Expectations can be a crippling thing. No matter how hard one tries to keep an open
mind, it is only human for glimmers of hope to creep into our hearts and fuel unpronounceable desires.
In the case of restaurants, hype can hardly be described as an innocent bystander in fanning such flames. It's often the case that the more a place is hyped the less chance it has of delivering.
Such silly creatures of flesh are we, that we long for perfection. Such fragile hearts have we that break so easily when even the slightest bitter taste of disappointment flickers across the tongue. How fickle is the crowd that calls for the spectacular, the bells and whistles, but bawls when the fireworks fail to ignite.
With the razzmatazz that popped up with the opening of Hamilton House, how can one not be led down the dangerous path to anticipation? How can one not expect to find the culinary equivalent of the Holy Grail within its hallowed walls?
This year can already be labeled the Year of the Mid-Market Restaurant, and it was only natural that ears were cocked when the murmurs of simple, reasonably priced French fare near the Bund began.
There is no further need to introduce the dramatis personae - femme fatale owner Qian Qian; sharp-suited former New Heights manager Richard Xavia; bubbly and celebrated chef Philippe Leban.
There is also hardly much more to be added about the design - the impossibly high ceiling that lends itself to the dramatic windows for the passing hoi polloi to wish they were eating here; the cool touches that has brought art-deco back into conversations again; the quirky, unisex bathrooms with that most civilized touch of the offered toilet seat covers, the last sanctuary for delicate buttocks averse to making contact with the previous patron's residual aura.
What needs to be addressed, as so few people are prone to do, is the fare on offer. Conversations with regular diners linger around the food being "not bad," with little desire to describe this state of "not bad"-ness. What was it about the food that did so little to inspire vocabulary in otherwise vocal people, yet was sufficient to keep them coming back?
I was recommended (by a chef, no less) to sample the presse of pork (45 yuan, US$6.20). The trotter was sublime. The delightful combination of crackling, braised fat and sinew in sweet onion puree was an answer to Grail-hunters' prayers; hurrah, the hype had been justified all along.
Alas the magnificence of the appetizer was but a cruel lure dangled by the ever-ironic fate. The pan-fried salmon (the confit option listed on the menu was unavailable on that visit/150 yuan) was distinctly average, as was the duck done two ways (120 yuan). Both dishes were indeed "not bad." Proper food for grown-ups tired of tucking into the latest fad this city conjures every few seconds.
Someone commented that the portions were too big - the sizes were indeed generous but the main issue was that the body was content to halt intake when sustenance was achieved in lieu of frills.
Dessert was similar - the tarte tatin (55 yuan) impossible to devour alone. The caramelized apple pie was ruggedly delicious, with no wastage on unnecessary delicateness.
Service was impeccable throughout the evening which simply enhanced the dining experience on the whole. There was no perfection to be found at Hamilton House, yet there was no sense of hearts shattering upon leaving. The quest continues, and time and again explorers will return to this outpost to recharge and remember why they were searching in the first place.
Address: 137 Fuzhou Rd
(Shanghai Daily January 24, 2008)