Archive | November, 2015

Wild Rocket in Singapore (2015): a disappointing flagbearer for Modern Singaporean food

30 Nov
  • Rating: (after 2 tasting meals): 13/20 (first tasting 15/20, second tasting 7/20)
  • Number of visits: 3 (twice in Jan ’15 – Feb ’15, once in Jun ’15)
  • One-line review:Wild Rocket is the oldest of the “Modern Singaporean” restaurants, started in 2005 by lawyer-turned-chef Willin Low. He cooks off-beat renditions of Singapore classics, and has been widely known as one of the first chefs to cook upmarket food in this manner.Recently, the food has been described by local commentators as Japanese-inspired because it has comprehensive sake pairings and clean plating aesthetics, and has a strong focus on seafood (5 dishes had seafood as principal components), raw (scallops), semi-raw (negitoro), or in a croquette (two types of crab). The cooking is not overly complicated, but focused on 2-3 principal ingredients (as opposed to 4-5 for Labyrinth, and the thick carpets of sauce at Candlenut). The standout dish of my tasting menu meal there was a thai pomelo salad with a savory ice cream, though I found the 4-course option on another night a bit more hit-and-miss. Overall I found it my first meal (in February) there enjoyable and assured. (15/20)However, I came in later in the year (around June) for another dinner, and found it very disappointing. There were no standout dishes, not any luxury ingredients despite charging $150+ per person. What I disliked most was when others in my table were served grilled king prawn noodles, I was served a very simple noodle dish stir-fried with kai lan (noodles with vegetables) merely because I had tried the king prawn dish before. To add insult to injury, the dish was described as having truffles (to justify its substitution) when it clearly had no truffles of any sort. It is one thing to have a very ordinary dish dish, it is worse when it is inferior to the normal offering, but to claim it is some sort of premium offering when it isn’t takes the cake. The dishes that night were subpar (perhaps because Chef Willin was not in that night)and I found myself thinking it was a waste of money. On the basis of the two tasting menus I’ve had this year (+ 1 4-course meal), I think the kitchen is (1)  inconsistent and (2)  the ingredients do not really justify the price. If one is looking for a fine-dining experience, a better value-bet is to dine at Les Amis instead.

    How can a restaurant charging $150 per person use canned pineapple in its dishes, and mislead diners about having truffle in its dishes? The ingredients are just subpar for the price.
    I will say however that service is excellent – and Ram and Willin are generous and knowledgeable. If you do come, make sure to drop by on a night that the chef is in.

  • Memorable dishes: Thai pomelo salad ice cream, sugee cake
  • Other links: Aun Koh’s review, Wong Ah Yoke’s review

FIRST MEAL

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  • “Chee kueh” Hokkaido scallop carpaccio with chai poh & truffle infusion
  • Flavored with truffle bits and truffle oil (3.75/5)

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  • “Thai pomelo salad”, fish sauce and coconut ice cream, peanuts, onions
  • Inspired dish (4.5/5)

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  • “Bak chor mee” Glass noodles, iberico pork fat, torched tuna (scrapings from the bone)
  • I enjoyed the fatty tastes, but it felt underseasoned to my taste. (3.5/5)

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    • “Tea leaf egg” Quail egg in pu erh, cod, Savoy cabbage (4/5)

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    • “Singapore fried noodles”: Hokkien mee pasta, shio kombu, prawn stock from head, lobster oil
    • It had a distinct “wok-fried” fragrance
    • 4.5/5

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  • Croquette of two crabs: Australian spanner crab on outside acting as glue for the croquette, Vietnamese blue swimmer crab on the inside for sweetness. A duck egg sauce below, acting as sweet custard, like liushabao.
  • The crab inside was a bit dry. 3.5/5

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  • “Beef hor fun” short rib, 48 hour sous vide. Black bean sauce.
  • 3.75/5
  • Black bean provided saltiness. One “hor fun” piece had the saltiness of black bean, the other did not. The one with, was markedly better.

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  • Sarawak pineapple sorbet, with vacuum sealed pineapple, mint sugar, chilli, soy salt from Kwong Woh Hin
  • Vacuum sealing the pineapple is claimed to improve the sweetness of the fruit.

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  • A comforting mouthful of cake, with a rich ice cream (4.25/5) “The secret is to mix coconut water with coconut cream to ensure a profound coconut flavor, because coconut cream by itself is very fatty.”

SECOND VISIT

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  • Hokkaido scallop carpaccio, shio kombu, truffle oil

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  • Red Thai duck curry salad. (3.25/5)
  • canned pineapple was used.

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  • Shrimps paste “har cheong” pigs ear, home made tartare sauce, mango salsa (4/5)

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  • Char kuey teow with cuttlefish (4/5) Wok hei was good.

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  • Kai lan pasta reduction (2.5/5)
  • This was served in place of one of the better dishes here (the king prawn noodles), and was just kailan stir fried with noodles. It was represented as having truffles – but I detected nothing of the sort

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  • Barramundi liver, ginger confit, claypot rice 3.5/5

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  • Rack of lamb tandoori, herbs and spices, cauliflower papadum, raitah. (3/5)
  • Undersalted, and meat of ordinary quality.

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  • Sugarcane with some sorbet

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  • Pulut hitam ice cream (3/5)

 

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Kawamura in Tokyo (Nov ’15): “where your food fantasies come true”

29 Nov

Kawamura in Ginza is a Western-cooking “yoshoku” restaurant, specializing in steak. It was brought to the attention of the English-speaking blogosphere in 2009 when Mikael Jonsson blogged about it on popular food blog Gastroville. It is one of the hardest reservations to get (one of the hardest in Tokyo along with Sushi Saito and Kyo Aji), and must be booked several months in advance and the diner accompanied by a regular on his/her first visit. The restaurant serves some of the best wagyu steak in the world – Chef Kawamura will source the beef from wherever he feels is best in Japan. Chef Kawamura is also a dedicated pursuer of the best ingredients worldwide – his caviar is sourced straight from Kazakhstan, and according to the grapevine, half of the best white truffle in Tokyo go to his restaurant.

With a formidable reputation, when I had the opportunity to go there with an invitation from a friend who’d been, I jumped at it. We planned an entire menu of Kawamura’s specialties. Although Kawamura’s is best-known as a steak restaurant, the excellence of his cooking and ingredients goes across the board – the onion rings there were the best I’ve tasted, a ethereally light negligee of panko batter around sweet and soft onions; a beef consommé had remarkable sweetness even though it was made of 100% beef; and of course the wagyu steak there had some of the most flavorful fat, the fat being marrow-esque (very pleasant) in texture, and the steak easily cut with a butter knife*.

There are some stories that have popped up about Kawamura, some of which are more fanciful than others.

  1. He only uses female virgin cows. False. Chef Kawamura will take the beef from wherever he feels is best. On our day, it was Ibaraki wagyu. The origin of the story is this blog (http://tokyofood.blog128.fc2.com/blog-entry-57.html).
  2. Chef Kawamura doesn’t age his beef. True. He believes that Japanese wagyu fat already has a strong flavor profile, that doesn’t need enhancement from aging. Source
  3. Chef Kawamura can make orders on special request. Probably true, though fried chicken, as far as I know, has not yet been served at his restaurant. However, there are many other dishes available to his regulars , from risotto to truffle ice cream to sashimi.
  4. A meal there is eye-wateringly expensive.Status: True. The damage can easily go above 100,000 yen, and was the most expensive meal I’ve had by some distance.. Kawamura isn’t a restaurant to approach on a budget. However, corkage charges are fairly low, so bringing your own wine is a good idea.

Highly recommended. If you have the opportunity, go there at least once, to acquire an idea of what the best of “Japanese wagyu”, “consomme”, “onion rings”, etc can be. Kawamura-san strikes me as one of a few elite chefs who has the capability and willingness to realize the ideal versions of what you’ve always wanted to try.

Rating: 20/20

Other interesting write-ups:

* = One passing coincidence I find interesting is that both Kawamura and Asador Etxebarri, the great barbecue restaurant, have as their signature dishes, steak and creme caramel. These two dishes are common reference points, but where Victor Arguinzoniz of Etxebarri’s twist is infusing them with smoky flavors, Kawamura has refined the textures of his dishes – his steak soft, fatty, and profound in taste; his flan textbook, soft, and silky to the tongue.


 

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  1. Steak tartare with shaved white truffles. (4.75/5) – Aromatic and crisp white truffles, evenly sliced, hid a mountain of deliciously fatty Ibaraki wagyu, in a caper and onion base sauce. Decadent and unbelievably fatty beefenhanced by the smell of truffle. It gave us a taste of what is to come, with the marrow-fat texture of steak tartare.

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  1. Beef consomme made with 100% beef (5/5) – Kawamura’s most unbelievable dish. The consomme was made with 100% beef. However I simply could not believe it, for the sweetness of the consomme was perfect.I would have expected mirepoix (carrot, onion, celery) to achieve that sweetness. I have no idea which part of the cow or which techniques would enable this sweetness, and other chefs have been puzzled by this. A true masterpiece.

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  1. Croquette of cream with white truffle slices; Croquette of white truffle slab with beef trimmings. (4.5/5). A moment of total indulgence. We ordered the white truffle supplement, and it came in two forms, one with cream and white truffle slices (excellent), and one with a slab of white truffle with beef trimmings (very good). The high heat diminished the truffle fragrance somewhat, and the truffle slab began to go (10-20%) vegetal, cardboard-y. It had been protected from heat of frying by the beef trimmings. A “meat and potato” croquette, in its most luxurious form, but to be honest, not my preferred preparation. For sheer outrageousness though, this takes some beating.

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  1. Salad with a piquant sour cream sauce. Refreshing interlude before the steak.

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  1. Ibaraki wagyu steak, sweated onions (5/5) – this was the steak I had travelled all the way to Tokyo for. It was as if marrow fat had seeped into every pore of the beef, with the fat just warmed to body temperature. The fat was beefy in scent, unlike the scentless fat in other types of over-fattened beef, and gently coated the butter knife as it slid through the steak. The steak crust (where the steak faces the heat and undergoes Maillard reactions) was not prominent in texture. It seemed like we were eating something delicate, a steak that had been subject to minimal violence. It is hard to imagine wagyu steak being any better than this.Chef Kawamura cooks the beef over low heat, such that the fat is of body temperature and meat is gently cooked to medium-rare. There is no seasoning, for Chef Kawamura believes it is best to taste the beef unadulterated, and served with dips of salt and soy. I personally found a little salt highlighted and heightened the beef flavors.

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  1. Wagyu rice (5/5). Fatty wagyu slices released their fat over the rice. Delicious.

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  1. Onion rings (5/5). The best form of onion rings I’ve had. A light panko batter around first-class sweet onion. The batter was a sheer negligee, forming a thin wisp of crust that lent the onion crisp textures without being oily.

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  1. Spiny lobster rice (5/5). Incomparable. Fragrant lobster curry over rice. Fantastic. Remarkable fragrance. The smell and taste of lobster was profound, as if it was a bisque.

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  1. Creme caramel with lime ice cream (icy) and vanilla ice cream. (5/5 for creme caramel, 4.75/5 for the ice creams) A textbook creme caramel, a smooth and satisfying end to the meal. The ice creams were a bit icy, but had great flavor. This was comfort food brought to a high level.

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  1. Beef sandwich for taking home – toast, with tomato schmear and slices of fatty wagyu. For me, having them the next morning was a treasured memory of the excellent dinner at Kawamura the previous night.

Mak’s Noodle in Hong Kong (Nov ’15): the best wanton noodles I’ve had

28 Nov

Sometimes the best things in life are simple.

Beef brisket flavored with a hint of orange. Springy noodles, and shrimp dumplings with shrimp so crisp and fresh that they are still springy with every chew…. the bowl of beef brisket wonton noodles from Mak’s Noodle is perfect. (5/5) It is streets ahead of any bowl of wonton soup I have tried. Perfection retails for about 60 HKD, or 8 USD.

The kailan (Chinese broccoli) was devoid of any trace of bitterness, and at its peak – a meaty vegetable worthy of the epithet “the Chinese asparagus”.
I’ve had a lot of wanton noodles in my life, but Mak’s is my current favorite.


Ta Vie in Hong Kong (Nov’ 15): “understated Japanese-French”

14 Nov

Rating: 16/20

I chose Ta Vie (“your life”) for a treat after a week at the cudgels. Hong Kong doesn’t lack for dining options, but the unique ones are few. Bo Innovation aside, most of the top end Michelin restaurants are either rehashes of foreign concepts (Tenku Ryugin, L’Atelier Robuchon, Sushi Shikon) or Cantonese. Cantonese doesn’t lend itself well to solo dining, so I decided to go with a place with Ryugin (a restaurant I enjoy) pedigree. Chef Hideaki Sato of Ta Vie was previously head chef of 2* Tenku Ryugin, perched imperiously on the 101st floor of ICC Tower. He left the restaurant earlier this year to set up Ta Vie in May. Between Ryugin and Ta Vie, I decided on Ta Vie because I’m a sucker for the idea that a chef-proprietor puts a more personal touch to his menu.

Japanese-French is an intriguing and distinct brand of French cooking. The flavors are precise and restrained, something that can be “grasped by the tongue”, but never provokes uncomfortable sensations. Every style is defined by absence and presence. , Japanese-French’s absence is the absence of discomfort. You will not find tongue-numbing spiciness, nor will the portions overwhelm the digestion to generate uncomfortable tummy sensations, nor will be there be much bitterness. The overall tenor is “restraint”. What will be present in Japanese-French are intensified flavors – from its Franco-phile heritage the brigade of intense sauces – consommé, reductions etc, from its Japanese heritage a partiality to seafood like abalone and uni; what will also be present is the Japanese focus on pleasing textures (usually pliant/soft/buttery/watery rather than crisp) – think the explosion of cod milt (shirako) or buttery wagyu.

Value for money? At about US$300, Ta Vie is in the top bracket for pricing. I don’t think it is quite worth the money for the amount of fireworks, because Chef Sato’s dishes tend to play it fairly safe. A notable exception was an exciting cold composition of Calpis soda foam with grapes, pears and aloe. Ta Vie is the kind of restaurant that’s torn between two imperatives, destination dining and canteen for the moneyed. A lot of the dishes were elegant (e.g. the turnip salad, the simmered abalone), but far from mindblowing. But that makes it poor value for the destination diner, and I don’t think its well-established as a “regulars’” restaurant. I think it’s caught between two stools and hasn’t found its niche – the dining room was half-full on a Friday night, so maybe the market agrees with me.


 

 

Turnip, crab meat, and house made fresh cheese salad, scent of yuzu

  • (3.5/5) A refreshing, if slightly pedestrian start.

“Lung Guang” chicken consommé flavored with “gobou” burdock with chicken wanton

  • (4.5/5) A well prepared chicken consommé, with delicate dumpling. Excellent taste and concentrated flavor

 

 

Lobster poached in bell pepper flavored oil served with bell pepper aioli

  • (4/5) Chinese lobster, good dish. Lobster was sinewy and well cooked.

 

Cod milt “a la meuniere” with crispy wing

  • (3.75/5) Cauliflower paste, shirako pan-fried with tuile. Tasty

 

Simmered abalone with vegetable salad tossed with wakame seaweed

  • (3.75/5) Abalone from Nagasaki, sudachi. The theme was understatement.

Wagyu “minute” steak with burnt onion and onsen egg, Japanese whisky sauce

  • (4.25/5) Kuroge A4 wagyu, sliced, to maximize the fatty feel of beef. Tasty whisky sauce. A successful wagyu dish is aligned with the restauranteur’s interest, in that less is more. Full-on wagyu steaks lack the flavor and are too fatty to be truly delicious. Slicing wagyu (as here) is a sustained pleasure, the smoothness on the tongue, vs cubing wagyu (as at Brooklyn Fare) which increases the visceral pleasure of a burst of fat.
  • As a main, this was a let-down. I believe a great dish should be more than a slapdash of ingredients (egg, beef, whisky). While it was well-prepared, it was ultimately a bit disappointing that a medley was the best the chef could come up with for a French meal.

 

 

Homemade pasta, Hokkaido uni, nori

  • (3.75-4/5) Unusually soft pasta (texture of hor fun) with a nice helping of nori. Pleasant.

 

Nashi Pear, “Shine” muscat and aloe, Calpis soda foam with fragrance of shiso flower

  • (4.75/5) The revelatory dish of the night. Calpis soda foam, sour, paired perfectly with cubes of pear, perfectly sweet muscat grapes and aloe. It broke the tacit agreement with the diner – “thou shall not use processed ingredients” – to great effect

 

Chestnut mont-blanc with 2008 aged Pu’er tea ice cream

  • (3.75/5) Nice meringues and sweet chestnut puree. The Pu’er tea ice cream didn’t taste much of Pu’er, probably the cold disguised its flavor. (we need to add more sugar to cold drinks to get the same level of perceived sweetness)