Mercato by Jean Georges (3 Zhongshan Dong Yi Road, 6/F; 中山东一路外滩3号6楼) is one of the most talked about restaurants in Shanghai. I’ve had multiple people tell me it’s their favorite restaurant in the city. Known for its “farm chic” Italian food, Mercato is surprisingly warm and welcoming, despite being in one of the poshest buildings in Shanghai– 3 on the Bund.
On my first visit to Mercato, I was surprised just how hip the restaurant was. With low-hanging lights, plenty of dark, exposed wood and leather chairs, this is a stark contrast to Jean Georges’ signature restaurant located 2 floors directly underneath Mercato. While Jean Georges is quiet and formal, Mercato is a little bit more boisterous and comfortable.
When you first walk in, you walk pass the bar/lounge and quickly see a dedicated pizza bar (talk about my kind of restaurant). If you’re lucky enough to score a window seat, you’ll be greeted by a gorgeous view of the Bund. There are communal tables to encourage the family-style vibe as well as more private tables. I saw many couples sharing a cozy meal together over candlelight and wine.
Perhaps my favorite dish at Mercato is the warm seafood salad with avocado. It’s a beautiful mix of perfectly-cooked octopus, calamari, shrimp, mussels and scallops drizzled with lemon juice and served with a healthy-sized chunks of avocado. Whenever I see avocado on a menu, I’m always drawn to it. Since avocados tend to be more bland, it didn’t overwhelm the natural taste of the seafood, but the creaminess added an extra complexity to the salad.
Cheese is really expensive in China, especially after living in Paris for a year. I always feel like I’m giving my first-born child up whenever I splurge on it. When I saw burrata cheese on the menu, I could have cried (yes, I am overly dramatic about my cheese). How can you really go wrong with fresh mozzarella and cream in the middle? The burrata was topped with Sorrento lemon marmalade, plenty of cracked pepper, a dash of olive oil and a sprig of basil. I honestly could have eaten the entire plate for dinner and left perfectly content afterward.
On my second trip to Mercato, I got to meet head chef, Sandy Yoon. Sandy is one of the most buzzed about chefs– a Korean-American who started as a line cook at one of Jean Georges’ restaurants in New York and then was hand-picked to run Mercato. Although our meeting was brief, she was incredibly friendly and so humble. Also, she humored my parents who took about 5 photos of us together.
Sandy chose our menu and gave us a sampling of her dishes. We started the meal with the endive salad, warm seafood salad, octopus salad and asparagus wrapped in prosciutto. The endive salad was light, refreshing and a great palate opener. The octopus was grilled and served with a lovely mix of roasted potatoes, green olives and fennel. My two favorites of the starters were definitely the warm seafood salad and the asparagus. The addition of fontina cheese to the prosciutto-wrapped asparagus took a seemingly simple dish and made it much more decadent and rich.
For our main dishes, we had the sausage pizza, eggplant parmesan and fried sea bass. The pizza was topped with spicy pork, kale and fresh cheese. When I bit into my slice, I immediately felt all the delicious cheese ooze out and melt in my mouth. Normally, I’m not the biggest fan of kale. I know it’s a super food, but I find it too bitter. However, the cheese was so abundant that I couldn’t even taste the kale, which I was perfectly OK with because I can tell myself I got some “nutrients” while indulging in pizza. You definitely need to eat the pizza while it’s hot and the bottom is still slightly crispy.
My picture does not do the eggplant parmesan justice. I’m a huge fan of eggplant parmesan and tend to always order it at Italian restaurants. Most of the time, I’m sorely disappointed in the execution of the dish, but my love for eggplant parm transcends all else. Hence, I find myself ordering it whenever I see it on the menu. Mercato’s eggplant parmesan is absolutely worth ordering. The eggplant is lightly breaded with panko and so the batter isn’t too thick. Within the layers of eggplant is fresh tomato sauce and plenty of cheese. Eating Sandy’s version is the reason why I continue to order eggplant parmesan at every Italian restaurant. Because when it’s done right, eggplant parm is so good (I like it even better than lasagna).
The sea bass reminded me of high-end fish and chips (minus the chips). It was battered and deep-fried; it was a nicely cooked piece of fish. However, it was the accoutrements that really tied everything together. The fish was served on a bed of spring peas and a soft boiled egg gribiche. The gribiche was like super fancy tartar sauce and the peas had wonderful sweet hint to them. When you ate all of it together with the fish, it formed a beautiful combination of textures and flavors– sweet, creamy, crispy and savory at the same time. The gribiche made the fried sea bass outstanding.
I would definitely recommend Mercato to any of my friends, especially if you wanted to celebrate a special occasion. You get the benefits of dining at 3 on the Bund at a Jean Georges restaurant but at a much more reasonable price. You don’t have to break the bank to eat at Mercato. However, be warned. You may be tempted to order everything off the menu. Your wallet may not thank me, but your stomach will.