Special Event: Danny Bowien and Thibault Pouplard at Unico

Danny Bowien, a Korean American chef and co-founder of Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco and New York and Mission Burger in San Francisco, is one of the most talked about new young chefs in America.  He is quite often compared to chef David Chang, who like Bowien, is known for inventive dishes inspired by classic Asian flavors.  This year Bowien was named one of the best new chefs by Food and Wine magazine and was recently awarded the prestigious Rising Star Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation for his work at Mission Chinese Food.

Although I haven’t yet had a chance to eat at Mission Chinese Food, Bowien is known for taking traditional Chinese dishes and gives them a new fun twist.  On the menu you’ll find playful dishes like kung pao pastrami as well as thoughtful adaptations of classics like ma po tofu.  In a departure from the traditional Sichuan method, Bowien braises the pork in a mix of wine, beer, a fava bean paste, and chili that’s been fermented for a year — all between layers of seaweed (which yields a natural form of MSG).  I heard this is one of their most famous dishes and it sounds mmm mmm delicious!

Having heard so many great things about Bowien, I was excited to find out that he would be in Shanghai collaborating with local chef Thibault Pouplard for a special event as part of the Omnivore Food Festival.  The dinner was held at Pouplard’s restaurant Unico, a tapas and cocktail lounge opened by the two Michelin-starred Mauro Colagreco located on the beautiful Bund.  Bowien and Pouplard collaborated on a tapas style menu presented with an Asian twist which they called the “Unusual 4 Hands Dinner” (RMB 345 / USD $56 per person).  The menu was set up with four courses, each featuring tapas from both chefs.

Each table started out with fresh warm bread, marinated olives and amazing sliced Iberico ham.

Starters by Thibault Pouplard:  Sardines Marinated, Tomato and Garlic Cream;  Marinated Octopus with Chick Peas, Bell Pepper and Spinach.

Starters by Danny Bowien:  Scallop with Shiso, Tomato, Amaranth Stems, Pickled Sea Kelp;  Clam with Tapioca En Escabeche;  Shrimp with Citron, Onion Sauce, Crisp Chicken Liver.

Unico - Danny Bowien and Thibault Pouplard1

Main Courses by Thibault Pouplard:  Spicy tomatoes Consomme with Roasted Tiger Shrimps and Fresh Herbs;  Lobster “Moqueca” with Coconut Milk and Peanuts;  Slow Cook 17H Lamb Chop, Chick Pea’s Puree and Harissa

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The next dish, something off the menu, was beef tenderloin with garlic and rosemary infused cream sauce.  It was served with sides:  Green Textures;  Sweet Potatoes Puree and Nut.

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Main Courses by Danny Bowien:  Steamed Egg Custard with Duck, Apple, Jinhua Ham, Cucumber;  Agnolotti with Pistou, Speck, Potato Broth;  Westlake Rice Porridge with Cote De Boeuf, Crab, Coriander, Egg.

Fun Fact #1:  Bowien once won the World Pesto Championship in Italy, beating out 100 other finalists, 80 of whom were from Liguria, where pesto was born.

Unico - Danny Bowien and Thibault Pouplard4

Dessert by Danny Bowien:  Chantilly Cream and Compressed Cherries

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Dessert by Thibault Pouplard:  Chocolate Bliss with Guava Sorbet

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Overall impressions:  The dishes served by both chefs were pretty good.  The setting at Unico was hip and exciting (minus the excessive smoke coming from the kitchen throughout the entire evening — another story for another time).  In my opinion, the flow of the evening could have been paced a little better as the courses were served too quickly one after the other.  The quantity for the price was definitely well worth it as we were stuffed at the end of the meal.  I could tell that quality ingredients were used in every detail for each course.  Pouplard’s courses seemed on point and pretty representative of what he might serve there normally, so he was probably comfortable with the setting and the style of food.  However, I was a bit disappointed by most of the dishes that Danny Bowien presented, not necessarily because they weren’t delicious, but more so because I was hoping to experience the more inventive style of cooking that I had heard so much about.  To be sure, there were certainly highlights.  My favorite dish of the evening was Bowien’s congee, a delicious and delicate mix of tender braised beef, fresh morsels of uni and warm rice porridge.  Others, like the egg custard and the agnolotti, felt a bit familiar and unremarkable. The desserts, while good, also didn’t leave much of an impression.  All that being said, we had a lovely evening and were glad we went.  After all, it was a great deal, there were some lovely dishes, and it was a rare opportunity to enjoy a special menu from two incredibly talented chefs.  Who can complain about that!

One final note: One thing that I learned about Bowien that has me admiring what he does even more is his passion for philanthropy and giving back to the community.  For every entree they sell in SF and NY, they donate 75 cents to a food charity and for every burger they sell they donate $1 to the SF food bank.  That’s just so amazing and you can’t help but want to support something like that.

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