When traveling I will eat out more frequently and choose larger meals than I might normally. I don’t know if it’s because of the website or some silly notion I have that because I’m traveling I have to pack in all I can on every trip instead of slowing down and relaxing. Sometimes pushing myself in this way leads me to hidden gems and experiences I wouldn’t have had otherwise… and sometimes it further rounds the gut. Take my last trip to Shanghai. I was stuffed after a solid couple weeks of dining out. I had a quiet Monday night lined up and everything inside of me was saying, “just stay in at the hotel, order room service and veg out.” But another part of me was saying, “get out there, you might not be back in Shanghai for a few months and this is your last night out to try something new.” On this particular night I was so glad I listened to the guilt and ventured out to Stiller’s instead of staying in.
Stiller’s wasn’t even on my food radar until two days before my visit when I ran across the name in an issue of Time Out Shanghai – Where Shanghai’s Top Chefs Go to Eat… a really interesting article where they took some of the big culinary names in the Shanghai scene (both foreigners and locals) and asked them where their favorite meals were. Tessa Thompson, the chef of the Barbie Cafe (don’t let the cafe position fool you, she’s got real chops, having studied the Le Cordon Bleu in Paris), said she really loved the pork sampler at Stiller’s and listed it as her favorite international restaurant. Since I’d been to most of the other restaurants mentioned in the article… and since I love pork… I decided I should force myself out for the night and give it a try.
The location is at the “the Cool Docks” – about 5-10 minutes out via taxi from the Bund. The cool docks are a newer restoration development project similar to the Xintiandi area of Shanghai. Thankfully they’re a bit less crowded. Stiller’s was tucked away a bit, down a long alley lit by hanging lights.
I made my way up and found it decently full for a Monday night. The room was spacious with a sweeping view of the city skyline. The servers and owner seemed shocked when I shrugged off dining with a view. It seemed all I’d been doing for two weeks was dining with a view in Shanghai, but here there was a more exciting option… dining with a view of an open kitchen. So I took my seat away from the panoramic windows, eager to see the immersion blenders and small sauce pots go into action.
The menu came out and to my great dismay I didn’t see the pork sampler recommended in the article. Despite the Time Out article having just been published that week, the menu had already changed. I was bummed about the pork but excited to see that the chef was always evolving and not afraid to forgo a recommended favorite in favor of something new and fresh.
I saw two degustation menus. I try my best to order these when possible but I had just polished off a hearty (but underwhelming) one at Laris the night before. Dare I try again? I decided to go against my usual grain and order the vegetarian tasting menu. I thought it might be lighter than the other options but still gave me a chance to try out some of the chef’s signature dishes.
I was promptly served two complimentary baskets of pastries and breads… so much for a lighter night out They were both superb and set the tone for the meal I was about to enjoy.
Then came the amuse trio of pumpkin tart, beetroot mousse, and I’m sorry I didn’t hear what the third one was. I absolutely loved the beetroot mousse… beets are a flavor I’m loving more and more lately and these were presented in a new and exciting texture that helped take the taste beyond just plain beet.
Next out was a Kumquats carpaccio with marinated honey, red cabbage, and chestnut soup. This is a destination dish to travel out to Stiller’s for. The chestnut soup had an ethereal, smokey subtlety. I hope to see chestnut soups on more menus in the future. All the flavors mingled together into a stunning winter dish, perfect for the cool weather outside.
Out next was a spinach strudel ratatouille and eggplant mash. It wasn’t the most photogenic dish out that night, but the taste was there in spades. This was probably the most rustic dish of the night as one would expect from a ratatouille and strudel… but also as satisfying and comforting as both dishes can be at their peaks.
Then came one of my two favorite dishes of the night – Poached egg with herbs, young leeks, and mushrooms. I don’t know why, but lately almost all of my favorite dishes have featured a poached or slow cooked egg. Wow, what a flavorful few bites. I thought about asking for more but knew I had more courses in store and I was already fumbling with my belt. Instead I sneakily mopped up all the remaining yolk with some of the bread still left at the table
As a palate cleanser of sorts, I was next served a Grilled pineapple with Ginger and cucumber… a classic Asian flavor combination.
Then the other stunner for the night – Black truffle risotto with asparagus praline. The truffles were fragrant and almost haunting. The risotto was perfectly cooked and the praline offered a slightly sweet high note to raise the dish up above just rice and truffles. It was a soul warming dish.. I thought about taking it out to the upstairs terrace to eat in the cold, but that would have required a break from eating it and that wasn’t going to happen
Finally it was time to move into the pre-dessert and dessert. The first dessert was an instant hit with me due to the strong peanut flavor. The last was listed as Tart and Soufflé au Chocolate Marscapone foam. Both elevated the evening to a warm, glowing finish… rather than dropping the momentum as many Asian desserts do.
I finished the meal with some fantastic petit fours while discussing the restaurant with Stefan Stiller and his lovely wife. Both took the time to come talk to me during the meal, answering questions, offering suggestions, etc. It wasn’t just because I was there with a camera either… this is something the restaurant is known for. Both are passionate about food and their restaurant. Chefs who are actually at the restaurant their name is on… who’s heard of such a thing ? Most nights you’ll find one or both of them roaming the restaurant, greeting guests, and just making sure that things hold up to their precise standard.
I asked Stefan (I’ll pretend I’m on a first name basis with him) why the pork sampler wasn’t on the menu any longer. He said that it was popular for a while but he wasn’t getting the quality of ingredients at the moment that he’d like and changed the menu to reflect that. Stefan said they’re always tinkering with the menu, not because people are unhappy, but in response to the inspiration of the ingredients they find. Sometimes the menu would only last for two days and sometimes it might remain the same for a month… it was simply down to a combination of inspiration and ingredients.
I really like that idea. I will certainly be back to Stiller’s the next time I’m in Shanghai. On that visit I’ll probably go heartier and get a full on carnivorous tasting menu (the meal was easily my best vegetarian meal ever but also one of the best in general)…but it’s nice to know that when I return I’ll be treated to something new and unique -an inspired improv of the seasons best.
Stiller’s Restaurant and Cooking School
The Cool Docks, 6-7/F, Bldg 3, 505 Zhongshan Nan Lu,
near Fuxing Dong Lu, Metro Line 4 Nanpu Bridge Station Exit 2
Telephone: +86 21 6152 6501