Quick Thoughts on Bangkok

19 Oct

I’ve recently spent quite a bit of time in Bangkok. Without a Michelin guide to guide me to the best places in Bangkok, I initially used the Asia’s 50 Best restaurants guide to eat around Bangkok, and then Bangkok.com’s Best restaurants list. I’ve now eaten at all of Bangkok’s restaurants in the top 50, and here are my quick thoughts and ratings on them, as well as a few others places (rankings on the 2014 Asia’s 50 Best in brackets):

  1. (#1) Nahm – one of the best and most precise restaurants I’ve eaten in, though it is not perhaps designed to give you a best-meal-in-my-life experience due to its family-style service. Desserts here are the best thing, save space for them. I’ve been here 3 times now and the quality has been consistent. (Rating: 18/20)
    • a fuller write-up can be found here
  2. (#3) Gaggan – shock-and-awe molecular techniques applied to Indian food. Most of the dishes are just luxury proteins in an Indian sauce. This lack of imagination in pairing luxury proteins with Indian sauces is a turnoff, especially since Gaggan is a supposedly a cutting-edge molecular restaurant. I also feel cooking here is imprecise – part of it may be that the boldness of Indian saucing (which I enjoy more outside of the molecular realm) sits uncomfortably with molecular techniques, which I enjoy most when paired with precise taste-profiles. Flavors at Gaggan were relatively uncomplicated, like sledgehammers. (Rating: 14.5/20)
    • I see molecular food as a precise art. The eye sees an empirical fact about ingredients, and exploits that to create a great dish – for example, Daniel Boulud saw that “[American scallops] had a natural sort of collagen so the scallops sticked at each other.  [His team] could slice them, put things in between and reconstitute the scallops and they would hold up perfectly together” and thus the chef could come up with his signature dish black-tie sea-scallop. At its best, molecular technique is about clarifying and emphasising those precise effects. That is why I found my meal at modernist Mugaritz so congenial – serendipity is represented through the dish “linking”, the wooliness of tempeh Rhizopus fungi being mischievously contrasted with lamb. Modernist cuisine, it seems to me, only really shines when practiced by chefs with a very precise palate, and are willing to put in the time to perfect their dishes.
    • On one hand, we have the Fat Duck, which exemplifies precision. Every dish takes at least half a year to R&D, and there are multiple merits to each dish – for example, the “Sound of the Sea”, has exotic seaweeds, and fresh sashimi, but is only completed by the most banal-seeming element, the delicious tapioca-sardine sand. It really is a more of French restaurant (in the grand tradition of legendary dishes) in spirit than it lets on. Another case in precision: the meditative Mugaritz, which is a study in the unseen possibilities of the nearest ingredients – hake cheek AKA “kokotxas” being used to create a one-ingredient dish, both “bread” and “filling”.
    • On the other hand there are restaurants that are less precise, where the recipe for success is seen as an easy marriage of bold flavors and a molecular gimmick. The tell-tale sign of such a restaurant is superfluity. To questions such as “Why do you have a foam of X instead of a sauce of X? Why did you spherify this liquid?”, the kitchen will not have good answers.  This is molecular gastronomy as trope, influenced by the parable of the “el Bulli olive” – a one-effect-wonder, a pleasing small bite impossible to eat in large quantities, is greeted as the pinnacle of modern cuisine. At these restaurants molecular techniques are less to enhance precise and fleeting taste/textural effects; and more to serve as the vehicle of a bold flavor profile (which easily slides into imprecision) and as a textural spectacle. At Gaggan I had a spherified yoghurt chaat right at the start of the meal which seemed superfluous. I also had Norwegian diver scallops that were neither particularly Indian nor eye-opening. Most of the cooking was just luxury protein in an Indian sauce. It was not particularly innovative nor interesting.
    • Many of the “arriviste” molecular restaurants in developing restaurant markets are not precise enough in their tastes – Tippling Club in Singapore, Gaggan in Bangkok. Given that Gaggan ranks (#3), and Tippling Club ranks (#23) I think the food media in Asia is rewarding these restaurants because of the hype around their modernist approach, not because of the tastes on the plate.
  3. (#21) Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin – Molecular techniques applied to Thai food. Good, though the mains were not eye-opening – the memorable dishes for me were the desserts (jackfruit with coconut milk, and coconut cake), and the main dish of beef stew with rice. (Rating: 15.5/20)
  4. (#28) Bo.Lan – Serves food family-style (like Nahm). Unfortunately, as much as I liked the location, the food was not particularly interesting or memorable. (Rating: 12.5/20)
  5. (#31) Issaya Siamese Club – The desserts are good, but the mains are average and there’s a strange bitter aftertaste for many meat dishes. The best savory dish by far is the savory creme brulee, which is a brilliant cross between a traditional Thai coconut milk soup and a traditional Thai pressed-cupcake. The Mekong Baba (a rum baba) is a great dessert. (Rating: 13.5/20)
  6. (#37) Eat Me – Good bistro food. A delicious lamb rack. Interesting black chicken salad. The flourless chocolate cake is good, the pavlova average, but I haven’t tried their signature sticky date pudding yet. (Rating: 4.25/5)
  7. Yamazato (Lunch sushi rating: 4/5, Dinner kaiseki rating: 12/20): Located in the Okura hotel, Yamazato is a good standard bearer for lunch sushi, but the Hana kaiseki was disappointing to me, because I didn’t have a single eye-opening dish that bore the mark of a creative artisan. The kaiseki dinner was standard hotel fare, but I expected more from the flagship Japanese restaurant in the Okura hotel.
  8. Water Library Chamchuri – (Rating 17.5/20) Highly accomplished food, strong one to two-Michelin-starred standard anywhere. Write-up to come. You are guaranteed an eye-opening meal and very strong mains. Recommended.
  9. Supanniga Eating Room (Rating 4.75/5): Emphasis on Isaan food. Salak (snakefruit) in syrup, roast pork/beef with grilled sticky rice, and cabbage in fish sauce were my favorite dishes.
  10. Nara [Erawan branch] (Rating: 4.25/5): You should not miss the prawn carpaccio, which is delightful.
  11. Krua Apsorn [Samsen Road Branch] (Rating 4.75/5): Don’t miss the curry fried crab with egg, and the very well-calibrated lemongrass-mango salad that comes with fried kingfish.

Assorted Links (Food Digest for October ’14)

19 Oct

1. I found Jonathan Waxman’s (Barbuto) distinction between food-criticism and food-journalism to be enlightening:

I think there’s food criticism and then there’s food journalists. I think they’re very different. I think there are the critics that, number one, will always pay for their own meals, always want to remain anonymous, and create a sense of objectivity about their restaurants and reviews. And there was a very strict line about that.

And then there were the people who were real journalists or what we call food media, or food and wine media (because I think wine is an important part of the whole thing), that want to be chummy because they wouldn’t get the information that they needed unless they had street cred and there was a camaraderie that existed like you’re talking about with baseball or tennis. That’s just the way things worked, because the artists trust the journalists. Alice and Ruth are very good friends. I know Ruth is staying at Nancy Silverton’s house for a month. I remember when Colman invited us to go to Spain with Alice Waters and Ruth and Bradley Ogden and Mark Miller and Lydia Shire and all those people. It wasn’t as journalists and chefs; it was kind of like food pioneers, people going and discovering, for them, a new cuisine that we had no clue about because we were just moronic.

2. Daniel Boulud on the origin of black-tie sea scallops:

New Year’s Eve the following year, I wanted to do something special for New Year’s Eve and that’s where it took its name, Black Tie, because on the menu I put Sea Scallop Black Tie because it was a black-tie night anyway.  So, layered scallops, but because they were American scallops coming in the shell rather than the French scallop which was a little more flabby, a little more soft, a little more watery, they had a natural sort of collagen so the scallops sticked at each other.  We could slice them, put things in between and reconstitute the scallops and they would hold up perfectly together.  And so I did the scallop like that wrapped in the spinach leaf, so the spinach is not on the plate but it’s around the scallop, and wrapped that in a very thin dough of puff pastry where it was all about cooking the dough at, you know, 375 degrees or 425 even, and wrapping the scallop in the puff pastry with a band around and two disks on top and on the bottom.  This dish became an instant classic right there because suddenly, it was like, boom, nothing could change anymore.

3. Kenji Lopez-Alt replaces the duck in cassoulet with chicken (I’ve got to try this):

So why chicken? Well, duck happens to be very common and inexpensive in medieval Southern France. In modern urban America, not so much. You could go out and buy duck legs to use for this recipe, but chicken is cheap, widely available, and easy to work with. And you want to know something else? With so much flavor packed into the cooking liquid—sausages, salted pork, cloves—you actually don’t miss the duckiness of the traditional dish.

Here’s another thing: Most of the distinguishing flavor in a particular type of meat comes from the fat. Cook a beef steak in lamb fat and it’ll taste like a lamb chop. Seriously.

So instead of just using duck, what if I were to incorporate a bit of store-bought duck fat?

4. Oliver Roellinger has a grand vision for chefs.

5. Opionated about Dining in China

6. Guardian Profile on Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana, 3* in Modena)

7. Ruth Reichl waxes rhapsodic on almost every blogpost, but this is a good example of her style – a winebar in Paris.

8. A really good rating of Yamtcha by Gastromondiale.

A recent trip to Kuching, Sarawak (Oct ’14)

12 Oct

Kuching, where I’ve family, is a place I’ve visited quite a few times. In my most recent October visit, I tried Sarawak laksa for the first(!) time, and opinionated. In no particular order:

  1. Kuching is the largest Malaysian city on the island of Borneo (the only island in the world divided between three countries), but still feels a bit sleepy. It is less connected than Kota Kinabalu (KK) in Sabah, with the only international flights are to Singapore, and an Indonesian City of Borneo. In contrast, KK has flights to Japan, China and Australia. This is probably because KK is next to a beach, and Kuching is next to the muddy Sarawak River.
  2. It is hard to avoid a sense of decline in Kuching, because (1) the weekly flight to Australia got axed (not enough volume?) and (2) the River Cruise that runs on the Sarawak River has shifted from a full dinner to light refreshment (cost-cutting).
  3. The Sarawak river is muddy and polluted, probably because of timber-logging.
  4. Spicy cornflakes with ikan bilis is a thing.
  5. Avoid Susi Air (in Indonesia), they don’t have flight engineers on their planes, and their pilots are inexperienced.
  6. The Mormons in Sarawak seem less aggressive in proselytising than a couple of years ago.
  7. Selling bikinis in the Spring Shopping Mall seems oddly incongruous with Kuching’s geographical fundamentals (i.e. it’s in the middle of a jungle, far away from a beach)
  8. Mt Singai, converted to a Christian place of worship, is actually a rather beautiful and restive spot.

And now, on to the food.

1. Swee Kang Ais Kacang

  • Address: Ground Floor, Lot 176, Jalan Haji Taha, Kuching, Malaysia

Most places in Kuching are what we’d call “coffee shops” in Singapore, by which we mean a large open-air area, with 3-6 stalls, owned by a proprietor. I was brought here to try Sarawak laksa and ice kachang, and it did not disappoint.

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Sarawak laksa (5/5)

  • Fresh and crunchy prawns, not the mashy cotton textures from inferior prawns (what’s the point of adding them), gave it nice texture.
  • The lime and chilli was essential, I dumped the whole lot in. It became a sour-ish tang, a satisfying soup that did not feel heavy, as with the curry-based Singapore laksa, which I dislike.
  • A full-bodied broth, hearty, and sour from both lime and tamarind. Quite, quite delicious.
  • Laksa in Sarawak is very different from Singapore laksa or Penang laksa. It has no curry, and the soup is tamarind-based.

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Rojak (2.75/5)

  • Alright. The sauce was too cloyingly sweet. Would have been better with jicama.

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Ice Kachang

  • Deliciously coconut-y (cold coconut milk), you could add your own gula melaka (brown palm sugar) within. Always great on a hot day, which is always.

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Char Kueh (4/5)

  • A dry form of fried white carrot cake.

2. Good Taste Cafe

  • Address: 306-311 Lebuh Lb Sekama, 93300 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia

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Sarawak laksa (3,25/5)

  • Alright. This place uses inferior prawns, and the soup was thinner, and less full bodied than the one at Swee kang

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Kolo Mee (3.25/5)

  • Alright. Kolo mee is primarily based on lard, and can be cloying if you use too much, or if the fat isn’t cut by sour vinegar. Here it was more cloying than delicious. Also, shoe-leather char-siew.

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Kampua Noodles (3.25/5)

  • Supposedly a Foochow variation on Kolo Mee, but it’s basically the same thing.

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Tau huay AKA beancurd (4.5/5)

  • Now I thought this tau huay was worth remarking about. The best in Singapore is at a place called Beancurd City near Little India. While this beancurd didn’t quite match the silkiness of Beancurd City’s tau huay, it was a close second that would put 80% of the coarse beancurd fare Singapore hawkers are now serving up to shame.

3. Somewhere with No Name

  • Address: Somewhere near Lorong Kempas 4

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Fish fillet mee hoon with fish maw (4.25/5)

  • A hearty breakfast that I enjoyed very much. Sour tastes (a trend) with the fish made for good eating, and the alcoholic pour of red rice wine (ask at the counter) made the dish very fragrant.
  • This stall is famous for fish fillet mee hoon, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find.

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4. Ah Tan Ais Kacang

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What better way to end off the afternoon, than with another bowl of Ice Kachang? Here you choose your own adventure – milk vs coconut milk, and what kind of ingredients you want.

Minuscule differences – but while Ah Tan was good, the best bowl of Ice Kachang probably still goes to Swee Kang Ais Kacang.

Kitchen | Providence, RI | Spring ’14 | “brunch”

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  • Rating: 5/5
  • Address: 94 Carpenter St, Providence, RI 02903

Over 4 years, I tried Louis; Brickway’s; Duck & Bunny; Julian’s; Nick’s and a lot of other breakfast places in Rhode Island. But my favorite go-to, if I had the fortitude to brave the Saturday or Sunday queues, was Kitchen in Federal Hill, just a short car ride away from Brown’s campus.

Kitchen is a small outlet in Federal Hill that serves about 16 people at once -> 3 4-tops, and 2 2-tops. It has an open kitchen, with just one man who cooks thick-cut bacon to perfection (and I do mean absolute perfection, the perfect marriage of salty crust and tender meat-texture within), does a mean French toast, and really good crab cakes. Who is this one-man, on a single-minded quest to provide the best breakfast in Providence, if not Rhode Island?

Brunch is almost always a disappointing affair, a shakedown of Hollandaise – I don’t find anything compelling around normal eggs, simply cooked. But the brunch at Kitchen was always worth the trip.

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French toast and bacon

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Crabcakes and bacon, salsa (5/5)

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BACON (5/5)

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CRABCAKE

41° (“41 Degrees” / “41 Grados”) | Barcelona | Jun ’14 | “globetrotting”

11 Oct
  • Rating: 17.5/20
  • Address: Avinguda del Paral-lel, 164, 08015 Barcelona
  • Phone:+34 696 592 571
  • Price per pax: ~€200 ($270 at 1 EUR = 1.35 USD)
  • Value: 2.5/5
  • Dining time: 190 minutes
  • Chef: Oliver Peña
  • Style: Cosmopolitan
  • Michelin Stars: 1

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* 41 Degrees has closed, the concept is to be reworked. Therefore the following review of 41 Degrees circa June 2014 will primarily be of historical interest.

We have had many conversations where he discussed upcoming projects and plans for the future but things are fluid as he constantly tweaks and changes his plans. Pakta, his Peruvian- Japanese restaurant, and Tickets and 41° were not enough and then came Bodega 1900 and he closed 41° in August to announce Enigma to open in 2015. [Source: http://chefgeeta.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/albert-adria-fears-dreams/]

Other write-ups:

I liked my dinner at 41 Degrees very much. The food is technically well-executed, the service was impeccable, and it was a truly memorable experience overall to sit in that vaguely cosmic looking cocktail bar (with marvellous lighting for food photos) and be transported around Vietnam, Peru, Japan, Scandinavia, and back to Catalonia, in the course of 41 little bites. Praise due where praise is due. I think the key to understanding 41 Degrees is that the Experience is over and beyond any one dish. The Experience is a globe-trotting affair, that can drop you anywhere in the world with the next dish, from Thailand to France.


Today, I would like to address myself to a question of pure form: how much did I, as a consumer, enjoy the 40 or so dishes (independently of the Experience), in the extreme long-form, the reductio of the tasting-menu? The answer: Quite a bit, but not as much as shorter 5-20 course menus.

Micro-dishes. You dine on small dishes, one or two-bite wonders, at 41 Degrees. With such small dishes, one cannot know whether one likes it or not. The first bite reveals the 2-3 principal ingredients and textures, and if you are lucky enough to have a second, you pick up more nuance. But once it is gone, another comes to take its place. The advantage is clear: one can sample a broad array of the kitchen’s dishes and ability in a single meal.

But with it comes two problems with this style of serving:

(A) The Diner’s Memory. Before reading the menu again, 4 months on, I remembered less than a quarter of the 40 or so courses that were served, and textures and tastes bled into each other. I only remembered feeling ‘genial’ towards most of the food.

(B) 41 Great Dishes?. A second problem is the ability of the kitchen to come up with 41 great dishes. Of the 41 dishes, how many of them are mind-blowing, and how many of them were just good? I would say that almost all the dishes were just good (nothing really blowing me away – the airbaguette coming the closest). The good dishes seemed to be permutations of good ingredients, and good technique, with an unnecessary presentation gimmick. For example, take the 13th dish “Fideos with Enoki”. It had good taste, particularly in having a strongly flavored pork rib broth, spherified. One might praise the chef on capturing the strong taste of pork ribs in the cone. But is that mimesis of the real thing enough? Does it significantly better a pork rib? No, it is just a repermutation of the same idea. I rated it a 4/5, because it was enjoyable – by technical standards it was well executed, as an idea, vaguely interesting but not something that would stick in the memory.

(C) The Food serves the Experience And yet I would say while these two problems (subjective memory, and objective merit) are encouraged by the form of a 40-50 course tasting menu, part of the problem is the specific Experience of 41 Degrees that brings you around the world. Evoking so many different regions (Peru’s ceviches and pisco sours, Scandinavian carrots, French steak frites, Vietnamese banh mi, Chinese Peking duck) generally means that the food serves the experience – a global journey hitting multiple regional memories. The food was not the end in itself, but the entire experience was. To this amateur quizzer,  being able to  recognise after a moment or two – dishes I have encountered on my travels (e.g. ceviche, steak frites, fusion nigiri, Catalan prawns) was a meeting of two forms of pleasure – gustatory and quizzical.

The search for avant garde regional food at 41 Degrees makes me think of the term “Minimum Viable Product”,  very popular in Silicon Valley after the publication of Eric Ries’s book the Lean Startup in 2011 (but now probably on the wane, the flavor of the year being Peter Thiel and “definite optimism”). Many people (mis)understand “Minimum” to mean “throw shit on a wall and see what sticks”, but in the book, “Minimum” is left to the discretion of the market it is addressing. 41 Degrees addresses itself to a foodie crowd aware of its el Bulli heritage, and the “Minimum” standard of food is some well-executed avant-garde stuff. The restaurant itself focuses on a globetrotting Experience, and so in the quest for 41 interesting avant-garde regional dishes, many of the dishes are not mindblowing – but permutations of what exist.

The Experience however is something that I have not felt at any other restaurant, something very unique – a greatest hits compilation of culinary experiences that will appeal to the cosmopolitan foodie who is equally at home in Tokyo or in New York. Despite seeming critical here, I really enjoyed my overall meal there. I had planned on returning when in Barcelona again, but with its shuttering, I will visit some of the other Adria places next time instead.


Cocktails, Fruits, and Flowers

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  • 1 Spring Cocktail (4/5)
    • “Spring elixir” – caramelized pine bus, gin berry  paste, rose marmalade syrup, French white vermouth, Lilet Blanc
    • 41 Degrees started out as a cocktail bar. so it was fitting our meal started out with cocktail.

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  • 2 Lime Leaf and Sage Flower (3.5/5)
    • kaffir lime

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  • 3 Infused Pine Flower (3.25/5)
    • Blood orange gel

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  • 4 Licorice Cocoon and Strawberry Rose (3.75/5)
    • Rose strawberry amaretto

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  • 5 Humming Bird (4/5)
    • Milk /carrot/ orange/ gin/ shiso

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  • 6 Black Sesame Pearl (4/5)

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  • 7 Infused Watermelon
    • Infused beetroot licorice, yuzu flavors. Watermelon sweetness enhanced by beetroot’s, and yuzu gave a nice scent

East Asia

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  • 8 Buhto
    • Another cocktail in guise of a tea ceremony (though I can find no Google references to Buhto)
    • Sake/Sochu/cardamom/lemonquat. Shisha scent underneath those cups

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  • 9 Spicy Corn Tentacles (4.75/5)
    • Rice kimchi quinoa/ no octopus involved. Ingredient mimickry. Highly tasty

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  • 10 Tuna Millefeuille (4.75/5)
    • Nori, sushi rice, avocado, wasabi, tuna, millefeuille effect from puffed rice and crisp nori
    • Precise
    • This East Asian sequence was highly enjoyable. (5/5)

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  • 11 Oyster with Tiger Nut Milk (4.5/5)
    • Lemonquat (hybrid between lemon and kumquat)/ poached tigernut milk/ oyster seagrapes.
    • Lemon scent/pleasant globules of walled salinity/milky background

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  • 12 Aubergine with Caviar (4.5/5)
    • Osetra caviar, eggplant chip, hazelnut cream, spicy sesame olive oil.
    • I especially liked the eggplant chip, thin enough to be crisp. thick enough to have secondary texture.

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  • 13 Fideos with Enoki (4/5)
    • Little cone, spherification pork rib jus/ enoki julienned/ wild garlic flower
    • Good pork rib taste.

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  • 14 Parmesan and Porcini Forest Floor Pistachio and Berries
    • In multiple parts: ravellos -coconut ferrero rochers with parmesan cheese were all right (3.25/5)
    • Berries caramelized with wasabi (palate cleanser – 4/5)
    • Porcini mushroom leaves (3.75/5)
    • Pistachio, honey of pistachio – there was no nut, just a pistachio-shaped sculpted ganache (4.25/5)
    • Red currant with lemon orange powder (3.75/5)

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  • 15 Lily Flower with Romescu (3/5)

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  • 16 “Rubia Gallega” Airbaguette (4.5/5)
    • The only el Bulli era dish that made an appearance (from the 2003 season), bread, with Rubia Gallega cow “ham” – unctuouous and full-bodied, the satisfying taste of great ham
    • The “baguette” was all crust, and enjoined the best of bread with one of the best hams.

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  • 18 Miso Asparagus (3/5)
    • Braised white asparagus, black garlic, white miso + sesame oil
    • The sauce was like drinking the sesame oil used for stir frying bok choy. Intense

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  • 19 White Asparagus Bone (3.5/5)
    • Bone marrow with pork rib jus, boiled w asparagus, suckling pork rib sauce.
    • Neither white asparagus dish was very good.

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  • 20 Chicken and Crayfish (3.75/5)
    • “Surf and turf” fried chicken skin and crayfish, crayfish consomme jelly.
    • Crayfish was of unexciting quality.

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  • 21 Suquet (4.75/5)
    • Any dish graced with Catalonian prawns can simply go on cruise control – because these prawns are simply the best in the world. Here in a shell, there  was a suquet soup, with prawns from Maresme (2/3 of the way between Barcelona and Sant Pau restuarant in Sant Pol de Mar).
    • The prawn was softer than the Palamos prawns at Etxebarri – but was succulently sweet. Bewitching quality.
    • http://www.spain-recipes.com/suquet.html

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  • 22 Nordic Toast
    • Baby carrot, beetroot gel, horseradish, sour cream, (3.5/5)
    • beef carpaccio, vegetables, sour cream, vinegar powder (4/5)
    • Inappropriate comparison: The vinegar, sour cream tasted like a deconstruction of the Big Mac special sauce, and the beef carpaccio lended it a further Big Mac-ish quality.

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  • 23 Nitro Bloody and Agave Amber
    • Bloody Mary Sorbet: tomato, pineapple coffee.(4.25/5)
    • Bloody , mezcal. (chipito and white coffee) (4.75/5)

2014-06-17 21.19.33 2014-06-17 21.19.48 2014-06-17 21.19.37

  • 24 Prawns “Aguachile” (4/5)
    • Ceviche/chilli, peppercorn. Lemon/lime/chilli, avocado
    • The “tiger’s milk” of ceviche, dominated, strong sour tastes. I don’t really like that sharp kick. My favorite ceviche dishes (see my write-up of Maido in Lima) temper this sharp kick (e.g., by liquid nitrogen)

2014-06-17 21.23.19 2014-06-17 21.23.32 2014-06-17 21.23.25

  • 25 Nigiri Nikkei (4/5)
    • Smoked red mullet, tapioca, fried corn, dried lemon with stuffed kumquat
    • Woody smokiness

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  • 26 Ceviche Norteño/ Atahualpa 3.0
    • White seabass, yellow aguachile/ crispy yucca chip/sweet potato mash/ choclo corn (4.25/5)
    • Pisco sour, pineapple juice, apple liqueur, purple corn (4.75/5)

2014-06-17 21.34.57 2014-06-17 21.35.13 2014-06-17 21.35.01 2014-06-17 21.35.07

  • 27 Duck Bagel (3.75/5)
    • Brioche Bagel w sesame seeds, peking duck, pickled gennel, cucumber

2014-06-17 21.41.04 2014-06-17 21.41.21

  • 28 French Bite (4.25/5)
    • Meat and potatoes, souffle potato with bearnaise inside, iberian pork belly, macerated black trumpets, charcoal oil, sweet wine reduction
    • A ha! What was puzzling before reveals itself as Steak Frites! A clever dish, the reference of a French Bite only made sense when I crunched into the potato souffle, releasing the bearnaise.

2014-06-17 21.43.41 2014-06-17 21.44.00 2014-06-17 21.44.05

  • 29 Vietnamese Roll of Squid (3.75/5)
    • Pepper, shiso, rice, squid with sauteed garlic chilli/peanut/ugly grapefruit
    • Dip: lime juice, thai chilli, fish soup

2014-06-17 21.51.56 2014-06-17 21.52.13 2014-06-17 21.52.20 2014-06-17 21.52.25

  • 30 Vietnamese Tea (4.25/5)
    • Shitake tea – salty

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  • 31 Banh Mi Cookie
    • Foie

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  • 32 Redcurrant Meringue and Sweet Potato (3.75/5)
    • Mustard cream (reminiscent of the signature beetroot meringue with horseradish cream starter at the Fat Duck ***)
    • Sweet potato cooked in quicklime to give it a skin, mashy inside, Kumquat jelly and chilli oil outside

2014-06-17 22.02.09 2014-06-17 22.02.52 2014-06-17 22.02.19 2014-06-17 22.02.45

  • 33 Thaiquiri/Coconut Mató (4.5/5)
    • Texture of coconut cream
    • Honey: Rum daiquiri, lemongrass, pineapple, honey

2014-06-17 22.06.59 2014-06-17 22.07.07

  • 34 Soy-Temaki (4/5)
    • Sweet temako, black quinoa, soy sauce ice cream, lime zest

2014-06-17 22.10.502014-06-17 22.10.38

  • 35 Mango Dried Peach (4/5)
    • A large amount of liquid mango with an impressively robust skin

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  • 36 Fresisuisse (4.25/5)
    • Yoghurt biscuit, pleasant strawberry flavor

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  • 37 Dragon egg/ Chai Lassi
    • Baby dragon eggs – orange zest/cold/meringue (4.5/5)
    • Lassi- chai mango, curry, almonds, yoghurt powder, curry powder (4.25/5),

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  • 38 Classic Lemon Pie Cup Cake (4.25/5)

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  • 39 Quico Rocher (4.25/5)

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  • 40. 41 Grados Tronch (4/5)
    • Gingerbread brownie/chocolate /matcha green tea soil

2014-06-17 22.25.13 2014-06-17 22.24.53

Nahm | Bangkok | Sep ’14 | “precision”

20 Sep
  • Rating: 18/20
  • Address: Metropolitan by COMO, 27 South Sathorn Road, Tungmahamek Sathorn, Bangkok 10120 Thailand
  • Phone: +66 2 625 3388.
  • Price per pax: THB2500 [set menu + drinks] ($78 at 1 USD = 32.2 THB)
  • Value: 4/5
  • Dining time: 90 minutes
  • Chef: David Thompson
  • Style: Traditional Thai

 

2014-09-03 21.48.52 2014-09-03 21.46.12 2014-09-03 21.46.08

Three things really impressed me about my first dinner at Nahm. The first was a dessert that was a symphony of heaven, combining icy coconut milk with hot crispy sesame biscuits broken within for an imitatio of the most delicious bowl of cornflakes, with the intermediate soft texture of sweet-sour custard apple. The second was a relish dish that featured two top-class and novel (to me) ingredients, white turmeric and “sour leaves”. The third was a general feeling of precision that pervaded all dishes. No matter whether I loved the dish, or merely liked it, I felt that the cooking was precisely calculated to produce the effect it ended up having. The little touches – the surprisingly satisfying crunch of the apple eggplant, the betel leaf taco in the canapes – all felt thoroughly thought through.

I’ve met a few food enthusiasts since I’ve returned to Singapore. Their reactions to Nahm have on the whole, been polarized. I don’t believe that at such a precise restaurant, the fault is some variance on the end of Nahm. Rather, the root cause is the inflated expectation created by the breathless acclaim it has been receiving recently (culminating in being named Asia’s Best Restaurant for 2014). Any list that claims to pick a #1 restaurant is silly, there are good restaurants, better restaurants, and the best restaurants, but there will never be a #1 restaurant. Rene Redzepi, writing in his recent one-year journal “A Work in Progress”, mentions how much pressure being named #1 restaurant in the World piled on him, and how he was unable to enjoy his work in the first half of 2011. (If there’s one big thing Michelin does right, it’s keeping a non-ranked 1st tier of restaurants – the three stars). I can’t tell how much pressure being named #1 restaurant in Asia brings to the Nahm kitchen and Chef David Thompson, but it changes the diner’s mindset to “once-in-a-lifetime-ism”, setting up expectations of ortolans flying out of cakes and stepping in expecting the last supper.

And Nahm is poorly suited to play the role of “once-in-a-lifetime” experience, because it does not convey to the average international diner (and that includes me) drama and narrative. Firstly, the dishes come out all at the same time, family-style. The tyranny of the tasting menu is well-remarked, but temporal sequencing of dishes allows narrative in a way that family-style serving does not. Secondly, Nahm’s drama and narrative (as far as I can tell) draws upon its revival of centuries-old traditional Thai recipes, written in ancient Thai cookbooks, and therefore set in a culture and language that most international travellers cannot parse. This means that these international diners evaluate the food on a purely solipsistic* basis. And Nahm does Thai food superbly well. But between aversions to spiciness (barbarism or misfortune) and unfamiliarity, a solipsistic basis in evaluating dishes served family-style results in a disjointed experience of “I like this, not so much that”, which prevents the narrative build-up (crystallization a la Stendhal) that is almost surely necessary for “once-in-a-lifetime experiences”.

There are weaknesses. The cocktail program could be improved, for instance, to shy away from tacky combinations like the Coconut Soup Martini, which wasn’t very good. But the unique feature of Nahm is its promise to revive traditional Thai dishes and serve them to the discriminating public – and such a strength, abetted by David Thompson’s precise cooking and laudable ingredients sourcing, justify Nahm’s acclaim.


*[There are a couple of magical moments at Nahm (the dessert, and the wonderful ingredients: white turmeric, apple eggplant, sour leaves) to this dining solipsist. But without the context of reading a very many Thai cookbooks, Nahm does not seem to have the whimsical transport of Alice in Wonderland at the Fat Duck, nor the intense meditativeness of Mugaritz, nor a willful commitment to the dying strains of nouvelle cuisine a la L’Ambroisie. (restaurants which are undeniably of the top echelon in their countries). We have come to expect drama and narrative with our food, but these Stendhal-esque crystallizations will only deepen around restaurants whose histories we care to know, and able to know. As long as the native larder is a cipher to us, we will only engage with foreign food at the level of a solipsist (cardinal sins I have committed liberally, in my write-ups on South America especially). My rating of Nahm here is from the viewpoint of a solipsist aspiring to be an ex-solipsist.]

**Rather amusingly, the next table, a couple, ended up asking for Pad Thai when confronted with the menu. Given the possibly foreign and recent origin of Pad Thai, it would have been out of place at Nahm. But how in the world do you get a reservation at Nahm while remaining ignorant of the kind of Thai food they serve?


2014-09-03 21.52.46

  • Chicken-Pork-Prawn, palm sugar, shallot, garlic, served on a slice of pineapple (4.25/5)

2014-09-03 21.54.14

  • thai sabai (mekhong, white sugar, sweet basil, lime)

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  • CANAPES
    • ขนมเบื้องญวณ (prawn and coconut wafers with pickled ginger) (4.5/5)
    • ปูซ่อนกลิ่น (blue swimmer crab, peanuts and pickled garlic of rice cakes) (4.25/5)
    • กอแระหอยแมลงภู่ (grilled mussels – southern style) (4.25/5)
    • เมี่ยงปลากุเลา (salted threadfin perch with ginger, chillies and green mango on betel leaves) (4/5)
      • a terrific, bitter-ish taste from betel, taco-like around the sour green mango and salty bit of fish.

2014-09-03 22.04.06

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  • CURRY
    • แกงกะทิปูม้า (coconut and tumeric curry of blue swimmer crab with calamansi lime) (4.5/5)

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  • SALAD
    • าใบบัวบกใส่กุ้งแม่น้ าหมูรวน (salad of fresh river prawns with pork and asian pennywort) (4/5)

2014-09-03 22.16.02

  • SOUP
    • ต้มย าไก่กะทิ (coconut and chicken soup with deep fried garlic, green mango and chilli) (4.25/5)
      • Unusual, an opaque soup that had green mango to add a sour tinge.

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  • RELISH
    • น้ าพริกมะขามสด (fresh tamarind relish with minced prawns, pork and chillies with braised mackerel, deep-fried quail eggs and fresh vegetables) (4.25/5)
      • This had fresh-tasting white tumeric slices (the best way I kind describe fresh white tumeric is that it has a mild clean onion taste, but without the astringency, firm, and a joy to eat)
      • http://www.thaifoodandtravel.com/ingredients/turmeric.html
      • The “sour leaf” (that’s how it was described) was great, possessing a mild and pleasant sourness that is milder than any lemon or lime I have tried. Cooks who enjoy using subtle effects, would benefit from a fresh supply of these sour leaves. Served with banana flower.

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  • STIR-FRIED, STEAMED AND GRILLED
    • หมูผัดน้ าพริกกุ้งเสียบและมะเขือเปราะ (stir-fried pork with dried prawns, apple eggplants and chillies) (4.75/5)
      • The apple eggplant had an enchanting texture, like soft jelly with a satisfying crunch. A brilliant ingredient.
      • Highly spicy

2014-09-03 22.26.17

  • c3 martini (coconut soup martini)
    • slightly too unguent for my taste.

2014-09-03 22.16.41

family style serving

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  • Green Mango with Sugar
    • Palate cleansing)

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  • DESSERT
    • น้อยหน่าน ้ากะทิกับขนมดอกจอก (custard apple in coconut cream with sesame biscuits) (5/5)
      • A dish to die for. These fresh sesame biscuits were still coated with just the thinnest film of oil when they were served fresh next to a cold bowl of iced coconut cream. When you break up the warm sesame-encrusted biscuits over the iced coconut cream, it feels like eating the world’s best* bowl of breakfast cereal. Instead of cold milk, we get the rich taste of cold coconut milk, and biting into the sweet warm biscuits like crunching into fresh warm sugared cornflakes. A magical contrast of hot-and-cold, crunchy-and-soupy.
      • (*joint-1st breakfast cereal dish, with the Sweet Grain Cereal of birch in Providence, half the world away)
      • Custard apples provide a sour-sweet soursop taste, with firmer texture, a beautiful dish. Truly spectacular.

2014-09-03 22.57.27

  • Thai petit fours (clockwise from top right)
    • Young coconut milk biscuit.
    • Egg flour and almond
    • Grated coconut
    • Caramelized sesame with peanut

2014-09-03 23.07.44

Sant Pau | Sant Pol de Mar | Jun ’14 | “playful surrealism”

31 Aug
  • Rating: 17.5/20
  • Address: Carrer Nou, 10, 08395 Sant Pol de Mar, Barcelona, Spain
  • Phone: +34 937 60 06 62
  • Price per pax: ~€193 ($254 at 1 EUR = 1.31 USD)
  • Value: 2.5/5
  • Dining time: 180 minutes
  • Chef: Carme Ruscadella
  • Style: Creative Catalan
  • Michelin Stars: 3

2014-06-17 12.26.13 2014-06-17 12.27.21 2014-06-17 12.28.09

SURREALISM. Surrealism is alive and well in Catalonia, only domesticated on a plate at Sant Pau. The kitchen of Carme Ruscadella cooks in a whimsical way that echoes her great Catalan artistic predecessors, but through the necessary precision to maintain 3 Michelin stars forestalling the excesses of Dali, a fascination with communicating geometrical shapes evoking Miro but departing from his primodial soup aesthetic with its liking for geometric precision.

THE ROOTS OF SURREALISM at my meal at Sant Pau:

  1. Fusion: (a Dali-esque technique recalling his 3-dimensional works like Lobster Telephone): “Padrón and rice croquette” Two typical Catalan tapas, the padron pepper and the croquette, were fused into a padron croquette. Seductively mute and provocative, a recently-birthed Venus.
  2. Food-Text Interplay: “Lobster pizza: raw and cooked vegetables, creamy mozzarella”: Lobster “pizza”, overflowing a dough base, had none of the flat pizza geometry, instead forming a tower of ingredients. To describe it as “pizza” was accurate in the technical sense that there was dough underneath, and in the sense that the flavors were broadly what we’d recognise as margherita pizza. The description was off-beat. It was quite a change from my last major meal at Asador Etxebarri, where all the dish descriptions were literal and minimalist (mirroring the food). It was as whimsical as Mugaritz, but the dish descriptions at Mugaritz were literal, minimalist, and the surprise came not from the dissimilarity between the menu description and the dish presented, but purely from the menu description itself: “7 Spice Rattle”; “”Fifth Quarter Octopus”. For “Lobster Pizza”, it was superficially plausible to be served a lobster pizza, but the full effect of surprise was completed only when seeing the dish, since it had undergone at least one reimagining. (This was the same effect as being served “Mac and Cheese” at Per Se: superficially plausible, but the effect is only complete when the creative reimagining shows up)*.
  3. Atypical Geometric Constructions:Gambes on Sailor’s Toast: tribute to the local sailors cuisine”: Instead of serving the dish with prawns on top, the bread is served with prawns wrapped around it.
  4. Chimera: The Dragon at the end, was a chimera of 7 different textures, each sheet whimsically sculpted to resemble dragon-parts.

*(My favorite Food-Text Interplay at Per Se is the clever linguistic pun – “pearls” in “oysters and pearls” being tapioca pearls)

A MEAL AT SANT PAU AS FOOD

As a meal for showcasing artistic vision, Sant Pau is first-class. But tastewise, much of the meal was merely pleasant, with nothing that remains as a strong impression two months later. It is not the case at Sant Pau that dishes are composed to be eye-candy without having a strong taste-backbone – frequently the more visually stunning dishes were the ones that tasted better. Instead, the clunkers were dishes like “John dory and curry: courgette, eringui and potatoes”, and “Vegetal Dim Sum”, dishes in the International Style that tasted pleasant and were precisely executed, but seemed at Sant Pau to lack fireworks in both aesthetics and tastiness.

As a diner my overall impression was that, besides the stupendously delicious bread, every morsel of food at Sant Pau, taste-wise, was precisely calculated to be pleasant. The strongest impressions I carry are the riot of colours and the geometric precision of the dishes – a vibrant surreal feast for the eyes, the literal feast more muted. On the whole, I found Sant Pau worth the trip, there was a sense of play and mischief here I haven’t found elsewhere.


2014-06-17 12.28.13 2014-06-17 12.28.45 2014-06-17 12.29.18 2014-06-17 12.31.09 2014-06-17 12.31.35 2014-06-17 12.35.39

Sant Pau bakes some of the best bread that I have had. Crusty (+++) , and full of browned flavor, it was among the top 2-3 on the monthlong Europe trip I’ve been chronicling, if not actually the top. I could not resist asking for more, and more, crusty bits (5/5)

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  • Tomato and strawberry velvet, manzanilla, quinoa (4.25/5)
    • tomato/strawberry, gazpacho, manzanilla sherry, and black quinoa, served in a cocktail glass

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  • Padrón and rice croquette (4.5/5)
    • Two typical Catalan tapas, the padron pepper and the croquette, were fused into a padron croquette. Seductively mute and provocative, a recently-birthed Venus with a bit of cheese inside the padron pepper. Why isn’t this combination more popular? Delicious.

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  • Vegetal Dim Sum (4/5)
    • Chive dumpling, with a hint of Chinese ginger (a la xiaolongbao sauce), with a nice sour tomato-ish sauce.

2014-06-17 12.58.32 2014-06-17 13.01.53 2014-06-17 13.02.05 2014-06-17 13.06.24 2014-06-17 13.06.34

  • Norway lobster and coconut gnocchi: in tempura with shiso sauce (4.5/5)
    • The gnocchi, gelled as if agarified, a translucent sauce with a pesto-like sauce made of Shiso.
    • This was a good dish, the langoustines (they described it as “langoustines” when serving the dish) nicely seasoned, though it had less of the firm bite of the ones at Ledoyen.

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  • Lobster pizza: raw and cooked vegetables, creamy mozzarella (4.5/5)
    • Basil, mozzarella, tomato, squash blossom. As mentioned, it was superficially plausible to be served a lobster pizza, but the full effect of surprise was completed only when seeing the dish, since it had undergone at least one reimagining.
    • The tastes, while good, was no more than exactly a “lobster pizza”, which did not fire my culinary imagination beyond comfort food. The bread was a robust biscuit cracker.

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  • Miso and foie cubes: champignons, vegetables, umeboshi, lemon (4.25/5)
    • Seared foie, green peas, crisp champignons.
    • The miso was given a bit of sausage-y, unctuous meatiness from the foie.

2014-06-17 13.29.48 2014-06-17 13.32.57 2014-06-17 13.33.21 2014-06-17 13.33.01

  • Gambes on Sailor’s Toast: tribute to the local sailors cuisine (4.25/5)
    • The prawns were savory, a seafood toast an intense taste of seafood stew. It brought me to the docks of Sant Pol.

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  • Pirinese foal loin, black garlic, banana: medium-rare roasted (4.5/5)
    • Horse meat (why not?) with banana, a surprisingly good accompaniment with savory black garlic soil.
    • However, the meat was tender and relatively flavorless, unsurprising since it was a young foal. (veal often suffers from the same problem, the lack of distinctive taste of the meat) It was prepared well though.

2014-06-17 14.01.34 2014-06-17 14.02.00 2014-06-17 14.02.08 2014-06-17 14.02.36

  • Cheese for June – “Núm. 30 Second Series”: Serrat Gros, 3 combination with gamatxa wine and almonds
    • PRIMER JUEGO: Con cerezas bañadas en garnacha de Allela y almendras
    • SEGUNDO JUEGO: Dos cordones, de mazapán con garnacha y de queso
    • TERCER JUGEO: Macaron de almendra y garnacha relleno de queso
    • Serrat Gros: Queso artesano y de pastor (Ossera, Alt Urgell). Elaborado con leche cruda de cabras de raza alpina. Coagulación láctica, pasta blanda, piel enmohecida. Madurado en cava durante 8 semanas.
    • The first (undressed cheese) was notable for good cherries, juicy without being cloyingly sweet (4/5)
    • The second, with marzipan in a spiral was okay.(3.5/5)
    • The third, a raspberry macaron had good fruit flavor, contrasting with the cheese well (4.5/5)

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  • Pre Dessert: Calisay passion (4.5/5)
    • Passionfruit sorbet and Calysay, the tropical fruit liqueur, a refreshing trope.

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  • Cube: berries, shiso ice cream (3.75/5)
    • While I admire the Mondrian-esque construction, the shiso gelatin with raspberry, coconut, and a solid pillar of apple (I suspect this is important in its structural integrity) was taste-wise nothing special

2014-06-17 14.21.35

  • Tender almonds kiss, sea water (4.75/5)
    • The simplest dish, and the best (for some reason, the simplicity recalls a magical dessert of coconut and carrot at Asta in Boston)
    • Almond cream, fleur de sel, olive oil (fruity and green), with seawater-vanilla ice cream. Dotted with fresh almonds. Superb.

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  • Raisin tomatoes sponge: curd cheese, oregano, ratafía (4.5/5)
    • Tremendously sweet tomatoes (that were intensely raisin-ish, without a trace of tartness),  with sheep’s milk yoghurt, and coca – a sweet pizza-like pastry. The tomatoes had been oven-roasted, and not one bit of sugar was added – very surprising, given how sweet it was. Ratafia (a sweet liqueur) was in there somewhere (tomatoes?)
    • This was a clever dessert-pizza concept dish: the tomatoes functioning more as oversized raisins, the sheep’s milk yoghurt mirroring mozzarella, oregano mirroring basil (for the lobster pizza).
    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coca_(pastry)
    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ratafia
    • While Googling I also found an advert for a Tomaccio: an intensely sweet raisin tomato: http://www.raker.com/doc/raker.tomaccio.handout.pdf. Was this what I was served?

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  • Black and Green Olives, Aragón, sevillanas, sweet wine (4/5)
    • Olive oils, different types of olives blended with different kinds of chocolates. Minimalist, but I enjoyed the fruity-olive taste with chocolate. Pleasant

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  • The Dragon (4.25/5)
    • White chocolate
    • Black chocolate
    • Puff pastry, angel hair, pine nuts
    • Chocolate cookies
    • Lemon cookies
    • Licorice and sherbet philo
    • Mint brick
    • While reposing with a coffee in the garden, I was served the first in Sant Pau’s mythical beasts dessert series: The Dragon
  • Limoncello jelly – I was also given a tin to take home. Delicious.

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