Archive | February, 2015

Bo Innovation | Hong Kong | Jul ’14

14 Feb
  • Rating: 16/20
  • Address: 60 Johnston Road, Hong Kong
  • Phone: +852 2850 8371
  • Price: HKD2,400 (310 USD at 1 USD = 7.76HKD)
  • Value: 2/5
  • Chef: Alvin Leung

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My meal at Bo Innovation featured touches of Hong Kong, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Alvin Leung shuns the “molecular” tag, and his type of innovation involves bringing the East Asian flavors and remixing it with classic preparations like baked alaska, hollandaise. For your main, you are dine on beef, but it is paired with oxtongue cooked in bak-kut-teh spices and coated with chocolate.

The three highlights: I found myself impressed by Chef Leung’s re-imaginings: the Lap Mei Fan baked alaska, which featured a sensational Chinese-sausage ice cream, a jar of spam puree with black truffle, a bak kut teh oxtongue. (these three dishes, the best, were only available in the extended tasting menu – which means that diners ordering a shorter menu might find Bo Innovation disappointing).

The others dishes generally lacked a foundation: Outside of one or dishes, like the lap mei fan baked alaska, or the bak kut teh oxtongue, I didn’t find the cooking at Bo Innovation very compelling. Most of the other dishes had multiple ingredients that didn’t make sense on that plate, as if the kitchen had to show off how avant garde it was, without considering whether the ingredients were harmonious or not. Multiple dishes didn’t have a compelling backbone to build on: for example it was hard to see what were the supporting ingredients in the MULHOE, RED FISH and BLUE LOBSTER, as well as the COCONUT dessert. Every component shouted on the palate. The result was often not in harmony. At 3 very good dishes, the hit-miss ratio was a bit low for me as well.

The HK food blogger g4gary has an intelligent observation: “As for the endless debate of whether the 3-star bestowed upon the place is justified, while I agree this is perhaps the most atypical 3-starred restaurant I have set foot in, if you took the literal definition of Michelin 3-stars meaning restaurants serving exceptional cuisine that [is] worth a special journey, I could see why Bo Innovation would make the grade. Strange as it sounds, his food is uniquely Hong Kong – it wouldn’t have made much sense to serve the same food anywhere else in the world – so from that perspective, the meal itself does worth a special journey for some adventurous minds. Guess I would leave it at that.

Don’t take it literally: I think this is probably what went through the Michelin inspectors’ minds when they awarded Bo Innovation 3-stars. In terms of refinement and objective enjoyment, this is probably a restaurant that merits 1-star. But the literal interpretation of 3-stars as “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey” opens a can of worms. Lesser chefs who hop onto the “innovation” bandwagon to create an endless array of average but novel dishes are rewarded, and chefs who focus on perfecting their dishes are penalized. I think the Michelin brand has stood the test of time because of the accumulated wisdom about what a 1-star, 2-star, and 3-star restaurant means in terms of excellence, and not because of its literal rubric of “journey-worthiness”. The recent rush to star “innovative” restaurants strikes me as a half-baked attempt to compete with the San Pellegrino guide.

Other links

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  • Waffle/ onion/ ham  (3.75/5)
    • Street food. Flour, fried. Tastes of onion

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  • CAVIAR: smoked quail egg, taro nest (4.25/5)
    • Presented on a silver tree to emphasise the “nest”. Enjoyable.
    • The quail egg was hard,

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  • MULHOE: foie gras, spicy korean miso, pear, sea urchin, sea bladder, smoked squid, sea bream, jicama (4.25/5)
    • Squeezing foie and spicy miso out a tube, the ingredients in a sweet cold pear consomme
    • Korean-influenced dish. Perhaps the restaurant is vying to be a pan-Asian culinary champion?

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  • LAP MEI FAN: baked alaska, “lap cheong” (5/5)
    • Hot-cold contrast, a crowd pleaser with the strong tastes of alcohol. Highly visual dish, setting the alcohol on fire
    • The sweetness of Chinese sausage was a revelation, used in a a smooth icecream that contrasted well with texture of puffed rice underneath.

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  • UMAMI: black truffle, toro, har mi oil, vermicelli, rice noodle (3.75/5)
    • The spongey tuna belly toro was a bit sour.
    • The given explanation for the existence of this dish was that each of the ingredients had strong umami components. As a dish however, it failed to be more than the sum of its ingredients – though the ingredients were strong.
    • The most overwhelming part of the dish was the har mi (dried shrimp) on the vermicelli, which dominated the toro and truffle.

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  • MOLECULAR: “xiao long bao” (3.75/5)
    • A Bo Innovation signature, this xiaolongbao featured ginger with a spherified meat broth. Not bad.

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  • BABY FOOD: black truffle “chian dan chee” (4.5/5)
    • Audaciously remixing high and low gastronomy – variety meats in the form of spam foam, mixed with yolk and crispy bits of ham, and truffle foam.
    • It tasted good, but to me it felt like a cheap trick. Spam has already been engineered to appeal to our fat and salt craving brains, it would not take much for a chef to make spam delicious.

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  • RED FISH: yunnan ham, dry mandarin peel, wild mushroom, jerusalem artichoke, pickled pearl onion (3.75/5)
    • Yunnan ham sauce, yellow foot mushroom,
    • The sunchoke (or jerusalem artichoke) was just a block of sweet starch, which could have been reduced in portion, and the chips (mandarin peel?) had no taste

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  • BLUE LOBSTER: sichuan hollandaise, hot shaohsing broth, chinese leek dumpling, charred corn
    • lobster bisque, shaoxing wine, a slight bitter aftertaste. hollandaise with sichuan peppercorn
    • 3.75/5

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  • MAO TAI: calamansi
    • when you’re drunk, you can go with the flow and Epicurean feeling (3.5/5)

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  • SWEETBREAD: oyster sauces, mountain yam, spring onion, ginger
    • Not bad sweetbreads, braised in oyster sauce. (4/5)

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  • SAGA-GYU BEEF: striploin, bakkutteh chocolate ox tongue, truffled taro, spring onion (4.5/5)
    • the beef was A3 saga-gyu, North Kyushu. I found the most unique part of this dish the bak-kut-teh ox tongue coated in choclate sauce. A liverish texture for the tongue, soft and pliant, with an interesting thick chocolate paste coating it.
    • The bak kut teh flavor was mild, and imparting a herbal flavor to the oxtongue. Not a dish I crave, but when reflecting on my meal 6 months later it is one of the two things I remember

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  • ALMOND: genmai, okinawa black sugar, cinnamon (3.5/5)
    • spherified almond milk (outer texture like a Chinese “tangyuan” dessert dumpling, inside texture of tofu), genmai tea flavored with black sugar and cinnamon.
    • the tea was overwhelmed with sugar

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  • COCONUT: palm sugar, coconut water, chocolate, pina colada, cherry, pandan
    • A curious combination. It is not quite chendol, with pandan cream and young coconut meringues.
    • It was a splatter of ingredients that evoked Southeast Asia – palm sugar, water, pandan (and an interesting touch of dried wolfsberries in the soil), but did not come together very well
    • (4/5) – the individual ingredients were nice.

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  • Petit fours (based off 8 treasures tea)
    • generally around 4/5
    • longan (lit: dragon eye), coconut jelly
    • osmanthus steamed sponge cake
    • rose macaron, lychee, butter cream
    • lotus seed, custard, sticky rice dumpling
    • mandarin peel chocolate truffle
    • red date marshmallow
    • wolfberry, tianjin pear, crystal bun
    • chrysanthemum meringue

Candlenut in Singapore: preserving an indigenous strand of home-cooking

13 Feb
  • Dates visited: 3 times in January 2015
  • Rating: 17/20
  • Address: 331 New Bridge Road, New Bridge Road, Singapore 088764
  • Phone: +65 8121 4107
  • Chef: Malcolm Lee
  • Style: Modern Peranakan

A distinction in Thailand between home-cooking and street food… 

While browsing David Thompson (head chef, Nahm) excellent book Thai Street Food, I was enlightened as to a distinction he makes between the older Thai traditional food and Thai street food (a relatively new development that started in the 30’s and 40’s). In the first half of the twentieth century, before most Thais began to work in urban areas, eating street food was actually viewed with stigma, as it indicated one’s family (usually one’s wife) was uncaring enough to not prepare full meals for the husband and breadwinner.

It is in Thai home cooking that we find the more labor-intensive dishes such as curries, soups, relishes and stir-fries, meant to be eaten with rice, and served all at once. In Thai street food we find single-portions, usually one-dish noodles or rice, along with some snacks. At Nahm, I was fortunate enough to have three great meals of traditional Thai food. From the description of David Thompson’s soon-to-be-open Long Chim in Singapore’s casino complex Marina Bay Sands, it appears he will cook Thai street food instead:

Recently awarded the No. 1 spot on San Pellegrino’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014 and 13th on World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014 for his restaurant in Bangkok, Long Chim is Chef David Thompson’s first venture into casual dining. The internationally acclaimed chef, restaurateur and cookbook author has crafted a tantalising menu that combines traditional street food and contemporary flavours, with a restaurant concept reminiscent of the vibrant streets of Bangkok. Rediscover Thai cuisine with beef with holy basil, chicken pilaf with turmeric and cardamom, and more.

It will be very interesting to see how Long Chim pans out, and is received by pan-Asian consumers (especially Singaporeans), because there is a lot of hand-wringing on the island of Singapore about the state of its own street food (or “hawker food”) and Long Chim may provide a solution – “sell it to a foreign audience unburdened with expectations” to reset. Ironically the success of Long Chim may solve the problem of local consumers not placing a high value on street food, but only by introducing it to a foreign and well-off audience.

… the distinction isn’t limited to Thailand, but exists wherever street food exists: If we think about it, historically street food required a few ingredients to arise: (A) a large working population,  either (B1)  no wives to prepare home-cooked meals or (B2) high costs for wives to prepare homecooked meals. In the most recent past, we had (A) and (B1) in Southeast Asia. Singapore for instance was a land of immigrants, and lacking wives they ate at street hawkers. To take the example of bak kut teh (pork rib tea), according to Dr Leslie Tay in The End of Char Kway Teow, “pork bone soup was being served by the Teochews around Clarke Quay, and the Hokkien around Hokkien Street [in the 1920s]” (p32, Tay). In Thailand, David Thompson mentions the development of Thai street food took place around that time period, and eating street food carried stigma about your lack of a caring family. Today, the (A) working population is doubled in size due to the entry of women into the workforce, and (B2) the opportunity cost of a working wife’s income forgone is much higher.

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Candlenut preserves the Peranakan tradition of home-cooking well, in my three meals there in January, I found the food to be robustly flavored with welcome touches of innovation. Take the buah keluak (pangium edule)  preparation, which has divided commentators like Wong Ah Yoke on authenticity – traditionally the meat (most commonly chicken) is cooked within the buah keluak nut and dunked in a sour broth. The chef, Malcolm Lee, here, prepares a sauce from the buah keluak independently of the meat, which tames the bitterness but is intensely meaty and flavorful (at least for the wagyu beef version). It is black gold to spread over rice. For me, to insist on authenticity is to miss the point, since Chef Malcolm Lee is the only one experimenting and innovating in this vein. If you want authentic preparations, there are multiple Peranakan restaurants on the island where you can get your fix. But I have found that this is the only place serving Peranakan food that has the capacity to surprise. In fact, the one ingredient I haven’t encountered at this restaurant is the eponymous candlenut!

Innovating away from haute street-food, which is not as fruitful as haute home-cooking. I am biased, but I don’t believe haute street food hits the mark as often as home-cooking or banquet-cooking dishes. I had quite a few over the past year – the HK waffles at Bo Innovation were okay, the cheese pimento at Sant Pau was a clever artifice but not much more, the street-food based canapes at Nahm were just overshadowed by the home-cooked mains, the everything bagel at Eleven Madison Park was another clever artifice… so on and so forth. The examples could be multiplied. I’ve also generally had a better time in Tokyo at kaiseki restaurants than at sushi/tempura restaurants (former street-food that has successfully entered the haute-cuisine pantheon). [I must note though the Fat Duck’s “lamb kebab” was my best dish of 2014, but it completely transformed from its street food origins] This observation that haute street-food doesn’t hit the mark quite as often is based on my eating experience. My theory about why this is so, is simply that they (A) generally involve less labor than home-cooked/banquet food, and (B) street food must often deliver a forthright punch to ensure customers come back, but this frontal impact comes at the expense of complexity of the dish. For instance, HK waffles pack oil and starch, tempura has an oiliness we crave. Many haute cuisine attempts to update street food just seem awkward, and I believe it is the impatience and lack of complexity with which street food unfolds its flavors.

Everything goes well with rice. Two sauces here can be classed as “world-class”, up there with any multi-Michelin-starred restaurant. They are the buah keluak sauce with wagyu beef rib, and the gula melaka sauce with king prawn. I could not dump them onto my rice fast enough. The swimmer crab curry was another highlight, but almost every dish whetted the appetite. It was sophisticated comfort food, and it felt like we were eating at a Peranakan relative’s house.

Candlenut deserves to be grouped with Nahm as an innovative restaurant that simultaneously respects tradition. I opened my post talking about Nahm’s David Thompson because the two restaurants Candlenut and Nahm remind me of each other in a deep way. The head chefs (Malcolm Lee, and David Thompson) are not showy celebrity chefs, but are deeply-aware and well-read on the history and preparation of Peranakan and Thai food, unlike so many other chefs who are chasing fame and notoriety in the wild-west of Southeast Asian fine-dining. Both restaurants, Candlenut and Nahm, produce food that reminds me of home-cooked food, comforting and yet sophisticated. Both have chosen family-style serving of dishes in pursuit of this ideal of traditional food. The dishes are made with high quality ingredients. And yet the chefs have been trained in the Western-style. They know of the latest developments in molecular gastronomy. Here Candlenut is slightly more innovative, but only deploys some modernist techniques (sous-vide, espumas) when it serves the dish. But every so often there is the potential to surprise you with a completely novel dish (Candlenut’s buah keluak ice cream, and their desserts in general are interesting) which reflects a keen culinary intelligence. Singaporean food is for the richer that a chef of Malcolm Lee’s talent has chosen to cook Peranakan food instead of molecular cuisine a la The Fat Duck.

Relevant reviews:

Excellent dishes are highlighted with a  *

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  • Canapes: Gula melaka/Brinjal chip, with prawn quenelle, cilantro. An appetizing palate opener. It had the right amount of sourness (I would guess it involved calamansi). It was very well done.
    • 4.25/5

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  • Kueh Pie Tee: braised turnips, pork belly, prawn filling
    • 4.25/5

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  • Ngoh Hiang: Crispy beancurd roll stuffed with minced pork and prawns, water chestnut, mushrooms
    • Not a bad rendition. I am a bit spoilt when it comes to ngor hiang since my aunt makes a terrific version (the best I’ve tried in Singapore by a mile), but I would prefer if it were shrunk down, to ensure more crispy beancurd skin to stuffing ratio. This ensures the savory skin gets maximum flavor. It would also be better (I am out of fashion here) if the ingredients were more coarsely chopped, such that you can taste the texture of the prawns (important) and meat. It would benefit from more prawns.
    • Too many people make the mistake of throwing the ingredients in a blender. That is absolutely the last thing you should do. The joy of ngor hiang is to sample the varying textures of ingredients in one savory package.
    • 4/5

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  • Wing Bean Salad: prawns, crispy fish, shallots, lemongrass, chilli, cashew nuts, mint, coriander with lime dressing
    • 3.75/5
  • Turmeric Wings: Deep fried mid-wings
    • 3.75/5

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  • * Omelette Chincalok: Fermented blend of salted baby shrimps, folded with spring onions
    • An simple yet addictive dish, with a real depth of taste. Had not had this simple dish done so well since Xu Jun Sheng in Joo Chiat closed down.
    • 4.5/5

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  • * Sambal Goreng Mushrooms: wok fried with crispy shrimp sambal
    • I love mushrooms. I recently learnt from Michael Pollan’s Cooked that there are three umami chemicals (L-glutamate from seaweed, inosine from fish, and guanosine from mushrooms). Much of the Straits Chinese cooking I love uses dried shrimp (umami, but is it from inosine?), and and this combined two of the three umami archetypes (fermented seafood and mushrooms). It was interesting to see mushrooms in place of the usual kang kong.
    • 4.5/5
  • Chap chye: braised cabbage with mushrooms, sweet & dried bean curd, pork belly and black fungus in rich prawn stock gravy
    • 3.75/5

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  • * Candlenut Satay: pineapple peanut sauce, cucumbers, red onions
    • Just the right amount of crispiness on the meat (slight at the edges), which was still juicy.
    • 4.5/5

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  • * Buah Keluak chicken

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  • * Buah Keluak F1 Rangers Valley Wagyu beef rib
    • I have tried both versions, but I would say the succulence of the beef fat has outperforms the chicken version, which is tender but marginally less flavorful. The sauce is like black gold you pour over your rice, a moorish flavor that recalls a Mexican chocolate mole, but with that bitter nuttiness that is unique to buah keluak. Fantastic, an innovation to be celebrated.
    • chicken (4.75/5)
    • beef (5/5)
  • Rendang: dry coconut curry with kaffir lime leaves and roasted coconut
    • 4/5

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  • Babi pongteh: pork belly braised in perserved soy bean gravy topped with chilli
    • 3.75/5

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  • * Yellow coconut curry of crab: blue swimmer crab meat, turmeric, galangal, kaffir lime
    • Ranges from 4.75/5 to 4.25/5. I have had this dish three times, and on the first two times this dish was almost perfect. (On the third time the crab had a slight bitter tinge to it which made the dish less enjoyable)
    • I mentioned to Chef Malcolm that I thought this dish was comparable to Nahm’s coconut and turmeric curry of blue swimmer crab with calamansi lime. He probably thought I was joking but I meant it. The swimmer crab was generous in portion, and the curry deliciously complex. the note of galangal was probably what recalled Nahm’s almost instantly
    • Nahm’s swimmer crab curry, picture for comparison:
    • The Candlenut version is slightly spicier than the Nahm version (if I recall correctly), but both are thick, savory curries you would love to splash upon your rice.

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  • * Gula Melaka King Prawns: coconut butter sauce infused w gula melaka, lemongrass & roasted coconut, fresh herbs and chilli
    • Another masterpiece. This dish is completely new to me, but the sauce concocted is absolutely addictive, with a butterscotch taste and a perfect counterpoint of gula melaka. It is now made with soft shell crab, but the two times we had it with king prawn were amazing
    • 5/5

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  • Passionfruit, watermelon-wasabi granite, basil
    • A good palate cleanser.

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  • Chendol cream: Signature coconut custard, gula melaka sauce w pandan jelly
    • I think that this dish had the right idea, but on the two occasions we had it it was barely cold. The joy of chendol is that it is a cold treat, and we look forward to the sweet icy coconut milk soup. For me the serving temperature was off. My friend Y also commented astutely that it was missing the red bean element. If it were colder, and had the red bean element, I believe this dish would be much improved.
    • The pandanus noodles (lod chong) also were a bit doughy, and lacked bite.
    • (Open question: While I was in Thailand, their pandanus noodles tended to have a roasted flavor. I still don’t know where roasting comes into the process though)
    • 3.25/5

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  • Textures of coconut: Coconut sorbet, coconut espuma, coconut jelly, grated coconut, coconut flesh
    • This dish is surprisingly light on the coconut taste. (The glaring omission is coconut milk). Presumably the kitchen wants to make this a light dessert. In this they succeed, the coconut jelly has the salty-sweet taste of the older coconut. My personal taste is towards a heavier coconut dessert though, but this is amiable.
    • However, it would be improved (within the parameters of a light coconut dish) if they were to use younger and sweeter coconuts.
    • 3.75/5

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  • * Durian Soup: Creamy durian ice cream with feuilletine, fresh durian puree
    • A winner. Decadent, creamy durian, no holding back. With a biscuit to provide textural contrast. The only minor change I would make is not to pre-add the corn flakes and the feuilletine so that they don’t get soggy so fast.
    • 4.75/5

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  • Banana Caramel Pudding: Steamed banana cake, caramelized banana, ginger crumble with gula melaka ice cream
    • A technically excellent banana cake, made with overripe banana. An admirably even brulee across two banana halves, and an equally  balanced gula melaka ice cream.
    • 4.25/5

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  • * Corn Hoon Kueh: Caramelised Baby Corn, Gula Melaka, popcorn, corn ice cream
    • There were two aspects of this dish that I really liked – the caramel-butterscotch note and the vegetal crunch. Vegetal. It was an inspired decision to put halved baby corn onto the dish, they have a unique texture. The corn in the hoon kueh also provided that note. Caramel. The caramel sauce, the caramelised corn, and the popcorn all had the caramel note that made it a sophisticated dish. The kueh was well made, and the ice cream provided the contrast in temperature. A texture-based dish (powder, ice cream, popcorn, baby corn, kueh) enlivened by those two factors.
    • 4.25/5

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  • * Buah keluak: buah keluak-chocolate ice cream, salted caramel, chocolate crumble and chilli specks, warm milk chocolate espuma
    • This needs no introduction – the most popular dessert here by far. An earthy concoction that has the hints of the bitterness of buah keluak (a natural and inspired pairing with chocolate) that is contrasted with salted caramel. An unique excellent dish that only a restaurant like this, balancing both a Singaporean tradition and and innovative ethos could come up with.
    • 5/5

Two types of revaluations in our food tastes: status and health

11 Feb

Two revaluations of taste crop up in Michael Pollan’s excellent book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.

  1. High Status: Roasting vs Braising. Formerly roasting was considered extravagant and high-end because only high-quality meat tasted good when simply cooked on the fire, and soups were considered peasant fare because it yielded powerfully flavored food from inexpensive ingredients – in particular, the more flavorful but tougher meats coming from older animals needed a slow cooking in the pot to dissolve their connective tissues into gelatin. Today we view the ingenuity of braising as high-end, and barbecue becomes peasant fare. The reason for this revaluation, Pollan explains, is because of our abundance of cheap meat. So to complete the argument, presumably, high-end food tastes are directed towards dishes that are rare. Rarity can come from ingredients or skill. Since meat is cheap, high-status is directed towards dishes with a skill premium, like those involving braising over roasting.
    1. I would provisionally accept this thesis since I don’t know when exactly the era of cheap meat begins. A possible counterexample is that satay or kor moo yang (indigenous barbecue techniques in Southeast Asia) are very common street foods now but arguably they have been enabled by the cheap meat of industrial agriculture
    2. The condition behind a revaluation of high status of foods is rarity. Whatever is perceived as rare (either ingredients or skill) will be associated with high status. If you have either of the two, then barriers to access becomes an secondary status-increaser (I think of Tokyo’s introduction-only places, like Kyo Aji)
    3. Cooked, p147
  2. Healthiness, Taste, Air: White flour vs Wholegrain flour. Formerly wholegrain flour was simply “coarse flour”, wheat that was ground on a stone and never sifted. Healthiness: It made a coarse dark bread (the French called it “kaka”) that gradually ground down the teeth of those who ate it. Sifted flour was thought to be easier to digest. Taste: Also, bran tends to be bitter, so bread made from white flour is sweeter. Air: Loaves made from wholegrain flour have microscopic shards of milled brand, which “pierces the strands of glutens in dough, impairing its ability to hold air and rise”. Roller milling, with “a sequence of steel or porcelain drums arranged in pairs, each subsequent pair calibrated to have a narrowed space between them than the previous set” was a breakthrough in milling the starch (or “farina”) to a high degree of fineness.
    1. A vicious cycle took hold where plants were better bred for the roller mill – whiter endosperm (less nutrients) and hard kerneled red wheat (easier to separate bran and endosperm) – but this led to less healthy breads (Pollan mentions beriberi, heart disease, and diabetes), while reducing the appeal of the wholegrain alternative. The US Government faced with the evidence that white flour is less healthy, worked with baking companies to fortify their white bread with B vitamins, processing the product even more instead of even less.
    2. What is the evidence linking white flour to disease? Quantitatively? A cursory Google Scholar search turns up a lot of chaff, though reliable sources like WebMD repeat this link between white flour and disease. Pollan is sketchy on this link. He cites Gary Taubes, here is a Fivebooks interview with Taubes, where he recommends the low carbs Atkin’ Diet. Taubes recommends this article Weight Loss with a Low-Carbohydrate, Mediterranean, or Low-Fat Diet as evidence as evidence for avoiding carbohydrates in general
    3. Revaluations for health reflect the Schopenhauerian will-to-live, revaluations for status reflect the Nietzschean will-to-power.
    4. Cooked, p225

Noma in Tokyo: an unforgettable triumph

7 Feb

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Noma in Tokyo was a fantastic experience. Was it worth it to fly to Tokyo for a short weekend just to eat at Noma? Absolutely. It was one of the most fantastic experiences of my life. A meal that was meticulously thought out, philosophy on a plate.

I’ve been trying to reserve a table at Noma since at least two years ago. More seriously, I had tried to get a table in time for my European trip the previous year, but after oversleeping my 4am alarm by 20 minutes, I quickly found I had fallen about 2,000 persons behind on the waitlist for June and July. When I heard that Noma was going to be in Tokyo, I tried to register for the ballot but the Mandarin Oriental website crashed for about 30 minutes when the reservations opened. So I put my name on the waitlist – and to my fortune, someone cancelled. It was a stroke of amazingly good luck, since there are about 58,000 people on the waitlist for the meal.

Food. On every benchmark, I thought this meal was of the highest quality. Ingredients were impeccable and sourced from all over Japan – Hokkaido, Kyushu, Okinawa, and many places in Honshu. (Nagano being a particularly fertile foraging ground). The Noma cooking style was preserved – humble vegetables (e.g. turnip, pumpkin) cooked as lovingly as a top-grade piece of meat, emphasis on crispy and dehydrated textures, unusual plant oils, foraged flavors, aging and fermenting to create umami. There were as well a number of riffs on sushi and kaiseki – the masterful rice course managed to evoke both sushi and kaiseki, the “dashi” of yeast, parsley and lemon poured into the turnip course. As well, for returning Noma diners, there were multiple throwbacks to their famous dishes in Copenhagen – ice shrimp, beef tartare with ants, shaved ankimo, cep mushroom cookies, pumpkin and caviar… (for a rundown of the differences between Noma in Tokyo and Noma in Copenhagen, the blogger kayoubidesu has two sets of photos for comparison). Some of the most interesting dishes to me were Noma’s takes on Japanese ingredients which as far as I know they have not used in Copenhagen – citrus, tofu, black garlic, etc.

If the Noma team came to Tokyo to create something entirely unique, they have succeeded. If they aimed to create a menu which will be savored for a long time in the memories of those fortunate enough to have been there, they have succeeded. And if they have been gunning for those three Michelin stars in Tokyo, I think they have achieved it. Simply put, an unforgettable triumph.

Tokyo after Noma. I see Noma’s influence as having introduced more possibilities into the Japanese food repertoire – Nagano ants, raw shijimi, wild kiwi, matsubasa berries, playing fast and loose with kaiseki tropes. Perhaps we can see more of these ingredients in Tokyo after Noma leaves? And perhaps a couple more restaurants will adopt a more irreverent attitude to kaiseki.

Noma after Tokyo. The confines of Danish locavorism (constraints Rene Redzepi has adopted to allow creativity) has led to a certain style of food at Noma. Can we expect some Japanese ingredients at Noma when they return to Copenhagen? Will their Japan experience loosen the geographical limits they have set themselves? This meal has after all proved that the kitchen can turn out neo-Japanese cuisine of the highest standard. It will be interesting to see if after this Tokyo stint Rene Redzepi believes that the Nordic geographical restriction is an existential condition of his creativity, or if he believes he has instituted enough systems in place to maintain the kitchen’s creativity such that the geographical restriction can be loosened.

The move of all 77 staff to Tokyo is only one in a long line of Noma innovations.  Rene Redzepi is an innovator not merely in the kitchen, but also in the food media – launching the MAD conference in Copenhagen, hiring Mr Altinsoy, formerly a food blogger to curate the conferences for the first few years. Regardless of whether he is the best chef in the world from a technical standpoint, he is surely one of the most important chefs in our day and age. His influence reaches across the media – the restaurant, his cookbooks, the MAD conference, the MADfeed, and now transplanting a entire restaurant halfway across the globe and committing it to radically reinterpreting the menu in a new country.

But it would be remiss to think it was all down to the sole genius of Rene Redzepi. In fact, it seems a huge part of Noma’s success comes down to Redzepi being a humble and inspiring leader and manager of his staff, who are highly devoted to him. His approach to creativity is a collaborative affair –  each member of the cooking staff is able to contribute via Noma’s “Saturday Night Projects“, where they cook a dish for the entire kitchen team to try.

This Tokyo sojourn is no doubt going to create an even more special spirit for the entire Noma team.

He says: “It is more than worth it because of what it has done for us as a team. We are closer, we know each other better. This is a team-building exercise like no other. We feel joy when we come back from a day off.”

He adds: “Some have never travelled outside Europe. It’s a big thing for them. We become in the West so focused to the point where we don’t know what’s going on in Asia.” – [The Straits Times]

Two of the biggest food events this year are Noma moving to Tokyo, and the Fat Duck shifting to Melbourne for 6 months. But I don’t think we should look forward to a spate of transplanted restaurants anytime soon. Noma has a unique and adventurous philosophy of cooking.  – humble vegetables cooked as lovingly as a top-grade piece of meat, emphasis on crispy and dehydrated textures, unusual plant oils, foraged flavors (such as sourness from the formic acid of ants) borne of the limits he has set himself. To take the example of ants, serving them requires curious eyes to see the possibilities in the ingredient, the skill of the chef in composing the dish, and finally the courage to exhibit the dish to the public, not all of whom will be as open-minded as the kitchen team. Diners come to sample this adventurousness, to have their ideas of a dinner tested as only Noma can test them.


Notable links

*I’ve supplemented some of my dish descriptions with descriptions from the blogs of Robbie Swinnerton, Mesubim, and kayoubidesu, where they go into more detail.

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Mt Fuji just visible… (you need to squint for this one)

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1. Botanebi with flavors of Nagano forest

  • Botan ebi from Hokkaido, with ants from the forests of Nagano. Sour bursts of formic acid. I believe it was served with a bit of sea salt or a dash of soy sauce for saltiness.
  • With forelegs still twitching, the prawns were recently killed (and I believe had been spiked in the spine to immobilize the hind parts)
  • The sweet crunchy jelly of top class botan ebi looked like glass, and I could not imagine it being any sweeter or better.
  • Each of the ants were frozen to death, and then chopped in half
  • To me this was a shock and awe course, a statement of intent – the ants encapsulated Noma’s philosophy, all over the best ingredients Japan had to offer (symbolized by Hokkaido botan ebi). The ants, now a signature, were originally an expedient ingredient to provide sourness, since Noma chose to cook with only Scandinavian ingredients, ruling out lemons and other citrus. In fact the ants on prawns were a perfect pair with…
  • 4.5/5

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2. Citrus and long pepper

  • The two dishes seemed a couplet. If the first dish of botanebi with ants was a celebration of the inventive powers of necessity in the absence of citrus, the second dish of citrus reminded us of that original ingredient. I believe the Noma team rarely, if ever, cooks with citrus nowadays. (Though they have lemons in their test lab). This was a perfect dish of 4 types of citrus – pomelo (bampeiyu), mikan (mandarin orange), two types of buntan from Kochi [one named Pompeii buntan].
  • With roasted Rishiri kombu oil for a umami, nutty flavor. Pine salt and ground kinome (AKA sansho), whole kinome, Okinawa longpepper.
  • The nuttiness of seaweed oil contrasted beautifully with the sweetnesses of the four citrus, and the longpepper provided the bite of spiciness, the kinome provided both sourness and a light menthol taste.
  • 5/5

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3. Shaved monkfish liver

  • Smoked, frozen, and then shaved. On a salted crisp of toast. The ankimo was a bit icy, and we were warned to eat it quickly. This felt like eating generous shavings of sea foie on an undersized toast. The richness on ankimo was somewhat tempered by the cold temperature and the small pieces it was shaved into, when it came into contact with the warmth of the tongue it melted into a savory butter, thus the second and third bites were somewhat better than the first.
  • 4/5

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4. Koika cuttlefish “soba”

  • An homage to udon. Cuttlefish that had been cut into noodle strips with roasted kelp on top, it was at first very salty eaten on its own. But dipped vigorously into the accompanying pine broth with rose petals, the floral scent washed off the excess sauce on the soba, and it became a delight to eat
  • 4/5

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5. Æbleskiver

  • This was my first encounter with this traditional Danish bread served during Christmas. It is usually served dipped in marmalada and sugar
  • It was bread with the texture of a pancake, with wasabi on top, and steamed mustard greens inside for freshness. A simple but heartwarming dish
  • 4.25/5

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6. Sea urchin and wild kiwi

  • This dish was the one that had changed the most since Noma started, as multiple conversations with the staff informed me. Originally the tart was made with freshwater shijimi clam from Aomori prefecture – and Rene Redzepi wanted to showcase its raw qualities, since shijimi is usually served cooked. This was a labor intensive dish that required the team to wake up at 5am to start cleaning the clams. However, diner feedback was not positive enough to continue such a back-breaking dish. So they have instead created – a roasted seaweed based shell, with a sour puree sauce of kiwi and coriander, and wasabi. A load of creamy tongues of Hokkaido uni was lavished upon the tart. This was seafood pizza of the highest order – the tart sauce of kiwi-coriander-wasabi was the highlight.
  • Kiwi ended up being used again later as a dipping sauce for a simmered sweet potato dessert
  • 5/5

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7. Tofu, just steamed with wild walnuts

  • A soft and sweet tofu, with crunchy walnuts and a miso & yuzu & parsley sauce. This dish was primarily textural in contrast
  • 4.25/5

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8. Scallop dried for two days; beech nuts and kelp

  • One of the most polarizing dishes – for me this was one of the weaker dishes in the meal, but others loved it. Scallop dried for two days into fudge, cooked into caramel, with beeswax and a little butter, aerated. This was like a sponge composed out of scallop sand, with every grain of sand a punch of umami. Served with beech nuts and Raus/roasted rausu kelp. I did not like it as much due to overwhelming onslaught of scallop tastes – which made me question the balance of the dish
  • 3.5/5

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9. Hokkori pumpkin; cherry wood oil and salted cherry blossoms

  • Perhaps my favorite dish of the meal – Hokkori pumpkin cooked in katsuobushi, with cherry tree oil, sakura blossoms that were dried and salted, with roasted kelp sticks, and a sauce made of fermented barley koji and butter. The sauce was sour in a rustic way, but the pumpkin it surrounded was very mellow – not starchy, sweet, fragrant from the cherry tree oil, and very balanced. You bit into pumpkin and smelt cherrywood. An intelligent homage to sakura.
  • 5/5

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10. Garlic flower

  • A visual stunner, origami black garlic flowers, which had been cooked down at 60 degrees after a 30 day fermentation period. Rose oil, Nagano ants underneath. This tasted like a sticky jelly, with a fruity taste. I felt the dish was a bit one-dimensional, the entire effect being the emphasis on the fruitiness, sweet-tart flavor of the black garlic.
  • 4.25/5

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11. Roots and starches with ginger

  • All vegetables from below the ground – chorogi (a small gourd-like root), mukago (tiny mountain potatoes), burdock root, water chestnut, lily bulbs, egg yolk cured in beef “garum” (I have no idea what beef garum is – if we go by the Roman “garum”, I guess beef guts?) Peanut based sauce.
  • All of the roots were from underground. This dish was very starch heavy, and overall was only pleasant.
  • (3.75/5)

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12. Wild duck and matsubasa berries

  • A Japanese duck from Akita prefecture, surprised by a hunter into a net, and then strangled to ensure no blood is lost. Hung and dry-aged for 3 weeks, smeared with a sauce made like soy sauce, but from rye, and then roasted on a yakitori grill.
  • It was served in multiple pieces – Filet, breast, thigh, drumstick. The breast was soft, the thigh flavorful, but the drumstick extremely tough and nigh inedible. The matsubasa berries (Schisandra repanda) formed a tart dipping sauce.
  • I felt this was one of the weaker dishes – while all the meats were flavorful, there was nothing stunning about the duck. It was also the only dish where there was an outright flaw – an extremely tough leg drumstick.
  • 4/5

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13. Yeast and turnip cooked in shiitake

  • Turnip, cooked in a shiitake mushroom broth. A sauce of toasted yeast, parsley oil, and lemon verbena.
  • When I was at Shigeyoshi, there was a beautifully lacquered bowl – and when I opened it (half expecting some treasure from the sea) – I found a turnip, simply cooked and resting in a light dashi. This Japanese reverence for the humblest root vegetable is mirrored by Redzepi’s own.
  • The broth of yeast, parsley and lemon poured into the turnip course mimicked a soup course.

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14. Rice

  • In a traditional kaiseki meal the mains end with rice. Rene Redzepi upended that expectation. Rice was served, but instead as the first dessert. And even then, it was not served kaiseki style but sushi style. A vinegared mound of rice was at the bottom of the bowl; on top, sake sorbet on top, and rice crisps. A sorrel juice was poured in
  • The cucumber notes of sorrel, the cold of sake, the crisp textures (a Redzepi signature), and the vinegared rice came together deliciously. I thought this was the spiritual heart of the meal – a meeting of philosophies from Denmark and Japan. (Sorrel from Fukuoka?)
  • Masterpiece (5/5)

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15. Sweet potato simmered in raw sugar all day

  • Sweet potato from kochi, bubbling in sugar. This brought to mind the old carrot from Noma, slow simmered in butter. A reverential treatment of the humble sweet potato, highly caramelized. A tart and fragrant green dipping sauce, made from wild kiwis from Nagano, geranium and elderflower
  • (4.25/5)

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16. Wild cinnamon and fermented mushroom

  • Wild cinnamon sticks, covered in sugar – peripheral sucking sticks.
  • Fermented cep mushrooms in chocolate, with a sour-ish taste

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Drinks (juice pairing)

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  • turnip / yuzu / black currant shoots
    • despite being labelled, I did not detect any hint of black currant shoots

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  • cucumber / fresh nori

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  • pumpkin / green gooseberry

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  • mushroom

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  • sweet koji water / juniper berries


Drinks (wine pairing)

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  • 2010 Les Béguines / Jérome Prévost / Gueux – Champagne

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  • Daigo no Shizuku / Terada Honke / Kozaki – Chiba (5/5)
    • A truly complex and masterful unfiltered sake. This smelt and tasted uncannily like roasted sunflower seeds. It was so good, we bought a bottle for ourselves to savour.

When the baton was passed to Terada, the new chief hoped to make his own mark by pushing the brewery’s methods even further back, to the Edo Period (1603-1868). The “kimoto” method, which relies on just three ingredients–rice, water and the bacteria living on the walls of the brewery, is far more time-consuming because workers have to mash the rice by paddles until it reaches the right consistency.

Although the brewery now can’t brew enough sake in the winter to sell through the autumn, Terada says the moves at first nearly destroyed the company.

“A lot of orders stopped coming in once we changed. People said the sake tasted too different, too strange,” he says. “Most sake drinkers prefer a refined, clean taste. In their estimation, sake is good if it has almost no flavor. But you can taste a lot of things in ours.

“We lost several old customers at the start, but we also discovered that there were quite a few people looking for an alternative to mainstream sake. People tell me that they can really taste the rice in ours, and that they don’t get hangovers–that’s because we use no additives. But it also makes their stomachs happy because it delivers lots of bacteria friends to the ones already there.”

Inside a hall at Terada Honke, workers in down vests and traditional waist aprons sing in unison as they churn steamed rice that will become “Gonin-musume”and Terada’s even cloudier invention, “Daigo no Shizuku,” which is unpasteurized and unfiltered. – Asahi Shimbun

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  • 2012 Le Mont / Alexandre Jouveaux / Uchizy- Bourgogne

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  • 2011 Bianco R / Le Coste / Gradoli – Lazio (3/5)
    • Not great – this one tasted really natural – I could pick out the faint hay notes that uncomfortably brought to mind manure.

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  • Yamahai Junmai Nama-Genshu / Hanatomoe / Yoshino Nara (4.5/5)
    • Overripe banana to the nose, sweet and dry. Aged in the bottle for two years

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  • 2011 Racines / Claude Courtois / Soings en Sologne – Loire

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  • 2013 Les Mirabelles / Mark Angeli / Anjou – Loire
    • A pleasant and uncomplicated dessert wine to finish