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Best dishes of 2015: a roundup of a year of travel

2 Jan
If 2014 was the year of Americas and Europe, then 2015 was the year of Asia. Work took me to Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Leisure took me to Langkawi (Malaysia), Taiwan, Japan (Tokyo), New York, my old college town of Providence, the Black Forest in Germany, and the Alsace region in France.
The visceral highlights of the year were in the opening and closing months. At the end of January, I had a meal at Noma Tokyo (the stunning success of which has led to Noma moving to Australia in 2016).  At the end of December I took a sojourn to the German 3-Michelin restaurants, and was wowed by Claus-Peter Lumpp’s Bareiss and Harald Wohlfart’s Schwarzwaldstube. Three restaurants with very different philosophies, Rene Redzepi’s Noma a restless and extroverted celebrity chef that embraces the world of gastronomy, the German restaurants practicing a philosophy of “quiet perfection”. The pressures of being an haute chef in today’s world is to create a relentless storm of innovative dishes. Perhaps this is a deleterious pressure. I was struck by many of Noma’s dishes when I first had them, but outside of 2-3 (the botanebi with ants, citrus) dishes, they have mostly faded from my memory. Noma in Tokyo was still an excellent meal, a 3-star standard meal for creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. But I find myself wanting more meals of 2-3 well composed courses, thought out to the nth degree, where I can remember them for months to come. Nouvelle cuisine, as I found it in Germany, was full of creativity, almost parallel to the modernist trends in Spain AND the naturalist trend in Scandinavia. Variations upon dishes, like pleasant fugues. Nouvelle cuisine is probably my favorite sort of European cuisine at the moment.
I was continually reminded of why Japan has the best ingredients, in the summer months at Quintessence and Saito, and a memorable autumn blowout at Kawamura. When you have goat’s milk like Quintessence’s bavarois, there is very little a chef needs to do. If you don’t like eating, Tokyo will be a very boring place to visit, but with a credit card and tolerance for penury, the city is a devil’s playground.
I explored some of the Modern Singapore restaurants back in my home city. I enjoyed Candlenut very much, especially when they served their family style Peranakan food. Labyrinth, while uneven, shows promise in its better dishes – satay ribeye and chilli crab ice cream. Wild Rocket serves decent food, but needs to do more to justify its tasting menu prices.
Some quick dips into the Hong Kong dining scene showed me a great bowl of wonton noodles at Mak’s noodle, and excellent roast quail at the dynasty restaurant. One Harbour Road also made a bowl of excellent truffled fried rice and suckling pig. I’ve found the roasts in HK to be top class. The restaurant Ta Vie is also doing interesting things with Chinese produce in French-influenced dishes.
Vietnam captured a large part of my heart, as you will see the selections below. Excellent street food (half-formed duck eggs, papaya salad, crispy custard cakes (banh khot), banh mi, etc etc), excellent pho, and also some great French cooking – at Le Beaulieu in Hanoi Metropole, and La Villa in Saigon. Honorable mention goes to the excellent wine program at Trois Gourmands in Saigon.
Here are some of the best dishes and desserts I had in 2015. Bring on 2016!

MAINS
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1. Boiled veal with beetroot and horseradish, beet sugar.

Bareiss
Baiersbronn, Germany
Dec ’15

This was served as an amuse. It was shocking. It looked like a typical nouvelle cuisine dish, elaborately constructed, multiple layers. But an intense horseradish kick broke the rules of engagement – no spiciness! The sauce was at first sweet from the beet, and then became ultimately savory as it began to resemble a veal red wine sauce. It was a “three-body problem”, chaotically orbiting spicy, sweet and savory until it vanished. Superb.

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2. Kartoffelblini mit mildgeräuchertern Seesaibling und Limonenbutter, Saiblingskaviar | Kartoffelblini with mild smoked char and lemon butter, char caviar. 

Schwarzwaldstube
Baiersbronn, Germany
Dec ’15

The cooking at Schwarzwaldstube is unashamedly “Asiatic” nouvelle cuisine, which is to say purloined Asian spices to serve a nouvelle cuisine core. Here, kaffir lime enhanced a lemon butter fishsauce with char inside a ethereally pillowy cheese blini, topped with char caviar. A decadent Russian dish perfected in a nouvelle cuisine way.

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3. Variation of goose foie gras with Williams Pear soaked in red wine and wintery spicy punch.

Bareiss
Baiersbronn, Geramny
Dec ’15

First plate: foie terrine with red wine and caramel jelly, with a pear sponge on top. Various preparations of pear with foie, including cream, ice cream. Second plate: Kugelhopf with foie cream. Drink: wintery spicy punch. A perfect expression of the generosity of the season.

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4. Beef brisket wonton noodles. 

Mak’s Noodle
Hong Kong

Nov ’15

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… I knew there was a special reason why AT made us wade through 30 minutes of Central HK traffic to go from our office to Mak’s noodle.

2015-11-14 20.04.45 2015-11-14 20.09.195. Beef consomme.

Kawamura
Tokyo, Japan
Nov ’15

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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6. Onion rings.

Kawamura
Tokyo, Japan
Nov ’15

Honestly, I could have put at least three or four other dishes from Kawamura here, from the Ise lobster curry rice, to the steak tartare, to the steak, to the creme caramel. I’ll talk about the onion rings. 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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7. hot vit lon. (balut)

Various places
Saigon, Vietnam
May-Jun ’15

A lot of Western tourists are overly squeamish about this dish, it is actually a really delicious mix of textures – boiled chicken, yolk, white, textured bits of wing, feather, head, especially when salt is used to bring out the flavors.

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8. iwashi (sardine) sushi. 

Sushi Saito
Tokyo, Japan
Aug ’15

When the differences between high-end sushi joints are so marginal (and they really are, unlike French restaurants, because they will serve just about the same types of fish with similar kinds of rice), sushi-lovers start nitpicking at factors like – oh, does this chef use red vinegar or white vinegar? Does he serve his rice at two or three temperatures? These are arcana that I haven’t quite acquired the perceiving feelers for yet. The greatest differences perceivable to the laymen are in seasonal fish, not in the conventional tuna or uni cuts. The humble sardine was elevated in Saito’s hands.

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9. Asaissonement. 

Quintessence
Tokyo, Japan

Aug ’15

Quintessence’s signature dish – a goat’s milk bavarois, made with goat’s milk everyday transported fresh from Kyoto, fleur de sel from Brittany (high minerality), lily bulbs, shaved macadamia, a fruity olive oil from the south of france. The intensity of flavor from the goat’s milk was amazing. Every spoonful had a perfect proportion of salt, milkiness and green fruity olive oil, with sweetness and textural contrast from lily bulbs and macadamia. A perfect combination of ingredients.

2015-08-01 19.54.0310. Nodoguro.

Quintessence
Tokyo, Japan

Aug ’15

Blackthroat seaperch, a red fish with white meat, is incredibly fatty.Accompaniments; Vegetacle sauce,  quinoa with seaweedThe flesh was falling apart smooth, with an amazing crisp on the skin. The pairing of the two was uncanny, since I expected the crispness of the skin to be accompanied with some toughness to the flesh. But the rosy-hued flesh were parted easily with fork tines.The fish was pan seared, then put in a 320 deg C oven, then a 90 deg C oven, and then researed afterwards with the skin.

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11. Rhode Island monkfish, roasted on the bone with Celeriac, broccoli, and potato. 

Birch
Providence, RI, USA
Dec ’15

When a fish has been on land for less than 6 hours, you know the results are going to be great. Monkfish roasted on the bone, which has spectacular and had the gelatinous texture of great turbot. Potato, in a brown butter broth, with roasted celeriac and broccoli bits. This was served on the second night of two meals at Birch where I had the entire menu, and it was favorite of all on Ben’s winter menu. Birch is Providence’s Chez Panisse.

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12. Citrus and long pepper.

Noma
Tokyo, Japan

Jan ’15

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 andground 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.

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

Noma
Tokyo, Japan

Jan ’15

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.

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14. Beef pho. 

Pho Suong
Hanoi, Vietnam
May ’15

Sometimes (okay many times), it’s about the company. A reunion with one of my favorite people happened to be in Hanoi. The pho had buttery fat attached to the beef, and chives inside. Hanoi pho is different from Saigon pho in its addition of the fatty pieces; in Saigon they give the lean pieces and perhaps some tendons or stomach if you’re lucky. Great street food.

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15. Chicken pho.

Hotel Metropole Hanoi
Hanoi, Vietnam
May ’15
The best pho is not actually beef pho, but chicken, and the version made by the Metropole Hanoi at breakfast is the very best. Bits of dark and white meat from the chicken, fatty, a tasty chicken stock. My favorite pho – more than any beef version I’ve tried.

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16. Coq au vin.

Hotel Metropole Hanoi (Le Beaulieu restaurant)
Hanoi, Vietnam
May ’15

It was past midnight when I checked into the Metropole Hanoi. I was very hungry, and decided to order room service. I did not expect to find a coq au vin that captured my heart, stuffed with bacons, mushrooms, potato, fit to feed a hungry traveller. Hunger is the best spice. Surprise is second.

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17. Bloody Mar.

Aziamendi
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Sep ’15

Aziamendi is 3-Michelin star Azurmendi’s pop-up in Phuket in Thailand. In the latter half of 2015, they staged a 4 month pop-up in KL, Malaysia under head chef Alex Burger (formerly of Daniel in New York). I had two meals at Aziamendi’s 4 month pop-up in KL, with both the shorter menu and the longer menu. I thought the first night (shorter meat focused menu) was terribly disappointing, with multiple execution mistakes (a soggy croquette), a 60 minute dining time for 8 courses that felt like a forced march, and multiple pre-prepared ingredients that struck me as poorly prepared (yes, I know Azurmendi uses sous-vide extensively as point of principle, but when you use it for more than half of your dishes it is a lazy menu. Also, Eneko Atxa at Azurmendi uses plancha grill cooking as well). The second menu was much better, and included a variation I enjoyed better even than the original version by Eneko. Bloody Mar, served as a cocktail at Azurmendi with a wafer, was a bit unwieldly in the original version. here, it was reimagined as a French nouvelle cuisine dish with uni and crab, with a bloody Mary sauce poured in.

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18. Crisp baby pigeon

Dynasty restaurant
Hong Kong
Nov ’15

When it’s 10pm in HK, and most of the restaurants are closed, you don’t expect an amazing dish. This was the week after I had been to Kawamura, and one of the HK-based diners there recommended Dynasty for charsiew. I should have known that char siew, which is often pre-prepared, would not be great at 10pm. But the crisp baby pigeon had an amazing skin, and the meat was super tasty.

2015-05-02 17.50.18-219. Banh Tran Trong
Ben Thanh Night Market
Saigon, Vietnam
May ’15

While being taken around by a guide around Central Saigon, D G, and I, found the perfect street snack while travelling around Central Saigon. A spicy flavored glass noodle, with flavored meat jerky. As good as pad thai, anyday.

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20. Satay Ribeye, Satay marinated wagyu ribeye, pan seared foie gras, peanut mochi. 

Labyrinth
Singapore
Feb ’15

I really enjoyed this combination. It was robust in flavor, and a good pairing. I respect what Chef LG Han is trying to do, and this was my favorite “Modern Singapore” dish of the year.

DESSERTS

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21. Palate cleanser of watermelon sorbet, red dragonfruit, passionfruit and purple shiso

Candlenut
Singapore
Multiple visits in 2015

I like Candlenut’s cooking very much, enough to have gone there more times than I can count this year. I think Chef Malcolm cooks excellent Peranakan food, and great kueh. His most memorable concoctions are the ones with tropical fruit. This concoction is genius in its seeming simplicity – but is refreshing after a hearty family-style meal. It is a dish I will remember.

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22. Glace Meringue.

Quintessence
Tokyo, Japan

Aug ’15

Ending off the meal on a high was a Quintessence signature: Meringue ice cream. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, you’re right – what looked like ice cream was not ice cream at all, but crushed meringues, mixed with dry ice to make it cold and creamy, with ginger confit and lychee liqueur poured on top.The taste was uncanny – the egg-white taste of meringue with the cold texture of ice cream. Fruity lychee, sweet ginger, meringue – these combined for a perfect bite.

DSC0518723. Carrot – cardamom with rum meringue ice cream.

Momofuku Ko
New York, NY, USA
Dec ’15

That little spice cardamom is what drives you wild. A rum meringue adds that alcoholic touch of class (or declasse). I really like carrot-based desserts. (a carrot-coconut concoction from Asta in Boston was one of my favorites in 2014)


 

 

 

*** And now… for the real MVP…

 

Honorary mention: Military Energy Caffeine Gum. It may not have been the most gourmandaise of edibles, but in the wee hours of the morning, when you are about to nod off but still need to make some “pages”, you need that something extra to perk you up. Caffeine gum, the real MVP 😀

Impressions from the road: foie from Black Forest (Germany)

31 Dec

There are a couple of foods, which when very fresh, become qualitatively different in texture. These are the grace notes of haute cuisine: you find them only once in a while, even at the top restaurants.

In recent memory, I’ve had two such experiences with familiar ingredients that become different. The first were live and hand-dived scallops at Hedone (London), which took on a crunchy texture when they had just been killed.

The second is foie from the Black Forest in Germany at a pair of 3-starred restaurants in Baiersbronn (Bareiss and Schwarzwaldstube). What I find irresistible is the membranous texture present in their fried-foie, which has a spongey, springy texture. Their preparations are simply some of the best I’ve tried.

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Variation of goose foie gras with Williams Pear soaked in red wine and wintery spicy punch

BAREISS

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Terrine de foie gras marinée et grillée,
dans une gelée au Jurancon,
avec coulis des kumquats,
vinaigrette aux pignons de pins

Terrine of foie gras and toast,
in a Jurancon jelly,
with kumquats,
vinaigrette and pine nuts

SCHWARZWALDSTUBE


 

Due to a snafu (my leaving my photos-processing computer back at home), full reviews of restaurants on my trip will be postponed until after the New Years.

Protected: Michelin Singapore predictions

1 Dec

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Thoughts on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list

15 Mar

Another year, another Asia’s 50 Best list.  Last week marked the release of the Asia’s 50 Best list, with Gaggan of Bangkok clinching top spot in Asia. Superficially, this would be an impressive achievement, but the 50 Best list in general (which comes in 3 flavors: World, Asia, and Latin America) is beset with major problems. The first is that voters don’t actually need to visit the restaurant to vote for it, and the second is that each geographical area (e.g. Southeast Asia North, Southeast Asia South) has an assigned bloc of voters. The first problem is obviously a breach of basic integrity, and the second problem has led to perennial conundrums, as V. Milor mentions, where Scandinavian judges will all cast their votes for Noma and French restaurant critics will split their vote amongst at least 15 different restaurants. In the first year of Latin America’s 50 Best, a surfeit of Argentina voters led to a puzzling amount of Argentinian restaurants on that list, the highest ranked of which, Tegui, served me the worst fine-dining meal I can remember, and a good but not special parrilla (La Cabrera) being promoted to the top 20.

Fundamentally, the flawed methodology of these 50 Best lists make them of limited value, and I would only use them if I had little prior information on a city’s dining scene. I’ve spent some time in Bangkok and Singapore, and have also eaten in a handful of HK and Tokyo restaurants. I think the first 10 or 15 of the Asia’s 50 Best are reasonable enough, but the rest of the Asia’s 50 Best are merely decent restaurants that lack a spark. For example, I would pick Candlenut or Wild Rocket over any of Burnt Ends, Tippling Club, or Osteria Mozza, just since they represent something unique to Singapore, whereas you could imagine any of latter 3 restaurants opening anywhere in the world. In Bangkok, how Bo Lan and Issaya Siamese Club rank ahead of the Water Library or Supanniga mystifies me.

Taking a detailed look at the restaurants I’ve been to:

  • #1 Gaggan: Proof you can apply cookie-cutter techniques from the Modernist cookbook and be praised as an innovator. Below Michelin star standard.
  • #4 Ryugin: Yes, absolutely deserves its position.
  • #5 Restaurant Andre: Deserves its position.
  • #6 Amber: Good French. Deserves a high position.
  • #7 Nahm: Deserves its position.
  • #11 JAAN: Refined French cooking. No fireworks, strong 1 star.
  • #25 Eat Me: Nice bistro, but nothing special.
  • #28 Bo Innovation: Something quite unique and could only exist in HK.
  • #30 Burnt Ends: Okay.
  • #36 Tippling Club: Lacklustre. Below Michelin star standard.
  • #37 Bo Lan: Terrible.
  • #39 Issaya Siamese Club: Nope. There are two very good things on the menu: the rum baba and the coconut crepes, the rest is blah.
  • #45 Osteria Mozza: Quite good pastas, and decent antipasti and has a terrible atmosphere (looking out into the MBS mall). It’s a fairly good but cookie-cutter Italian restaurant. One of Asia’s 50 best restaurants? Really?

To be honest, revelatory fine-dining experiences in Asia are rare. High-end restaurants are still a nascent market especially in Southeast Asia. In Singapore I’ve only had a 3-Michelin level experience once – my second Restaurant Andre meal in 2013. I’ve not had it in Bangkok or Hong Kong, and as much as I enjoy kaiseki, in Japan only Ryugin (twice) and Kojyu (and Noma, but that’s not a typical experience) have blown me away.  That means I’ve only had a truly impressive fine-dining meal from start to finish only five times in Asia.*

Because these revelatory dining experiences are rare, a useful 50 Best list should be geared towards exploration – perhaps like a 1970s Gault-Millau, which championed nouvelle-cuisine specifically as a counterpoint to Michelin’s championing of haute-cuisine. It needs editorial focus to provide something valuably different from a Michelin guide, perhaps to champion chefs in second-tier cities, or modern local food that isn’t a lazy molecular remix of indigenous ingredients. Right now, the Asia’s 50 Best list functions like an unprofessional and hype-driven Michelin guide in the absence of an actual Michelin guide covering Asia ex-HK and Japan. As a consequence of the flawed rating system, the first 10-15 restaurants approximate a pan-Asian Michelin ranking (due to a general agreement on merit), and the rest are wildly unreliable. (probably due to PR horse-trading and I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine-ism).


Other links

* = of-course, there are your amazing/very good non fine-dining places: Rakuichi Soba in Niseko, Butagumi in Tokyo etc.

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

the world of food in 2014 (part 3): best desserts of 2014

31 Dec

Dessert is my favorite part of the meal. The base is sugar, but the rest is whimsy – be it popcorn from Contra, or a decision to emulate the Chateau d’Yquem wine from the Fat Duck. The following desserts were masterpieces, my favorites of 2014. I present them, with my reactions as I first blogged them…

Other 2014 write-ups:


 

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23. Tangerine, popcorn

Contra

New York City, USA

Toppings: Popcorn powder, malt crumble, tangerine granita.

Underneath: Popcorn mousse, olive oil jam, slices of tangerine.

Bright, fruity, energetic. A slight bitterness from the olive oil jam melded perfectly with the sweet popcorn. The tangerine cut against the oil, and left this diner feeling refreshed.


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22. Mountain Range and Forest: Cacao, Coca, Chirimoya, Chaco Clay

Central

Lima, Peru

I loved this dish. I had chirimoya desserts at Borago, Gustu, Astrid y Gaston; but this took the cake. Chirimoya was served simply as the main dish; a fruit with the texture of pineapple and the taste of soursop. It was served simply with chocolate-coca soil. Simplicity.


 

 

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21. Crisp Crepes and Meringue, served with Sweet Egg Strands or Prawns

Street food at Taling Chan Floating Market

Bangkok, Thailand

I could not have imagined any improvement upon these crisp crepes, sandwiching a soft pillowy meringue and sprinkled with prawns for a salty counterpoint.


 

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20. Yeast ice cream / White caramel film / Meringue / Silver Leaf

Ledoyen

Paris, France

“Chef wants you to have this, in order to ‘shock the palate’ “. The yeasty flavor (which yeast? what proportions, if a mixture?) was pronounced, capturing a hearty, bready flavor. For such a thin film, the caramel flavor came through strongly.


 

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19. (Cheese Course) Yeast ice cream, fermented huckleberry watermelon jelly, with Chimay cheese “brulee”

Schwa

Chicago, IL, USA

Amazing. Chimay cheese below was treated with a creme brulee crust above, and the funky taste of good bread came from the yeast ice cream. Ostensibly a cheese course, this was a great tribute to beer. Rounded. Completely unique. I miss it already.


 

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18. olive oil, coconut, borage

The Restaurant at Meadowood

St. Helena, CA, USA

Frozen coconut cream with Hudson ranch olive oil (peppery) and gooseberry sauce+lime juice, borage sprouts. I thought was a very good dish, with the peppery olive oil going well with sour gooseberry, sweet coconut tastes, and fishy taste of borage.


 

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17. Strawberry Special Sweet

Ryugin

Tokyo, Japan

Toraya, two soft (pillowy would not begin to describe it) buns with strawberry and red bean paste, custard.

So simple, but the tartness of the strawberries (they were sweet too) was perfectly calibrated NOT to standout from the custard and red bean paste. They harmonized – and the entire bite was a magical taste of strawberries, fragrance et al…


 

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16. Millefeuille rhubarbe <<vintage>> a l’angelique officinale, sirop rose

L’Arpège

Paris, France

The flaky pastry cuts beautifully, and with an audible crunch. Rhubarb millefeuille with sour cherries, and then paired off with an intensely floral rose ice cream, which brought to mind the intensely floral geranium oil in the beetroot sushi that our meal started off with.


 

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15. black walnut, soufflé and ice cream

Saison

San Francisco, CA, USA

A good pairing of black walnut soufflé with maple flavors. Nuttiness with sweetness, Hot souffle cut by cold ice cream.


 

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14. Bahuaja: Milk, ice cream and crispy “castaña”, mango, cranberry, cushuro, mochi

Maido

Lima, Peru

A sublime dish. A sweet milk ice-cream with an array of delicious ingredients. No ingredient outshined the other – but the most curious was “cushuro”. Cushuro was one of the most wondrous discoveries of my gastronomic travels in South America. It’s textured like a tender bubble-tea pearl, and tastes like mild earl grey tea. Maido perfectly incorporated it in a “Treasures” themed dessert.


 

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13. carrot & coconut

Asta

Boston, MA, USA

An inspired pairing. Coconut milk and cream is made into foam, and sits on top of a bowl of carrot soup with a bit of ginger. Sprinkled on top is toasted coconut. Refreshing, and decadent at the same time.


 12. Spiced Chocolate Foam, Yuzu Marmalade, Sugar Globe

Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare

New York City, USA

A dark chocolate/yuzu cake base; a yuzu(?) sorbet in the center, with spiced chocolate foam around, and covered with a sugar globe.

The tastes were harmonious, creating a pleasantly spiced dessert on its own

However, what makes it truly spectacular is the sugar [isomalt] globe. Never have I seen such a perfectly clear (usually sugar glass is frosted and unclear) sugar glass with such thin-ness. It yielded easily to my spoon.


 

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11. Sweet Grain Cereal: Apple Butter, Johnny Cake, Honey and Toasted Grain Milk

Birch

Providence, RI, USA

“birch’s tribute to breakfast consists of whipped grain milk, on top of apple sauce and a cornmeal johnnycake, mixed with the kitchen sink: honeycomb, puffed rice, oat snaps, and a few other things that are delicious. Eating this is like eating the best bowl of breakfast cereal ever. The mix of textures is complex, with at least four different kinds of crunchiness: thin, oaty crunchiness from the oat snaps, hollow crunchiness from the rice, and sweet dense crunchiness from the honeycomb, and what I think are airy cylinders of dried apple. One of the best desserts I have ever tried anywhere.” I wrote this a year ago in 2013, it still holds true in 2014.


 

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10. น้อยหน่าน ้ากะทิกับขนมดอกจอก (custard apple in coconut cream with sesame biscuits)

Nahm

Bangkok, Thailand

A dish to die for. These fresh sesame biscuits were still coated with just the thinnest film of oil when they were served fresh next to a cold bowl of iced coconut cream. When you break up the warm sesame-encrusted biscuits over the iced coconut cream, it feels like eating the world’s best* bowl of breakfast cereal. Instead of cold milk, we get the rich taste of cold coconut milk, and biting into the sweet warm biscuits like crunching into fresh warm sugared cornflakes. A magical contrast of hot-and-cold, crunchy-and-soupy. (*joint-1st breakfast cereal dish, with the Sweet Grain Cereal of birch in Providence, half the world away)

Custard apples provide a sour-sweet soursop taste, with firmer texture, a beautiful dish. Truly spectacular.


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9. Persimmon-apple blancmange

Ginza Kojyu

Tokyo, Japan

A delicate milky flavor from the blancmange (thickened milk pudding). Sensational. The creamy milk tastes blended well with apple. Persimmon disguised tartness from the apple.


 

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8. Dacquoise au praliné, giboulée de fraises de jardin

&

Tarte fine sablée au cacao, glace à la vanille Bourbon

L’Ambroisie

Paris, France

  • A tremendous dacquoise (a cake made with layering nut-flavored meringues with cream). Here the meringues sandwiched a hazelnut cream. The meringues were light, and contrasted beautifully with the cream. It was every bit the equal of the legendary chocolate tart, the two were like yin (chocolate) and yang (hazelnut)
  • The legendary L’Ambroisie chocolate tart – the chocolate as light as air, melting on the tongue like a cloud, it was perfect with a vanilla ice cream. A classic, intense combination. Both tarts were tremendous.

 

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7. CHOCONUTS ‘TART’ Taste and textures

JAAN

Singapore

I was very pleased with this dessert. Chocolate in multiple forms: a perfectly formed quenelle of chocolate ice-cream, with chocolate foam, chocolate balls, chocolate tuile, on a chocolate tart, with a huge dollop of hot chocolate cream being applied as the coup-de-grace.

Marvelous and classic chocolate dessert, one of the very best I have tried anywhere in the world. Decadent, delicious, and (very quickly) disappeared.


 

2014-06-14 21.53.57

6. Seven Deadly Sins

Mugaritz

Errenteria, Spain

Each of the Seven Deadly Sins became a representative chocolate. Highly imaginative. Where else in the world would you expect something so heart-on-sleeve artistic, so playfully ambitious?


 

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5. Rica Rica de Atacama

Boragó

Santiago, Chile

Ice cream from the rica rica plant, and a macaron layer made of rica rica. The filling was made from the Chañar wildflower. Evoked the Atacama desert.


 

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4. Egg and dairy products, Farmhouse Milk Ice Cream, Butter Toffee, “homemade eggs” milk skin and gelée of yogurt

Azurmendi

Larrabetzu, Spain

  • “It has made me fall in love with vanilla” – that was what I wrote. Bed of toffee butter, cubes of yoghurt gelatin, dehydrated spiced milk. Dehydrated milk bits, milk ice cream, along with for a seventh time, eggs with liquid creme caramel filling.
  • The vanilla in the ice cream was accentuated by its supporting cast. It was the star. The taste of spiced milk; the sour of yoghurt; the richness of toffee butter. A homage to milk.

 

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3. Mille Crêpe: Preserved Lemon

Oxheart guest dinner at Birch

Providence, RI, USA

As I wrote in my 2014 review – “Birch also had a few guest chef stints – the most memorable was the one of Justin Yu from Oxheart in Houston, TX, who created an amazing lemon mille-crepe cake. (the first and last mille-crepe this year that I admired – the freshness of the crepe is essential to giving the cake a “zipping” texture as your knife cuts through alternating layers of crepe and cream).”

He had brought a few crepes from Houston (courtesy of his wife and Oxheart baker Karen Man), and made a mille-crepe about half the size of those he makes at Oxheart. It was absolutely delicious and had a lemon flavor in the sweet spot of tartness. I can’t wait to get to Oxheart and try the larger mille-crepe cake on premise.


 

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2. Reduced milk ice cream with red fruit infusion

Asador Etxebarri

Axpe, Spain

Smoked milk ice cream. How? Buckets of milk in an oven, to absorb the aromas of fire.

It was a cognitive double-take, the smoky flavors we usually associate with heat, with the cold temperature of a floral milk ice cream. Perfect. Paired with red fruit infusion, which was a good fruit-ish complement to the ice cream.


 

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1. Botrytis Cinerea

The Fat Duck

Bray, UK

One of the greatest desserts in the world. The fungus botrytis cinerea creates the Chateau d’Yquem wine. Originally developed by the kitchen for a Chateau d’Yquem tasting, this was a cornucopia of flavors and textures to evoke the Chateau d’Yquem wine. Deconstructed: An frosty wine ball, a creamy yeasty meringue, fantastic raisins, golden chocolate, gums… Each individual grape of the dish had its own flavor, together they sang in harmony like a dish sprung from heaven itself. It was a true pleasure to have witnessed and tasted this dish for myself.

Worth the price of admission to the Fat Duck for this dish alone.

the world of food in 2014 (part 2): best dishes of 2014

30 Dec

My favorite dishes of 2014… narrowed down to the final 31.


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31. Extreme Altitude: Frozen Potato, Cushuro, Mullaca Root, Paico

Central

Lima, Peru


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30. Silky Palm Marrow with Charque and Egg Yolk

Gustu

La Paz, Bolivia


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29. Lily Bulb: rambutan, distillation of caviar lime

Alinea

Chicago, IL, USA


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28. Ka Lum Tod Nam Pla “Fried chinese cabbage gravied with premium fish sauce from Trad province”

Supanniga Eating Room

Bangkok, Thailand


2014-04-27 21.59.01

27. Into the vegetable garden…

Manresa

Los Gatos, CA, USA


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26. Grosses Langoustines Bretonnes, émulsion d’Agrumes

Ledoyen

Paris, France


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25. Lap Mei Fan: Baked Alaska

Bo Innovation

Hong Kong


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24. Giant prawn, ankimo, chilli-vinegar jelly

Ginza Kojyu

Tokyo, Japan


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23. …decadentia…

Mugaritz

Errenteria, Spain


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22. Mozzarella of buffalo

Asador Etxebarri

Axpe, Spain


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21. Luxurious Winter’s Rice Porridge with Blow Fish

Ryugin

Tokyo, Japan


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20. Traditional Fisherman style charcoal-grilled rice

Azurmendi

Larrabetzu, Spain


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19. Perigord Truffle: crème caramel, sherry, CHIVE

Grace

Chicago, IL, USA


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18. Gillardeau Oyster, Seawater Jelly, Sugar Pearl Containing Smoke, and Cream of Chives

Auberge du Vieux Puits

Fontjoncouse, France


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17. Green peas in their juice

Asador Etxebarri

Axpe, Spain


2014-06-20 13.18.08

2014-06-20 13.18.15

16. Young leeks roasted with coconut ice cream

ABaC

Barcelona, Spain


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15. white sturgeon caviar, sturgeon belly cured & smoked on kelp, gelèe of the grilled bones

Saison

San Francisco, CA, USA


2014-06-04 12.27.01

14. Ris de Veau en Brochette de Bois de Citronnelle Rissolée, Jus d’Herbes

Ledoyen

Paris, France



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13. “Sound of the Sea”

The Fat Duck

Bray, UK


2014-01-02 22.57.00

12. Temera y su Leche

Boragò

Santiago, Chile


2014-05-29 14.26.29

11. Salmon Poached in a Liquorice Gel

The Fat Duck

Bray, UK


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10. Pejerrey Tiradito: Ceviche sauce with nori, chalaca, shichimi, cancha

Maido

Lima, Peru


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9. Duck and rice, “yuzu-jalapeno”

Manresa

Los Gatos, CA, USA


2014-06-12 14.58.40

8. Beef chop

Asador Etxebarri

Axpe, Spain


2014-06-14 19.13.00

7. Cultural textures. Several layers of dressed Kokotxas.

Mugaritz

Errenteria, Spain


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6. Crispy Heirloom Potatoes: Preserved Green Tomato, Egg and Potato-Miso Cream

Birch

Providence, RI, USA


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5. Filet de rouget barbet, pomme bonne bouche fourrée d’une brandade à la cébette en “bullinada”, écume de rouille au safran

Auberge du Vieux Puits

Fontjoncouse, France


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4. Caviar

Asador Etxebarri

Axpe, Spain


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3. toffee, milk, bread & beer

Saison

San Francisco, CA, USA


2014-03-01 21.15.06 2014-03-01 21.16.09

2. Alaskan King Crab: kalamansi, cucumber, LEMON BALM

Grace

Chicago, IL, USA


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1. Lamb with Cucumber (c. 1805)

The Fat Duck

Bray, UK

the world of food in 2014 (part 1): overview… from Santiago to Tokyo

27 Dec

2014-12-17 23.54.18-1

I thank Alain Passard. A wintry meal at L’Arpege two years ago made me think: what was going on in the world of food? What hidden delights await at each corner of the globe? I wanted to see it for myself – un-filtered by another’s lens.

The end result was that I did a lot of travelling in 2014. As I write this during Christmas in Singapore, it only reminds me that last year around Christmas, I was in the wine town of Mendoza, Argentina, furiously typing out my recollections of the previous year spent in Lyon. It was a year where I truly saw the world of food – paying a visit to Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, New England, New York, Chicago, the Bay Area, UK, France, Spain, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Japan. It was an annus mirabilis that I think will not be repeated in my life anytime soon. It has been the greatest year – beginning with a highly creative meal at Boragò in Santiago de Chile and ending with a Christmas celebration at the brilliant Ryugin in Tokyo.

“We should take care to lay in a stock of provisions, but not of pleasures: these should be gathered day by day.”  – Ninon de L’Enclos

Why do I seek out these restaurants? I often asked myself. At the end of the year, I felt an answer emerge. With each meal I am creating a time capsule for the future. A great meal crystallizes time into a jewel, brilliant and gleaming for some future day. The passage of time is marked one meal at a time.


When I reflect upon all the meals I’ve had this year, a few stand out: I’ve listed them below:

Greatest Meal and Food

  1. The Fat Duck (Bray, UK)
  2. Asador Etxebarri (Axpe, Spain) (2)
  3. Ledoyen (Paris, France)
  4. Mugaritz (Errenteria, Spain)
  5. Saison (San Francisco, CA, USA)

Greatest Hospitality and Overall Experience

  1. Mugaritz (Errenteria, Spain)
  2. DEN Jimbocho (Tokyo, Japan)
  3. Auberge du Vieux Puits (Fontjoncouse, France)
  4. Asador Etxebarri (Axpe, Spain) (2)
  5. Schwa (Chicago, IL, USA)

A special mention as well for Birch in Providence, where I’ve had many great dinners this year.


 

  1. South America. In January in South America, I saw that New Andean cuisine was already at a very sophisticated stage, led by exemplars Borago and Central. Unfamiliar ingredients with no prior taste memory, a sense of bewilderment – it is the Wild West in South American cooking. Virgilio Martinez of Central (Lima, Peru) was perhaps the person who constructed the most intricate harmonies of these ingredients – and his butterscotch butter is die for. Rodolfo Guzman of Borago (Santiago, Chile) and his team was perhaps the most creative, making use of all kinds of unfamiliar ingredients – a foraging concept restaurant that carries the torch of new naturalism. Maido (Lima, Peru) served a tremendously elegant Nikkei menu. Gustu (La Paz, Bolivia) impressed me with its social mission to connect Bolivians to the gastro-tourism dollar (though I harbour doubts, the gastrotourist dollar is fickle and follows the global economic cycle), and its start-up cuisine. Most memorable there was shredded heart of palm with charqui jerky. *** Buenos Aires and Mendoza in Argentina I visited in the very dying embers of 2013, and are included here. The less said about Tegui, the better. But what flavorful steak! If ever in Buenos Aires, I would head to Don Julio again (my favorite parrilla of that trip) and maybe La Cabrera (who doth slather on the sauce too much)
  2. Chicago. In March in Chicago, I made a pilgrimage to the Modernist capital of America – Chicago – for my birthday, and dined at Alinea, Grace, and Schwa. Each had its memorable moments – at Alinea the floating green apple balloon was a childhood fantasy come true. Schwa was a heavy metal fantasy come through – a really great experience where all the servers were chefs, and wildly creative in taste profile – I will not forget the yeasty cheese course at Schwa, which was homage to beer? (though I had to call umpteen times to get the reservation). I will also not forget the “piss in the snow” dish at Schwa. Grace was the most surprising restaurant – intricate constructions with 6-7 different elements – all placing emphasis on herbs – a “herbal baroque” style. I am not surprised Curtis Duffy has been awarded 3 Michelin stars. He is creating an elegant cuisine around the potential of herbs – in a way, the ability of Curtis Duffy to work with herbs is very similar to the mastery of Virgilio Martinez over Peruvian herbs. I would be most interested in attending a four-hands of these two chefs.
  3. California. In April, I went back to San Francisco, to try out the most exciting place to eat in America.  A secondary reason was out of sociological interest in the Bay Area start-up scene. It was great to catch-up with friends in tech, and I tried Atelier Crenn, Benu, Saison, Manresa and Meadowood. Without a doubt, Saison is my “best restaurant in America”. The entire meal was a parade of perfect “nose-to-tail” morsels, tinged with fire – elemental – delicious. Caviar with sturgeon-bone gelee; abalone with its liver; black cod poached in seawater. Benu had some good ideas for Asian-American cooking, and had some delicious sauces.  Atelier Crenn was visually innovative, and the honeycomb dessert finale was quite something to behold. Meadowood had some hearty flavors – a olive oil and coconut dessert was very good, along with chopped buvette. I had the fortune to dine at Manresa before it burnt down – the yuzu duck jalapeno chromatic dish was a work of art – one of the very rare dishes which seems to come from another artistic dimension altogether. The hubbub of culinary creativity in the Bay Area seems to be driven by the relatively young money there.
  4. Rhode Island. From January to May, I was based in Providence, RI. The big story of the year was that Brown Science Library had SciLi ducklings (go Google it) – which were an immensely cute backdrop to finals season in my last semester. My favorite restaurant in Rhode Island is birch – I went 18 times in their first year. Chef Ben Sukle and the team (Edward Davis and Alec Herrera) are doing a vegetable forward cuisine, that makes the best of New England ingredients. The food at birch is a combination of several strengths not usually found together: intelligent use of microgreens (I dream of a winter dish with spaghetti squash and marjoram), a vegetable-forward cuisine, intelligent desserts that are not too sweet, constant experimentation (flirtations with classic dishes like opera cake, Japanese tempura (sweet potato), sashimi (black bass), Nordic style vegetables (carrots)). The vegetable dishes at birch are worthy of memorialization in a cookbook. For comparison, I would say the vegetable dishes are at the level of a 2-Michelin star restaurant. Birch also had a few guest chef stints – the most memorable was the one of Justin Yu from Oxheart in Houston, TX, who created an amazing lemon mille-crepe cake. (the first and last mille-crepe this year that I admired – the freshness of the crepe is essential to giving the cake a “zipping” texture as your knife cuts through alternating layers of crepe and cream). I also had two fantastic meals at Persimmon in Bristol, RI in April and May – the May meal was very strong. A special mention too must be made of the New Rivers lemon tart, and the bacon at breakfast restaurant Kitchen. All of this makes me an optimist for New England dining and there are many scattered gems I have yet to visit.
  5. New York and Boston. New York – an Arcturus of ambition, but generally disappointing when it comes to high-end dining. I had easy access to New York and Boston during those 5 months in Providence, RI. In Boston, special mention must be made of the desserts at Asta, which are fantastic – especially a carrot coconut concoction. New York. It is a regrettable that Chef Cesar Ramirez has been accused on racism towards Asians. If it was true that he reserved the poorer pieces of meat for Asians, I did not notice it. It would also have to fly under the radar of 36 diners every night, who can watch him preparing the dishes. I had a great meal at Brooklyn Fare in April, with an impressively thin crystal ball made of isomalt. Yet outside of food – Chef Ramirez chose not to speak to our group (4 Asians) after service, so the charges of racism of plausible. I will probably not visit for a while – besides the cloud of racism, the reservation process for Brooklyn Fare is an impossible circus. I wish the team at Momofuku Ko all the best in their pursuit of three stars, I am glad to see on Instagram that they have liberalized their photo policy. I had a great trumpet mushroom dessert there in February, When I next return to the City, I will be most interested in revisiting Atera, Eleven Madison Park, and checking out Cosme and the new Ko.
  6. Great Britain. And then it was off to my graduation trip in Europe. The Fat Duck doesn’t get much love from the hype-driven San Pellegrino list anymore, but it delivered my best meal of the year. Whimsy, fun, the restaurant seems to have sprung fully formed from the ether – because it is unlike any other restaurant I have been to. Modernist techniques are only half the story – and the only thing photos can convey – but the tastes are truly incredible. You would shed a tear for the faithfulness of the deconstructed lamb kebab to its original flavors, or the dessert that is the 8th wonder of the world – Botrytis Cinerea. I wish Chef Jonny Lake and the Fat Duck team all the best as they move to Melbourne for 6 months in 2015. The Duck is a world treasure.
  7. France. Alain Passard’s artistic visions intrigued me two years ago, and I decided to make an effort to see more of the gastronomic world. I returned, and had another very good meal there – his passion for his cuisine is unique, and his vegetables are profoundly flavored – his rhubarb millefeuille every bit as good as I remember. I also learnt an expensive lesson that carte blanche is probably the best way to go. I also paid a visit to the elegant L’Ambroisie – dramatic heart of nouvelle cuisine’s last stand. I remember most a pair of tarts – the famous melt-in-your-mouth chocolate tart, and a hazelnut dacquoise – perfect. At Ledoyen I found outgoing Chef Christian Le Squer (now at Le Cinq, with all his signatures intact) at the peak of his powers. I remember the delicious taste of his lemongrass skewered sweetbreads, and the yeast ice cream (an echo of the cheese course at Schwa three months earlier). I chose very well, for my restaurants in Paris. But it would be remiss if I did not remark that my favorite restaurant was not in Paris at all, but in a village of 130 people – Fontjoncouse – where a brave chef and entrepreneur, Gilles Goujon, set up his restaurant Auberge du Vieux Puits two decades ago. It pains me still to recall his story of throwing out produce in his first years because no one would come by his restaurant. His generosity in giving his full powers (even though we ordered a shorter menu) is something we will remember for a long time. We made a special trip to Fontjoncouse, and the cuisine – whimsical, served with theatricality – was worth a special trip. Chef Goujon’s theatrical cuisine blew us away because it had that magical ingredient I found sadly lacking at Alinea – heart.
  8. Spain. From the historic heart of culinary Europe to the heartlands of culinary Modernism. I visited Spain during World Cup season – expectations were high after Spain had won 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euros. It was also the country in which I ran up against the outer limits of my appetite – I made a good go of Elkano after Azurmendi but my competitive eating capacity was somewhat reduced. While in San Sebastian, I cancelled dinner at Martin Berasategui in order to catch Spain’s opening world cup match. It ended up being a 5-1 humiliation and masterclass by the Dutch. Still, I didn’t notice too big a dampener on the spirit of the Basque locals – Spain is distinct from Basque country after all. San Sebastian has a reputation as a gastronomic capital, but I fear Arzak and Akelarre were destined to be disappointing. They were hardly worth a star each. The best trio of meals there were Azurmendi, Etxebarri, and Mugaritz. Eneko Atxa is a master of intensely flavored liquids, and I hope to visit his Aziamendi in Phuket, Thailand sometime. Victor Arguinzoniz cooked up an amazing feast over two meals – a perfect mouthful buffalo mozzarella that released smokiness when it was chewed, the most amazing green peas, Palamos prawns, the great ribeye, the smokiness of the smoked milk ice cream, caviar, flan, lobster. Mugaritz was a great meditative experience – a world of quiet, introversion – as if I had travelled two hundred years into the future, and I was having a “modernist kaiseki”. I found at Mugaritz a genuine engagement with ideas (linking, seven deadly sins, rattle) that second-rate Modernist restaurants could not even dream of. It’s not the technique, it’s the idea. I kept thinking: “so this is the real thing”. The two-lane Basque highways between Bilbao and San Sebastian were slightly frustrating. Stay in the right lane and I would invariably have a slow moving lorry in front of me; stay in the left lane and I would always have an aspiring speedster right behind me. Whereto the 120mile per hour speed limit? After 5 days in Basque country, I came back to Barcelona, and stayed there over a period of a week. Thanks to Andy Hayler who recommended ABaC, I had a great meal that showcased an inspiring combination of calcots with coconut and balsamic (what would I not give for a “world of onion” dish of Catalan calcots, Cevennes onion, and Shimonita scallions from Japan… ) Special thanks to my friend Leonard who brought me for a week around Barcelona, and we ended up in a really cool G&T bar called Pesca Salada in El Raval. And thank you to “Mr Boston” from Devil’s Kitchen in Barcelona (the German where we watched all the Germany games, but only possible because we out-punctual-ed the Germans by an hour) – Germany only won because of your meticulously prepared Schweinhaxen.
  9. Singapore. After the amiable hedonism of Europe for my graduation trip, I returned to Singapore for work from July to December. The basic fact about Singapore dining circa the 2010s is that it has three categories: (1) low-end hawker food in food centres which is tasty (rarely mindblowing), but larded with oil and no heed paid to digestion. (2) a mid-range of food $30-$100 which is nothing special, and priced mainly based on rent – spectacularly high. (3) high-end food at prices of $300-$500 a pop, without wine. Prices of $300-$500, are basically prices at the 3-star end of the Michelin spectrum. Singapore is perhaps the only place in the world right now where poorly ventilated restaurants with poorly plated cuisine such as Tippling Club can charge $340 for a meal not even worth one Michelin star, and be feted with gold dust from the Asia’s 50 Best rag.  Changes they say are a coming to the 2015 edition of Asia’s 50 Best, what with the judges actually needing to eat at the establishment in question (shocker! I know). But that magazine has lost my respect by promoting schlock like Tippling Club and Gaggan. On to happier things – some special mention must be made of the late lamented Santi Santamaria, who had respect for the Singapore diner in bringing his sous-chefs over from Spain to Singapore. His tragic heart-attack in Santi in Marina Bay Sands may have cut short his life, but his legacy is a booming Spanish tapas scene, and their “small-plates” imitators.  Special mention goes to Moosehead (a Mediterranean eatery whose bacon-dates rivals Avec in Chicago), and FOC, whose food I enjoyed. Pluck has tasty food, and is a default go-to on Ann Siang Hill. Bam’s food is tasty, but tends to commit the same oil-drenched sin as our hawker food. Saha’s molecular Indian was interesting but the ingredients were substandard. I am generally bored with the Singapore fine-dining scene – there is a distinct lack of ideas or artistic chefs on this island. I have hopes for Modernist Singaporean, but so far I have been too lazy to go. One especial bright light stood out in my Singapore dining experience – JAAN under Julien Royer is serving interesting dishes (a beetroot composition briefly brought me back to L’Arpege) – though our meal in October was at the strong one-star standard (inconsistent savories, one great dessert) rather than the two-star standard he should be cooking at. I found heartening though, the efforts to develop a local agriculture in the Malaysia – the Cameron highlands and elsewhere. In time to come, Malaysia will surely be the hinterland of high quality and affordable produce for Singapore restaurants, and it is good to see baby steps are being taken. For cafes, I have been second-to-none in my praise of Ronin’s earl grey tea, and that has been a recreational caffeine fix. For bars – The Spiffy Dapper, as always, is a welcome retreat from the bustle of the city. Operation Dagger also runs one of the most eccentric operations around – concentration-camp-chic.
    • Restaurants
      • Pluck
      • Jumbo Seafood
      • Din Tai Fung
      • Saha Signature Indian Restaurant
      • Tippling Club
      • Moosehead
      • Dibs Restaurant and Bar
      • Wolf
      • Old Airport Road Food Centre
      • Kay Lee Roast Meat
      • Ramen Keisuke Tonkotsu King Four Seasons
      • JAAN
      • FOC
      • Bam! Tapas-Sake Bar
      • The Coastal Settlement
    • Cafes
      • Ronin
      • Artistry
      • Percolate
    • Bars
      • Operation Dagger
      • Merchants Wine Cellar
      • Manor Bar and Cocktail Room
      • The Spiffy Dapper
      • L’Aiglon
      • The Pump Room
      • Jigger & Pony
      • Que Pasa Wine & Tapas
      • The Library
      • Potato Head Folk
  10. Hong Kong. I took a short trip to Hong Kong (my first in a decade) in July. Amber had a selection of incredibly fine cheeses – and had some nice French food. I thank Peter Chang for recommending One Harbour Road for the Cantonese classics menu – it was an interesting experience. I was sorry to hear Ms Chen passed away during the duration of the menu. Bo Innovation provokes a surprisingly uniform response from Hong Kong’s local bloggerati (g4gary and Peter Chang have had the same response) – by a legalistic definition of  3 stars – “exceptional cuisine worth a journey” – Bo Innovation with its Hong Kong cuisine is worth 3 stars, but empirically it may not live up to other 3 stars worldwide. Despite the crassness of the restaurant, I found myself liking several of the dishes – lap cheong ice cream and chocolate coated bakkutteh ox tongue especially. Objectively, the food at this restaurant falls short of 3 star standards, but there is something unique and Hong Kong about Alvin Leung’s creations. Thanks to Larry, Jason, Lixian and Blair who brought me around – the Quinary, Angel’s Share, and Roundhouse were all great nightlife hangouts. (Here is my round-up of Hong Kong places – Amber, One Harbour Road, and Bo Innovation write-ups are still missing, but I’ll get around to them)
    • One Harbour Road (Ms Pearl Kong Chen menu)
    • Bo Innovation***
    • Cupping Room
    • Amber**
    • Aberdeen Street Social
    • Angel’s Share
    • Islam Food
    • Kau Kee Restaurant
    • Quinary
    • The Roundhouse
  11. Kuching, Malaysia. I ventured to Kuching, East Malaysia a couple of times in July and October to visit family. The most interesting place in Kuching for food was the.Dyak, which promised indigenous Dayak cooking, though I did not like their fermented durian dish. It is however popular with tourists. I was most impressed by the Sarawak laksa and ice kachang I had at Swee Kang Ais Kacang. (Here is a partial Kuching round-up)
    • the.Dyak
    • Chinese Barbeque Specialist
    • Ling Loong Seafood No. 6 Topspot
    • Swee Kang Ais Kacang
    • Blablabla
    • Ah Tan Ais Kacang
  12. Bangkok, Thailand. From August to November, I had occasion to be in Bangkok for work. I found Nahm very good, though not in the fine-dining sense – the dishes are served family style – and desserts are the best thing there. My two favorite fancier restaurants were Nahm and Water Library Chamchurri (which serves French at the high one star level). Gaggan I thought way overhyped. My favorite memories of the place though were of the Somtum at the Bangkok Baking Company at the JW Marriott – and the overflowing prawn guts in the heads of Ayuthaya prawns. (Here is a summary on Bangkok)
    • Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin
    • Bangkok Baking Company at JW Marriott
    • Supanniga Eating Room
    • Gaggan
    • Nahm
    • El Osito
    • Nara
    • The Kitchen Table at W Bangkok
    • Baan Glom Gig
    • Hyde & Seek
    • Bo.lan
    • Quince
    • Eat Me
    • Issaya Siamese Club
    • Water Library Chamchurri
    • Yamazato
    • Limoncello
    • Krua Apsorn
    • Kongju
    • The Iron Fairies and Co.
    • Namsaah Bottling Trust
    • Le Du
    • Appia
  13. Japan. Why do I seek out these restaurants? I often ask myself. And when I went to Tokyo, I felt an answer emerge. With each meal I am burying a little time capsule for the future. In the gleaming of two hours – time is crystallized, a jewel for reflection on some future day. At all 6 Michelin-starred places in Tokyo, my experience was enhanced by the presence of each of those 6 chefs – Hideki Ishikawa of Kagurazaka Ishikawa was easygoing, Kenzo Sato of Shigeyoshi seemed wise and restful, Toru Okuda of Ginza Kojyu serious, Zaiyu Hasegawa of DEN (with Noriko-san) creating an experience that was very welcoming and fun, Hachiro Mizutani of Sushi Mizutani reticent initially but gradually engaging in long conversations with his regulars, Seiji Yamamoto of Ryugin a humble, focused chef – a dedicated craftsman. But what I admire most about Japan is the availability of great food at all price ranges. A simple onigiri, or soba, is lavished with equal attention. Today the streets of Tokyo yet beckon with the promise of nooks unexplored. I will return at the end of January for a short weekend trip to visit noma’s pop-up in the Mandarin Oriental. For non-food related reasons as well, Japan beckons. It is Southeast Asia’s enduring tragedy in the last half century that it has not industrialized to the extent of Japan, Korea, Taiwan or China – Japan provides a vision of what could have been – and yet might be.
    • Sometaro 染太郎 (Asakusa, Tokyo)
    • Omotesando Koffee (Harajuku, Tokyo)
    • Afuri Ramen (Ebisu, Tokyo)
    • Kagurazaka Ishikawa*** (Kagurazaka, Tokyo)
    • Shigeyoshi** (Harajuku, Tokyo)
    • Butagumi (Nishiazabu/Roppongi, Tokyo)
    • Ginza Kojyu** (Ginza, Tokyo)
    • Jimbocho DEN* (Jimbocho, Tokyo)
    • Ezo Seafoods (Niseko, Hokkaido)
    • Tsubara Tsubara (Niseko, Hokkaido)
    • Rakuichi Soba (Niseko, Hokkaido)
    • Milk Kobo (Niseko, Hokkaido)
    • Honmura An (Roppongi, Tokyo)
    • Sushi Mizutani** (Ginza, Tokyo)
    • Kimuraya (Ginza, Tokyo)
    • Nihonryori Ryugin*** (Roppongi, Tokyo)
    • Tonkatsu Taihou (Meguro, Tokyo)
    • Streamer Coffee Company Shibuya (Shibuya, Tokyo)
    • Bar Gen Yamamoto (Roppongi, Tokyo)

The 20 Best Dishes of 2013

1 Jan

It has been a spectacular year of eating. A year ago, I was in Marseille, midway through a European sightseeing/food tour. I end it in Santiago, Chile, midway through a Latin American sightseeing/food tour. Many dishes required a long flight to taste, but a few were just 10 minutes from my doorstep. All are testament to hard work by people who through dint of hard work and creativity in their craft, have created some of the best tasting things on this planet.

  • * I’ll stretch the bounds of 2013 just a little to make room for two very late 2012 entries.

Happy New Year, and I wish everyone good eating in 2014!

____________

20. Coconut Buns – Katong Sin Chew Cake Shop, Singapore

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My favourite buns from Katong Cake Shop are the coconut buns (marked with a green candied cherry cube on top), which are have a moist and hot sweet coconut interior, and an airy (corn?)bread outside.

19. Baby Pork Hazelnut – Tapas Molecular Bar, Tokyo, Japan

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This was an inverted xiaolongbao (soup dumpling). Here the pork (topped with shaved hazelnut), would form the outer covering for a soup within. How did they do it? I asked Aaron, the assistant chef. It turns out that they bake the chop, after they stuff a gelatin cube into the pork, and then cover it up with meat glue. The pork tasted superb, and the mechanics of the dish were sublime.

18. 55′ Rosemary Smoked Organic Egg – Jaan, Singapore

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Chef Royer’s specialty among specialties. Cooked for 55 minutes at 62 degrees celsius, this egg was the texture of an onsen egg. Crisp potatoes and fantastic ham matchsticks. This one will live long in the memory.

17. Sunchoke – Aska, New York City

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The 2nd dish turned out brilliant. This is the best sunchoke dish I have yet tasted. It may be dubbed “sunchoke 5 ways”.
  1. Strips of roasted sunchoke skin
  2. Discs of fermented sunchoke
  3. Rehydrated sunchoke chunks
  4. Fermented sunchoke jus, calrified and cooked with elderflower and butter
  5. Sunchoke puree.

Coaxing a bewildering amount of different flavours and textures from one ingredient. Bravo, absolute mastery of the sunchoke. The only barbarians on the plate were the little hedgehog mushrooms.

16. Baby Calamari – Ristorantino Da Spano, Palermo, Italy

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The Platonic form of calamari. Tender without a hint of chewiness, the little eyes of baby squid were savory and crisp. The most perfect calamari I could imagine having.

15. Wood-fired Squid Amatriciana – Avec, Chicago

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My favorite dish this time round. A delicious baked-glaze, like a mac-and-cheese, on top of amatriciana that contained pork cheeks (guanciale?) and squid.

14. Warm Red Beets – birch, Providence, Rhode Island

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Vegetable cooking of the highest order. This dish could have slid straight into service at l’Arpege. Beets are first dehydrated, and then rehydrated in lavender vinegar. The subtle sweetness of sunflower petals accompany the sunflower seeds, covered with a hearty helping of warm shaved walnut. Somewhere in that pile, there is also caramelised onion puree and the best, sweetest gooseberries I have yet tasted. Spectacular. A riot of colour.

13. Bak Kut Teh – Outram Park Ya Hua Rou Gu Cha, Singapore

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Deliciously fiery and peppery, this was originally used to pep-up coolie labor in Singapore just before their work shifts. The ribs are best eaten slathered with sweet black sauce. I’ve tried all the famous bak kut teh stalls in Singapore, and this to me is the best one in the Teochew style.

12. Fried Chicken – má pêche, New York City

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Fried chicken done the right way and made to order. Juicy, with the crisp skin filled with the taste of Jabenero peppers. This was an unexpected comp from the kitchen, and really stretched the 3 of us to bursting point.

11. Minus-196 Mango – Nihonryori RyuGin, Tokyo, Japan

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A delicate bijou (of mild-tasting sugar?) coloured and shaped to look like a mango, containing freeze-dried mango powder, is broken by the diner and afterwards mixed with warm mango poured into the diner’s plate. This is the signature minus-196 degree dessert from RyuGin, which has been used for apples and peaches too, among others. (minus 196 is the boiling point of liquid nitrogen). Spectacular.

10. Rigatoni Bolognese, Alfredo’s Fresh Pasta to Go, Venice, Italy

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Rigatoni with Bolognese – the best bolognese I’ve ever had. Fresh tomatoes, succulent beef, went well with the large-penne that is rigatoni.

Sometimes the best food is to be found in unassuming places. The mild January winter of Venice brought me to a hole-in-the-wall take out place near St Mark’s Square, and I found two young owners who wanted to make all their sauces from scratch, and feed the local Venetians.

9. Crab & Obsiblue ‘Shell’ – Jaan, Singapore

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The sublime taste of Obsiblue prawn comes out beautifully in a tartare, with crab salad and caviar on top. An avocado foam tops it; a crustacean jelly undergirds it. Superb.

8. Noix de Saint Jacques, legumes d’hiver –  Une Table au Sud, Marseille, France

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A truly spectacular dish, a complex edible canvas. A bold decision was made to serve a raw root vegetable (the shaved rose-pink slices of tuber you see in the picture), along with a savory pumpkin-y sauce, and starchy sweet potato. A braised soft asparagus-like stalk looked liked the sweet potato, but had a different texture. Perfectly seared scallops finished off this dish. Each vegetable’s texture and flavor rang clear, and harmoniously together. It looks like a “winter vegetable riot”.

To me, this is a reference dish. When I think about winter vegetable compositions or a scallop dish, I still recall this dish very fondly.

7. Anago Sushi – Sushi Bun near Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan

No pictures, because the chef didn’t allow it. I was in a 7am stupor, when I met fellow Brownie But it was so good, I had it twice. A brilliant sweet sauce on top of almost falling apart anago (saltwater eel), it just melted in my mouth.

6. Raw “Cheesecake” – Maitrea or Lehka Hlava, Prague, Czech Republic

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So good I had it three times in six days in Prague. Who cares if it’s vegan? A tart raw strawberry sauce drizzled on top of a raw “cheesecake” – made with cashew nuts, walnuts, raisins, coconut butter, and honey.

5. Foie Gras Terrine with Umeboshi Puree – Eleven Madison Park, New York City

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A stunning dish. 3 sweet crisp layers of tuile sandwich savory blocks of foie gras, cut to perfect and uncloying thickness. Soursweet dark complexity from an umeboshi (pickled plum) puree and syruped plum bits with plum jelly. Tremendous. The umeboshi puree was a perfect complement to foie-tuile sandwich.  The best foie dish I have ever tasted, as far as I remember.

4. Egg Custard and Uni – Nihonryori RyuGin, Tokyo, Japan

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A simple pairing of egg custard and uni (sweet). 3 types of onions refer to green onion flowers (pictured), fried onion (brown bits pictured), diced onion (the white cubes). Showcased delicate raw sweet smell of spring onions without the bitterness.

3. Sweet Grain Cereal – birch, Providence, Rhode Island

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2013-05-22 13.10.05

birch’s tribute to breakfast consists of whipped grain milk, on top of apple sauce and a cornmeal johnnycake, mixed with the kitchen sink: honeycomb, puffed rice, oat snaps, and a few other things that are delicious. Eating this is like eating the best bowl of breakfast cereal ever. The mix of textures is complex, with at least four different kinds of crunchiness: thin, oaty crunchiness from the oat snaps, hollow crunchiness from the rice, and sweet dense crunchiness from the honeycomb, and what I think are airy cylinders of dried apple. One of the best desserts I have ever tried anywhere.

2. Oyster Ice Cream – Restaurant Andre, Singapore

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This is one of Restaurant Andre’s great dishes. It was introduced by Stepan Marhoul, restaurant Andre’s manager. Oyster ice cream, which has to be made with the flesh of firmer oysters and not the creamier ones, was perfectly cold and tasted of the cold, salty sea. Underneath the oyster ice cream, which had a firm texture, was a small oyster. Green apple, which seems to be one of the kitchen’s favorite ingredients, is here a foam, set beside the ice cream. Served on an oyster shell in a bed of coral salt. A very tricky and technically perfect dish.

1. Cevennes-Onion Gratin – l’Arpege, Paris, France

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One of l’Arpege’s signature dishes, this dish blew me away. A Cevennes Saint-Andre White Onion has an delicate sweet flavor. Here they were caramelised to concentrate the sweetness and put in a parmesan gratin, and had a sweet-tangy finish that the mild shaved black truffle did perfectly to complement.

I still think very fondly of l’Arpege I visited right at the doorstep of 2013 – the simplicity of the dishes, and the depth of the flavours gave me pause. With hindsight, many of a sustained sequence of dishes there were almost served in Technicolor.

Chinese Food in the US

8 Sep

This was previously posted as part of my review of Jiang-Nan Chun in Singapore, but I felt it would work better as a stand-alone piece. Filed under the Editorials Section.

In 3 years living in the States, I have not come across a single Chinese fine-dining restaurant on her shores.  Since I have not been long enough to Beijing or Shanghai to really understand their Chinese fine-dining scenes, I shall confine the following speculations to just Cantonese fine-dining. Classic Chinese fine-dining seems to be concentrated in the Cantonese cuisine, which is geographically in South China. This explains the numbers of Chinese fine-dining restaurants in Hong Kong and Singapore, and to lesser extent Malaysia and Indonesia.

My 4 hypotheses for why Cantonese fine-dining doesn’t exist in the US (correct me if I am wrong please!) are the following:

  1. Ingredient Conservatism. Cantonese fine-dining restaurants prize ingredient quality, and they have been reluctant to experiment with North American ingredients, or indeed most European ingredients in general until the Michelin Guide came to Hong Kong and gave Lung King Heen three stars for experimenting with foie gras and truffles.
  2. Existing fine-dining institutions are Western. Many talented Asian chefs (e.g. David Chang of Momofuku Ko) tend to apprentice in French/Italian kitchens, due to the existing global prestige of these kitchens (again, the Michelin Guide, and Top 50 Restaurant List).
  3. More subtle to appreciate. Cantonese fine-dining involves a dizzying array of soups, in which the skill involved is more subtle to appreciate than a fatty slab of foie gras blowtorched to perfection.
  4. Where the Money is. Fine dining concepts spread by the international travels of a moneyed class, and a restaurant is sustained by a stable base of moneyed regulars. The large number of French and Italian restaurants in the world reflect the travels of international financiers in the post-WWII reconstruction era. As a corollary, the emergence of New American fine-dining restaurants is concentrated geographically in California and the Northeast US, which are the two richest regions in the US today. Similarly, the regular clientele for Chinese fine-dining is almost exclusively Chinese tycoons, which tended to be concentrated in Hong Kong and to a lesser extent Singapore up to the 80s (when mainland China was still modernising under Deng Xiaoping from almost 3 decades of Mao rule). These HK and Singapore tycoons, having found their economic base in the region often on networks of patronage and influence, almost never emigrated to the US. This is why Chinese fine-dining today still seems to be an East Asian phenomenon, from the eastern seaboard of China to the heart of Southeast Asia.