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March 7, 2010

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Fine Spanish fare with Michelin style

OPENING with all the fanfare that one would expect from a restaurant bearing the name of three-star Michelin chef Martin Berasategui, modern Spanish eatery Restaurant Martin is now facing something of an identity crisis.

Headed by Berasategui's young tyros Yago Marquez and Maxime Fenton, the restaurant is facing that difficult six-month navel gazing stage where decisions are being made about what is and isn't working.

Located in a three-story 1920's mansion overlooking Xujiahui Park that was once the home of EMI records, the site hasn't proved a hit for restaurants, already seeing off another Chinese-styled compatriot.

A trek from downtown office areas for the business crowd and lacking the panache of a seat with Bund views, Restaurant Martin has faced stiff competition for the premium end of the market.

Trading on its Michelin star credentials, the restaurant has attracted the one-time curious but hasn't been as successful at establishing a regular fan base.

Looking to revitalize the dining concept at Restaurant Martin is Fenton. The French born, Italian raised chef, takes the reins of Berasategui's first foray into Asia when Marquez leaves the restaurant in the coming months.

Fenton, 25, says he wants to broaden the focus of the restaurant from just the fickle fine dining crowd, with the chef designing a cheap and cheerful tapas menu for the summer months.

With an extensive outdoor area looking over the park and a live band playing nightly in the downstairs bar, Fenton is going to provide a tapas menu starting at 5 yuan (US$0.73) a plate to attract the after work crowd.

The restaurant also has a selection of dishes from its dinner menu available as part of a lunch deal that starts at 198 yuan for one appetizer, a main course and a dessert through to 278 yuan for an appetizer, two main courses and a dessert. All dining options include tea or coffee.

On our visit we tried a selection of dishes that were available on the al a carte dinner menu.

Fenton started us off with some of the signature Jamon Iberico. The Spanish are serious lovers of this cured ham made from at least 75 percent Iberian black pigs that are fattened by feeding exclusively on acorns for the latter stages of their lives.

Thinly sliced, this ham is a rarely sighted delicacy in Shanghai and needs nothing more as a companion than a crusty piece of the restaurant's bread.

For an appetizer we also tried a soft egg cooked at 65 degrees for half an hour (98 yuan) that is available on the lunch menu.

It is a good example of the exacting and delicate hand in the kitchen with the organic egg's yoke running into a rich, light smoked bacon cream to create a soft-textured surprisingly light starter.

Also well handled was the seared foie gras (176 yuan) that came served in a bright passion fruit sauce that provided a well-balanced tart and tangy contrast to the rich duck liver.

Moving into the restaurant's seafood offerings for mains, we tried the Grilled Salmon (210 yuan) that was finished by smoking it in a wooden box.

Laden with smoky flavors, the dish was partnered with crispy eggplant skins and a whole slow cooked cherry tomato and salmon roe. A punchy lemon foam came on the side and it was garnished with bread crumbs stained with black olives and black squid ink.

Also for mains we tried the veal tenderloin (288 yuan) that came with Canarian wrinkle potatoes. A traditional baked potato dish served in the Canary Islands, the salty baby potatoes were topped with a rich red pepper mojo sauce, also a tradition of the islands. This version was a creamy, spicy companion to the Australian veal, making for a robust hearty dish.

Dessert finished with a light hot chocolate souffle (90 yuan) that was upstaged by a side of homemade caramel and cinnamon ice cream. Made in-house it was the ideal sweet finish to a meal that showcased the skills and execution one would expect from a restaurant wearing its Michelin-starred lineage on its sleeve.

Fenton's move to provide something for people wanting to enjoy the skills of the kitchen without burning a hole in their wallet is also welcome news and gives diners another reason to try the delights of modern Spanish cooking.


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