Ashino in Singapore (Feb ’16): “compelling fish, flawed sushi”

20 Apr

Ashino is a Tokyo-style sushi-joint in Singapore specializing in serving aged cuts of fish, which opened in 2015. The chef is an emigre from Japan, and has its fair share of regulars who seek a more off-beat Tokyo-style sushi experience, than the standardized edomae menu that places like nearby Shinji serve.

I found Ashino-san’s handling of the aged fish quite compelling. The standout cut from our February lunch was his 24-day aged grouper, which was fatty and rich in tasty oils, and sublime with squeeze of lemon. Accentuating the impression were crunchy pickle strips which gave the impression of eating a decadent round of fish and chips.

The chef is also an iconoclast more generally, revelling in sushi esoterica. His tsubugai sushi was delicious, his cross-hatching of the common whelk giving it the crunchy texture akin to true hand-dived scallop.

The weakness of the meal revolved around his rice. First, he served a few pieces to the customer by hand. It was a nice touch. But it revealed the inadequate compression of his rice. His shari fell apart easily, and twice when I had reached out to take a piece from his hand, the shari broke into half. I’m not sure why he chose to pack the rice so loosely –  perhaps it was an attempt to pack more air inside the rice, but he had not mastered the technique.

Second, his sushi sometimes felt unbalanced, with pieces that would be better served as sashimi. I think this is because he is an iconoclast when it comes to toppings with his sushi, and therefore there is a higher risk of failure with his pieces. The sushi pieces for lunch were these:

  • akami
  • botanebi
  • tsubugai
  • kawahagi
  • kinmedai
  • ika
  • chutoro
  • aji
  • nodoguro
  • whitebait
  • uni
  • anago

Of this group, tsubugai, kawahagi, nodoguro, are uncommon cuts, while whitebait was completely new for me. I felt the nodoguro overpowered the rice, especially since Ashino-san gave it a peppery and citrusy skin. The whitebait was visually arresting since they were cooked 4-to-a-group on a cherry blossom leaf. But they were rather dry and tasteless as a topping. The kawahagi sushi was topped with ankimo sauce and spring onions but it is hard to generate any gustatory excitement from a tasteless fish that’s basically a human chew toy.

Overall I found the experience an educational one. All things being equal I value an educational meal with flaws, more than a boring but tasty meal executed with perfection, so I would return to Ashino because I don’t see many chefs here championing the esoteric cuts.

Other links:


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  • Magurozuke, Aomori, aged 9 days (4.25/5)

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  • Botanebi (4.5/5)
    • Creamy

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  • Chawanmushi with botanebi eggs (4.5/5)

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  • Tsubugai sushi (4.25/5)

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  • Pacific Saury (grilled) (3.75/5)

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  • Kawahagi sushi (4/5)

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  • Ankimo

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  • Kinmedai, aged 18 days

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  • Shiroebi with yuzu (3.25/5)
    • Too dry

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  • Grouper, aged 24 days (4.75/5)

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  • Ika/Cuttlefish (4/5)

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  • Chutoro

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  • Aji

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  • Nodoguro (4.25/5)
    • Peppery and citrusy skin

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  • Whitebait (3.75/5)

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  • Uni

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  • Anago (salt) (4.25/5)
    • Powdery

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  • Tamago (4.5/5)

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  • Green tea ice cream

Taka by Sushi Saito in KL (Apr ’16)

4 Apr

Malaysia is not a country known for its fine-dining scene. Living in Singapore, my first thoughts of Malaysian food are nasi lemak, Sarawak laksa, KL hokkien mee, roti canai and fried carrot cake. So it was a big surprise to hear over lunch at Sushi Saito last year that Takashi Saito, probably the best sushi chef of his generation, had chosen Kuala Lumpur as the site of his first outpost worldwide, which would open in April. “Malaysia??” I wondered if I had misheard. I had just flown in from KL to Tokyo, and that very week the Police Headquarters had conveniently caught fire, the latest episode in the shameful 1MDB scandal to engulf ruling party UMNO. Investor confidence had fallen, and the exchange value of the ringgit was falling rapidly. Malaysia was such a counterintuitive country for Saito to base his first outpost in. Singapore, or Hong Kong, or even Bangkok or China would have been much safer from an economic point of view.

But entering the finished restaurant on the day Saito said it would open, I could discern some strong reasons for being in Malaysia: No expense had been spared in outfitting the restaurant. The counter is large and spacious, the kitchen equipment state-of-the-art, the doors and decor threaded with clouds, the private dining rooms well-equipped. The restaurant has impressive financial backing, and decor-wise is a world away from even Saito’s stylish Roppongi outlet. Second, he would not be competing in the same city as his master Kanesaka. Third, KL has a lot of rich folks, but its dining scene is a lot less saturated than Singapore’s or the other Asian cities – a local Saito would likely dominate the market.

We began the meal with a light beer…


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  • Baby shrimp (shiroebi):
    • Soft to the bite, delicate.

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  • Steamed abalone, boiled octopus
    • Excellent Chiba abalone with very tender texture
    • Saito’s octopus is quite magical, the outer tissue becoming an amorphous sweet and tender jelly that completely defies one’s expectation, especially if one has only encountered the firm octopus that most sushi places serve.

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  • Skewered firefly squid (hotaru ika)
    • Excellent, creamy grilled squid

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  • The Season’s First Bonito, Soy Marinated (katsuozuke)
    • Good balance of soy and ginger

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  • Hairy crab (kegani)
    • I liked the flavor of the innards, but the crab flesh I felt was a bit less sweet than I remember in August or December.

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  • Grilled rockfish (nodoguro)
    • Great skin, though the flesh was just a tad drier (like 5%) than I would liked it to be

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  • Flounder (hirame)
    • A bouncy texture that is always a delight, this seemed to be engawa (the side of the flounder).

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  • Alfonsino (kinmedai)
    • Very tasty and fatty

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  • Chutoro

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  • Akami

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  • Otoro
    • A delicious and unimpeachable tuna sequence, Honmaguro from Wakayama. Essentially perfect.

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  • Gizzard shad (Kohada)
    • Great balance of vinegar

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  • Horse mackerel (Aji)
    • Well salted

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  • Spear squid (Sumi-ika)
    • Maintained its starchiness, which I’ve only rarely encountered outside of Tokyo

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  • Tiger prawn (Kurumaebi)
    • Good

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  • Nemuro Uni
    • A pleasing color combination of deep orange, yellow, and deep orange. This uni had a very deep sweet taste, and came from Nemuro in East Hokkaido.

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  • Seawater eel with salt (Anago shio)
    • Excellent

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  • Seawater eel with sauce (Anago tsume)
    • Excellent

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  • Kanpyo maki
    • Sweet and crunchy

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  • Tamago
    • Custardy, like a flan

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  • Miso soup

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  • Katsuyama sake

I found Taka a faithful replica of the 3* Tokyo Saito experience. Our sushi flight, made by head chef Kubota-san, had well-seasoned rice compacted into a solid but airy form in Saito’s style, and possessed the same excellence. The only minor difference I could discern was the food (namely the sushi rice, and shiroebi) was a bit colder and drier than at Tokyo Saito. This is probably due to a stronger air conditioner, exacerbated by my taking 5-10 seconds before eating to snap photos. Overall, an excellent meal.

Auberge de l’Ill in Illhauersern, France (Dec ’15): “black diamond”

5 Feb
Earlier this month, I guest-posted about the Alsace 3* restaurant the Auberge de l’Ill on my friend Julian Teoh’s blog. (Julian is a semi-professional food writer who moonlights as a lawyer, who writes an excellent guide to Southeast Asia’s dining options, especially around his two most-frequented countries Singapore and Malaysia. He also has an obsession with Alsatian wine and food, and is president of the Alsatian Wine Society in Singapore). You can see an alternate edited version with some of Julian’s touches over here.

The Auberge de l’Ill is located in Illhauersern, 20 minutes away from Colmar, and the only three-star Michelin restaurant remaining in the Alsace region, after the demotions of the two 3-star Strasbourg restaurants Au Crocodile (which lost its stars in 2002) and Buerehiesel (which lost its stars in 2011) and of L’Arnsbourg in Baerenthal (2015, after chef Jean-Georges Klein left for the Villa René Lalique). Today, Marc Haeberlin, third generation of the Haeberlin family, is in charge of the kitchen, after his father Paul passed away in 2008. It is the second oldest holder of 3-Michelin stars in France, having had them since 1967. (Bocuse beats it by a year).

I came to the Auberge for one reason – classic cuisine. Their signature dish, the truffe sous la cendre (literally, truffle under the ashes) captivated my imagination. A whole truffle, is wrapped in a paste of mince, pork, foie, wrapped in a baseball of puff-pastry, and then baked. There are only a few restaurants that do whole truffle dishes. L’Ambroisie in Paris occasionally does a black truffle tart (Feuilleté de truffe fraîche, bel humeur), and it is an occasional and special order for Daniel in New York. Kawamura in Tokyo does a white truffle croquette and pie if you order ahead. But at those other restaurants, their fame rested on other dishes. The truffe sous la cendre was the “black diamond” of this culinary peak, the Auberge‘s most iconic signature dish.

The meal. I went fully classic this time around. All of the dishes I tried were marked as Haeberlin classics. But I wasn’t too impressed by what ended up on the plate. A foie terrine, while good for foie terrines and served with a nice warm brioche and a bit of riesling jelly, was unremarkable. The highlight of the four courses turned out to be the salmon souffle, a paradoxically light dish with a souffle cloud encasing a rectangle of salmon. The truffe sous la cendre, was an epic baseball of heaviness. Pork, pigeon, foie, encased a whole black truffle, cooked in a doughy-flaky puff pastry. The truffle had a hard-jellied texture, and it was a pleasure to chew upon. There was a sweetness to the truffle, and a savory black truffle sauce. While the dish was visually impressive, and certainly satisfying, I felt it was not as great as it could have been. The puff pastry was doughy and felt undercooked to me. The meat-filling insulating the truffle was nothing more special than mincemeat.

I finished off with a Haeberlin peach. The peach had been poached, coated with a champagne sabayon made with whipped cream and pistachio ice cream. (A video of Marc Haeberlin making it, here.) While it was fairly pleasant, poached-peach wise, it lacked a bit of the wow factor you get from modern desserts. (I would say in fact, that the desserts I had in New York earlier on in my trip – at Momofuku Ko, Contra, Semilla, Birch in Providence, were more to my taste than here). I think what spoiled the illusion of transcendence most, was the fact that the white chocolate nameplate for the Auberge de L’ill was actually sticky, and stuck to my back teeth. With an uncomfortable feeling of having a white chocolate nameplate stuck to my back molars, I was transported to memories of mass-produced ice cream sundaes with whipped cream. And the association stuck.

I must admit I wasn’t too impressed by what ended up on the plate.  I didn’t fully connect with this meal (too heavy and sledgehammer-simple for my tastes), but to be fair, it is unrepresentative of Marc Haeberlin’s cooking, which is more Asian- and Japanese-influenced these days.

The final damage, inclusive of all the trimmings you would expect at a three-star table, tallied up to 280 euros. This is on the high-side for the Auberge – the classic tasting menu of Paul Haeberlin goes for about 120 euros, and the modern menu of Marc Haeberlin for 170 euros.  My whole black truffle, an a la carte only order, was a big contributor to that damage, making up 160 of the 280 euros.

Is the Auberge worth the trip?   Yes, if you’re looking for a history lesson. There are only a few time-machines to 3-star cuisine from earlier ages left in France (Bocuse, this one) so treat it as such. The view of the river Ill is spectacular, and in warmer times a post-prandial coffee on the terrace is a treat (in the winter, it is a bit too cold).

But if you’re looking for a great 3* meal, I think a more reliable deal would be to cross the German border to the Black Forest and sample the cuisine at either the Bareiss or Schwarzwaldstube.  From my recent experiences, the fine-dining across the German border is much more spectacular than what you can try at the Auberge.

Rating of this historical meal: 16/20

Notable links:

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  1. Amuse: turbot, sunchoke cream, sunchoke chips (3.25/5)
    1.  A slightly dry fried (why??) turbot. It was overdry, probably because it had been pre-filetted. The sunchoke accompaniments were undistinguished.

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  1. La terrine de foie gras d’oie (3.75/5)
    1.  Foie terrine, warm brioche and a bit of riesling jelly. Nowadays, you can probably get foie terrines of similar quality from a French bistro. Good, but really not a 3-star dish (or even a 1-star dish) in the modern world. To be honest, a bit disappointing compared to the extravagant fancies of Claus-Peter Lumpp over the border at Bareiss and Harald Wohlfahrt’s excellent jellied foie terrine at Schwarzwaldstube.

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  1. Le saumon souffle “Auberge de l’Ill” (4.5/5)
    1. A souffle cloud encasing a rectangle of salmon, tomato paste, and puff pastry. Could have this every other day, to be honest, it went down the hatch like a puff of aether.

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  1. La truffe sous la cendre (4.25/5)
    1.     As above: “an epic baseball of heaviness. Pork, pigeon, foie, encased a whole black truffle, cooked in a doughy-flaky puff pastry. The truffle had a hard-jellied texture, it was a pleasure to chew and ruminate upon thoughts of French decadence. There was a sweetness to the truffle, and a savory black truffle sauce. While the dish was visually impressive, and certainly satisfying, it was not as great as it could have been. The puff pastry was doughy – it felt undercooked to me. The meat-filling insulating the truffle was nothing more special than mincemeat.

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  1. La peche Haeberlin (4/5)
    1.     As above: “The peach had been poached, coated with a champagne sabayon made with whipped cream and pistachio ice cream. (A video of Marc Haeberlin making it, here.) While it was fairly pleasant, poached-peach wise, it lacked a bit of the wow factor you get from modern desserts. (I would say in fact, that the desserts I had in New York earlier on in my trip – at Momofuku Ko, Contra, Semilla, Birch in Providence, were more to my taste than here). I think what spoiled the illusion of transcendence most, was the fact that the white chocolate nameplate for the Auberge de L’ill was actually sticky, and stuck to my back teeth. With an uncomfortable feeling of having a white chocolate nameplate stuck to my back molars, I was transported to memories of mass-produced ice cream sundaes with whipped cream. And the association stuck.”

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Birch in Providence, RI (Dec ’15): “revisit”

2 Feb

During my final year at Brown (mid-2013 to mid-2014), I dined at the newly opened Birch 18 times, a rate of about once every 2-3 weeks. The reasons I dined there so often were because it was head-and-shoulders the best restaurant in Providence, RI, and also it was relatively affordable at ~US$60-$70 after tax and tip for an excellent 4 course menu. Chef Ben Sukle would generally change the menu every 3-4 weeks and never repeat a dish, giving it a novelty that other restaurants in the Providence area lacked.

Some local talk: New Rivers was a very good bistro with excellent $1 oysters nights, but chef Beau Vestal’s ambitions were limited to more casual food. Matt Jenning’s Farmstead (before he moved to open Townhouse in Boston) I never really rated, having had my fair share of being his guinea pig for weird experiments (snail whole wheat pasta that had the consistency of sawdust, steak with burnt rice, kimchi something or other). Champe Speidel’s Persimmon in Bristol, RI was an excellent restaurant influenced intelligently by modern trends (a faux-mussel shell a la Noma sticks in my mind) and created an excellent rendition of Michel Bras’s famous gargouillou salad, which I discovered late in April 2015. But it was a 45 minute drive away from Providence, and an eternity away by bus, which was why I only made it down there twice.
I came back to the US for a two-week period in December, and decided to make my way up to Providence to see old friends and sample Ben’s cooking again (for a 19th and 20th time). The US flight ticket was originally planned for May in time for Brown’s 2015 graduation ceremony, but work had other ideas and I ended up in Vietnam during that time.

The cooking at Birch is quite unique, and doesn’t fall in any particular style. In the first half of 2014, I had Japanese influenced dishes (black bass sashimi, sweet potato tempura, raw scallops), French-influenced dishes (opera cake, a roasted quail salmis from a collaboration dinner with Justin Yu of Oxheart), as well as Asian-fusion touches (fermented vegetables served with baked rutabaga, and in this couple of meals, my 19th and 20th, I had crisped rice [soccarat]). In fact, that’s what makes dining at Birch exciting – the sense that anything is possible.

But I think Ben’s good taste allows the cooking to avoid a couple of pit-falls, like excessive Asian saucing with kimchi. Asian-fusion cuisine is rarely good, and as far as I know has never comes together to form a cohesive and enjoyable series of dishes. (Examples: Benu, Bo Innovation, etc etc.) The accompanying sauces at Birch are usually French, or some distilled broth that brings to mind consomme. This is intelligent. Also, at ~$65, the one never feels too down for dishes that are merely good, rather than thought-provoking and excellent. (I don’t recall having a dish that was anything less than good).

Birch, as Ben told me, is the opposite of a Saison, where being funded by unending spouts of successful VC money allows them to cook the best ingredients in the best way at any price. Of necessity. Rhode Island’s economy is respectable but not as frothy as San Francisco’s (but then again, where is?). In such an environment, prices have to be reasonable. While I feel the price at Birch is a bit low, the chef’s relationships with local fishermen and farmers, allow Birch to offer these dishes at highly competitive prices. And so it preserves a bit of the neighborhood vibe, which makes Birch a bit of a Rhode Island Chez Panisse.

The two types of dishes I previously enjoyed the most at Birch were the vegetable-dishes (e.g. roasted carrot with clams in autumn, beetroot with shaved walnut in summer, spaghetti squash with marjoram in winter, rolled beef carpaccio with turnip in winter) and the desserts (the sweet grain cereal was insanely delicious, a riff off peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich very enjoyable). The comparative weakness of the 4-course menu would be the Course 3 mains, which tended not to be as creative as Courses 1 & 2. Scup, squid, and other Rhode Island fish; pork, would be cooked simply with a simple vegetable accompaniment and a broth-based sauce. I tend to enjoy Ben’s more offbeat takes, and so preferred the first and second courses.

On this visit though, I found myself really enjoying the main of Rhode Island monkfish, which was really fresh, 6 hours off the boat, and roasted on the bone. Judging by the bone-line, it looked like a small monkfish, but had supreme texture, possessing the gelatinous chew of good turbot. The ingredient itself was good enough to make the simple arrangement highlymemorable.

Starting in January 2016, downtown Providence will have the Sukles’ second restaurant, a casual restaurant called Oberlin, which will be headed up by ex-Birch-chef Ed Davis. I wasn’t able to catch it this time around, but will definitely do next time. (especially since they have the dearly-departed Sweet Grain Cereal).

Birch – worth a special trip to Providence? Definitely.

Rating: 17/20


PICTURES OF THE ENTIRE MENU (OVER TWO DINNERS)
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  1. Black garlic and mushroom chips, with apple butter and sorrel (4.25/5)
    1. The combination of black garlic and mushrooms had a rounded mushroomy savoriness. An excellent bite

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  1. Sunchoke: marinated with cherry blossoms and seaweeds with autumun olive and almond (4/5)
    1. Cold slices of sunchoke, with savory almond milk and floral sakura. Very

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  1. Warm broth of pork and sourdough: grilled onions, coriander and kombu (4.25/5)
    1. Charred onions, with day old sourdough bread and pork bone broth. A hearty and delicious broth made from day-old sourdough bread and pork bone broth. A micro-soup

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  1. Raw Rhode Island Fluke: parsley, pickled broccoli stem and preserved tomato (4/5)
    1. Usually tasteless fluke was cured, to give it a savory taste. As far as a white fish could be, it was a facsimile of ham, with parsley creme and pickled stems. It reminded me of the traditional Japanese progression in Tokyo, where the first raw fish is often a whitefish.

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  1. Grilled radishes: Barbecued chicken hearts, hazelnuts and nasturtium (3.75/5)
    1. Grilled radishes in chicken fat. Not bad.

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  1. Kabocha squash: clams, whelk and preserved peppers (4.75/5)
    1. Kabocha squash was roasted, along with clams and whelks. The sauce was excellent (made from red peppers?) It was buttery and tasted like a Grand French sauce, which brought it together. The char on the sweet squash added the necessary complexity. This riffs off the successful carrot and clams dish Ben had in 2013.

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  1. Baby beet: Wild mustard, husk cherries, rice and goat’s milk (4/5)
    1. Rice crispies, sweet beet, mustard flowers, and sugar kelp. A similar butter sauce was with the kabocha squash. Towards the end the beet made the sauce purple with a strong sweetness. The texture of crisped rice (soccarat) was interesting, but didn’t really harmonize with the dish. This brought to my mind mind the beet with shaved walnut in late 2013, but I felt that dish was stronger because the texture of shaved walnut was more delicate than the very crisp soccarat, which had a clashing texture.

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  1. Rhode Island Monkfish: Roasted on the bone with celeriac, broccoli and potato (5/5)
    1. This monkfish was served barely 6 hours after it had been landed. The texture was gelatinous, probably the best I’ve had, and similar to the white meat at the core of the best turbot. Monkfish flesh is densely packed, and can be unpleasantly chewy if overcooked..
    2. Of my meals in 2014 (about 10-12 in total), I used to find Ben’s seafood dishes (e.g. Pt. Judith Scup or Squid) some of the less convincing dishes compared to his vegetable conceptions. This tends to because they were based around a simple conception of protein, vegetable, and a sauce. It was completely different with this dish – the monkfish excellent enough on its own to distinguish the dish; the celeriac topped with roasted broccoli and potato bits was pleasing. A potato/brown butter broth brought together the dish.

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  1. Lightly grilled cabbage: winter squash, caramelized sauerkraut, toasted seeds and a broth of dried apples (4/5)
    1. Cabbage, with apple core oil, toasted seeds (cumin, anise, poppy, sunflower, fennel). I could see the thought process at work. For a vegan dish, the core was layers of cabbage and squash, sour and sweet. Complexity came from the mix of grains (one of Ben’s strengths is creating an optimal mix of grains), and the char on the cabbage. This dish was purely vegan – it was good for a vegan dish.

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  1. Rhode Island pork: Field peas, spinach, green tomato and mitsuba (4/5)
    1. Suckling pig, fatty and tasting heavily of bacon. This was a showcase of good ingredients, but little beyond that, perhaps the least accomplished main – though still very good.

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  1. Cato’s Corner Balck Ledge Bleu cheese: walnut, dried corn and sorrel (4/5)
    1. Celery oil, sweet corn crisp, shaved cheese, walnut milks. Very sharp cheese, and probably the most intense dish of the meal, a dessert that wasn’t sweet in the slightest except for some sugar crisps. I found this dish a bit dry for my tastes, but appreciated the attempt at a savory dessert.

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  1. Apple: Apple blossoms, oats and raspberry (4.25/5)
    1. Really good cooked apples, with raw apple, apple blossom and raspberries. A good fruit dessert end, highlighting the stewed apple texture from apple pie.

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  1. Quince Sherbet: Caramelized whey, toasted grains and rose. (4.5/5)
    1. Caramelized whey ice cream with quince sugar and rose cream. Delicious, the rose cream perfuming the dessert with floral flavor.

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  1. Whoopie pie

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Bareiss in Baiersbronn (Dec ’15): “best French meal of 2015”

1 Feb

Germany rarely comes up as a destination dining country. For the traveller on a budget, this is probably for good reason. Sauerkraut, potatoes, dumplings and boiled fleisch, rarely sets pulses racing. However, the German Black Forest is blessed with a number of multiple-starred restaurants. In the small village of Baiersbronn alone, there are two 3-star restaurants (Bareiss, and Schwarzwaldstube) and one 2-star restaurant, Sackmann.

As a local remarked to me, “we used to go to Alsace [across the German-French border] to have a good meal, now the Alsatians come here.”

Germany has a total of 10 3-Michelin star restaurants. The two closest to each other are Bareiss and Schwarzwaldstube, located in the Black Forest town of Baiersbronn. For a village of 15,000 people, that is exceptional. It bore remark from the New York Times in 2013, which has contributed to a trickle of Americans among the mostly French and German tourists to the region. These restaurants have generally been untouched by the international Twitterati and Instagram celebrities.

The Bareiss is a grand family-run hotel, with Hermann Bareiss (the patriach) still making the rounds to greet diners after every dinner. I liked this personal touch, and the pictueresque setting of the hotel was really beautiful, with twinkly lights strung up all over the estate during the Christmas season. I had two meals there before Bareiss closed for the season, one a dinner tasting menu, and once for an a la carte lunch.

Bareiss’s chef Claus Peter Lumpp is a life-long member of the Bareiss establishment, having started his career there and generally spent most of his time there aside from a year staging at various 3* temples across the continent.

While The Fat Duck in Britain and elBulli in Spain were taking centre stage in the international gastronomic world in the mid 2000’s, quietly the gastronomic equivalent of a “Wirtschaftswunder” was taking place in Germany. This “Wunder” started in 2004 (2005 guide) when Michelin appointed Joachim Wissler’s Vendôme in Bergisch-Gladbach as Germany’s sixth three-star restaurant. The next year (2006 guide) Christian Bau’s Schloss Berg in Perl-Nennig was admitted to Michelin’s top category and so was Sven Elferveld’sAqua in Wolfsburg in 2008 (2009 guide). Most impressive however, was the historic three-star hattrick in 2007 (2008 guide), with restaurants Amador (then located in Langen), Gästehaus Erfort in Saarbrücken and Restaurant Bareiss in Baiersbronn as the new laureates. Germany currently has no fewer than 11 three-star restaurants. See this link for a full list. 

Where three chefs of these new three-star restaurants had at some point in their career worked at Restaurant Schwarzwaldstube in Baiersbronn, Claus Peter Lumpp (b.1964) of Restaurant Bareiss had followed a different path and spent the first years of his training (1982-1985) at ‘the other place’ in Baiersbronn, Bareiss (then called Kurhotel Mittaltal). Bareiss is a family-run destination hotel in the Black Forest, which apart from some 100 luxury rooms and suites, also houses several ‘Stubes’ and the fine dining restaurant called Restaurant Bareiss (‘Bareiss’). Before returning as head chef to the then 2-star Bareiss in 1992, Lumpp worked at some of Europe’s most renowned restaurants, including 3-star restaurants Le Louis XV (Alain Ducasse) in Monaco, Tantris (Heinz Winkler) and Aubergine (Eckart Witzigmann), both in Munich, and Antica Osteria del Ponte (Ezio Santin) in Milan. At Bareiss he succeeded Paul Mertschuweit, also known as “the tongue of Bareiss”. – Elizabeth Auerbach
The cooking, both here and at Schwarzwaldstube, brought to mind an earlier era of French cuisine. It doesn’t feel like nouvelle cuisine, but rather modern classic French cuisine – because of the classic and heavy sauces, with incredible terrestial ingredients in foie and game. Bareiss is by far the more formal of the two, possibly because it is the “younger” restaurant measured by age at the three-star table.

There are three features of Claus Peter Lumpp’s cooking that I like. First, it is classical French, updated with innovative touches. His cooking features the generous ingredients of foie, lamb, deer, chicken, all with heavy sauces. It is influenced by regional dishes (cassoulet, tarte flambee). In an age where chefs generally have a light touch, his take-no-prisoners style of salting and saucing is paradoxically and figuratively refreshing, and literally food-coma-inducing. The salt is really on the high side, though never unpleasant.

Second, the classical preparations are moderated by touches of fruit in his compositions. His red-wine-caramel and foie terrine, justly praised, would be a lot more heavy if it were not paired with Williams Pear. His tarte flambee has a delicious plum sauce. His pheasant soup has the crunch of unskinned grapes, his scallops have citrus, and the apple dessert is a marvelous assembly of apple textures.

Thirdly, the preparations are exuberant. He prepares multiple variations on a theme, like Pierre Gagnaire, and allows the diner to try his different experiments. His dishes within a theme often don’t harmonize (they are separate dishes and should be treated as such), but it shows there is a highly creative mind at work.

The weaknesses of his cooking are more minor. His Asian preparations aren’t all that – a Japanese tartare of scallops with soy and seaweed, or slices of lamb breast prepared with an Indian tandoori sauce, or a cold kingfish sushi served as appetizers, are obvious and in some ways “basic” interpretations of the Japanese and Indian style. But this is to be expected of a restaurant which caters 90% to German and French on either side of the border, and 10% Americans. These dishes however are only on the a la carte menu, and apparent to repeat diners.

The wine service is well-led by Jurgen Fendt, one of the best sommeliers in Germany (he has represented the country three times at the Sommelier World Cup). A selection of red wine from Fendt’s own vineyard was probably my favorite wine of all he offered me at Bareiss.

For those who care, the differences between Bareiss and Schwarzwaldstube are:

  • + Schwarzwaldstube has better cheeses, from M Bernard Antony. Bareiss’s cheese selection is very good (they served a variety of sauces and grapes) but in excellence Schwarzwaldstube is more consistent.
  • + The service is more formal at Bareiss, surprisingly Schwarzwaldstube has a younger serving crowd.
  • + Jurgen Fendt’s wine service at Bareiss was my favorite between the two restaurants
Overall rating: 19.5/20 (first meal 19.5/20, second meal 18.5/20)

Most memorable dishes: Foie terrine with red wine-caramel jelly, Apple dessert, chicken cassoulet, boiled beef with horseradish, pheasant tarte flambee

Notable links


MEAL 1 (DINNER, TASTING MENU)
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  1. Apéritif etagère (4.5/5)
    1. Kingfish sushi – not bad, though served cold (with a sweet starch and long sour aftertaste). Kingfish AKA Mackerel doesn’t have Japanese name as far as I know. It was nothing like Japanese sushi,  though I found it commendable that they tried and prepped the rice.
    2. Chestnut cream
    3. Old cheese cake
    4. Fig and chestnut tart – Had a complex and satisfying taste with something piquant, maybe cinnamon.

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  1. Cold & warm Amuse Bouche
    1. Cold amuse bouche: Variation of kohlrabi. (4/5)
    2. The first two courses were a study in spiciness, not a common accent in French food. The German Kohlrabi has a sharp, unpleasant, bitter taste when cut raw, similar to raw onion. A butter sauce helped soothe it. It was an ebb and flow of discomfort, but not my favorite dish. This was a world away from the sugary kohlrabi I had at Blue Hills at Stone Barns.
    3. Warm amuse bouche: Boiled veal with beetroot and horseradish, beet sugar. (5/5)
    4. This was served as an amuse. It was shocking. It looked like a typical nouvelle cuisine dish, elegantly constructed. But an intense horseradish kick broke the rules of engagement – no spiciness! The sauce was at first sweet from the beet juice, and transitioned to savory as it began to resemble a veal red wine sauce. It was a “three-body” sauce, orbiting spicy, sweet and savory until it vanished. Superb.

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  1. Variation of goose foie gras with Williams pear soaked in red wine and wintery spicy punch (5/5)
    1. First plate: foie terrine with red wine and caramel jelly, with a pear sponge on top. Various preparations of pear with foie, including cream, ice cream. Second plate: Kugelhopf with foie cream. Drink: wintery spicy punch. A perfect expression of the generosity of the season.
    2. Fruity, rich, the red-wine-and caremel jelly between the lobes of foie in the terrine were the best part of the trio of dishes. This was what I had come for – classic cooking that was innovative without resorting to molecular tricks. The red wine and caramel jelly has to be tasted to be believed, it is a perfect accompaniment to the foie gras. Fully understandable how this is Lumpp’s signature dish.
    3. The foie terrine is served with different accompaniments according to the season. This season, it was Williams pear, the fruit element of which lightened the dish.

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  1. Breton scallop with potato mousseline chives and roasted panko (5/5)
    1. I thought this was a really fantastic and classical tasting dish.
    2. Clearly, no one comes to the Black Forest to taste hand-dived scallop with its unique crunchiness. But the sweetness of the scallop was excellent, served with fried garlic, mashed potato, togarashi (flying fish roe), and a rich sauce. Very little could be improved.
    3. These scallops were twice-weekly deliveries from the Brittany from a dedicated fisherman.

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  1. Crisp fried bass with glazed black salsify and Madeira (4.5/5)
    1. This was served with a second preparation: Bass ragout in a tomato-based sauce. The first preparation had a skin crisped to perfection, thinner than paper. The technical merits of this were very good. The ragout was a bit less interesting, though delicious in its own right.

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  1. Cassolette of black-feather chicken with braised celeriac and Perigord truffle (5/5)
    1. Savory chicken from Alsace, a cousin of Bresse chicken. This was another excellent, if classic dish. The matchsticks of black truffle, were of top quality, and added an enticing smell to the dish. The chicken was heavily salted, and it was served with beans in a pseudo-cassoulet form. The dish was unrecognizable from its peasant-dish origins, and with a rich sauce, delicately cooked chicken, and top grade truffle, was a fully paid-up member of the haute-French establishment

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  1. Saddle of roe deer fried with aromatics and braised shoulder from the Bareiss hunting grounds with caramelized red cabbage and sweet chestnuts (4.5/5)
    1. The deer was classically excellent. The saddle of roe deer possessed a crumb of bitterness., but it represented a welcome break from the train of dishes with savory sauces, because the sauce was predominantly sweet and featured sweet chestnuts. The combination, while not as strong standalone (because who naturally craves a sweet sauce with protein for a main?), was an intelligent progression in the menu. The braised shoulder of the roe deer was heavily stewed, a sweet heap of meat in the style of Mexican pulled pork or Singaporean rendang.

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  1. Assorted cheese from the trolley
    1. Highlights were (1)  36 month aged Gouda, (2) Shropshire blue, as well as (3) petit fiance cheeses. They were served with grapes and various jams, in the overwhelmingly generous fashion that characterizes the more classic and out of the way country-side 3* restaurants.

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  1. Valrhona chocolate tartlets with mandarins, almond ice-cream and grand Marnier (4/5)
    1. Vanilla nougat macaron, Grand Marnier custard. While the macaron was soggy and dunked like a Oreo into mandarin sauce (it baffles me why), the rest was pleasant if non-descript. The chocolate cake was served with a passionfruit sauce. Dessert was not one of the great strengths of Bareiss tasting menu, but it was a minor blip in this meal, and the dessert in the next meal was much stronger.

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  1. Friandises
    1. “Blackforest cake” cornets and white chocolate rum bonbons.
  2. Confectionary & chocolate from the trolley
MEAL 2 (LUNCH, A LA CARTE)
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  1. Apéritif etagère (4.5/5) – the same excellent set of bites was served

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  1. Cold & warm Amuse Bouche
    1. Cold amuse bouche: Wintery herbs, with mushroom soup, crouton slices, and grilled onions. (4.5/5) It was served with shavings of a savory hard cheese called Belper Knolle. It was fresh tasting, minty, with distinct plays of cheesy textures and crispy croutons
    2. Warm amuse: Cod poached in olive oil with black forest mushrooms with bits of bacon glass, where the bacon was rendered crisp and translucent (4.75). Excellent.

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  1. Scallops (4.5/5)
    1. Rosette of gratinated scallops with chive cream and imperial caviar (4.75/5)
    2. Tartare of scallops with roasted sesame and sea vegetable salad (4/5)
    3. Fried scallop with chicory, spice and citrus flavors (4.25/5)
    4. I opted for a different preparation of scallops from the a la carte menu. The scallop ensemble had three interesting themes. The first (A) was classic French – a cut rosette of scallops with rich caviar, and served on a potato gratin; the second (B) was Japanese – barebones with only a scallop tartare, soy and seaweed to mark is at Japanese – served with a crisp sesame tuile; the third (C) was in the vague international style, (or a synthesis?) between the two, fried scallops with endives and citrus such as grapefruit, the kind of dish that could have been served in any restaurant in the world, due to the ubiquity of ingredients and minimal stamp or style on the ingredients.
    5. Of course, the best was the classic preparation (A), on the strength of that, I rate the ensemble 4.5/5.
    6. Overall the scallops were sweet and firm, though they didn’t have the most crunchy of textures, which is expected because as mentioned above, Bareiss only takes twice weekly deliveries from Brittany.

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  1. Pheasant (4.5/5)
    1. Essence of pheasant flavoured with juniper, candied walnuts, breast of pheasant and quince jelly  (4.5/5)
    2. Tarte flambée with braised leg of pheasant with dried plums preserved in cognac and sweet chestnut (4.75/5)
    3. Soups at Bareiss are split into a heartier soup and a lighter soup. I chose the lighter option of pheasant consomme over cream of chestnut soup. The preparation here was hearty French, with touches of elegance, such as unskinned grapes in consomme.
    4. (A) The pheasant soup, with unskinned grapes, was a hearty one. The breasts retained a delightful crunch as the hot soup was poured on top. It was clear and restorative. (B) The plum-pheasant tarte flambee was textbooks, with an enviable crispness. The tarte must be heard to be believed, a knife through its heart produced a crackling that resounded through the small restaurant.

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  1. Lamb grown on Älbler Wacholderheide (4.25/5)
    1. Fried lamb chop on cumin sauce with raw marinated cabbage salad, smoked potato cream and fermented garlic (4.25/5)
    2. Focaccia with braised lamb shoulder compote (4.5/5)
    3. Lambs’ sweetbreads aioli and red onions (same as above)
    4. Glazed breast of lamb on tandoori purée and crostini (3.75/5)
    5. Overall – (4.25/5) The lamb, grown in the Albler heath (Wacholderheide means heath) was the recommendation of the manager. The overall theme of this ensemble was vaguely Indian. (A) The first preparation was a crackling crisp lamb chop, delicious on the bone. (B) A soaked focaccia with lamb shoulder, sweetbread, aioli and red onions was an onslaught of richness, only alleviated with pickled onions. The sauce was savory, with pickled onions to cut the richness. Very good. The (C) slices of lamb breast were perhaps the weakest of the ensemble, which was served with tandoori sauce puree. It was nothing more than it sounds. I was also getting stuffed at this point, which may have interfered with my enjoyment a bit.
    6. My reference high-end “Asian lamb” dish is still the Fat Duck’s reinterpretation of a lamb Kebab) If I were to nitpick, I would say the weakness of this dish is that it wears its theme (Indian) in too safe a way, the heavy sauce is exactly how it would be served in an Indian restaurant, albeit in an Indian restaurant it would have been in curry form. The imaginative leap is not as far as it was in the Fat Duck (cucumber & green pepper oils to lighten the dish, instead of vegetable slices). It is a similar theme with the Japanese preparation of scallops, these two “Asian” preparations were obvious and imitative of food you could conceivably get in an Indian or Japanese restaurant. But not to dwell too much on it – Bareiss is after all, a restaurant that caters mostly to a local French and German clientele, and the chef’s strong suit is not his international cooking but his interpretations of classical cuisine.

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  1. Apple (4.75/5)
    1. Baked apple sorbet with braised apple and butter biscuit cream (4.5/5)
    2. Vanilla parfait with apple ragout and caramel sauce (5/5)
    3. Green apple foam (4/5)
    4. The dessert ensemble, was a step up from the previous day. I chose Apple over the three C’s Chocolate, Citrus fruits, and Curd and exotic Fruits, because I wanted something classic. It delivered. (A) The first preparation of baked apple sorbet with a slice of braised apple and butter biscuit cream was a pleasing melange of the flavors of apple pie. But the highlight of the ensemble belonged to (B), which was an even better interpretation of apple pie, a structurally pleasing tower of different types of apple, arranged onto two discs of wafers and topped with vanilla ice cream. The crispness of pastry, the varied crunch of different apple (the best desserts are often the richness of different fruits cooked differently and reassembled), it needs nothing more than vanilla ice cream to be perfect. (C) the last preparation was more a coda than anything else, a technically impressive green apple foam, somehow maintaining enough structural integrity to be coated with chocolate.

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  1. Friandises
    1.   “Blackforest cake” cornets and white chocolate rum bonbons.
  2. Confectionary & chocolate from the trolley

Dehesa in Singapore (Jan ’16)

20 Jan

Dehesa is an offal-tapas restaurant in Singapore, specializing in animal off-cuts. It opened mid-December 2015, and is currently only in its first month of operation. Despite this, the food is assured and much better than the run-of-the-mill tapas joint in Singapore. Each dish is either delicious or has a creative twist. As a casual restaurant, it is a gem.

The chef, Jean-Philippe Patruno, is a Spaniard raised in Marseille. He has been cooking in Singapore for quite a while, at Una restaurant located in the far Western part of Singapore (Rochester Park). However, the old restaurant is very out of the way for people living in the East like me, so I never made it there. I am glad however that he is putting his own twist on the usual Spanish small plates.

There were intelligent touches of using popular Singapore ingredients (tripe, lala AKA Venus Clams ). For instance, the tripe was fried, and the venus clams was done in the moules and frites style of stewing them in an olive oil/alcohol based sauce [specifically, moules mariniere]. The cooking is not fussy (the dishes are assembled using a skeleton kitchen team of 3 people when I was there).

It’s a small kitchen. Apparently the show kitchen is the only kitchen, so all the action really happens in front of you (if you have a bar seat).

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Crispy Tripe / White Peppercorn / Chilli Padi (4.75/5)

An excellent dish of fried tripe (stomach lining, usually cow). Despite the Singaporean love affair with tripe, I’ve never had fried tripe. This was excellent, with a mildly spicy white peppercorn sauce that had the alluring bitterness of roasted peppers.

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Duck Hearts on Toast (4.5/5)

Excellent.

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Frit Mallorquin (4/5)

A regional dish of Mallorca, this is also a typical Lebanese/Middle Eastern dish of an offal stew with mashed potatoes.

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Ox Tongue / Celeriac / Anchovies (4/5)

Very tasty

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Lala / Chillies / Sherry (3.75/5)

Done in the moules and frites style. (sans frites)

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Chocolat / Olive Oil / Salt (5/5)

We were on the fence about ordering a dessert, but the quality of this dessert just crowned our experience.  Thin slices of sourdough bread were dipped in caramel and then hardened, forming a savory crisp that was very addictive. An excellent conception.

Rating: 16/20

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Hong Kong (Nov ’15): “high-end fast food”

19 Jan

Joel Robuchon needs no introduction. Voted Chef of the Century in 1989, his restaurant Jamin in Paris in the 1980s and 1990s was considered among the best restaurants in the world. He retired in July 1996 due to concerns over the stress-wracked lifestyle of a chef, but came up the Atelier Robuchon concept, a counter-dining fine-dining concept, while eating in sushi bars in Tokyo: a sexy restaurant, dressed up in black and red, with counter-seating allowing diners to see dishes being finished and assembled in a show kitchen.

Robuchon made his official comeback in 2003, opening two branches of L’Atelier Robuchon in short order, first in Tokyo in April 2003, and Paris in May 2003. Since then, he has gone back into full-concept fine dining with “full-service” Joel Robuchon restaurants, which currently exist in Las Vegas, Tokyo, Bordeaux, Singapore and Macau. His Ateliers occupy a wider footprint – existing in Bangkok, Paris (two of them), Singapore, HK, Taipei, London, Tokyo, as well as London (a New York branch also once existed). His Ateliers have been unflatteringly described as the “McDonalds of fine-dining”, where a revolving door of chefs, largely anonymous workmen while in his employ, create a standard array of Robuchon dishes using ingredients from the Robuchon larder. His Atelier’s are generally pegged at a one-star rating, with the exception of the St Germaine branch in Paris, and this branch in HK, which has three Michelin stars. The successful Atelier project is probably the inspiration for similar casual fine-dining chains today, such as David Thompson’s Long Chim.

That the 3 Michelin star rating for L’Atelier HK is over-inflated, no one disputes, not even Joel Robuchon himself, who hypothesizes that it may be down to the wine list or the decor. This is usually cited as the main piece of evidence for the unreliability of the HK guide, because the Ateliers are the one restaurant you can actually benchmark across countries..

My meal at L’Atelier:

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  • L’Amuse-Bouche (foie custard with cheese foam, potato croquette)

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  • La Langoustine (Langoustine carpaccio, beetroot and apple salad with green mustard sorbet) (3/5)
    • The contrast between the green mustard sorbet (which was quite good, fresh and piquant, good enough to serve by itself on the parallel vegetarian menu), and the langoustine could not be more stark. The langoustine was not very fresh, to the point where when we tried to use a fork or spoon to get it off, the raw langoustine simply disintegrated into chunks. We could not get any single piece to lift whole onto a spoon. It tasted fine, but the texture was offputting.

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  • Le foie gras (Pan-fried duck foie gras with pear and celery) (4/5)
    • Decent and classic combination of foie and pear. Reliable crowd pleaser. For a foie-pear dish that really sets the bar, see my review of Bareiss (upcoming)

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  • La Saint-Jacques (Pan seared Hokkaido scallops with baby artichoke puree and curcuma emulsion) (4/5)
    • Not bad. This was served with Robuchon’s famous mashed potatoes, which were indeed very buttery.

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  • Le Marron (chestnut mousse with pecan dacquoise and vintage rum ice-cream)
    • I had a work call midway through (it was a crunch week), and they served dessert while I was away. The ice cream had partially melted by time I returned. It tasted fairly good, but I won’t rate it since I didn’t have it in its optimal state.

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Overall L’Atelier in HK is a decent fine-dining restaurant. I appreciated the nice touches of the bacon baguettes and lemon cakes, but it wouldn’t be my first choice for fine-dining in Hong Kong (not especially since a branch can be found in Singapore and most major cities in Asia). That would go to Dynasty Restaurant for Chinese food; or Ta Vie, Neighborhood, or Bo Innovation for an interesting Western-ish meal. At heart, L’Atelier is a restaurant designed to serve Robuchon experience in a scalable way. This is reflected in the dishes, which are similar across different countries (Le Caviar, the geometrically pleasing Robuchon dish, is as consistent a fixture in each of the Robuchon restaurants as the Big Mac is at McDonald’s). It probably impacts the construction of the dishes, most of which are uncomplicated and can be executed capably by local line-cooks.

If a cookie-cutter fine-dining experience is what you want, L’Atelier will provide it. But for me, the Ateliers just seem a bit soulless. I’m still not sure what is the point of dining there. At that price point (>=HKD1800 with a glass or two of wine), you can get so much more than a cookie-cutter fine-dining meal.

Notable links:

Restaurant rating: 15/20

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