Shanghai Restaurant Review: Food Theory

By Sophie Steiner, September 7, 2020

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The Place 

Food Theory has positioned itself as the first ever ‘food hub’ in China, a restaurant meets cocktail bar meets cooking school meets pastry institute meets coffee bistro – a true identity crisis, if ever we’ve heard of one. After opening the space in May, co-founder Clara Ma, along with business partner and fiancé Jessie Chang, are working to create a place that builds up and supports the already existent foodie community in Shanghai.

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Classes for cocktail-making, cooking, baking and coffee brewing are taught by Ma and Chang, and they also rent out the space to anyone who wants to become a teacher for the day and lead their own food and bev-related workshops. Although the concept has potential, it does prove that novelty doesn’t always translate to the ‘next big thing.’

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The Food

The menu is a bit all over the place. Dubbed ‘comfort’ food by Ma and Chang, who grew up in – heavily food focused places – Hong Kong and Taiwan respectively, it’s mostly Western classics like burgers, fried chicken and pulled pork sandwiches, along with some Taiwanese mainstays like luroufan (minced pork over rice) and beef noodle soup. There are also a few one-off random inclusions like fajitas, Korean bulgogi and cumin roasted sweet potatoes, which further feed our underlying question: What the hell is this place actually supposed to be?

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It seems that the main pull is the instructional classes, which usually come as a package deal with a meal. The courses are available for booking through the Food Theory Official WeChat Account (see QR code at the end of this article), with options like bread baking, holiday cuisine cooking, kids cooking, pastry decorating and eventually a whiskey and food pairing course. 

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As lovers of all things lemon, we opted for a pastry baking class that focuses on lemon tarts. We are never not in the mood for a lemon tart, but the recipe is one of the simplest, and the resulting flavor (of both the lemon curd and the pre-made tart crust) was average at best. We can think of quite a few better ways to drop RMB380 that don’t involve making a basic lemon curd and decorating a tart with sprinkles like a third grader in art class.

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That being said, if it was part of a work-related teambuilding workshop, where we could have an excuse to make and drink a cocktail while on the clock, we’d take it. Food Theory does offer some interesting classes, like fresh pasta making, Basque cheesecake baking and Mid-Autumn Festival desserts baking that sound like they have potential. It strikes us that focusing on these unique offerings, rather than biting off more than they can chew, would be a more fruitful route for them. 

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Just know going into a Food Theory class that, from what we experienced, it’s not the most hands-on, momentous culinary learning experience of a lifetime, but rather an easy way to pass time while possibly learning a thing or two. 

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Post-lemon tart baking, the Beef Tartart (RMB99) (yes, that’s how it’s spelled on the menu) arrives tableside covered by a smoke-filled glass cloche – we guess for gimmicky presentation purposes, since it added nothing to the bland flavor of the dish. The grey-tinged meat is topped with an egg yolk and a sprinkling of chopped scallions, but crying out – alone in the dark – for mustard, mayo or just any kind of sauce or seasoning out there. 

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On the Taiwanese side of the menu, Ma and Chang plan to sell their Braised Minced Pork Rice (RMB35) and Braised Beef Noodle (RMB65) as pre-packaged options in convenient stores and supermarkets around China. After tasting them, we can say that if these were just easily purchased, microwave ready dishes, they would be a solid option for a day that’s too busy to cook. But, as a restaurant quality dish from a venue that touts itself as ‘for foodies, by foodies,’ both were unapologetically boring. 

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The FTFC [Food Theory Fried Chicken] (RMB80) is made using Chang’s secret spice blend recipe and technique for frying. It’s crispy, crunchy, well-seasoned and the breading to meat ratio is on point. Fourth dish is the charm, apparently. It’s definitely better than KFC’s fried chicken, but is it worth returning for? Probably not. We didn’t have a chance to try the burger, one that culinary-certificate-holding Chang claims is the best in Shanghai, but we’re not necessarily holding our breath. 

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Similarly, the cocktails weren’t bad, but quite mundane when compared to others with similar pricing (RMB78-108) found across Shanghai at any of the dozens of award-winning cocktail bars. No wheel reinvention going on here, nor any memorable selections worth mentioning. 

Food Verdict: 1.25/3

The Vibe 

While the space is beautifully decorated, with plants and greenery adding natural pops of color, the modern and sleek kitchen clashes with the cookie-cutter furnishings and weirdly 70s era orange and brown colored couches. Similar to the concept, the décor is somewhat confusing; an amalgamation of styles that usually aren’t put together... for a reason. 

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You could pick this venue concept up and put it in a Tier 2 or Tier 3 city, and it would do quite well. But in Shanghai, where we are spoiled with so many outstanding options, there just isn’t a comparison. There’s just too much going on across the board, and everything is spread so thin that execution in all areas is just unremarkably average. Not terrible, but nothing noteworthy. 

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Vibe Verdict: 1/2

Total Verdict: 2.25/5

Price: RMB150-250 per person for a meal or RMB285-700 for a class
Who’s Going: Corporate employees, aspiring chefs, bartenders and baristas, taitais or people with both time and money on their hands
Good For: Team building events, foodie-focused date nights (for those with minimal experience in the kitchen), rainy day activities

If you are interested in booking a cooking, baking, cocktail or coffee-making class, do so through the Food Theory Official WeChat that can be accessed by scanning the QR code below: 

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See a listing for Food Theory. Read more Shanghai Restaurant Reviews.

[Cover Image by Sophie Steiner/That's]

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