[Regional food] Cao Lau in Hoi An (Jun ’16)

11 Jul

Hoi An – UNESCO World Heritage site, weekend escape from Saigon, gastronomic destination? Having spent a couple of days digesting the sights, I found at least one dish worth travelling for – the regional noodle Cao Lau.

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  • Cao Lau (5/5). A noodle dish that is truly special, and can only be enjoyed in Hoi An. The centrepieces are two meaty hunks of char siew pork, not overly seasoned, just enough to be a vehicle for the sauce – a mix of soy sauce, pork drippings, and fish sauce. Fried squares of dough, possibly similarly lye-treated – they were very crispy without being burnt – give it a textural crunch. A smattering of herbs from the self-serve bowl, common through Vietnam, gives it freshness. The lime wedge gives it sourness.

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  • The noodles are unique and unlike the texture of the typical soft rice noodles in Vietnam. They look like rough, grey udon noodles, and have a roasty scent. They are made of flour and treated with lye – special lye, it is said, from the ashes of a particular tree mixed with the water of a particular well. They are cooked by steaming, rather than boiling. What is certain amidst rumour that only 5-7 Hoi An families are trusted with the making of the noodle. This dish was simply amazing, one of the best noodle dishes I have tried.

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  • Some of my favorite Asian noodle memories from around the globe:
    • Soba at Rakuichi in Niseko, Hokkaido, Japan
    • Cao Lau in Hoi An, Vietnam
    • Fresh fishball noodles, homemade in Singapore
    • Wonton noodles from Mak’s Noodle, Central, Hong Kong
    • Wonton noodles, Ah Wing’s Wonton Noodles, Empress Road Food Centre, Singapore

I had my Cao Lau at Hai Mi Quang Cao Lau, on Truong Minh Luong Street in Hoi An.

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They also serve Mi Quang – a Vietnamese noodle dish with the more typical softer texture. It is also decent, but not as good as their Cao Lau.

Schwarzwaldstube in Baiersbronn (Dec ’15): “elegant”

19 Jun
During my recent Europe trip,  I wanted to try some German 3*’s since word through the grapevine was that they were highly underrated. The “sexy” stories of the past few years have largely overlooked the region, featuring Nordic food (highly promoted in the World’s 50 Best list), Latin American food (also in their own 50 Best list), and a rash of Japan food stories in the last 1-2 years fuelled by a weak Japanese yen.
My three day trip to the Black Forest kicked off with dinner at the Bareiss, lunch at the Schwarzwaldstube, and ended off with a second lunch at the Bareiss. The two restaurants would be the pride of any metropolis, let alone a town of ~15,000 people. I found the standard of both equal to anything in Paris. Lunch at Chef Harald Wohlfahrt’s Schwarzwaldstube was a delightful affair.
The Schwarzwaldstube is a storied restaurant, popularly considered the ur-restaurant of modern German three-stars. I won’t recapitulate all the details which has been better stated by other writers. (interested readers can find it in the NYTimes feature and on Elizabeth Auerbach’s blog). The one telling detail is that five of Germany’s 10 three-star chefs are apprentices have passed through Wohlfahrt’s kitchen.
I have heard that like the Bareiss, the Schwarzwaldstube as a restaurant is a basically non-profit making affair, serving as a publicity vehicle for their attached family-run hotels, the Hotel Bareiss (ex. Kurhotel Mitteltal) and the Traube Tonbach. I felt prices were a tad lower than in France, this might be also due to the German aversion to be seen fine-dining. It is a painful irony that one of the countries with the highest quality chefs and restaurants, has one of the least appreciative national audiences. That is probably why all of the 3* German restaurants border France, since they must rely on a significant degree of French patronage to stem their losses.
The Schwarzwaldstube is an elegant and noble restaurant that serves the best of classic French nouvelle cuisine and classic French cuisine. There seems to be little trend following here, the “correlation risk” with the “sexy” restaurants is almost zero. Therein lies the charm.
Rating: 19/20

I had the following for lunch:
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  • A glass of crisp champagne (from Ambonnay by Eric Rodez) [95/100]

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  • Snacks: Langoustine croquette with pineapple-mango chutney; duck with hoisin; salmon wrapped in nori with wasabi cream [4.25/5]
    • Well-executed pan-Asian snacks. One thing I’ve find interesting is that the two Black Forest restaurants Bareiss and Schwarzwaldstube seem to have a heavy-handed approach to Asian dishes – they seem to be what a Westerner’s imagination of what Asian dishes would be – a fever dream rather than a homage to the real thing. The snacks were a Thai bite (pineapple-mango chutney), Chinese bite (hoisin with duck) and a Japanese bite (salmon, wasabi, nori) served together- but they would never be seen in a Thai, Chinese, or Japanese restaurant.

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  • Amuse gueule: Variation of pumpkin: [Centre] Muscat pumpkin ice cream with a sheet of pumpkin sugar; [Right] coulis of butternut pumpkin and blossoms; [Left] pumpkin seeds with pumpkin paste [4.5/5]
    • Excellent flavors, would have been even better had it not been served melting.

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  • Foie terrine in Jurancon jelly, grilled foie with Dwarf orange coulis and a pine nut marinade  [Terrine von marinierter und gegriliter Gänseleber in Jurançongelee mit Zwergorangencoulis; Pinienkernmarinade] [5/5]
    • A house specialty of Schwarzwaldstube, the foie was served three ways: a terrine in wine jelly; grilled foie, and a cold foie gras ice cream. The foie was top quality, with hints of the membraneous texture preserved in the terrine, a texture I love.

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  • Potato blini with mild smoked char and lemon butter, char caviar. [Kartoffelblini mit mildgeräuchertern Seesaibling und Limonenbutter, Saiblingskaviar] [5/5]
    •  How is a delicate hockey puck of flour (what this looks like at first glance) related in anyway to a blini (pancake?)
    • I don’t really have a clue, but a delicate and perfectly cooked piece of char, protected by a hockey puck of potato souffle, was incredible with a light lemon butter fish sauce (with hints of lemongrass and kaffir lime), and globules of salty char eggs.
    • There is an essential similarity with Haeberlin’s salmon souffle an hour away over at the Auberge de l’Ill, but the two dishes innovate in different ways. With Haeberlin, it is a tomato paste that forms the counterpoint to the fish + souffle. Here, an Asian accented French sauce and char eggs form the counterpoint.
    • There is something magical about the orange-fleshed fishes in a light French sauce – was it not salmon in sorrel that was the jumping-off point for nouvelle cuisine at Troisgros?

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  • Halibut with poached Gillardeau oyster, beetroot and mild horseradish sauce [Heilbuttschnitte mit pochierter Gillardeau-Auster, Roter Bete und milder Meerrettichsauce] [4.5/5]
    • Fish bone veloute.
    • Not bad, the horseradish lent it a bitter top-note that felt like an acquired taste.

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  • Wild hare royale with Brussels sprouts leaves, trumpet mushrooms and cranberry [Wildhase auf königliche Art mit Rosenkohlblättern, Trompetenpilzen und Preiselbeerjus] [4/5]
    • A hare royale – hare stuffed with foie and forcemeat – is a rare dish. It is also a bit of an acquired taste, the meat texturally grainy and not distinguished in taste.
    • My own theory on this is the following: hare is a notoriously lean creature, lean enough that explorers who relied on it for sustenance often developed “rabbit starvation” due their unbalanced ratio of meat to fat (about 8-9% fat for rabbit meat). Foie and forcemeat are required to make hare palatable by artificially rebalancing the fat ratio.
    • I personally felt the hare royale, while time consuming and a labor of love, starts out from an unpromising ingredient, and owes its pride of place on the Schwarzwaldstube menu more from tradition than objective merit. It was well done for hare, but its merit is conditional

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  • Cheese from the trolley [Käse vom Wagen]
    • all from Bernard Antony
    • a 42 month old goats cheese was excellent (5/5)
    • a vache d’or, seasonal cheese, was good
    • a Persille de Tignes, a Savoy cheese, was crumbly, and phenomenal (5/5)

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  • Ganache – balsamic vinegar, chocolate, raspberry coulis, raspberry crumble, raspberry cream. (4.25/5)
    •     Good mix of sourness

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  • Fondant of Guanaja chocolate on passionfruit sauce, Tahitian vanilla ice cream and banana compote [Fondant von Guanaja-Schokolade auf Passionsfruchtsud, Tahiti-Vanilleeis und Bananenkompott] [4.75/5]
    • Just pure elegance. No fireworks but perfectly executed classical cuisine


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  • Hazelnut parfait, calamansi sorbet, cocktail of citrus fruits [Stämmle von Haselnussparfait mit Mirabellen-Kalamansisorbet auf Cocktail von Zitrusfrüchten] [4.75/5]
    • A quite perfect citrus dessert. Hazelnut caramel parfait, calamansi sorbet, citrus, persimmon.
    • I appreciated the contrast between chocolate and acidity, and also the labor that went into getting the citrus pips out individually

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  • Petit-fours: Macaron kirschwaldskirsche, grapefruit jelly, chocolate and caramel brownie, christmas cake

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Wonton noodles @ Empress Road Food Centre in Singapore (Feb – May ’16)

24 May

There are at least three major styles of wonton mee (noodles) in Singapore.

The “Singapore style” is characterized by sweet black sauce, dousing noodles that get soggier by the second, and a helping of red charsiew. The wontons are more metaphorically accurate, willowy sleeves of cooked dough surrounding a small core of meat. Some shops mix it up and have a soup based wonton, and a fried wonton covered in a tougher dough skin for an optimal mix of wonton textures. The noodles are treated with lye to make them have a crunchy texture. The Singapore wonton noodle will often have pickled green chilli for sourness and some type of ground red chilli sauce. The main strength of the style is its melting-pot approach to sauces, having the potential to be a really complex array of textures and tastes. The main weakness of the style is that the sweet black sauce often upsets the balance of the entire bowl of noodles.

The “Thai style” has minimal dressing and is served with a more chewy noodle, akin to kolo mee in East Malaysia. I believe the difference is these noodles are not lye-treated (but I could be wrong). Popular fix-ins are cubes of lard & fried wontons. The main strength and weakness of the style lies in the noodles. Like kolo mee, an overly doughy noodle is cloying, but a fist-sized clump of uncooked noodle, drizzled with lard and cooked al dente, is perfect.

The Hong Kong style is a very crunchy noodle that is served with a light soup, and served with prawn dumplings. The noodles are lye-treated, like the Singapore version, but are usually less soggy. At Mak’s Noodle in HK Central, they serve it on a spoon. The wontons are generally stuffed with shrimp, and have a crunchy texture. The strengths of this style are in the wontons (called by the alternate name “shuijiao” in Singapore), which are simply the most substantial, and the crunchy noodles. The weaknesses are an occasional over-use of lye in the noodle itself, which makes the noodle having an artificial crunchy texture.

Despite being raised in Singapore, of these three “pure” styles, I find myself preferring the HK style the best. I prefer my wontons hearty-sized and my noodles to have a balanced taste.

I recently moved to the West of Singapore, near Empress Road Hawker Centre. I have often had breakfast at two of the centre’s wonton noodle stores, and I find them excellent in their individual way.


Ah Wing’s wanton noodles are some of the best wonton noodles I’ve had anywhere. The entry-level “wonton noodles” are excellent. The charsiew is better than the crimson shoe leather that plagues so many noodles, being both black and tender. The wontons are a mix of pork and prawn, which gives it a more interesting texture over pork alone. The owner does not take metaphorical license from the name wonton (or “cloud-swallowing”) to dish a negligible portion of meat into wisps of flour. His wontons are golfball-sized, and the portions are generous. It comes as no surprise that the owner is an emigre from HK, and is run by him and his wife.

But the best-dish at the stall are the couple’s shuijiao noodles. Shuijiao, a codename for HK-style wontons, are usually available at every wonton mee stall in Singapore. The only difference is that the shuijiao usually feature a mix of prawn and pork, whereas HK-style wontons are usually pure or mostly prawn. What sets Ah Wing’s shuijiao apart from others in Singapore is the mix of ingredients – about 60-70% prawn, the remainder pork and strips of a crunchy black fungus.

Yet it is not a textbook HK style noodle. The sauce base is similar to the Singapore style, with a mix of green chilli, a savory chilli sauce, and a dark sauce base. The key difference is that the dark sauce is not sweet black sauce, but a light soy-sauce that harmonizes well with the other ingredients. The noodle is crunchy, but not artificially so. Another minor point: The soup is not laced with MSG, making it surprisingly drinkable (I have no quarrels with MSG as an ingredient, but find it overused). It is possibly the most balanced wonton noodle I have eaten – from sauce, to noodle, to wonton, and combines the best of the Singapore and HK styles. I do not exaggerate – I had these noodles almost everyday for breakfast in a three-week period, and found myself rarely tiring of them.

Rating: 5/5

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Wonton noodles

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Shuijiao noodles

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Chicken feet noodles

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Chicken feet hor fun


[Edit 16/06/2016: Chen Long wonton noodles is no longer at Empress Road Food Centre, and has moved to Blk 5058 Ang Mo Kio Ind Park 2 #01-1255 S569561.]

Chen Long wanton noodles are operated by a young couple, who set up their shop late last year. They are located a row behind Ah Wing’s wonton noodle in Empress Road, and have their own following. They do not directly compete with Ah Wing’s. Instead, they offer the textbook Singapore-style wonton noodles and a Thai style wonton noodle.

The Singapore style wonton noodles are not bad, but they use the same sweet dark sauce base which is not my favorite.

I however am an admirer of their Thai style wonton noodles. It is the definition of unhealthy food. The soup wontons are rather small, but the fried wontons have a delightful crunch, the whole bowl of noodles is dressed in lard bits and lard oil, and the dark sugar-coated charsiew is crunchy, especially if you ask for the cuttings at the burnt ends.

Rating: 4.5/5

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Thai-style wonton noodles

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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