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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)