you as you walked in, giving full disclosure of Chef Kenji and his assistant at work.
Lighting, like most posh places was on the dim side. Other than the main dining area, there was another private dining area for a larger group. Seats were well distanced from each other, and the dining ware were clean.
One gripe I had with the place was that it was a little uncomfortably warm that evening, and the restaurant wasn’t even full. I would imagine that if it were, one would likely start perspiring. 8/10
Service was provided by a waiter and also Chef Kenji’s Japanese wife. While they got the basics right, the service in general came across as quite cold until I started making small talk with Chef Kenji’s wife. Sometimes our glass of water would be left empty for 15 minutes as we waited for our food, other times it would be filled up promptly; The same for the clearing of plates. Unfortunately, during our visit, even though the restaurant was only half full, our food took quite awhile to arrive, averaging around 20 minutes between courses. 7.5/10
There was no printed menu; Menu came in the form of an English written board, of which my wife wasn’t particularly amused with. I ordered some things I thought we would enjoy, along with Chef Kenji’s signature Duck Confit which wasn’t on the menu.
Complimentary bread were freshly baked, and came with cold butter and a pork terrine.
I would have preferred room temperature butter for convenience, but not many places in Shanghai actually bother with that little detail. The pork terrine had some walnut/muesli crumble atop, and was actually very tasty. A good start to the meal. Bread as I had said was freshly baked, warm and pillowy.
Bon Bon de Foie Gras (135 rmb)
This was the dish that I was most curious about. It actually exceeded my expectations of it. Light, crispy potato strips forming a sphere, encasing almost melting foie gras within.
As I cut into the spheres, steam from the hot interior shot out and I got a good whiff of the rich foie gras within. The potatoes were crispy as expected with a good strong potato flavour. Needless to say, the foie gras was decadent and went harmoniously together with the preserved date and pickled beet on the plate. This was the first time that I had a bon bon, and I was truly blown away. Superb. 9/10
Pan Seared Scallops (170 rmb)
I am a huge fan of pan seared scallops, and literally order them whenever I see them on a menu. The presentation of Racine’s pan seared scallops were vaguely familiar, carrots and yellow puree. Seemed like a very popular combination. Upon tasting, I learnt that the puree was actually a ginger based sauce. Infact, they reminded me of the flavour of Japanese pickled gingers that are normally used as palate cleansers with sushi. 3 seared scallops were plated with a mysterious black, coal-like item which I would later discover to be a scallop bun.
Regrettably, I did not enjoy the scallops. It wasn’t that they were overcooked; The centers were still medium rare and delicate. I felt they weren’t ideally cooked. Chef Kenji had doused the scallops in some kind of batter before searing them. The result was a seared batter with un-seared scallops within.
The tragedy here was that the umami blast I enjoy from pan seared scallops were actually from the maillard reaction caused from the crust that is formed when searing a scallop directly. In this case, it was largely absent, save for a few spots that escaped the batter.
The black coal-like item was actually a soft, squid ink bun-of-sorts, with an entire scallop wrapped within. While the scallop within was a little overcooked, I thought the bun was quite novel and the flavours of the squid ink dough and scallop did come together nicely.
The accompanying ginger puree was actually very unique, and would have paired well with a properly directly seared scallop. However for this case, the original non-seared flavour of the scallops remained delicate, and I felt this sauce was a little overpowering to match. 6.5/10
Beef Bavette (220 rmb)
This was actually the second most expensive item on the menu.
I was actually quite puzzled, because the bavette is an inexpensive cut. Nevertheless, I like to see a display of a chef’s skill in cooking the most basic dishes, like a steak.
The bavette dish was nicely plated, with the beef sitting on a velvety bed of potato puree, and interestingly, 3 gnocchi, each of them sitting on a cushion of sweet potato puree. A dark watery sauce filled the plate, forming a moat.
The beef was also done slightly rare to my requested medium. Although I admit, this might be a little nitpick. Unfortunately, I was dismayed to see no sear on the beef. It was almost like a medium-rare braised beef steak. Infact, it tasted exactly like so. Sous vide sans sear? Given the time it took to arrive, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Truth be told, two of some of the things I enjoy most, require a great sear for maximum flavour. Scallops and steaks. Coincidentally, both those items at Racines were missing that crucial criteria.
The potato puree was a little rough in texture, not the velvety smooth creamy type. The sweet potato puree had a nice subtle sweetness which I enjoyed. The gnocchi was really nothing to call out for, and I thought it was very odd to have gnocchi which traditionally is potato based, sitting on sweet potato puree, sitting beside regular potato puree. This dish simply didn’t work for me. 6/10
Duck Confit (175 rmb)
I had heard that Duck Confit was Chef Kenji’s signature dish way back in his first restaurant, and being a duck confit lover myself, I knew I had to try it. I had previously sampled duck confit at a few french restaurants, the more notable ones being DB Bistro by Daniel Boloud in Singapore, and Mr & Mrs Bund in Shanghai.
Our duck confit took at least 30 minutes to arrive. The missus was definitely getting restless. When it finally arrived, I was pleased to see that it was quite a large portion. The duck was plated onto of a more creamy potato puree, with ceps and chanterelle mushrooms littered beneath.
The duck leg looked a little rough on the edges, with a good end of its skin split apart, which was a bad sign as it meant that there was a high chance for the skinless meat to be tough and dry.
As a good duck confit would be, the meat came apart from the bone easily. The meat was flavourful, skin was reasonably crisp, but as I had anticipated, at certain parts, the meat was dry and overcooked. The mushrooms were full of flavour and gave the dish a much needed boost.
Paired with the duck was a dollop of whole grain mustard and also dijon mustard. I didn’t like the pairing, and felt it was a lazy un-inspired decision to simply pair this dish with 2 sauces out of a jar.
All that said, it wasn’t a bad duck confit, just mediocre. 7.5/10
Altogether, we paid 700rmb for 2, without drinks. That’s 350rmb per head, and for that price, I’m afraid I have to set my expectations high. Unfortunately, Racines fell short, maybe because things are being tweaked, or it is simply a different, less commercial style of French cooking which I am not accustomed to.