Restaurant DC in KL (Apr ’17): an artisan’s restaurant among Asia’s best

7 May
2015. I first spent a prolonged period of time in KL in 2015, when I was posted there for 2 months as part of the life of an itinerant consultant. The fine-dining food scene, of the few times I sampled it, was not particularly exciting. The Azurmendi spin-off, Aziamendi, had a 4 month residency in the Mandarin Oriental. I tried Sushi Oribe in the centre of KL, but was not impressed by an over-application of fake wasabi (actually cheap horseradish). Given my limited time outside of work hours, 2-3 hour dinners were unfortunately rather rare.

My 2015 meal. It was towards the tail end of my time in Malaysia that I had a meal at Restaurant DC. I had read my friend Julian’s scene-setting review of Restaurant DC (a wonderful post that goes into Darren’s backstory, which I too encourage you to read). It was an attempt to bring the first-class French technique to KL. Darren, who specializes in the rotisseur arts, served a very French dinner with Bresse chicken, roast wagyu, scallops and fish – all impeccably done. The roasting technique was on point, and the sauces were wonderful. It was a pleasant dinner, well executed, but it suffered from predictability. Each dish was a triad of meat(or fish), sauce and little veg, and consequently boring. All of this was well-executed, but it suffered from multiple straitjackets – the rigidity of “correct French cooking” (why not throw in some Asian ingredients in?), and the compositional straitjacket. I would have given it a 16/20, but what prevented the good experience from being a great experience was the inconsistency of it. The main courses were all very well-executed, but with an average cheeseboard (oversold to me as a “wonderful selection”) and the pandan panna cotta dessert served lukewarm (I enjoy my desserts to have contrasts in temperature with the main course – either hot or cold, which is why I dislike panna cotta), I thought it was a bit Jekyll-and-Hyde.

The cuisine, also seemed to me a bit anonymous. I felt I wasn’t the target audience for Darren’s cooking. Similar to how David Chang’s Momofuku Ko in New York aims to provide Asian food for white people, Darren Chin’s Restaurant DC seemed to aim to provide a correct French-experience to an n-th degree not yet seen in KL. But for me, that reference “correct-traditional-French-restaurant” in Southeast Asia was Singapore’s Les Amis, and in a head-to-head comparison with Les Amis, Restaurant DC was every bit the equal in its treatment of meat, but it came off worse in the accouterments – starter, cheese, desserts.

2017. Fast forward to 2017. In KL for a weekend, I headed off to DC for a night at the chef’s table. I had heard glowing reports from Julian who had dined there a month earlier. It seemed like there was a different focus. There were indications that the straitjacket of “correct French cooking” had been loosened. A somen dish with uni looked promising. And no longer were the main courses just combinations of expertly done protein with a correct French sauce and some vegetables.

The meal turned out to be one of my favorite meals of 2017 so far. The strengths of chef Darren are in his faithful recreations of French excellence, and he is picking up more experimentation on ingredients, with a bit more straying outside the formula of protein-sauce-vegetables. It doesn’t hurt that his bread program comes with excellent Bordier and Pamplie butters. The wine pairings were also highly congenial.

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We started off with a drink in the first-floor lounge – an apple cocktail.

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Afterwards we decamped for the chef’s table, featuring a wonderful breadbasket. I could not stop myself from tearing off hunks of the bread to use as scoops for the butter.

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  • Prawn tartare with lemon basil, tomato granita (5/5)
    • Three layers of ingredients – a prawn tartare, tomato granita, and a powder made from prawn head (fried?) – well thought out to complement the strengths of the other. The base is a prawn tartare, with tomato granita to provide an icy textural contrast and sour taste contrats to the moist tartare. The powder of dehydrated prawn’s head lent it another layer of fragrance. A wonderful composition

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Lobster ball, tempura curry leaf, and vegetable sauce, with slices of macerated beetroot (4.5/5)

  • On the left, a ball of picked lobster meat wrapped in a vegetable, with a vegetable sauce and tempura curry leaf.
  • On the right, slices of macerated beetroot.
  • I’ve had something similar at Les Amis, as a lobster rouelle wrapped in spinach.

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  • Irish oyster, ikura, seagrapes

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  • Pumpkin croquette with pickled radish and lobster reduction (4.25/5)

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  • Somen with bafun uni, dashi (4.5/5)
    • Pasta with uni – a dependable crowd pleasable that I’ve seen in restaurants all over Asia. I’ve had a version at Ta Vie in Hong Kong. This version shades it slightly more Asian – the pasta is somen, and there is dashi-based vinegary sauce.

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  • Smoked butterfish arranged as a rose and puffed wild rice, with mulberry yoghurt, sorrel flowers, and oxalis for acidity (4.25/5)

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  • Razor clams from Klang, roast octopus, Landes white asparagus, crisp wild almond (4.25/5)
    • The razor clams from Klang boast local terroir, and are perfectly serviceable though not too memorable. The use of crisp wild almonds though, lends this dish a more interesting texture.

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  • St Jacques scallops, wild almond, tom sep sauce (5/5)
    • This dish was my favorite of the night. Scallops, usually a conservative preparation, is enlivened by Thai touches, including tom yam basil and a tom sep sauce. The crispy wild almonds added a nice nutty texture to the dish. This was executed with the precision of a miniaturist

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  • Butter poached Canadian lobster, with kale and sauce Americaine (4.25/5)

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  • Calamansi granita with mint yoghurt and toasted watermelon seeds

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  • Bresse pigeon with heirloom carrots, gooseberries and yuzu kosho (4.5/5)
    • Another well-executed pigeon, with unusual spicy tastes from the yuzu kosho (a mixture of chilli peppers, yuzu peel, and salt)

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  • Coffee gelato, hairy banana, lemon chantilly (4/5)

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  • Wild honey gelato, croquette (4.25/5)
    • A wild honey sorbet with honey from Chiangmai.

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I find it encouraging that there are more Asian touches in his dishes, which indicates Chef Darren is finding his own style away from the safe crowd-pleasers of a protein-sauce-vegetables. Of most interest to me in a future revisit would be whether he expands his style further to incorporate more pan-Asian touches – more Thai ingredients, a few borrowings from the local Malayan cookbook, nouvelle-cuisine a la the Japanese French style prevalent in restaurants such as Quintessence in Tokyo, a few borrowings from the modernist cookbook; or whether he increases his fidelity to la grand cuisine – with their greatest dishes such as truffle tarte, cooking en vessie etc.

Here is where the narrow fine-dining audience in Malaysia may become a handicap – if they don’t support such experiments from well-meaning chefs, the pace of innovation is stifled.

Chef Darren has been on record saying he aims for a placing on the Asia’s 50 Best List in the next few years. While I think Restaurant DC will probably be overlooked by the Asia’s 50 Best List due to the geographic concentration of voters (mostly in Singapore and Thailand), I think it deserves a spot on any list of Asia’s best restaurants on its own merit.
Rating: 17.5/20

Zet’joe in Bruges (Dec ’16)

26 Mar
Surprisingly, one of the best meals I had in my December Europe trip was one that was not even on my radar a day before. But perhaps it wasn’t so surprising – for that restaurant, Zet’joe, was the most recent incarnation of a 3 Michelin-star restaurant that had recently closed, De Karmeliet.


Michelin is unreliable these days, having forsaken its perceived veil of objectivity to be sponsored by national tourism offices (e.g.  Singapore, Thailand). In Europe however, I still rely heavily on its ratings. (After all, the Roman roads and aqueducts built in Western Europe still functioned despite the Empire’s unsuccessful expansions Northward in later years.) On the morning of my last full day in Bruges, I did my usual search for a Michelin starred restaurant that would represent the region’s cooking. The highest-starred extant restaurant was a two-starred one in a town 10km away, but logistics would be tricky after a heavy dinner. During all this Googling time, I was inwardly kvetching about the timing of Bruges’s 3-star De Karmeliet’s closure. A couple weeks earlier, and we would have been able to make it. But the information on the web was inconsistent. While every news article had listed De Karmeliet as closed in early December, De Karmeliet’s website was still functioning, and stranger still, was redirecting to the websites of two other restaurants. Could it be?


I began to pore more into De Karmeliet’s website. It appeared that the chef had set up two new restaurants, Bistro Refter and Zet’joe. (they are now three, with another called Bon Refter set up in 2017). We called Zet’joe at 9am, got their last table for the day, and the rest is happy history.


After a day in beautiful but freezing Bruges, (and loading up on half a suitcase of chocolate from Bruge’s best chocolatier Spegelaere) we made the 20 minute canal-side walk from our Airbnb apartment to the Eastern part of the old town where Zet’joe was located.
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The restaurant had two different tasting menus, but I felt the dinner would be safe and a bit uninspiring. Seabass, scallops, and lamb may be good, but more often than not they are just trope courses where the diner (me) faintly dislikes it because he imagines how he could have made the same at home, and the chef faintly dislikes it because the expectations of the lowest-common denominator diner hews too close to convention to really do something exciting with it.


So I decided to go with a la carte. Much more expensive, but more chances for a memorable meal.


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  • Parmesan gougeres

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  • Amuse bouche: green apple with goat cheese
    • The sour notes and pungency worked well together to get us hungry

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  • Langoustine “Royale”, preserved eggplant, goose liver, infusion of seaweed and mushrooms
    • My partner had this. From what I tasted, it seemed an elegant mix of grilled langoustine with dashi and foie.

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  • Brussels chicories, Duke of Berkshire ham, “raclette cheese” and black truffle from Richeranche (4.75/5)
    • This dish was described to us as the chef reviving memories of a dish his grandmother used to cook for him.
    • Soft foam clouds of what I think was cheese, really lended this dish the character of a reverie. The earthy bitter tastes of chicory went very well with the classic flavors of ham, black truffle, and raclette cheese. The saucing was rich and left my appetite whetted for more

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  • “Coucou de Malines” – chicken breast, white truffle from Alba, Albufeira sauce, preserved legs (2 courses) (5/5)
    • First course (5/5): a succulent, savory roast chicken, showered with very late season Alba truffles, twists of crispy salsify, boiled salsify root, and mushroom mash. Since we were the only ones ordering off the a la carte menu that day (it is about 2-3 times the price of the standard tasting menu), they made the mushroom mash for us, and we got seconds of the mushroom mash.
    • The chicken was very well done. I usually don’t order chicken as the piece de resistance for a fine-dining meal, but it was everything you could ask chicken to breast to be – juicy, with crispy skin, succulent. It was paired with a delicious albufeira sauce, an Escoffier-era derivation of veloute. It was just a delight to eat all portions of this dish, which is probably my favorite fine-dining chicken dish ever.
    • Second course (4.75/5): The second preparation was the meat from the confit chicken legs, with a chicken consomme, sweet-sour cubes of foie, artichoke and carrots. It was a very good soup dish, and showcased the chef’s versatility well.

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  • Flavours of chocolate, caramel and orange (5/5)
    • I love the combination of chocolate and orange. A well-executed chocolate cake with orange gel and caramel ice cream. The cake was not too cloying/heavy as cakes with too much flour can be, and the intelligent combination of textures (a common theme through the meal, starting with the clouds of cheese in my chicory starter and the salsify crisp in my first course of chicken) suggested the chef has a first-class understanding of the diner’s mind.

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  • Pineapple, foamed egg white, ice cream of banana and passion fruit, infusion of southernwood and rum
    • My partner had this – ile flottante, with a banana-passionfruit sorbet and brunoise of pineapple and passionfruit


After dinner, we spoke to the manager, the chef’s wife. The reason they had closed down De Karmeliet and opened two (now three) restaurants in its stead was not for any waning love of cooking, but because chef Geert van Hecke, 60 years old and feeling the strain on his knees in the big Karmeliet kitchen, wanted a smaller space to cook. “The cooking remains exactly the same”. I don’t doubt that, for the meal was of the highest quality, and I’m hoping to try more of Geert van Hecke’s cooking the next time I’m in Belgium.


Rating: 19.5/20


2016-12-28 19.56.42a piece from the chef’s art collection
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My most ecstatic moment of the meal – two bites in, and realizing how good the chicken dish is. Having some extra mushroom potato mash just beyond the plate, and about to attack the dish with real gusto. I wish I could have this dish every week!

Summer Pavilion (Singapore, Feb ’17): incredible dim sum

21 Feb
Summer Pavilion has been my pick for the top Chinese restaurant in Singapore for a long time, even before Michelin was a twinkling in the Singapore Tourism Board’s eye. (It currently has one star.) I grew up eating in Chinese restaurants long before I set foot in a European fine-dining restaurants, but the consistency of Summer Pavilion’s excellence has always impressed me more than its hotel/corporate competition. I’ve had stunning execution of classic dishes at many, but there is always an intelligent and forward-thinking touch at Summer Pavilion.
I recently had an incredible dim-sum meal there this week that cut through my recently apathy towards blogging:
  •  We had lychee-oolong tea from Taiwan, which was flavored with “The Eight Treasures”


  • Congee with fish slices
    • It was made with red snapper, a firm neutral-tasting fish that would be seen as a blank canvas for chefs, except for a delicious and visually appealling gelatinous red skin, rather than offcuts or snakehead (toman) fish which is too rough. The thoroughly crisped dough was a nice different touch from the usual soggy cut youtiao.


  • Steamed rice skin roll, shredded chicken, mushroom, ginger, spring onion
    • I thought this was an amazing dish. Instead of the usual rice skin roll (changfen) with a mix-and-match meat filling, this was a harmonious composition of silky rice skin, the piquant aroma of shallot oil, and a mix of textures from both vegetables and meats. The shallot oil was a wonderful companion to the light soy that usually goes with changfen.


  • Steamed vegetarian dumpling, lily bulbs, water chestnut, sweet pea, mushroom, preserved vegetable
    • I decided to go with dumplings primarily for lunch. I would not have ordered this, had it not been for the mention of lily bulbs, which is an absolute favorite ingredient of mine. The dumpling, bursting with sweet flavors, was a wonderful summary of the best of nature’s light ingredients.


  • Steamed prawn and bamboo-shoot dumpling
    • This “har gow”, had a juicy and firm prawn, well coated with a crystal translucent skin. The bamboo shoot diversified the crunchy prawn texture.


  • Steamed lobster, fungus, onions and carrot dumpling
    • Reprise of har gow with a different ingredients – again, juicy and firm.


  • Baked abalone puff, assorted mushrooms, carrot, onions
    • A perfectly tender abalone, with the concentrated mollusc taste, on a sweet bed of pastry, with textural contrast from chopped mushrooms. This was a perfect bite, served at a perfect temperature.


  • Chilled aloe vera, kiwi, strawberries, lime juice


  • Chilled cream of sago, mango, pomelo
The meal ended up being comparatively short at an hour, but what a meal! I conveyed my feelings to the server, who was justly proud of the chef’s cuisine and the restaurant’s Michelin star, and this meal reminded me again how brevity and a few excellent courses can form an indelible culinary memory.
Rating: 20/20

L’Ambroisie (revisit) & Histoires (Paris, Dec ’16): father and son

8 Jan
My travelling companion and I recently had a two and a half week trip through Europe, where we ate through some of France/Belgium/Holland’s most interesting restaurants. They included:
  1. yam’Tcha in Paris (1*)
  2. Le Cinq in Paris (3*)
  3. Clown Bar in Paris
  4. Ron Gastrobar in Amsterdam (1*)
  5. BAK in Amsterdam
  6. Bord’Eau in Amsterdam (2*)
  7. de Librije in Zwolle (3*)
  8. Quatre Mains in Bruges
  9. Zetjoe in Bruges [the new face of recently closed De Karmeliet (3*)]
  10. L’Ambroisie in Paris (3*)
  11. Histoires in Paris (2*)
Of those, our favorites were probably:
  • de Librije
  • L’Ambroisie
  • Zetjoe
  • Bord’Eau
The most disappointing meals we had were:
  • yam’Tcha
  • Histoires
We planned L’Ambroisie and Histoires as the pair of meals to end the trip. L’Ambroisie is probably the oldest three Michelin starred restaurant in Paris, having kept its rating since 1988, in an era when Michelin nods mean so much more than today. (The ongoing Michelin brand dilution is happening at too rapid a pace, and their new ratings are a joke) It is a restaurant that I think any gourmand who can afford its hefty price tag should try at least once, because it offers a very purified version of French dishes. This is not a common quality today, when most high-end restaurants agonize over offering tasting menus of 6-10 dishes featuring maybe 20-30 ingredients, where almost all dishes of which are pushed out before they’re ready. Where many chefs look to add ingredients, Bernard Pacaud’s dishes are marked by a synergistic backbone of two or three ingredients which define the dish. Extraneous tastes are removed: for example the dish I remember the most from my last visit was the amuse-bouche: crayfish and peas with a light fennel soup. This capability to step into the diner’s shoes, to taste an intriguing combination of some two-three pure flavors, is all-too-rare.
Our dinner at L’Ambroisie reprised the well-worn cliches of its continuous excellence. The most memorable dish of my dinner this time was Dover sole, with vin jaune sauce, Brussel sprouts and the last of season white truffle. The Dover sole cut like butter, but in truth, the fatty fish was a side show to the axis of a tangy vin jaune, the earthy smell of Alba truffles, and the refreshing bitterness of Brussel sprouts. Service was excellent, and I was surprised by a generous additional serving of the chocolate tart (justly world-famous). At the end of it,  I was eagerly anticipating my meal the next day at Chef Pacaud’s son’s restaurant.
The clearest signs of Chef Pacaud’s discerning palate and keen intellect was reflected in a pair of dishes. There is a distinct taste to cooked watercress, which produces a puckering effect in the mouth without being bitter. The taste impression it leaves on the palate is a light puckered savoriness. This is readily apparent to anyone who has had Chinese watercress soup with goji berry and pork broth. Chef Pacaud uses this as the backbone for his signature dish, langoustine with sesame wafer and curry sauce. It would be quite rich, this tangy curry creation, if it were not cut by the hidden mound of cooked watercress at the very bottom, which produces this light puckered savoriness. I tried my companion’s dish of scallops, caviar, and potato, with a raw vegetal sauce. It turned out the raw vegetal sauce was made of watercress as well – with a real vegetal scent that gave enough tension and surprising synergy to the scallop dish that made it sublime. (It is I think, lazy thinking, that lumps all luxury ingredients together, like uni, caviar, scallops, and expects the end result to be more than the sum of the parts, or even the sum of the parts. A great luxury dish requires a unifying element, often a humble ingredient, to truly pull it together).
Mathieu Pacaud, son of Bernard Pacaud, and for 13 years a chef at L’Ambroisie (eventually rising to become co-head Chef with his father) is, as you may be able to tell from a Wikipedia profile which looks PR-agency-written, is much more of an aggressive self-promoter than his father. As I left Paris, he had opened two restaurants – Hexagone (1*), a cocktail bar and restaurant, Histoires (2*), a hidden fine-dining restaurant behind Hexagone, and was in the process of reopening Le Divellec in Paris, a fish bistro, as his third restaurant. He seems to be building a restaurant empire. Nor is he lacking in self-confidence for the prices he charges – the price at Histoires for a set menu was 25% higher than at L’Ambroisie where we had starter-main-dessert – Histoires was the most expensive meal of the trip (and in a trip that includes L’Ambroisie and three other 3* restaurants, that says something!)
When I went to Histoires, my expectations were of dishes of the L’Ambroisie calibre. However, of the dishes there, what was original was not especially sublime, and the sublime touches were not especially original. My dining partner and I agreed that perhaps going to L’Ambroisie the night before had biased us, since the bulk of any of the younger Pacaud’s patient refining would have been on the L’Ambroisie dishes. But with only one exception (a vin jaune sauce pairing with a more intense and boozy vin jaune sabayon) the touches were not as good as at L’Ambroisie. Parisian diners being a discerning bunch probably know this – I know Paris dining has been suffering since the Nov 2015 terror attacks, but at L’Ambroisie I could only spot one empty table for two, at Histoires only 4 out of the 7 tables were filled, and only 1 of those was French speaking. The other 3 (including us) were first-time visitors and tourists. For reference, the other Parisian tables we visited were completely filled – yam’Tcha, Le Cinq, and the Clown Bar. The only half-full restaurant on our trip was Histoires.
I usually review restaurants separately, but given the obvious affinity of the two restaurants it would be illuminating to see the dishes side by side.

  • Crunchy cheese kugelhopf – really good, I think this was made of Parmesan. A warm bite with a soft centre. (5/5)


  • Beetroot soup, cream of mustard seeds, foie flan underneath – alright. A bit unrefined in the beetroot soup texture, which was quite grainy and not too harmonious with the foie (4/5)


  • Feuillantine de langoustines aux graines de sésame, sauce au curry (4.75/5)
    • As above: The clearest signs of Chef Pacaud’s discerning palate and keen intellect was reflected in a pair of dishes. There is a distinct taste to cooked watercress, which produces a puckering effect in the mouth without being bitter. The taste impression it leaves on the palate is a light puckered savoriness. This is readily apparent to anyone who has had Chinese watercress soup with goji berry and pork broth. Chef Pacaud uses this as the backbone for his signature dish, langoustine with sesame wafer and curry sauce. It would be quite rich, this tangy curry creation, if it were not cut by the hidden mound of cooked watercress at the very bottom, which produces this light puckered savoriness. I tried my companion’s dish of scallops, caviar, and potato, with a raw vegetal sauce. It turned out the raw vegetal sauce was made of watercress as well – with a real vegetal scent that gave enough tension and surprising synergy to the scallop dish that made it sublime. (It is I think, lazy thinking, that lumps all luxury ingredients together, like uni, caviar, scallops, and expects the end result to be more than the sum of the parts, or even the sum of the parts. A great luxury dish requires a unifying element, often a humble ingredient, to truly pull it together).


  • Melba de noix de Saint-Jacques au caviar golden, coulis de cresson
    • I didn’t have a full portion, but from what I tasted, the scallops were real toothy and had serious texture, with a perfectly textured potato cream and watercress sauce. The caviar added the proper salty element. A perfect dish I think


  • Dos de sole braise au vin jaune, effeuilee de choux de Bruxelles et truffe blanche (5/5)
    • As above:  The most memorable dish of my dinner this time was Dover sole, with vin jaune sauce, Brussel sprouts and the last of season white truffle. The Dover sole cut like butter, but in truth, the fatty fish was a side show to the axis of a tangy vin jaune, the earthy smell of Alba truffles, and the refreshing bitterness of Brussel sprouts


  • Salmis de supremes de pigeon aux coings, cuisses en pastilla


  • Pear sorbet with caramel of pear


  • Boule nacree aux fruits exotiques emulsion neigeuse au Passoa (5/5)
    • A really excellent dish, a refreshing sugar sphere with coconut whipped cream, and peach. Passionfruit was only outside. It helped refresh our palates




  • Souffle chaud a la nougatine de noix, cafe liegeois



  • Brioche fine en pain perdu, reine des reinettes caramelisee


  • Tarte sablee au cacao amer, galce a la vanille Bourbon (5/5)
    • No words – best no-flour chocolate tart anywhere, which a crunchy base


  • Alcoholic reprise of pear sorbet with caramel

  • Mocktail: Cucumber, rosewater, juniper, tonic water


Amuse bouche 1:

  • Brioche mousseline et creme d’oignons
  • Cornet croustillant a la creme de saumon
  • Langoustines au Caviar Golden
  • Marbre de foie gras de canard (5/5)
  • Of these, I found the foie sandwich amazing, having solid consistency and saltiness. A decadent bite.


Amuse bouche 2: Scallop, black truffle, watercress sauce, toasted bread emulsion

  • The black truffle, served on warm scallops didn’t release its flavor fully due to the temperature. The ingredients were individually good but as a dish failed to come together. (3.25/5)


Royales Scampi: Anise Cream and caviar Golden

  • 4/5, but maybe 4.5/5 if you like anise flavors. The scampi had a slight bitter, iodine taste, which paired well with the seawater jelly. Tropezienne sauce, based off of a Provence pastry, was anise flavored. The dominant flavor palette of the dish was sweet. I generally did not like iodine taste of the scampi or the anise flavors of the Tropezienne sauce, but cannot deny someone with a sweet tooth might like it better


Foie Gras: Red wine decoction with star anise

  • 4/5. A huge hockey puck of foie gras with a fig and star-anise red wine. That is all. Not sure what the chef was thinking here.


Sole: Root vegetables and caviar Golden

  • This was the sole dish which had an idea that improved over a L’Ambroisie version – the vin jaune was paired with a vin jaune sabayon which was much boozier and sweeter, allowing for a more complex sauce. However the balance of the dish was not as good. The buttery dover sole I had at L’Ambroisie was a conveyance for the axis of Brussel sprouts – vin jaune – white truffle. Arguably the Brussel sprouts harmonized that dish. Here the root vegetables were not discernable, and the dominant notes were Dover sole and vin jaune – a less balanced and much richer combination – which over-satiated me. Overall rating: not perfect, but interesting. 4.75/5


Blue Lobster: Pumpkin and chestnut, “sauce diable”

  • The firmness of the blue lobster was great. But what was the point of composing a dish of it with meaty hunks of carrot and chestnut, with little sauce to tie it together. A failure of composition. 2.5/5


Trou Normand: Lemon, vodka tonic

  • We were getting stuffed at this point!


Chicken from Bresse: Stuffed with black truffle, wild mushrooms

  • Slightly tough. The best part was the roast skin, lightly perfumed with the black truffle mash underneath the skin. Unfortunately the Bresse chicken showed none of its superior characteristics, and the breast was indistinguishable from a supermarket rotisserie chicken – tough, dry, mostly tasteless with the slight sour-neutral taste of pure white protein. In fact the skin did not show off much crispness except in parts. Compared to a roast Belgian Malines chicken served with sherry sauce we had two nights before at Zetjoe in Bruges, this was not in the same galaxy. A mediocre preparation of chicken. (2.5/5) However, the wild mushroom with slices of cheese was good.


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  • Dessert: Big waltz in seven compositions
    • Wild strawberry, yoghurt sorbet
    • Lemon sorbet
    • Williams pear, Madagascar vanilla
    • Cacao Mont Blanc
    • Blancmange with passionfruit and mango
    • Salted caramel with coffee cream
    • Hazelnut praline and nuts
    • There were many similar themes with our dessert assortment the night before, – where L’Ambroisie had a sugar ball with passionfruit and mango, here it was a springy blancmange. A hazelnut praline with nuts reminded me of a nougatine souffle the night before; the coffee caramel cream jelly in the clear cup reminded me of the caffe Liegeois the night before. However, at this point we were getting full, and felt that there was no real perfect dessert that anchored this assortment. Instead, it just seemed a profusion of passable desserts, like a chef regurgitating his culinary curriculum on the table by “Priori Incantatem”. What makes the L’Ambroisie assortment incomparably better in my view, is that all of them are fucking good, with the emphasis on “fucking good” rather than “dessert assortment”.
  • Sweets
Now, I should note for fairness that the other two tourist (American) couples seemed to be enjoying themselves, praising the sommeliers on multiple occasions and holding extended conversations with them – the nature of the Histoires set-up is that you can hear most of the conversations around the room unless you whisper. It may be that Mathieu Pacaud’s food is meant to be wine food, and we didn’t order wine besides a glass of champagne to start. But in that case, I still can’t recommend it to the teetotalling crowd, of which I am an occasional member.
The post-meal damage, as mentioned, was about 25% higher than L’Ambroisie, about 390 euros per person, which made it our most expensive Paris meal by quite some distance. If I’m going to spend this amount on food, I want at least one amazing dish in my meal. Histoires failed to provide that and that’s why it was probably one of the most disappointing meals of the trip. It is still a mystery to me, how a chef of Mathieu Pacaud’s calibre and pedigree could serve such absolutely clunkers as the Blue Lobster and Bresse chicken dish, with little or no synergy between its ingredients, or make such a vacuous show of average desserts, like some cheap prestidigitation. And the hockey puck of foie was just lazy. My dining partner and I concluded that he is still probably trying to find his own style and signature, but honestly, the ardours taken to build a restaurant empire are not promising for near-term culinary development.

Whitegrass in Singapore (Sep ’16): “international cuisine worth the name”

24 Sep

Whitegrass is one of the most intriguing restaurants in Singapore I’ve been to this year (though this year has been a fairly quiet one!). Not because the dishes at Whitegrass are straightforwardly delicious – no, the most straightforwardly delicious meal this year might go to Odette (Singapore), which turned out a fine French meal with aplomb in June. Rather, it is because chef Sam Aisbett, an ex head-chef of Sydney’s Quay, has an adventurous mind, and his attempts at “international cuisine” dishes are some of the most sophisticated I’ve tried.

“International cuisine” is often interpreted by chefs at a very basic level to mean using ingredients from other geographies in homage to the foreign style – e.g. I’ve had a few dishes in Europe that featured Japanese ingredients, that had diverged too far from the original to remind me of them. (For example, a kingfish “sushi” at Bareiss (Germany), a great restaurant, but fish on cold rice with a sweet starch bore only a passing resemblance to sushi). These dishes rarely excite, and I often prefer if the chefs would serve me dishes in the style that won them plaudits, and serve these foreign dishes only to European locals/regulars who would be impressed by/tolerate these experiments. Thankfully, at most high-end places, they usually restrict the number of these dishes to a quarter of the menu at most.

The worst excesses of international cuisine are perpetrated by chefs who indiscriminately use foreign ingredients in their cooking. This seems to be more an American affliction, and I shan’t name names, but every major American city has their share of chefs who serve kimchi burgers, and XO sauce something or other, and with invariably inedible results.

The meal at Whitegrass was beautifully presented, with well-thought out flourishes (a flowercup of salted-egg yolk stands out in my mind). It wasn’t a perfect meal – I didn’t like all the dishes, primarily because for the 8 course meal , cream was used in almost every dish, and we felt really heavy towards the end. There were a couple of clunkers in the meal – a butter poached pigeon that was tasteless and a plum cake that had poorly thought-out sugar architecture. But what made this meal stand out was two “international” cuisine interpretations that I felt would equal anything in restaurants in those native geographies.

I was particularly impressed with a slow roasted Mangalica pork wrapped in roasted black moss (“fatt choy”), which replicated the taste profile of a popular Cantonese fine dining dish where abalone is served with black moss, a light brown sauce, crunchy lettuce for texture. It came as no surprise to me that the chef is a frequent patron of Chinese restaurants, because the taste resemblance was uncanny.

The second, which was my favorite dish of the night, harked back to North America. It was a delicious composition of semi-hard textures – West Coast geoduck, fermented celeriac, hen of the woods mushrooms (commonly foraged in the Northeast), with some millet crisps. The trio of geoduck, celeriac, and hen of the woods each had a different bite to the tongue, but the combination was just a pleasure to chew. It was among the best composition I’ve had of these ingredients, including anywhere in North America.

Even the dishes which I didn’t think were knock-outs were incredibly intriguing – including a creamed chicken salad with hazelnuts and artichokes that reminded by of a very good Waldorf salad.

Sam Aisbett’s kitchen is probably one of 2-3 kitchens in Singapore where I have had dishes that are both wholly original and refined – the others being Candlenut and Restaurant Andre. Great to have it as an option in Singapore.

Rating: 16.5/20

  • 2016-09-16-20-59-26 2016-09-16-21-00-58 2016-09-16-21-01-06Snacks: Smoked diced hamachi with charcoal cracker; cheese biscuit with feta; pork with XO sauce



  • “Bibimbap” – nori cream, dashi jelly, cucumber balls, trout roe, puffed rice, cherry radish

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  • “Sashimi of rock lobster, salted daikon radish, fennel pollen, frozen pomelo” (3.75/5)
    • Sour cream at the bottom, flavored like the Chinese red vinegar used in shark’s fin soup. I like the sashimi, but the nitro-frozen pomelo was a bad idea – the freezing reduced it to bitter pithiness; there was no sweetness.

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  • “White cut free-range organic chicken, violet artichokes, pickled jellyfish, fresh and roasted hazelnuts, sesame, ginger vinegar” (4.25/5)
    • A good mix of textures; the cream became a bit overwhelming to fully enjoy the dish, but it was an interesting intellectual dish, like a very good Waldorf salad. I like the touch of folded salted egg flowercups. There were little touches of flowers and root vegetables like chorogi.

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  • “Geoduck clam, steamed egg custard, fermented celeriac, white hen of the woods mushrooms, olive herb, umami broth” (5/5)
    • My favorite dish of the night. A tribute to North American semi-hard textures.

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  • “Lobster custard with tapioca and umami pearls” (3.5/5)
    • Very heavy – a chawanmushi with lobster oil. Decent, but the culinary-interest to how-full-is-this-making-me ratio was very, very low.

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  • “Australian tiger jade abalone with three treasures” (4.5/5)
    • Intriguing dish – genuine Asian fusion that was completely unique – eggplant, shiitake, and green peppercorns from Thailand, with salted baked abalone and a hint of black vinegar. It fulfilled the first commandment of Asian fusion that so many chefs break – “first, do not be inedible”, and was actually quite delicious

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  • “Slow roasted Mangalica pork, scallops silk, white turnip cream, cabbage stem, fried black moss, aromatic pork broth” (5/5)
    • A fusion dish worthy of any Cantonese fine-dining restaurant. Excellent.


  • “Roasted Anjou Pigeon, slow roasted young beetroots, fresh milk skin, blackcurrants, native pepper berry, sour leaves (3/5)”
    • A clunker after an excellent string of highlights. A butter poached pigeon that was tasteless. The best part was the beetroots which provided distraction from the monotony of unsalted meatiness that was the pigeon breast.



  • “White peach from Wakayama preferecture, silver milk and peach seed jelly, peach skin granita, sour cream ice cream” (4.5/5)
    • An intriguing dessert that had alternating spheres of peach-granita and spherified-milk-with-peach-pit-essence. The peach granita was excellent, and the coconut meringues on the wafer added a nice touch


  • “Perserved Mirabelle plums, buttermilk mousse, roasted almond cake, crisp meringue, black plum ice cream” (2.5/5)
    • An unexciting and functional dessert. What I didn’t like about the dessert for me was the thick wall of frosting sugar to keep the structure of the cake/inner plum sorbet/top plum ice cream together. The sugar wall was barely edible, and was only clearly there for structural engineering. Such barely edible food architecture should be kept to wedding-cakes and gingerbread houses, and does not belong in a fine-dining dessert.


  • Manjar blanco Alfajor, Raspberry snowball
    • An excellent Peruvian shortbread biscuit (the manjar blanco Alfajor)

[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.