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

 

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  • “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.

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  • “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.

 

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  • “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

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  • “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.

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  • 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.

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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