Huge doors open in the darkness. A primal scream rips through the air. Fire explodes, as the Hakka sounds all around us. Dinner at Ultraviolet has begun.
“Dinner” is an inappropriate term for this extraordinary journey, which may elude classifications entirely. In the next three hours, we dine by the sea, have picknick on the lawn and eat a cigar butt. It is a surprisingly imersive and emotional experience, which binds together ten strangers for a night in a remote warehouse at Suzhou Creek. This is the UVC menu, Paul Pairets third and latest creation.
Describing the experience is a task similar to Hunter S. Thomsons description of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, albeit lacking the talent. This is my recollection of a dreamlike evening.
But first, some background. Ultraviolet is often hailed the world’s most innovative restaurant. It is also one of Shanghai’s top and most exclusive restaurants as it only serves ten guests per night, Tuesdays to Saturdays. Booking requires commitment. Seats can be booked 90 days in advanced and the seats are frequently gone only senconds after the reservation opens at midnight. We got one of the rare waiting list seats. We set up an sms alert and jumped on the website only seconds after the notice of free seats came in, succeeding only on our second try.
Ultraviolet is run by Paul Parait, the mastermind and head of Mr&Mrs Bund, together with his head Chef Greg Robinson. Despite the price, which is lower on Tuesdays (when we went) and Wednesdays, the restaurant does not turn a profit. In order to serve 10 guests at the single table 80m2 dining room, Ultraviolet requires 1,000m2 of space, high tech multimedia equipment and a minimum staff of 25 people, 2.5 persons per guest, serving 20 odd dishes paired with the perfect drink including wine whisky and tea.
However, once the Hakka scream echos through the dining room, everything becomes about creating the perfect moment, down to the tiniest detail. A once in a lifetime experience (man, I hope not).
We meet at 18.30 in a corner of Mr&Mrs Bund. Some drinks are served; so far so unspectacular.
Shortly before departure our hosts, Kim and Collin ask us to join the at the bar, where giant soup pots await us. In the remote warehouse at Suzhou Creek, wheels start clicking. It has begun.
Below the lid of the soup pot, we discover a tiny bite of onion soup on a spoon. We are presented with the menu in the size of a newspaper and are ushered into a van.
Twenty minutes later, we turn into a dark entrance of a commercial building at Suzhou Creek. The only sign of anything food related is tiny plaque showing the two Michelin Stars. I am not sure if the three stars have been awarded to recently or if this is Pairets way to shoe Michelin that he could not care less.
Doors open and we step inside of what looks like an elevator cage. A single silver pot stands in the middle of the space. While we go down (or have the illusion of such) our hosts show us the fresh abalones for the second dish of the evening.
Another door opens and we step into the huge cavern-like dining room. A single table is lined by ten chairs. As we enter, our names appear. We have little time to settle in.
As soon as we are seated, lights go off and the Hakka sounds. The fire is the way to cook the abalones.
The first act of the dinner is set by the water. Next dish is the shrimp with edible shell (real life shell replica). Remember to drink, eat, drink.
The very-sea sea scalop has a light foamy shell and is filled with sea weed and sea urchin. The moon shines on the wave that gently break on the beach. A light smell of sea hangs in the air.
The SurfSurf TurfTurf made of oyster, cuttleskin and foi gras looks like a wave rolling on the beach. Reed is swaying in a gentle breeze that blows over the lake.
Meanwhile, the camp fire is burning in the background while we have some roasted bread.
The magic soup is the final element of the first act.
The second act is called “The Land”. In expectation of things to come, we chose our personal steak knive.
But first, we have a picnic. The room moves upward to a grean meadow. The table is turned into a patch of grass. Picnic baskets hold our next dish, the selfmade BLT. The airplane style, with tin tubes and aluminum cans is no accident, and neither is the phenomenal taste and the feeling of pride to have a small part in the making of this dish.
We stay on the grasslands for the lamb. And out come the knives.
The forrest turns grey as we await a signature dish, the burnt truffle bread with cigar smoke. This is the unlikely prove that smoking and eating can go hand in hand.
By now, summer has passed and the leaves have turned into an autumn brown. Warm rays of sunshine fall through the trees. Time to walk the woods and collect mushrooms.
The first mushroom dish literally is a painting, i.e. a plate inside a picture frame. The mushroom is a light but crispy mushroom foam.
We are deep in the forest. Fresh mushrooms are all around us. And there is only one way to cook them: with a gas burner. Remember Tim Taylor?
The mushrooms are the finale of our walk over land. What a journey. Now it’s time for a bathroom break. Correct, there is a bathroom break. Only chance to go. That’s what you get for your money, one 10min bathroom break. At least, the bathroom has a fancy french chandelier, which was aparently given as a gift / sponsored, so the put it in the bathroom. Rather, they chose an ancient tree trunk as conversation piece.
After the break we gather in the Night Club, adjacent to the dining room, where we enjoy espresso and snack on old cigar butts, made of foi gras.
Our hosts join us with lanterns and guide us back to the dining room, where more lanterns float towards the sky.
We have entered act three, Asia.
First, tradition. Chinese paintings and mystery. A wax box. Cut open, it reveals the cod cooked inside, served on bee wax plates.
With a swift change of scenery, we move into the heart of Singapore. The door opens into the night market. Cooks are bustling, a rice cooker steams. Get your tray and get your food. Not Singspore street food, but its ideas and essence put in dish. And, best of all, we get a second serving.
From the harbor, we move into a futuristic and minimalistic tea house. A teapot, a cup. Instead of water, the teapot holds a spice powder. The cup is made of ice. Ice tea.
What follows now may be Paul Paraits most famous dish. What I like best is that it is apparently born out of pure stubbornness and the will to pull it off. Brining together east and west, China and USA, Coke Cola and Beijing Duck.
The grand finale of act three. And the transition to the fourth and final act, deserts.
Fly me to the moon. We lift of with a Grand Manier Slush to reach the lunar mushroom.
From the futuristic lunar mushroom, back to the smokey mountains with a wood eggplant and a glass of Kentucky Bourbon.
Almost at the end of our journey, the UV team shows us the unbreakable lighness of a lot of nothing. Broken eventually, it reveals a deluceous raspberry peach cream.
And now, nothing. A lifeline. 8 bit music. And finally, the giant multimedia technology is put to good use. Two Pong paddles appear and the game starts.
Entrance of Le Peanut. Nothing but a single pesnut in a golden wrapper.
Pong turns into Pea-Nut, a giant pacman game. Finally, the UV team wins. It is the grand finale of act four and the end of the evening.
Or is it? UV has one more surprise in store. After cooking for us all evening, they turn the tables. The last desert is on us:
Each of us receives a box of ingredients. A video shows the instructions. The challenge: Recreate the dish as precisely as possible in the given time.
The whole kitchen team cheers us on.
It has all been fun and games, until now. We prepare our deserts and wait for the signal of our hosts to dig in. But, no. Instead, the doors open and Chef Robinson calls us to the kitchen for the judgement. Every dish is scrutinized and a winner carefully selected.
I am the winner of the challenge.
Even with a culinary professor from New York as competition (although he was much better, hands down, and so was Michi. Maybe the only mistake the team made this evening. Or not?). Once again, my universtity studies of Industrial Engineering and Business Administration pay off. “Sicheres Auftreten bei völliger Ahnungslosigkeit” (strong presentation despite knowing nothing whats however about the subject). The price is a UV team hat, which I will wear proudly.
As this is also a pre birthday party and our going away dinner, birthday cake and coffee end the evening. Elated from this experience, we board the shuttle back to the normal world.
Interestingly and also unexpected after such an evening, the sun chose to rise again, the next morning.
UV has shifted the boundaries of our imagination what “dinner” and “restaurant” can be, at least for us.