After three years cranking out tasty albeit tame Spanish fare at El Patio, chef Franki Fernandez has poured his pent-up creative juices into Samfaina, his new molecular gastronomy concept on Fuxing Zhong Road. The result is hot and cold. For every sumptuous spin on traditional Catalan and French fare, there seemed to be an experiment gone awry.
Decor and service
Samfaina comprises a two-story villa. The bottom floor houses Bar Sifon, what seems like a fairly unassuming cocktail bar until you notice quirky decorations like photo collages of burlesque dancers, fish, gentleman with top hats and vintage cameras. The top floor features another bar, gray walls, and drab iron light fixtures, but also enough patches of glow to keep the tone inviting.
This warm tone ebbs a bit upon first meeting the staff, however, who repeatedly asked us if we’d made a reservation even though the joint was completely vacant. Even after we informed the desk person we had not, each of the three staffers we were “hot-potatoed” between pestered us with the same question. We realize this was due to poor communication/misguided protocol rather than snootiness but for the uninitiated it comes off as such. Fortunately, after we sat down they completely shifted gears, and were hospitable for the rest of the night.
A vintage newspaper-style menu displays remixes of traditional French and Catalan cooking, an homage to Chef Franki’s Catalan background but French culinary upbringing. The takes on traditional tartare dishes are the most exciting creations, especially sea bass cannelloni (58RMB), tender minced bass bundled in buttery avocado, speckled with paprika and parsley oil and topped with luminous salmon roe.
However, the salmon eggs crowd out the fish and avocado a bit. Usually a savory compliment, here the overabundant orbs seem like a defense mechanism, threatening to burst and drench the subtle fish and avocado with a cascade of oversaltiness when you bite in. We recommend knocking several off the top. Still, this ranks among our favorite East-West fusion creations in recent months.
A more dysfunctional marriage proved the steak tartare sushi, beef tartare swaddled in seaweed and drizzled with sweet soy. It brought new meaning to “Samfaina” (concord of sound)”, in that it presented a cacophony of clashing flavors with the sweetness tussling with the salt for primacy in our mouth, and drowning out any notes of beef. It made us crave regular steak tartare, which fortunately they have, or at least the closest thing to it; ‘American breakfast’ tartare, classic minced steak with topped with a fried egg (78RMB).
Also featured in the tartar section is a redux of ‘Joselito Ham & Pa Amb Tomàquet V.2.0’ with three tiny baguettes wrapped in Joselito ham (which features prominently on the menu). You chase each bite with spicy tomato juice.
Big plates are hit and miss as well. The pork cheek stew (188RMB) is fatty and warming, the result of simmering Joselito pork cheeks. In fact, your best bets are meats like the beef short rib and veal shank which are slow-cooked for a day in a sealed vacuum bag.
The boneless pig feet terrine (RMB168) reminded us of upscale surf ‘n’ turf with a hunk of seasoned pork paired with an octopus tentacle and aioli sauce. They didn’t marry all that well but each component tasted okay on its own.
The cold foie gras was a disappointment. We know their version’s supposed to be cold, but eating it felt like wolfing a frozen stick of butter without bread (less fun than it sounds). It tasted heavy but not succulent, and was the only rendition I’ve ever failed to finish.
We appreciate the relatively casual setting, and the absence of rigmarole endemic to molecular-gastro institutions, ie. waiters interrupting to painstakingly describe each dish (though there is a degustation menu available for 988RMB per two people). However, with some exceptions, artistry seems to take precedence over flavor, and several dishes could’ve gone for another spin in the test kitchen.
Samfaina – 532 Fuxing Zhong Lu, near Ruijin Er Lu, Huangpu district (黄浦区复兴中路532号, 近瑞金二路). Tel: (0)21-5352-1361. Hours: 11am-1.30am Tue-Sun.
See a complete list of our reviews here.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].