ABaC | Barcelona | Jun ’14 | “maximalism”

16 Nov 2014-06-20 13.18.19
  • Rating: 18/20
  • Address: Avinguda del Tibidabo, 1, 08022 Barcelona, Spain
  • Phone:+34 933 19 66 00
  • Price per pax: ~€190 ($238 at 1 EUR = 1.25 USD)
  • Value: 3/5
  • Dining time: 150 minutes
  • Chef: Jordi Cruz [ex: Cercs Estany Clar (Barcelona), L’Angle de Sant Fruitós de Bages (Barcelona)]
  • Style: Modernist Catalan
  • Michelin Stars: 2

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There are for me two pertinent points about Jordi Cruz’s cuisine. Firstly, he does something memorable with top quality Catalan ingredients. As with the brilliant one-ingredient kokotxas dish at Mugaritz, I found the dish Chef Jordi Cruz made of the Catalan leek calçot absolutely stunning; and the lorito (pearly razorfish) very good. As a food tourist, I dislike restaurants which carry no signature of the region around them, as if they were trying to escape their surroundings, as if they were exiles in their own land. A really good restaurant should push the boundaries of what can be done with local ingredients. Perhaps that is why on this Spanish trip, I liked Mugaritz, Azurmendi, and ABaC more than Arzak and Akelarre. In the midst of modernist anarchy (the rule it seems in Spanish 2*’s and 3*’s) one needs these dishes to remind oneself that one actually is in Spain.

Secondly, he is of that modernist-style of ingredient assemblage, which both rebels against the nouvelle-cuisine idea of purity of taste, and as an extension of that culinary philosophy, a loose fluid plating style. “Nothing is true and everything is permitted”, at least when choosing ingredients for a dish. Chefs experiment, and diners pay for the privilege of trying the most successful of their experiments. Here at ABaC I encountered a cosmopolitan bunch – Momofuku Ko’s shaved foie, the intense savory candy of anago sauce etc. Among the novel compositions, a two part foie dish (foie with mole ice cream, foccaccia + pigeon tea + shaved foie) and a flavorful onion soup paired with spherified gruyere dumplings, were the most successful. Chef Jordi Cruz is one of the most talented chefs in this experimental style. His instincts tend toward bold flavors (there were no quiet meditative dishes, unlike Mugaritz), but the compositional instinct is true. My impression of ABaC is of a meal super-saturated with taste and colour -maximal maximalism.

If anything, that is the one thing that I feel could be improved at ABaC. My impression is that Chef Jordi is a flavor maximalist, with the flavor profile tuned to 11 on all dishes. Chef Jordi could yet vary the intensity of flavor in his cooking and deliver a few quieter dishes, in order to deliver a meal that is more than the sum of his flavorful hits, and has its own logical development. The art of listening to a full album may be a forgotten one in these days of Spotify, but the truth that a great album is never just an album of hits continues to apply. But it is a minor point. Overall, ABaC provides a very strong two-star standard meal.

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  • Nitro bloody mary (4.25/5)
    • vodka, tomato juice, salt, pepper, mixed with liquid nitrogen to form a granite
    • paired with slices of cherry and begonia flower petals
    • a good savory start to the meal

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  • the dark bread was crunchy and delicious (5/5) but the olive brioche was a bit cardboard-y (3.5/5), with some flour-y tastes inside

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  • Foie gras foccacia and foie gras butter with sweet corn crumb and mole ice cream (5/5)
    • A dish in two parts. First, a crunchy foccaccia slice with shaved frozen foie gras, with pigeon tea. (5/5) This was a fantastic adaptation of the Momofuku Ko technique of prepping foie. The warm pigeon tea, a consomme, helped to cut the richness of the foie even further. (The shaving already helps by introducing a aerated, fluffy texture to the foie)
    • Second, a foie butter, with corn powder and Mexican mole ice cream (5/5). I remember being hugely impressed by the mole ice cream.

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  • Frozen “Gazpacho” strawberries, tomatoes, basil and anchovies (4.25/5)
    • Spherified tomato water with liqueur

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  • Our Chinese bread, fried brioche, roasted eel, smoked aioli and Japanese mustard (4.25/5)
    • it tasted like its description – a salty anago (salt-water eel) burger.
    • full of intense sweet-salty flavor, the fried brioche and aioli was a guilty pleasure.

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  • Young leeks roasted with coconut ice cream (5/5)
    • genius. barbecued calçots, a kind of Catalan sweet leek, was well paired with balsamic vinegar and coconut ice cream. it seems so simple, but the combination of sweet sourness from the balsamic vinegar, richness from the coconut ice cream really highlighted the mild sweetness of the calçots, which had none of the pungency of leek. simplicity itself, and an apparent variation on the Catalan tradition of calçotada (calçot BBQ)
    • http://www.culinarybackstreets.com/barcelona/2013/calcots/

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  • “Parmesan gnocchi” and morels, acidulated water of mushrooms, bergamot and olive oil (4.25/5)
    • liquid parmesan gnocchi, raw champignon “button” mushrooms, fried girolle/chanterelle mushrooms, mushroom consomme
    • BTW, what’s with menus listing girolles as morels? it’s a common mistranslation.

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  • Oyster with beef, baby radishes and sake (4/5)
    • Gillardeau oyster, veal soup jelly, radish, veal tendon. the veal tendon and Gillardeau oyster were similar in texture

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  • Squid treated as a risotto with hydrated tigernuts and caviar (4/5)
    • Tiger nuts, sweet and crunchy as a chestbut, with rosewater and Iranian caviar. A sweet nut cream for the risotto

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  • Onion soup reminiscence, cured egg yolk, onion water, butter bread and gruyere cheese (4.75/5)
    • Gruyere dumplings, 6 in a row, around a yolk, in an onion soup. Great taste, the burst of mild-flavored cheese coating the mouth when I bit into one of those gruyere dumplings was fantastic

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  • Smoked steak tartare, seasoned beef, cooked egg yolk and a veil of mustard with fine herbs (3.5/5)


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  • Palamós prawn with miso aubergine and scorched aubergine infusion (4.25/5)
    • aubergine water, Palamós prawn a la plancha. a sweet combination
    • the miso-aubergine water tasted of a pleasant savoriness, like soy sauce

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  • Marinated Iberian pork with foie gras and barbecued Potatoes (4.5/5)
    • The filet mignon cut of Iberico pork, foie (with spongy texture) with a good sear, charcoal-ed bread; with rice foam. A coming together of very flavorful ingredients, the iberico had a profound flavor. This was a pleasing duet of dishes, the clean taste of white fish segueing into the rich tastes of iberico pork, dabbed with some more foie (a favorite ingredient of the chef). I came to appreciate here two features of Chef Jordi Cruz’s cuisine:
      • Firstly, his cuisine is not a sauce-driven one. Rather, it is driven by the high quality Spanish and Catalan ingredients available to him. Calçots, iberico pork, Lorito, Palamós prawns are clearly meant to drive their respective dishes.
      • Secondly, his style of cooking is a series of compositions that takes those ingredients as starting points; no ingredient is too sacred to be blended into a pop-culture mixer. Even with top-quality ingredients, he does not hesitate to pair them with bold flavors. Not for this chef the nouvelle-cuisine emphasis on how the ingredient tastes. He does not hesitate to put anago into a fried Chinese bun, or Gillardeau oyster with veal soup. When it succeeds, the result is genius – such as the calçots with balsamic vinegar and coconut ice cream. It is a style of cooking with no reference points except the Chef’s imagination. It must be what Arzak once was.

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  • Yuzu & Meringue cupcake (4.25/5)
    • yuzu sorbet, strawberry meringue cupcake in rice paper (obulato?)

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  • Chocolate, summer truffle, and “Tuber Albidum Pico” with yoghurt, flower honey, rosemary flowers and nuts (4/5)
    • I could not detect the truffle – but vanilla cream, white chocolate, yuzu cream was generally pleasant

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  • A dried-flower glass, crunchy yoghurt, flower honey and violet icecream. (4.5/5)
    • Flower paper, violet icecream, blueberry, yoghurt. The violet ice cream had a most brilliant and unearthly blue colour.

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  • Mignardises
    • Strawberry lipstick; yuzu macaron, liquid truffle (pistachio liqueur), tangerine jelly…

2014-06-20 16.16.06

Frivolity: Monument Valley and Slay

16 Nov

* Note: Non-food post.

I’ve been using my iPad a lot in the past year (you can see it in many of my restaurant visits), mainly using the Kindle app to read books (stranded from Amazon 2-day delivery, the immediacy of access to a Kindle book is currently an acceptable trade-off for the lack of a physical book). But this month, I’ve been trying some of the iPad games, and I’ve been really impressed by Slay and Monument Valley. (Another honorable mention: Hitman GO)


Monument Valley, a beautiful iOS piece of art masquerading as a game, released some paid DLC this weekend. I happily paid the $1.99 for the extra content of Monument Valley (though it apparently created some bad ratings for the game on the iOS app store). It surprises me that anyone would complain about the cost, because the hour of beautiful visuals that Ustwo has created is stunning. Innovative gimmicks like the twisting serpentine pillars (appendix world 2), the Escherian ending of the halcyon world (appendix world 5), and the perspective shifting world of deceit (appendix world 6) are all mind-expanding additions to the stable of impossible geometries in Monument Valley. The meditativeness reminds me of the casual game Knytt (a casual game I played about 5-6 years ago), but is way more lush.

UX Design note: I also like the not-too-responsive button in the world select, where I can press the button once, and before it fades to black (to the world), I can press the world select button again. That UX gives me a sense that the world moves at its own pace.

Game Design note: I also really like that there is no need for a reset button. That to me signifies thoughtful level design.

Monument Valley is not really a game in the sense of skill. It is a completely linear journey through a beautiful piece of art. The challenge comes from figuring out the right method of manipulating the levers and cranks on the level. But I love the world of impossible geometries it portrays.


Slay is one of the most addictive games I have played. I first played it on a friend’s Palm in 2003, constantly playing it. Then I re-encountered it in 2006-7, playing the Windows version on my Desktop. I even created a few maps for the game. I recently re-discovered the game on iOS, and have been whiling my hours away conquering imaginary islands.

For the uninitiated, Slay is a game where you are set on a single island with 5 other players, and have to conquer the entire island and make them your colour. The territory is hexagonal in nature, and you have various units (peasants, spearmen, knights, barons) that can conquer various structures (houses and castles). The basic rules are here: http://www.windowsgames.co.uk/slayRules.html

The geometrically increasing food costs of the units (peasants = 2, spearmen = 6, knights = 18, barons = 54)  keeps it a brutal game, one of sudden cut and thrust. Over extend yourself, and a winning position is quickly turned into a losing one.

What is truly impressive is that Slay is the work of one Sean O’Connor, who wrote it for the Atari ST all the way back in 1989 (!) I have not seen a website detailing the Slay strategies I’ve figured out (or is that re-figured out?), so here are a handful of tips from my most recent deep-dive into Slay (on highest difficulty):

  1. Your units protect your land. So it is not always necessary to use your peasants (1st level) to find new land. Sometimes, the best use of a new unit is to protect a tenuous piece of land you already own. In the quest for the new, we risk losing the old.
  2. You don’t have to be protect every square of land you have from potential cut-off. It makes you too conservative, and the AI will grow at a faster rate than you. On the highest difficulty, the AI will make every effort to link two pieces of land (e.g. Brown) on either side of your land bridge (Light Green), in a pincer movement to establish a connection between his territories
    • But if there are two colours (say Brown and Yellow), it may not be necessary to protect the land bridge. That is a calculated risk one must take – and assume that the opponents (AI or human) are not malicious.
    • These unguarded risks are some of the most exciting parts of Slay. If the same player is on either side of your unguarded territory, it is 100% that he will try to take it, so guard it. But if different players are on either side of unguarded territory, it is quite likely that the territory will go unmolested.
  3. If you fail at a map, try and try again, to see the recurring patterns. Is Brown dominating lower right, and then overwhelming you quickly at upper left and lower left? (the situation on the map Rouft, also the win I was most proud of). Then put a castle on lower right, playing a delaying action so that the (inevitable) extinction of your territory lower right requires Brown to use his knight (3rd level) and that slows Brown down enough to link the two territories on the left side before Brown comes like a tidal wave.
  4. My favorite part of Slay is game-changing “conga line”, a strategy viable in the last third of the game, where one can churn out 3-5 new peasants per turn. In that phase, the fun part of dividing the opponent’s (there is usually only one in the end-game) territory begins, since the peasants can come out of your territory like a cheap snake and bisect/trisect/quadra-sect the opponent’s territory. Since upkeep for the biggest units increase geometrically, I much prefer using an endless rush of small units to kill the opponent’s big units (knights and barons) by partitioning territory so that they starve to death, rather than killing their big-units by creating an expensive white elephant (e.g. baron vs knight). Example: I used the conga line to defeat an opponent who already had control of the center in Rouft, by getting behind the lines of his big units. The downside of this method is that the many deaths create a thicket of trees, but you will have the little units to chop them down. At the end of that game on Rouft, the entire island was full of trees.
  5. Sprinkle in large units as Knights to maximise your chances of keeping your little men alive.
    • 1-3-1-1-3-1.
    • In this way, you can go 6-deep into an opponent’s territory. (Replace with spearmen/barons as appropriate)
    • Notice your line can only be killed by barons (4th level), or by cutting off this expensive line at the root.
  6. Use castles to maintain your hold on the conga-line. Peasants and castles are your best friend. It is analogous to a tower rush in Warcraft 3.
  7. Keep castles on the side of territories with (significantly) less than 18 hexes. This is so they can’t sustain a knight to knock it down.
  8. In the early game, link your territories as fast as is feasible, while making sure your territories are protected.
    • Your hut will protect adjacent hexes in early game, but so will other opponents’ huts. I haven’t figured out if it is better to first take hexes that next to my hut AND an opponent’s hut, or to boldly link up hexes a bit further away from my hut.
    • One possible point of improvement in my game is better consideration of the opponent’s situation. There are 6 players on any map. I usually err on the side of defensive caution in the first third, only turning heavily offensive in the last third of the game. But perhaps a better consideration of the opponent’s circumstances will allow me to take more risks in the first third of the game. So far the only systematic criterion I’ve come up to take better early-game risks is what I detail in tip 2, which is to assume non-malice when there are two different players on either side of my tenuous territory.



image image_1 image_2 image_3 image_4 image_5 image_6


Another illustration of “divide and conquer”


JAAN | Singapore | Oct ’14 | “luxury and naturalism co-existing”

9 Nov
  • Rating: 17.5/20
  • Address: 2 Stamford Road, Swissotel The Stamford, Level 70, Equinox Complex, Singapore 178882
  • Phone: +65 6837 3322
  • Price per pax: SGD$375 [10 course option] (USD$291 at 1 SGD = 0.7761 USD)
  • Value: 3/5
  • Dining time: 150 minutes
  • Chef: Julien Royer
  • Style: Naturalist French

What I like about JAAN:

  • Every great restaurant has a voice, the voice of an executive chef who puts his vision on a plate. At JAAN that voice is developing, but it is unmistakably Chef Julien Royer’s:
    • Impeccably cooked ingredients. Dishes are always technically well executed (for instance, the crispy-scaled Amadai)
    • Ingredient profile tends towards the traditional luxury ingredients (truffles, iberico, abalone, uni, good wagyu, and Chef Julien’s favorite – obsiblue prawn), from artisanal producers across the world.
    • Many of the dishes will have mushrooms or truffles of some sort. The signature mushroom ketchup sauce (made from repeated straining a grab bag of mushrooms) is especially great.
    • There will be at least one vegetable garden dish (as a homage to his period in Michel Bras’s kitchen)
  • Even with the exalted view of Singapore from the 70th floor of the Swissotel, the cooking remains humble in two important ways. Firstly, the chef is not overwhelmed by the luxury ingredients, and he does not hesitate to make sunchokes and beetroot two of the star dishes of his ten-course tasting menu. Secondly, the chef does not warp ingredients with molecular techniques beyond all recognition, his ingredients preserve their natural shape while being cooked.
  • The mushroom tea with ceps sabayon, and 55’ Rosemary Smoked Egg, are reliable crowd pleasers.
  • The Choconuts dessert has surely reached a pinnacle of perfection. It is one of the best chocolate desserts I can remember having.

What I feel can be improved at JAAN:

  • I felt that my meal this time round could have had better composed dishes. While the individual ingredients were impeccably cooked, the sum was sometimes just equal to the parts. As an example, my last main, the Toriyama beef, was paired with tremendously good Hokkaido creamed corn and grilled corn, but a greasy cornbread somewhat detracted from the clean fat of the beef. Similarly, the amuse of black sesame sponge and smoked eel made little sense to me, and the first main, a “supergroup” of Hokkaido sea urchin, obsiblue prawn, and caviar was neither really synergistic nor intellectually stimulating (I had the same reaction to a very similar dish at Amber in Hong Kong earlier this year – I just felt that luxury ingredients were their own raison d’etre for the dish, and it was on the menu more as to signify luxury than for intrinsic merit)
  • The dessert program should become more comprehensive. In a sequence of three desserts, having two of them as sorbets (and very run-of-the-mill sorbets at that) is disappointing.
  • The bread program can also be improved, the best parts of the breads were the charmingly pointed baguette ends (curled up like leprechaun shoes), but the rest of the breads were slightly humdrum.

For refined, well-executed cuisine, JAAN is the first restaurant that comes to my mind. It is easy to forget the Chef Julien is still very young. I wonder how the cuisine at JAAN will develop in the next year or two.

Rating: 17.5/20

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  • Lentil Hummus, cereals tuile

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  • Black sesame sponge, smoked eel (3.5/5)
    • I didn’t understand this amuse, and why black sesame goes with smoked eel. The flavors were separate, even the form – solid sponge with solid eel, one after the other – maintained separateness

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  • Parmesan tart, tomato fondue

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  • Cantal and walnut crackers

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  • Mushroom tea, cep sabayon (4.5/5)
    • A very good amuse, a Julien Royer standard. The earthiness from the mushrooms paired as well as ever with the light yet substantial savory egg-foam sabayon. What elevated it (I cannot remember if this is a new touch since my last meal last year) was the toasted buckwheat on top of the sabayon. When the mushroom tea is poured in, the toasted buckwheat maintained its crunchiness, providing a crunchy texture. But it also gave a taste of Christmas to the tea. It is hard to describe the taste of buckwheat, but it is as impactful as nutmeg.

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  • HOKKAIDO SEA URCHIN Obsiblue prawn, Kaluga queen caviar (4.25/5)
    • Seaweed butter, burnt toast. The obsiblue prawn was made into a jelly this time (did you know? Obsiblue prawn is available all year round).
    • This was a dish delicious by virtue of its ingredients, but it had little synergy. The mild burst of marine taste from the urchin and obsiblue prawn jelly was over in one or two bites.
    • Reminiscent of the 2* Amber’s signature dish: “Hokkaido sea urchin in lobster jelly, with cauliflower, caviar, and crispy seaweed”. A popular confection – sea urchin, crustacean jelly and caviar. But while this trio of ingredients may feel decadent by virtue of its ingredients, I don’t quite taste the synergy.
    • The idea of this dish also seems an unwieldly mashup on two ideas: the refined little supergroup of luxury ingredients in a single bowl (e.g. found at Amber), and the sea urchin – black toast combination  (e.g. found at Jean-Georges). I was a bit confused as to whether to eat the dish with a spoon or by using my burnt toast as a dip.

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  • BEETROOT ‘COLLECTION’ Burrata artigiana, honeycombs, radish (4.25/5)
    • I especially liked the beetroot sorbet, something which captured the earthy simplicity of beetroot, available to any chef.
    • The scattered bits of honeycomb added marvellous texture and taste to the dish.

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  • WILD ABALONE Grenobloise (3.75/5)
    • Baby abalone, burgundy truffle, mushroom ketchup.
    • The baby abalone was quite tough. The best part was the mushroom ketchup (a signature sauce here, straining different mushrooms)
    • It remained separate. Burgundy truffle only imparts a mild truffle taste to the dish.
    • Grenobloise (a parsley-brown butter) sauce is listed on the menu, but I have little impression of it.

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  • AUTUMN GARDEN Roots vegetables, mushroom ketchup, Burgundy truffle (3.5/5)
    • Sunchoke, parsley sponge made to look like parsley.
    • A sweet onion smell permeated the salad
    • But a bit too much sunchoke? It was present as puree, chips, roasted etc.

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  • 55’ ROSEMARY SMOKED ORGANIC EGG Ratte potato, chorizo iberico, buckwheat (4.5/5)
    • 55 minutes cooked egg at 63.7 degrees celsius (they’re getting much more precise). Robustly flavored iberico chorizo, the shape of matchsticks with an explosion of umami in every bite.
    • A very good signature dish

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  • AMADAI ‘RETOUR D’ORIENT’ Confit romanesco broccoli, coquillages, argan oil (4.75/5)
    • Pickled and roasted romensco broccoli, crayfish, miso caramel
    • Very well done crispy scales on the Amadai, (the scales needs first to be scrubbed to face up, and then fried without touching the flesh of the fish). The purple anaho flower gave a fresh taste to the dish. The miso caramel was delicious

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  • GRILLED TORIYAMA BEEF Baby girolles, Hokkaido corn, sherry vinegar (4/5)
    • Toriyama wagyu, Hokkaido creamed corn, roasted corn, girolle mushrooms, and Hokkaido corn cornbread.
    • While the wagyu was perfectly cooked, and full of clean beef flavor, unfortunately the cornbread, which was greasy and undisciplined, detracted from the clean oiliness of the wagyu. I had to set aside the cornbread to focus on tastes of the wagyu.
    • But the creamed corn, and the roasted corn, were full of clean corn flavor. The pickled onion  was an inspired touch.

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  • KYOHO GRAPE Elderflower, lemon, granite
    • Elderflower pearls, lemon granite

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  • CHOCONUTS ‘TART’ Taste and textures (5/5)
    • I was very pleased with this dessert. Chocolate in multiple forms: a perfectly formed quenelle of chocolate ice-cream (puzzlingly described to me by the Front-of-House as a “sorbet”), with chocolate foam, chocolate balls, chocolate tuile, on a chocolate tart, with a huge dollop of hot chocolate cream being applied as the coup-de-grace.
    • Marvelous and classic chocolate dessert, one of the very best I have tried anywhere in the world. Decadent, delicious, and (very quickly) disappeared.

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  • CUCUMBER Mint, milk (3.5/5)
    • Cucumber sorbet, apple granite, mint, milk meringue on top.
    • Desserts seem to be a weaker program here at JAAN. Of the 3 dessert courses, only one was a real dessert (as opposed to sorbets, which can be slapped together with very little thought). I hope the kitchen will step up their game on dessert offerings in general. While the Choconuts tart was excellent, a restaurant of this calibre should really have two proper desserts on a 10 course menu.

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  • Mignardises (anti clockwise from 10 o’clock): Rosemary ice-cream with chocolate; coconut marshmallow; canele; cep-mushroom + chocolate macaron

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”

12 Oct 2014-05-18 12.33.00
  • 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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