By Benjamin Cost
Housed on the second floor of Sasha’s, the recently resurrected Prime 1921 promises customers a more international and certainly more meat-oriented approach to food than the former dining spot. Along with a new chef, Sacha Hernaus of the Grand Mercure Hongqiao, the venue also touts a fresh motto, “cuisine designed with wine in mind.” We hiked over to the historic pink townhouse located on Dongping Lu to see if the fare is designed with quality in mind as well.
First up, the seaweed-wrapped tuna tataki rolls (100RMB) with a ginger flower, shizo leaf garnish and peanut sauce, offer customers a hands-on culinary experience. Patrons use the ginger sprig to paint dressing onto each roll. The tuna itself was a touch mushy, but the vibrant leafy taste of the asparagus that constitutes the roll’s middle proves refreshing, and the sauce offers a nice savory-sweet one-two punch. On the whole, the experience is fun, if forgettable.
Prime’s oyster sampler consists of two size options, a half-dozen (210RMB) and a dozen (390RMB). You can mix and match your order, choosing from a selection of three kinds of oysters, the Kumamoto, the Fine de claire, and the Kangaroo Island, all served with a red-wine vinegar dipping sauce.
After trying it out, we must say that no self-respecting connoisseur of mollusks should pass up the Kangaroo Island variety, currently only available at Prime. Though almost barnacle-sized, these sensational shellfish are arguably some of the best oysters in town, and well-worth an intensive slurping. The bold brine essence accented with cream tones and even a hint of sea-spray will convince you that the marine denizens were only seconds ago ripped from their snug bedrock berths. We recommend ordering the full dozen.
Foie gras, always a powerhouse appetizer, is guaranteed to pad up the resume of even the most monotonous menu. Prime’s version is a pink cylinder of liver almost as gargantuan as a deluxe burger patty, with an entourage of pomelo vesicles, honey saffron, tomato chutney, sunflower pain perdu, and corn cress, all arrayed on a stone trestle (95RMB). The only drawback is that rather than served at room temperature, the foie gras is presented mildly cold, which doesn’t allow the flavors to fully thrive in your mouth. But when paired with the citrus and honey saffron in a mouthful, the liver takes on a tangy affect, which lends it some welcome exoticism. All in all, it’s one decent chunk of liver.
Arriving at your table bathed in cognac flambé like a crustacean funeral pyre, the crab-jus-doused jumbo wild shrimp (220RMB) knows how to make an entrance. Despite the conspicuous presentation, the prawns actually harbor sufficiently firm, sweet meat, a product of their freshness and the fact that they are served with their shells on – somewhat of an anomaly in Shanghai’s Western dining spots. We enjoyed them from peeling off the carapace down to noisily sucking the brains out of those little beady-eyed heads. The dish even fares fine on its own without the somewhat muddily-flavored porcini risotto.
Last to be served in the seafood series was the striped sea bass (180RMB), a confusing combo of peanut-sprinkled fish filet, thick coriander coconut curry, a line of refried beans and wombok. Though awesomely unconventional, the pairing of saccharine southeast Asian curry with salty bass overwhelms the palate, while the Mexican-style beans seem out of place. At least the fish falls in line with the menu’s pleasingly fresh seafood trend.
The highly-anticipated “Tomahawk” (800RMB), a bone-in hunk of Australian Waygu weighing over a kilo, carved table-side for two and served with a bounty of accompanying dishes, certainly garners points for an enticing presentation. Just the sight of the formidable meat slab attached to a rib-bone easily capable of inflicting blunt-force trauma, is enough to have any gung-ho steak-tarian chomping at the bit.
While our cut unfortunately fell victim to slight overcooking, rendering it more gummy than fatty, we’ve heard reports strongly to the contrary from other sources (who insist it was a perfect medium-rare.) Fortunately, the complementing yorkshire pudding, quartet of flavored sea salts (namely the smoked and the truffle salt), and mustards do a great job of masking any of the chewy bits. The green peppercorn and béarnaise sauce also add some much-needed zest and unctuousness (clarified butter emulsified in egg yolk tends to do that).
Not an atrocious piece of beef, but the priciness and medium preparation render the entrée a tad sub-“prime” in our book. Still, it might be worth a gander, if only to witness the jurassic display of meat, or to fulfill your childhood dream of gnawing on a cartoonishly big bone.
A Mixed Plate
Prime 1921 ultimately falls under the category of a restaurant whose chic aesthetics and upscale Western dining ideal slightly outshine the food itself. The cordiality of the staff, individual attention, and quiet ambience make it an apt venue to bring a fancy date, but the menu wanes hit and miss. Nonetheless, we’d recommend taking the trek over to Prime so you can suck down the top-of-the line Kangaroo Island oysters, and maybe see for yourself if their Tomahawk hits its mark.
See a complete list of our reviews here.