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Restaurant DC in KL (Apr ’17): an artisan’s restaurant among Asia’s best

7 May
2015. I first spent a prolonged period of time in KL in 2015, when I was posted there for 2 months as part of the life of an itinerant consultant. The fine-dining food scene, of the few times I sampled it, was not particularly exciting. The Azurmendi spin-off, Aziamendi, had a 4 month residency in the Mandarin Oriental. I tried Sushi Oribe in the centre of KL, but was not impressed by an over-application of fake wasabi (actually cheap horseradish). Given my limited time outside of work hours, 2-3 hour dinners were unfortunately rather rare.

My 2015 meal. It was towards the tail end of my time in Malaysia that I had a meal at Restaurant DC. I had read my friend Julian’s scene-setting review of Restaurant DC (a wonderful post that goes into Darren’s backstory, which I too encourage you to read). It was an attempt to bring the first-class French technique to KL. Darren, who specializes in the rotisseur arts, served a very French dinner with Bresse chicken, roast wagyu, scallops and fish – all impeccably done. The roasting technique was on point, and the sauces were wonderful. It was a pleasant dinner, well executed, but it suffered from predictability. Each dish was a triad of meat(or fish), sauce and little veg, and consequently boring. All of this was well-executed, but it suffered from multiple straitjackets – the rigidity of “correct French cooking” (why not throw in some Asian ingredients in?), and the compositional straitjacket. I would have given it a 16/20, but what prevented the good experience from being a great experience was the inconsistency of it. The main courses were all very well-executed, but with an average cheeseboard (oversold to me as a “wonderful selection”) and the pandan panna cotta dessert served lukewarm (I enjoy my desserts to have contrasts in temperature with the main course – either hot or cold, which is why I dislike panna cotta), I thought it was a bit Jekyll-and-Hyde.

The cuisine, also seemed to me a bit anonymous. I felt I wasn’t the target audience for Darren’s cooking. Similar to how David Chang’s Momofuku Ko in New York aims to provide Asian food for white people, Darren Chin’s Restaurant DC seemed to aim to provide a correct French-experience to an n-th degree not yet seen in KL. But for me, that reference “correct-traditional-French-restaurant” in Southeast Asia was Singapore’s Les Amis, and in a head-to-head comparison with Les Amis, Restaurant DC was every bit the equal in its treatment of meat, but it came off worse in the accouterments – starter, cheese, desserts.

2017. Fast forward to 2017. In KL for a weekend, I headed off to DC for a night at the chef’s table. I had heard glowing reports from Julian who had dined there a month earlier. It seemed like there was a different focus. There were indications that the straitjacket of “correct French cooking” had been loosened. A somen dish with uni looked promising. And no longer were the main courses just combinations of expertly done protein with a correct French sauce and some vegetables.

The meal turned out to be one of my favorite meals of 2017 so far. The strengths of chef Darren are in his faithful recreations of French excellence, and he is picking up more experimentation on ingredients, with a bit more straying outside the formula of protein-sauce-vegetables. It doesn’t hurt that his bread program comes with excellent Bordier and Pamplie butters. The wine pairings were also highly congenial.

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We started off with a drink in the first-floor lounge – an apple cocktail.

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Afterwards we decamped for the chef’s table, featuring a wonderful breadbasket. I could not stop myself from tearing off hunks of the bread to use as scoops for the butter.

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  • Prawn tartare with lemon basil, tomato granita (5/5)
    • Three layers of ingredients – a prawn tartare, tomato granita, and a powder made from prawn head (fried?) – well thought out to complement the strengths of the other. The base is a prawn tartare, with tomato granita to provide an icy textural contrast and sour taste contrats to the moist tartare. The powder of dehydrated prawn’s head lent it another layer of fragrance. A wonderful composition

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Lobster ball, tempura curry leaf, and vegetable sauce, with slices of macerated beetroot (4.5/5)

  • On the left, a ball of picked lobster meat wrapped in a vegetable, with a vegetable sauce and tempura curry leaf.
  • On the right, slices of macerated beetroot.
  • I’ve had something similar at Les Amis, as a lobster rouelle wrapped in spinach.

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  • Irish oyster, ikura, seagrapes

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  • Pumpkin croquette with pickled radish and lobster reduction (4.25/5)

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  • Somen with bafun uni, dashi (4.5/5)
    • Pasta with uni – a dependable crowd pleasable that I’ve seen in restaurants all over Asia. I’ve had a version at Ta Vie in Hong Kong. This version shades it slightly more Asian – the pasta is somen, and there is dashi-based vinegary sauce.

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  • Smoked butterfish arranged as a rose and puffed wild rice, with mulberry yoghurt, sorrel flowers, and oxalis for acidity (4.25/5)

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  • Razor clams from Klang, roast octopus, Landes white asparagus, crisp wild almond (4.25/5)
    • The razor clams from Klang boast local terroir, and are perfectly serviceable though not too memorable. The use of crisp wild almonds though, lends this dish a more interesting texture.

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  • St Jacques scallops, wild almond, tom sep sauce (5/5)
    • This dish was my favorite of the night. Scallops, usually a conservative preparation, is enlivened by Thai touches, including tom yam basil and a tom sep sauce. The crispy wild almonds added a nice nutty texture to the dish. This was executed with the precision of a miniaturist

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  • Butter poached Canadian lobster, with kale and sauce Americaine (4.25/5)

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  • Calamansi granita with mint yoghurt and toasted watermelon seeds

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  • Bresse pigeon with heirloom carrots, gooseberries and yuzu kosho (4.5/5)
    • Another well-executed pigeon, with unusual spicy tastes from the yuzu kosho (a mixture of chilli peppers, yuzu peel, and salt)

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  • Coffee gelato, hairy banana, lemon chantilly (4/5)

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  • Wild honey gelato, croquette (4.25/5)
    • A wild honey sorbet with honey from Chiangmai.

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I find it encouraging that there are more Asian touches in his dishes, which indicates Chef Darren is finding his own style away from the safe crowd-pleasers of a protein-sauce-vegetables. Of most interest to me in a future revisit would be whether he expands his style further to incorporate more pan-Asian touches – more Thai ingredients, a few borrowings from the local Malayan cookbook, nouvelle-cuisine a la the Japanese French style prevalent in restaurants such as Quintessence in Tokyo, a few borrowings from the modernist cookbook; or whether he increases his fidelity to la grand cuisine – with their greatest dishes such as truffle tarte, cooking en vessie etc.

Here is where the narrow fine-dining audience in Malaysia may become a handicap – if they don’t support such experiments from well-meaning chefs, the pace of innovation is stifled.

Chef Darren has been on record saying he aims for a placing on the Asia’s 50 Best List in the next few years. While I think Restaurant DC will probably be overlooked by the Asia’s 50 Best List due to the geographic concentration of voters (mostly in Singapore and Thailand), I think it deserves a spot on any list of Asia’s best restaurants on its own merit.
Rating: 17.5/20

Zet’joe in Bruges (Dec ’16)

26 Mar
Surprisingly, one of the best meals I had in my December Europe trip was one that was not even on my radar a day before. But perhaps it wasn’t so surprising – for that restaurant, Zet’joe, was the most recent incarnation of a 3 Michelin-star restaurant that had recently closed, De Karmeliet.


Michelin is unreliable these days, having forsaken its perceived veil of objectivity to be sponsored by national tourism offices (e.g.  Singapore, Thailand). In Europe however, I still rely heavily on its ratings. (After all, the Roman roads and aqueducts built in Western Europe still functioned despite the Empire’s unsuccessful expansions Northward in later years.) On the morning of my last full day in Bruges, I did my usual search for a Michelin starred restaurant that would represent the region’s cooking. The highest-starred extant restaurant was a two-starred one in a town 10km away, but logistics would be tricky after a heavy dinner. During all this Googling time, I was inwardly kvetching about the timing of Bruges’s 3-star De Karmeliet’s closure. A couple weeks earlier, and we would have been able to make it. But the information on the web was inconsistent. While every news article had listed De Karmeliet as closed in early December, De Karmeliet’s website was still functioning, and stranger still, was redirecting to the websites of two other restaurants. Could it be?


I began to pore more into De Karmeliet’s website. It appeared that the chef had set up two new restaurants, Bistro Refter and Zet’joe. (they are now three, with another called Bon Refter set up in 2017). We called Zet’joe at 9am, got their last table for the day, and the rest is happy history.


After a day in beautiful but freezing Bruges, (and loading up on half a suitcase of chocolate from Bruge’s best chocolatier Spegelaere) we made the 20 minute canal-side walk from our Airbnb apartment to the Eastern part of the old town where Zet’joe was located.
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The restaurant had two different tasting menus, but I felt the dinner would be safe and a bit uninspiring. Seabass, scallops, and lamb may be good, but more often than not they are just trope courses where the diner (me) faintly dislikes it because he imagines how he could have made the same at home, and the chef faintly dislikes it because the expectations of the lowest-common denominator diner hews too close to convention to really do something exciting with it.


So I decided to go with a la carte. Much more expensive, but more chances for a memorable meal.


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  • Parmesan gougeres

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  • Amuse bouche: green apple with goat cheese
    • The sour notes and pungency worked well together to get us hungry

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  • Langoustine “Royale”, preserved eggplant, goose liver, infusion of seaweed and mushrooms
    • My partner had this. From what I tasted, it seemed an elegant mix of grilled langoustine with dashi and foie.

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  • Brussels chicories, Duke of Berkshire ham, “raclette cheese” and black truffle from Richeranche (4.75/5)
    • This dish was described to us as the chef reviving memories of a dish his grandmother used to cook for him.
    • Soft foam clouds of what I think was cheese, really lended this dish the character of a reverie. The earthy bitter tastes of chicory went very well with the classic flavors of ham, black truffle, and raclette cheese. The saucing was rich and left my appetite whetted for more

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  • “Coucou de Malines” – chicken breast, white truffle from Alba, Albufeira sauce, preserved legs (2 courses) (5/5)
    • First course (5/5): a succulent, savory roast chicken, showered with very late season Alba truffles, twists of crispy salsify, boiled salsify root, and mushroom mash. Since we were the only ones ordering off the a la carte menu that day (it is about 2-3 times the price of the standard tasting menu), they made the mushroom mash for us, and we got seconds of the mushroom mash.
    • The chicken was very well done. I usually don’t order chicken as the piece de resistance for a fine-dining meal, but it was everything you could ask chicken to breast to be – juicy, with crispy skin, succulent. It was paired with a delicious albufeira sauce, an Escoffier-era derivation of veloute. It was just a delight to eat all portions of this dish, which is probably my favorite fine-dining chicken dish ever.
    • Second course (4.75/5): The second preparation was the meat from the confit chicken legs, with a chicken consomme, sweet-sour cubes of foie, artichoke and carrots. It was a very good soup dish, and showcased the chef’s versatility well.

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  • Flavours of chocolate, caramel and orange (5/5)
    • I love the combination of chocolate and orange. A well-executed chocolate cake with orange gel and caramel ice cream. The cake was not too cloying/heavy as cakes with too much flour can be, and the intelligent combination of textures (a common theme through the meal, starting with the clouds of cheese in my chicory starter and the salsify crisp in my first course of chicken) suggested the chef has a first-class understanding of the diner’s mind.

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  • Pineapple, foamed egg white, ice cream of banana and passion fruit, infusion of southernwood and rum
    • My partner had this – ile flottante, with a banana-passionfruit sorbet and brunoise of pineapple and passionfruit


After dinner, we spoke to the manager, the chef’s wife. The reason they had closed down De Karmeliet and opened two (now three) restaurants in its stead was not for any waning love of cooking, but because chef Geert van Hecke, 60 years old and feeling the strain on his knees in the big Karmeliet kitchen, wanted a smaller space to cook. “The cooking remains exactly the same”. I don’t doubt that, for the meal was of the highest quality, and I’m hoping to try more of Geert van Hecke’s cooking the next time I’m in Belgium.


Rating: 19.5/20


2016-12-28 19.56.42a piece from the chef’s art collection
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My most ecstatic moment of the meal – two bites in, and realizing how good the chicken dish is. Having some extra mushroom potato mash just beyond the plate, and about to attack the dish with real gusto. I wish I could have this dish every week!

Summer Pavilion (Singapore, Feb ’17): incredible dim sum

21 Feb
Summer Pavilion has been my pick for the top Chinese restaurant in Singapore for a long time, even before Michelin was a twinkling in the Singapore Tourism Board’s eye. (It currently has one star.) I grew up eating in Chinese restaurants long before I set foot in a European fine-dining restaurants, but the consistency of Summer Pavilion’s excellence has always impressed me more than its hotel/corporate competition. I’ve had stunning execution of classic dishes at many, but there is always an intelligent and forward-thinking touch at Summer Pavilion.
I recently had an incredible dim-sum meal there this week that cut through my recently apathy towards blogging:
  •  We had lychee-oolong tea from Taiwan, which was flavored with “The Eight Treasures”


  • Congee with fish slices
    • It was made with red snapper, a firm neutral-tasting fish that would be seen as a blank canvas for chefs, except for a delicious and visually appealling gelatinous red skin, rather than offcuts or snakehead (toman) fish which is too rough. The thoroughly crisped dough was a nice different touch from the usual soggy cut youtiao.


  • Steamed rice skin roll, shredded chicken, mushroom, ginger, spring onion
    • I thought this was an amazing dish. Instead of the usual rice skin roll (changfen) with a mix-and-match meat filling, this was a harmonious composition of silky rice skin, the piquant aroma of shallot oil, and a mix of textures from both vegetables and meats. The shallot oil was a wonderful companion to the light soy that usually goes with changfen.


  • Steamed vegetarian dumpling, lily bulbs, water chestnut, sweet pea, mushroom, preserved vegetable
    • I decided to go with dumplings primarily for lunch. I would not have ordered this, had it not been for the mention of lily bulbs, which is an absolute favorite ingredient of mine. The dumpling, bursting with sweet flavors, was a wonderful summary of the best of nature’s light ingredients.


  • Steamed prawn and bamboo-shoot dumpling
    • This “har gow”, had a juicy and firm prawn, well coated with a crystal translucent skin. The bamboo shoot diversified the crunchy prawn texture.


  • Steamed lobster, fungus, onions and carrot dumpling
    • Reprise of har gow with a different ingredients – again, juicy and firm.


  • Baked abalone puff, assorted mushrooms, carrot, onions
    • A perfectly tender abalone, with the concentrated mollusc taste, on a sweet bed of pastry, with textural contrast from chopped mushrooms. This was a perfect bite, served at a perfect temperature.


  • Chilled aloe vera, kiwi, strawberries, lime juice


  • Chilled cream of sago, mango, pomelo
The meal ended up being comparatively short at an hour, but what a meal! I conveyed my feelings to the server, who was justly proud of the chef’s cuisine and the restaurant’s Michelin star, and this meal reminded me again how brevity and a few excellent courses can form an indelible culinary memory.
Rating: 20/20

L’Ambroisie (revisit) & Histoires (Paris, Dec ’16): father and son

8 Jan
My travelling companion and I recently had a two and a half week trip through Europe, where we ate through some of France/Belgium/Holland’s most interesting restaurants. They included:
  1. yam’Tcha in Paris (1*)
  2. Le Cinq in Paris (3*)
  3. Clown Bar in Paris
  4. Ron Gastrobar in Amsterdam (1*)
  5. BAK in Amsterdam
  6. Bord’Eau in Amsterdam (2*)
  7. de Librije in Zwolle (3*)
  8. Quatre Mains in Bruges
  9. Zetjoe in Bruges [the new face of recently closed De Karmeliet (3*)]
  10. L’Ambroisie in Paris (3*)
  11. Histoires in Paris (2*)
Of those, our favorites were probably:
  • de Librije
  • L’Ambroisie
  • Zetjoe
  • Bord’Eau
The most disappointing meals we had were:
  • yam’Tcha
  • Histoires
We planned L’Ambroisie and Histoires as the pair of meals to end the trip. L’Ambroisie is probably the oldest three Michelin starred restaurant in Paris, having kept its rating since 1988, in an era when Michelin nods mean so much more than today. (The ongoing Michelin brand dilution is happening at too rapid a pace, and their new ratings are a joke) It is a restaurant that I think any gourmand who can afford its hefty price tag should try at least once, because it offers a very purified version of French dishes. This is not a common quality today, when most high-end restaurants agonize over offering tasting menus of 6-10 dishes featuring maybe 20-30 ingredients, where almost all dishes of which are pushed out before they’re ready. Where many chefs look to add ingredients, Bernard Pacaud’s dishes are marked by a synergistic backbone of two or three ingredients which define the dish. Extraneous tastes are removed: for example the dish I remember the most from my last visit was the amuse-bouche: crayfish and peas with a light fennel soup. This capability to step into the diner’s shoes, to taste an intriguing combination of some two-three pure flavors, is all-too-rare.
Our dinner at L’Ambroisie reprised the well-worn cliches of its continuous excellence. The most memorable dish of my dinner this time was Dover sole, with vin jaune sauce, Brussel sprouts and the last of season white truffle. The Dover sole cut like butter, but in truth, the fatty fish was a side show to the axis of a tangy vin jaune, the earthy smell of Alba truffles, and the refreshing bitterness of Brussel sprouts. Service was excellent, and I was surprised by a generous additional serving of the chocolate tart (justly world-famous). At the end of it,  I was eagerly anticipating my meal the next day at Chef Pacaud’s son’s restaurant.
The clearest signs of Chef Pacaud’s discerning palate and keen intellect was reflected in a pair of dishes. There is a distinct taste to cooked watercress, which produces a puckering effect in the mouth without being bitter. The taste impression it leaves on the palate is a light puckered savoriness. This is readily apparent to anyone who has had Chinese watercress soup with goji berry and pork broth. Chef Pacaud uses this as the backbone for his signature dish, langoustine with sesame wafer and curry sauce. It would be quite rich, this tangy curry creation, if it were not cut by the hidden mound of cooked watercress at the very bottom, which produces this light puckered savoriness. I tried my companion’s dish of scallops, caviar, and potato, with a raw vegetal sauce. It turned out the raw vegetal sauce was made of watercress as well – with a real vegetal scent that gave enough tension and surprising synergy to the scallop dish that made it sublime. (It is I think, lazy thinking, that lumps all luxury ingredients together, like uni, caviar, scallops, and expects the end result to be more than the sum of the parts, or even the sum of the parts. A great luxury dish requires a unifying element, often a humble ingredient, to truly pull it together).
Mathieu Pacaud, son of Bernard Pacaud, and for 13 years a chef at L’Ambroisie (eventually rising to become co-head Chef with his father) is, as you may be able to tell from a Wikipedia profile which looks PR-agency-written, is much more of an aggressive self-promoter than his father. As I left Paris, he had opened two restaurants – Hexagone (1*), a cocktail bar and restaurant, Histoires (2*), a hidden fine-dining restaurant behind Hexagone, and was in the process of reopening Le Divellec in Paris, a fish bistro, as his third restaurant. He seems to be building a restaurant empire. Nor is he lacking in self-confidence for the prices he charges – the price at Histoires for a set menu was 25% higher than at L’Ambroisie where we had starter-main-dessert – Histoires was the most expensive meal of the trip (and in a trip that includes L’Ambroisie and three other 3* restaurants, that says something!)
When I went to Histoires, my expectations were of dishes of the L’Ambroisie calibre. However, of the dishes there, what was original was not especially sublime, and the sublime touches were not especially original. My dining partner and I agreed that perhaps going to L’Ambroisie the night before had biased us, since the bulk of any of the younger Pacaud’s patient refining would have been on the L’Ambroisie dishes. But with only one exception (a vin jaune sauce pairing with a more intense and boozy vin jaune sabayon) the touches were not as good as at L’Ambroisie. Parisian diners being a discerning bunch probably know this – I know Paris dining has been suffering since the Nov 2015 terror attacks, but at L’Ambroisie I could only spot one empty table for two, at Histoires only 4 out of the 7 tables were filled, and only 1 of those was French speaking. The other 3 (including us) were first-time visitors and tourists. For reference, the other Parisian tables we visited were completely filled – yam’Tcha, Le Cinq, and the Clown Bar. The only half-full restaurant on our trip was Histoires.
I usually review restaurants separately, but given the obvious affinity of the two restaurants it would be illuminating to see the dishes side by side.

  • Crunchy cheese kugelhopf – really good, I think this was made of Parmesan. A warm bite with a soft centre. (5/5)


  • Beetroot soup, cream of mustard seeds, foie flan underneath – alright. A bit unrefined in the beetroot soup texture, which was quite grainy and not too harmonious with the foie (4/5)


  • Feuillantine de langoustines aux graines de sésame, sauce au curry (4.75/5)
    • As above: The clearest signs of Chef Pacaud’s discerning palate and keen intellect was reflected in a pair of dishes. There is a distinct taste to cooked watercress, which produces a puckering effect in the mouth without being bitter. The taste impression it leaves on the palate is a light puckered savoriness. This is readily apparent to anyone who has had Chinese watercress soup with goji berry and pork broth. Chef Pacaud uses this as the backbone for his signature dish, langoustine with sesame wafer and curry sauce. It would be quite rich, this tangy curry creation, if it were not cut by the hidden mound of cooked watercress at the very bottom, which produces this light puckered savoriness. I tried my companion’s dish of scallops, caviar, and potato, with a raw vegetal sauce. It turned out the raw vegetal sauce was made of watercress as well – with a real vegetal scent that gave enough tension and surprising synergy to the scallop dish that made it sublime. (It is I think, lazy thinking, that lumps all luxury ingredients together, like uni, caviar, scallops, and expects the end result to be more than the sum of the parts, or even the sum of the parts. A great luxury dish requires a unifying element, often a humble ingredient, to truly pull it together).


  • Melba de noix de Saint-Jacques au caviar golden, coulis de cresson
    • I didn’t have a full portion, but from what I tasted, the scallops were real toothy and had serious texture, with a perfectly textured potato cream and watercress sauce. The caviar added the proper salty element. A perfect dish I think


  • Dos de sole braise au vin jaune, effeuilee de choux de Bruxelles et truffe blanche (5/5)
    • As above:  The most memorable dish of my dinner this time was Dover sole, with vin jaune sauce, Brussel sprouts and the last of season white truffle. The Dover sole cut like butter, but in truth, the fatty fish was a side show to the axis of a tangy vin jaune, the earthy smell of Alba truffles, and the refreshing bitterness of Brussel sprouts


  • Salmis de supremes de pigeon aux coings, cuisses en pastilla


  • Pear sorbet with caramel of pear


  • Boule nacree aux fruits exotiques emulsion neigeuse au Passoa (5/5)
    • A really excellent dish, a refreshing sugar sphere with coconut whipped cream, and peach. Passionfruit was only outside. It helped refresh our palates




  • Souffle chaud a la nougatine de noix, cafe liegeois



  • Brioche fine en pain perdu, reine des reinettes caramelisee


  • Tarte sablee au cacao amer, galce a la vanille Bourbon (5/5)
    • No words – best no-flour chocolate tart anywhere, which a crunchy base


  • Alcoholic reprise of pear sorbet with caramel

  • Mocktail: Cucumber, rosewater, juniper, tonic water


Amuse bouche 1:

  • Brioche mousseline et creme d’oignons
  • Cornet croustillant a la creme de saumon
  • Langoustines au Caviar Golden
  • Marbre de foie gras de canard (5/5)
  • Of these, I found the foie sandwich amazing, having solid consistency and saltiness. A decadent bite.


Amuse bouche 2: Scallop, black truffle, watercress sauce, toasted bread emulsion

  • The black truffle, served on warm scallops didn’t release its flavor fully due to the temperature. The ingredients were individually good but as a dish failed to come together. (3.25/5)


Royales Scampi: Anise Cream and caviar Golden

  • 4/5, but maybe 4.5/5 if you like anise flavors. The scampi had a slight bitter, iodine taste, which paired well with the seawater jelly. Tropezienne sauce, based off of a Provence pastry, was anise flavored. The dominant flavor palette of the dish was sweet. I generally did not like iodine taste of the scampi or the anise flavors of the Tropezienne sauce, but cannot deny someone with a sweet tooth might like it better


Foie Gras: Red wine decoction with star anise

  • 4/5. A huge hockey puck of foie gras with a fig and star-anise red wine. That is all. Not sure what the chef was thinking here.


Sole: Root vegetables and caviar Golden

  • This was the sole dish which had an idea that improved over a L’Ambroisie version – the vin jaune was paired with a vin jaune sabayon which was much boozier and sweeter, allowing for a more complex sauce. However the balance of the dish was not as good. The buttery dover sole I had at L’Ambroisie was a conveyance for the axis of Brussel sprouts – vin jaune – white truffle. Arguably the Brussel sprouts harmonized that dish. Here the root vegetables were not discernable, and the dominant notes were Dover sole and vin jaune – a less balanced and much richer combination – which over-satiated me. Overall rating: not perfect, but interesting. 4.75/5


Blue Lobster: Pumpkin and chestnut, “sauce diable”

  • The firmness of the blue lobster was great. But what was the point of composing a dish of it with meaty hunks of carrot and chestnut, with little sauce to tie it together. A failure of composition. 2.5/5


Trou Normand: Lemon, vodka tonic

  • We were getting stuffed at this point!


Chicken from Bresse: Stuffed with black truffle, wild mushrooms

  • Slightly tough. The best part was the roast skin, lightly perfumed with the black truffle mash underneath the skin. Unfortunately the Bresse chicken showed none of its superior characteristics, and the breast was indistinguishable from a supermarket rotisserie chicken – tough, dry, mostly tasteless with the slight sour-neutral taste of pure white protein. In fact the skin did not show off much crispness except in parts. Compared to a roast Belgian Malines chicken served with sherry sauce we had two nights before at Zetjoe in Bruges, this was not in the same galaxy. A mediocre preparation of chicken. (2.5/5) However, the wild mushroom with slices of cheese was good.


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  • Dessert: Big waltz in seven compositions
    • Wild strawberry, yoghurt sorbet
    • Lemon sorbet
    • Williams pear, Madagascar vanilla
    • Cacao Mont Blanc
    • Blancmange with passionfruit and mango
    • Salted caramel with coffee cream
    • Hazelnut praline and nuts
    • There were many similar themes with our dessert assortment the night before, – where L’Ambroisie had a sugar ball with passionfruit and mango, here it was a springy blancmange. A hazelnut praline with nuts reminded me of a nougatine souffle the night before; the coffee caramel cream jelly in the clear cup reminded me of the caffe Liegeois the night before. However, at this point we were getting full, and felt that there was no real perfect dessert that anchored this assortment. Instead, it just seemed a profusion of passable desserts, like a chef regurgitating his culinary curriculum on the table by “Priori Incantatem”. What makes the L’Ambroisie assortment incomparably better in my view, is that all of them are fucking good, with the emphasis on “fucking good” rather than “dessert assortment”.
  • Sweets
Now, I should note for fairness that the other two tourist (American) couples seemed to be enjoying themselves, praising the sommeliers on multiple occasions and holding extended conversations with them – the nature of the Histoires set-up is that you can hear most of the conversations around the room unless you whisper. It may be that Mathieu Pacaud’s food is meant to be wine food, and we didn’t order wine besides a glass of champagne to start. But in that case, I still can’t recommend it to the teetotalling crowd, of which I am an occasional member.
The post-meal damage, as mentioned, was about 25% higher than L’Ambroisie, about 390 euros per person, which made it our most expensive Paris meal by quite some distance. If I’m going to spend this amount on food, I want at least one amazing dish in my meal. Histoires failed to provide that and that’s why it was probably one of the most disappointing meals of the trip. It is still a mystery to me, how a chef of Mathieu Pacaud’s calibre and pedigree could serve such absolutely clunkers as the Blue Lobster and Bresse chicken dish, with little or no synergy between its ingredients, or make such a vacuous show of average desserts, like some cheap prestidigitation. And the hockey puck of foie was just lazy. My dining partner and I concluded that he is still probably trying to find his own style and signature, but honestly, the ardours taken to build a restaurant empire are not promising for near-term culinary development.

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

14 Nov

Rating: 16/20

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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


Cod milt “a la meuniere” with crispy wing

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


Simmered abalone with vegetable salad tossed with wakame seaweed

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

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

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



Homemade pasta, Hokkaido uni, nori

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


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

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


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

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


Yakiniquest in Singapore: beef appreciation

19 Jul
  • Rating: 16.5/20
  • Address: 48 Boat Quay, Singapore 049837
  • Phone:6223 4129
  • Price: ~SGD 140 = $100 USD
  • Value: 4/5
  • Chef: Masuki Akutsu


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There’s no getting around the fact that Japanese food in Singapore is going to be expensive. Within a couple of weeks, I had 3 friends who asked about good value Japanese food below $100. I remain without an answer to this question – if anyone knows, please tell me.

I think I know one answer to the broader question of “value Japanese food in Singapore”. I recently visited Yakiniquest, a Japanese yakiniku restaurant set up in Boat Quay, by a founding member of the Yakiniquest group, a Mr Suguru Ishida. The Yakiniquest group is an interesting beast, according to the restaurant’s website, it is a grouping of 5 yakiniku enthusiasts who got together in 1998, and went around Japan eating at >100 yakiniku restaurants yearly, posting their reviews on, as well as authoring books and publishing magazines. As far as I can tell, this Singapore outpost is their only affiliated restaurant.

The restaurant is helmed by Chef Masaki Akutsu, who used to helm Yakiniku Shibaura. He is watchful presence at the front counter, steadily working through his cuts. The clientele of the restaurant is mostly Japanese expats – Japanese is the first language spoken around the restaurant

My first dinner consisted of A4 beef from Iwate prefecture, with a single piece of Australian tongue. (due to Singapore import  restrictions on Japanese beef organs). Three commendable points about the restaurant: First the grilling is done expertly, and secondly different delicious sauces are aptly paired with the meats. Thirdly, with a yakiniku restaurant you have perhaps less to innovate upon, but there were some surprising touches: A Niku soumen dish was an interesting twist on noodles, and the roasted green tea ice cream had a sophisticated taste unlike your run-of-the-mill matcha green tea powder based ice creams.

Good value for money? For beef connoisseurs, yes.

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  • Japanese salad/pickles (braised daikon turnip with beef essence)

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  • Wagyu beef sashimi – more a curiosity than anything of great succulence. The issue is that it was dry, and this limited the fatty texture (3/5)

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  • Niku soumen – a novelty dish consisting of shredded wagyu in soy sauce. This was based on a clever visual joke

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  • Shio tan (tongue) – This was the only piece taken from an Australian cow, as Japanese wagyu offal is not allowed to be imported into Singapore at the moment. It was highly succulent, one of the best pieces of the night (4.25/5)

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  • Rump

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  • Hire (tenderloin)

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  • Shinshin (eye of knuckle)

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  • Yakisuki (wagyu “sukiyaki” style) – a delicious sweet and umami sauce, mix of soy sauce, sugar and sake. I believe this cut is chateaubriand (a part of the tenderloin)

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  • Gazpacho – a shot of chilled tomato soup – a palate cleanser, that was also heavy from use of olive oil.

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  • Misuji (top-blade)

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  • Sirloin (striploin) with ponzu sauce (5/5) An exquisitely marbled cut that served as the piece-de-resistance, a burst of fatty flavor like a sponge. The spongey-fatty texture is found in two of Japanese fine-dining’s great obsessions – otoro and sirloin. Our eyes were riveted as the meat dripped fat onto the coals. There is something engrossing about a delicate piece of meat getting cooked

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  • Wagyu curry rice

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  • Inaniwa noodle with ice

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  • Red Bean Monaka (4.25/5)

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  • Black sesame ice cream

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  • Roasted green tea ice cream

Notable links:

Frivolity: Monument Valley and Slay

16 Nov

* Note: Non-food post.

I’ve been using my iPad a lot in the past year (you can see it in many of my restaurant visits), mainly using the Kindle app to read books (stranded from Amazon 2-day delivery, the immediacy of access to a Kindle book is currently an acceptable trade-off for the lack of a physical book). But this month, I’ve been trying some of the iPad games, and I’ve been really impressed by Slay and Monument Valley. (Another honorable mention: Hitman GO)


Monument Valley, a beautiful iOS piece of art masquerading as a game, released some paid DLC this weekend. I happily paid the $1.99 for the extra content of Monument Valley (though it apparently created some bad ratings for the game on the iOS app store). It surprises me that anyone would complain about the cost, because the hour of beautiful visuals that Ustwo has created is stunning. Innovative gimmicks like the twisting serpentine pillars (appendix world 2), the Escherian ending of the halcyon world (appendix world 5), and the perspective shifting world of deceit (appendix world 6) are all mind-expanding additions to the stable of impossible geometries in Monument Valley. The meditativeness reminds me of the casual game Knytt (a casual game I played about 5-6 years ago), but is way more lush.

UX Design note: I also like the not-too-responsive button in the world select, where I can press the button once, and before it fades to black (to the world), I can press the world select button again. That UX gives me a sense that the world moves at its own pace.

Game Design note: I also really like that there is no need for a reset button. That to me signifies thoughtful level design.

Monument Valley is not really a game in the sense of skill. It is a completely linear journey through a beautiful piece of art. The challenge comes from figuring out the right method of manipulating the levers and cranks on the level. But I love the world of impossible geometries it portrays.


Slay is one of the most addictive games I have played. I first played it on a friend’s Palm in 2003, constantly playing it. Then I re-encountered it in 2006-7, playing the Windows version on my Desktop. I even created a few maps for the game. I recently re-discovered the game on iOS, and have been whiling my hours away conquering imaginary islands.

For the uninitiated, Slay is a game where you are set on a single island with 5 other players, and have to conquer the entire island and make them your colour. The territory is hexagonal in nature, and you have various units (peasants, spearmen, knights, barons) that can conquer various structures (houses and castles). The basic rules are here:

The geometrically increasing food costs of the units (peasants = 2, spearmen = 6, knights = 18, barons = 54)  keeps it a brutal game, one of sudden cut and thrust. Over extend yourself, and a winning position is quickly turned into a losing one.

What is truly impressive is that Slay is the work of one Sean O’Connor, who wrote it for the Atari ST all the way back in 1989 (!) I have not seen a website detailing the Slay strategies I’ve figured out (or is that re-figured out?), so here are a handful of tips from my most recent deep-dive into Slay (on highest difficulty):

  1. Your units protect your land. So it is not always necessary to use your peasants (1st level) to find new land. Sometimes, the best use of a new unit is to protect a tenuous piece of land you already own. In the quest for the new, we risk losing the old.
  2. You don’t have to be protect every square of land you have from potential cut-off. It makes you too conservative, and the AI will grow at a faster rate than you. On the highest difficulty, the AI will make every effort to link two pieces of land (e.g. Brown) on either side of your land bridge (Light Green), in a pincer movement to establish a connection between his territories
    • But if there are two colours (say Brown and Yellow), it may not be necessary to protect the land bridge. That is a calculated risk one must take – and assume that the opponents (AI or human) are not malicious.
    • These unguarded risks are some of the most exciting parts of Slay. If the same player is on either side of your unguarded territory, it is 100% that he will try to take it, so guard it. But if different players are on either side of unguarded territory, it is quite likely that the territory will go unmolested.
  3. If you fail at a map, try and try again, to see the recurring patterns. Is Brown dominating lower right, and then overwhelming you quickly at upper left and lower left? (the situation on the map Rouft, also the win I was most proud of). Then put a castle on lower right, playing a delaying action so that the (inevitable) extinction of your territory lower right requires Brown to use his knight (3rd level) and that slows Brown down enough to link the two territories on the left side before Brown comes like a tidal wave.
  4. My favorite part of Slay is game-changing “conga line”, a strategy viable in the last third of the game, where one can churn out 3-5 new peasants per turn. In that phase, the fun part of dividing the opponent’s (there is usually only one in the end-game) territory begins, since the peasants can come out of your territory like a cheap snake and bisect/trisect/quadra-sect the opponent’s territory. Since upkeep for the biggest units increase geometrically, I much prefer using an endless rush of small units to kill the opponent’s big units (knights and barons) by partitioning territory so that they starve to death, rather than killing their big-units by creating an expensive white elephant (e.g. baron vs knight). Example: I used the conga line to defeat an opponent who already had control of the center in Rouft, by getting behind the lines of his big units. The downside of this method is that the many deaths create a thicket of trees, but you will have the little units to chop them down. At the end of that game on Rouft, the entire island was full of trees.
  5. Sprinkle in large units as Knights to maximise your chances of keeping your little men alive.
    • 1-3-1-1-3-1.
    • In this way, you can go 6-deep into an opponent’s territory. (Replace with spearmen/barons as appropriate)
    • Notice your line can only be killed by barons (4th level), or by cutting off this expensive line at the root.
  6. Use castles to maintain your hold on the conga-line. Peasants and castles are your best friend. It is analogous to a tower rush in Warcraft 3.
  7. Keep castles on the side of territories with (significantly) less than 18 hexes. This is so they can’t sustain a knight to knock it down.
  8. In the early game, link your territories as fast as is feasible, while making sure your territories are protected.
    • Your hut will protect adjacent hexes in early game, but so will other opponents’ huts. I haven’t figured out if it is better to first take hexes that next to my hut AND an opponent’s hut, or to boldly link up hexes a bit further away from my hut.
    • One possible point of improvement in my game is better consideration of the opponent’s situation. There are 6 players on any map. I usually err on the side of defensive caution in the first third, only turning heavily offensive in the last third of the game. But perhaps a better consideration of the opponent’s circumstances will allow me to take more risks in the first third of the game. So far the only systematic criterion I’ve come up to take better early-game risks is what I detail in tip 2, which is to assume non-malice when there are two different players on either side of my tenuous territory.



image image_1 image_2 image_3 image_4 image_5 image_6


Another illustration of “divide and conquer”


Food-related Digest for February 2014

23 Feb

*** WORLD ***

1. Vedat Milor’s Review of Apicius. All of Vedat Milor’s reviews are worth reading (I am personally running through his archives to plan a May/June Paris jaunt as we speak), but this review resonated especially, because of his mini-essay decrying Michelin’s penchant for “beautifully designed, tiny, and precious multi-courses meals, at the expense of restaurants which do true justice to ingredients.” as well as research-lab restaurants:

I do not consider the Restaurant Magazine and top 50 list a credible source to take seriously.  But the “Guide Michelin” too, unfortunately, has been  promoting beautifully designed, tiny, and precious multi-courses meals, at the expense of restaurants which do true justice to ingredients.

It is hard to fathom the overall influence and cultural hegemony of Japanese Kaiseki cuisine over the Guide. Japanese Palace Cuisine has great merits, but may not easily be transported elsewhere.

I would blame Michelin for caving in and promoting the superstar-chef phenomena (and for some reason women are not part of the inner circle and they remain on the fringes).

A related issue is the fact that Michelin has rewarded chefs who became entrepreneurs by giving their name to restaurants in exchange for material incentives.  Dine in the two and three macaroon Robuchon Ateliers, Tables, etc. Once in a while you can eat well, but in general the food is disappointing, sometimes mediocre.  In the Keller establishments, the French Laundry, Per Se, etc., the food is uninspiring, may warrant one macaroon, not three.  Gagnaire can only turn out great dishes when he is in the kitchen and when one orders a la carte (try lievre a la royale).  Ducasse somehow manages to satisfy in Louis XV, but even there it is nowhere near to the early ‘90s,  when Louis XV was a great restaurant.

The Michelin Guide has become too politicized and too much part of big business circles, to keep its credibility. It is inconceivable that Arzak in San Sebastien keeps its three macaroons, whereas Zuberoa has been reduced to one and Elkano, arguably one of the top three fish restaurants in the world, is solely mentioned in the guide.  The Michelin guide is also unreliable for Italy.  Recently they have promoted  Duomo in Alba and Osteria Francescana in Modena to the top three macaroon status.  I had two meals in the former and one in the latter and found both of them wanting. My friend, ex-gastoville partner and now the chef of Hedone in London (you must try it if you are in London), will probably give 7/20 to both. I am more generous and rank the former 11/20 and the latter 12/20.  You can have some interesting and some badly conceived dishes in these restaurants, but I guarantee that you will not eat a satisfactory meal showcasing the purity of ingredients (except the reggiano parmesan and the veal ragu pasta at Osteria Francescana). It is ludicrous to rank restaurants that high which are more like research labs and concoct half baked, experimental and too precious, teeny-tiny and odd dishes, which look like Van Gogh but taste like carbon paper. These chefs are primarily interested in creating infinitesimal variations on the “texture” of ingredients by using molecular techniques, and I wish them good luck.  But it is unfortunate that a serious French guide sends the wrong signals to the young chefs by elevating these restaurants to the highest status.

In trying to please the judges, like Michelin and the jury of the “top 50”, who are the arbiters of taste, many great chefs are making unfortunate compromises.

I take my hat off to Vigato for paying no attention to such trends and expectations of the modern public which is obsessed with fat and heavy sauces.

It seems to me that Monsieur Vigato is still cooking primarily to please himself. I am sure that he is one of the very very few two to three macaroon chefs who likes to eat what comes out from his kitchen.

It is also good to see that he is financially very successful.  The French love his restaurant which is always full.  The beautiful “hotel particulier” where the restaurant is located used to be owned by the producer/filmmaker Luc Besson who recently sold the gorgeous property to an American closed fund.

From all I have been saying so far, it would be wrong to conclude that I am against the tiny portions in multi-course meals.

Sometimes the quality and nature of the ingredients warrant tiny portions. For instance, recently I had a memorable meal at IN DE WULF, and chef Kobe Desramault designs a menu around small portions, but they are well thought out. He also knows how to cook a lobster or a pigeon whole. Ironically the Michelin Guide rewards only one macaroon to this restaurant.

It is no secret that in a large number of Michelin restaurants, chefs buy previously sliced and vacuum packed pieces of fish and meat.  Sous viding is efficient, easy, cost effective, and many customers like it because dishes cooked sous vide become soft and uniform in texture.

But, with a few exceptions, sous viding is the modern day restaurant equivalent of industrial, TV food.  Making it look beautiful and painting the dish with multi-color brush strokes does not change its fundamental character.  (What happened to true sauces?)

I have eaten at Apicius eight to ten times, and I can also attest to the consistency of the kitchen.

I love the fact that chef Vigato tailors the scale of his offerings to bring out the best in the material at hand.

This is why he cooks many dishes for two people.

No. He will not buy every joint of a duck precooked or presliced and vacuum packed (to be later sauced and arranged on the plate with a few sprigs of herbs) as many macaroon and top 50 chefs do.

If he serves duck, he will roast it to order and serve it for two. He will also sauce it in the tradition of the grand French cuisine.

Don’t miss his roasted wild Breton turbot on the bone for two. It is the best turbot you can have in Paris.

Try his whole lobe of sweetbread. It is among the very best in Paris. (Other great fresh sweetbreads I had were at L’Ambroisie, Ledoyen, and La Repaire de Cartouche.)

All of these dishes are excellent because they are cooked to order from high quality and fresh ingredients.

How many so called “top 50” restaurants are doing the same?

Another reason I love Vigato’s cooking is because he makes great SAUCES.  The sauce was one of the hallmarks of French cuisine, and the great chef Robuchon is known to never have reheated a sauce.

Making a classic French sauce is very time and labor consuming. I doubt many apprentices and young chefs today know how to make a classical sauce, without using agar agar, xantam gum, etc.  Three macaroon kitchens are now invaded by Adria products/chemicals because of obvious reasons.

All this said, don’t think that you will eat heavy food at Apicius.

2. The Rise and Fall of eGullet. A great history on the first-wave of internet gourmands, who congregated on eGullet and formed lifetime friendships. Many of them still blog today, like Docsconz, Gastromondiale, and Ulterior Epicure. But eGullet also fine-tuned the early dishes at Alinea, and inspired the Modernist Cuisine project by Nathan Myhrvold! “The site was filled with fascinating, generally friendly discussion from people in all walks of life with one major thing in common – a love and passion for food. Quite a few of the people posting on the site were culinary professionals, many of whom were already very well known like Jose Andres, Paula Wolfert, Anthony Bourdain, Michael Ruhlman and Nathan Myrhvold, who at the time was best known as the Chief Technical Officer for Microsoft, but later via the initial inspiration from eGullet went on to lead the project that became Modernist Cuisine; some of whom were becoming well known like Sean Brock, David Kinch, Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa amongst many others and as it turned out, there were many posting who weren’t particularly well known or even culinary professionals at the time, but subsequently became so, like Mikael Jonsson of the restaurant Hedone, Don Lee and John Deragon amongst others. There were also those, who like myself discovered a passion for culinary documentation. This would include people like Bonjwing Lee – the Ulterior Epicure, amongst others.” – Docsconz

Social media now showcases up and coming food writers but Lynes sees two key differences between eGullet and social media. The early days of eGullet were “filled with a real sense of exploration and discovery because eGullet was participant and not PR led. What’s going on now, people getting excited about ramen, burgers, pizza, doughnuts etc – I look at the early days on eGullet  and it was all there, but with more depth and substance.” eGullet was famous for argument and debate about food. “There was no ‘me too’ mentality, the opinions were tested” said Lynes.

Majumdar sees a distinction in motives between the eGullet writers and the social media herd today “In 01-02 no one had any desires to launch careers from it. The notion that it was a fulltime career was a million miles from my mind. I just wanted a few people to read it [my blog].” But he is optimistic for aspiring writers, “People fascinated with anything will find an outlet to talk about it and in 01-02 there was no blog to book outlet. Now they [the writers] have outlets like social media, but they still have to be good.”

But according to this story, it all came apart when:

The camaraderie and revelry amongst the eGullet family were about to change. Lynes was given orders to ensure the board members stayed on topics, didn’t stray from talking about food and above all prevent it becoming a virtual chat room for arranging real life meetings. Lynes said that it was “an attempt to control the way people acted in real life through the boards. It really pissed people off.”

This was the beginning of eGullet’s demise. eGullet originally attracted people dissatisfied from other food sites, who didn’t want their contributions hampered by arbitrary censorship rules or membership agreements or controls. Majumdar was irritated remembering the rules “people moved to eGullet because the Chowhound rules became too prohibitive.” Majumdar conceded that growth needs a level of control but the eGullet rules and interference from the moderators was annoying.

Majumdar said that the “breaking point came when a policy about real time events was brought in an attempt to restrict people getting together in real life.” The motive behind the decision made some sense. Lynes contended that “Steve [Shaw] wantedto prevent the site creating cliques and alienating other users; it should have promoted inclusiveness.” That didn’t work out well as Lynes explained “A meet-up would have to be pre-approved by a moderator, then you could post about the event. Any report back would have to be about the food.


3. Aun Koh of ChubbyHubby has written a manifesto on how the government should support the Singapore restaurant scene.

If we really care about food, I believe our government should establish a National Food (or Culinary) Agency, akin to the National Arts Council that can take on the duties of holistically driving our food sectors. This agency should promote our top talents locally, regionally and globally. It should open doors (internationally) for our food heroes to further build their reputations and their businesses. It should fight for our food businesses and help develop or change policies to make doing business here easier and more efficient. It should assist in spearheading new innovations that can help the sector grow. And it should assist in developing capacities and capabilities within the sector. It should educate citizens and food producers alike on diet-related health issues and promote wellness and nutrition. It should promote best practices and learning within the sector. It should work to preserve our food culture and heritage and find ways to archive, showcase and pass on knowledge. It should position Singapore as a true food capital and be able to fund programs and platforms that help ensure or cement this position.

I agree in large part with the spirit of this proposal, and hope I get the time to talk more about this of type proposal later on, when time permits. As I’ve remarked before, Singapore is a place where one eats well for $300, and reasonably well for ~$3, but the mid-range is sorely lacking, with such dire fare as like the overpriced tapas-bar Lolla, culinary-twerking 2am:dessertbar, and countless other offenders. Aun, I think, is trying to solve the problem of this mid-range chasm. As I mentioned in a comment on his post:

I think this is absolutely right. There are Singaporeans who are working at top kitchens in New York like Daniel, Momofuku Ko, who have little desire to return to Singapore because there isn’t a local culture of innovative food besides maybe 3-5 restaurants. (not talking about overpriced tapas)

On a recent trip to South America, I realised that countries like Bolivia are starting to create their own food festivals, and the Spanish-speaking restaurant world has Madrid Fusion. Latin American chefs and chefs in the Northeast US (where I currently live) constantly exchange ideas over Twitter and Instagram. This interconnectivity is why there is a creative explosion happening in the Latin world and the Northeast now.

There definitely is space for at least two things:
1. for Singapore to become a Southeast Asian mecca for fine dining
2. to export restauranteers to bring Singaporean hawker food elsewhere (like what Bourdain plans to do in NYC, and is happening in Copenhagen)

And Aun replies:

Thanks Kenneth. Agree. It is no coincidence that Jungsik, a restaurant partially underwritten by the Korean government, was able to earn 2 Michelin stars and help spread awareness of new Korean food in the USA and most importantly in the media centre of America.

If I were a government official in charge of promoting Singapore food, I’d be daunted. American food is undergoing an amazing renaissance – The Willows Inn, birch, Aska, atera, elements – are all great restaurants opened in the past few years, that’ve turned to an ingredients-first philosophy. The established giants like per se and Blue Hill are doing that too. However I think it is due to the increasingly good quality of produce available throughout American farms. I think that Singapore can become a Southeast Asian mecca for fine dining if we get the right logistics to ship ingredients from Borneo/Sumatra/Java and farms in the peninsula that focus on premium produce – but I don’t think Southeast Asian agriculture has this mindset just yet. To illustrate, Chef Andre Chiang, when I dined at his restaurant last summer, said he had faced difficulties communicating to local farmers his preferred methods of raising good agriculture. Therefore the immediate challenges in the fine dining space would be three-fold:

  1. (Ingredients) Build up a network of farms in the Malayan peninsula that sets aside a percentage of their output for premium ingredients.
  2. (People) Start enticing recent graduates of premier cooking schools in the world like the Culinary Institute of America to come back to Singapore. This can be done by subsidising restaurant spaces, grants etc. But ultimately great cooks want to cook for an appreciative audience. The government should work on the assumption that this appreciative audience can be brought into being within 5 years.
  3. (Foreign Promotion) I think the prospect of grants to set up restaurants in foreign countries, contingent on success within a 5 year trial period, will be a huge incentive to potential talent.

Since the problem of fine-dining restaurants in Singapore is complex and inter-related, only a concerted big push will solve the problem.

For hawker food, I’ll have more to say in separate post. But it’s a complex problem too, and we are in danger of losing our hawker food culture. The last link lists some reasons why:

4. Making no bones about that young bak kut teh hawker’s business.

The Kitchen At The Centre Of It All.

Interestingly, Jun Yuan also mentioned that at some point, for his business to truly work, they would need to expand to four to five outlets, and with a central kitchen supplying them. He said this when he posted his stall’s impending closure:

“You may or may not know that our model has always been premised on having more outlets.”

What’s more interesting than what he said, was what he didn’t say. Consider this – Jun Yuan is a first-class honours graduate in Management from the University of Manchester. One can safely assume that he has some idea of how to put together a business plan, forecast for various case scenarios and run some numbers to arrive at the conclusion that for a food business in Singapore to succeed and thrive, one needs scale. A scale that requires at least four to five different branches – a number of profit centres that help support one cost centre (the central kitchen) – in order to generate a healthy cash flow.

This is, if one reads between the lines, quite revealing. It shows two things:

1. Most food businesses in Singapore, in order to survive and thrive, require sufficient capital to provide the runway so that they can build the kind of scale required, and that’s likely to be to the tune of millions; and

2. That commercial rentals have skyrocketed beyond a tipping point such that most food businesses, even those that run hawker stalls, require the facilities of a central kitchen somewhere else – usually located in industrial estates with far cheaper rents – in order to manage costs.

Central kitchens are fantastic facilities in that they can generate a large quantity of food in very short amount of time at possibly lower prices due to economies of scale, streamlining of duplicated functions and higher automation. But many food businesses – aside from catering services or large-scale food service businesses such as hotels – previously never needed to use central kitchens because it has always been that what was produced onsite is sufficient to cater for the required number of customers to help keep the business afloat. The fact that central kitchens are now a key factor in determining whether a food business can take off only means that existing kitchen facilities within each establishment may be insufficient to produce enough food quickly to supply the larger number of customers needed to sustain the business. This is worrying.

Make no bones about it – this means that there’s even less breathing room for small, independent food businesses in Singapore, moving forward. And that their chances of success have just shrunk to an even more diminutive number.

How I eat in Providence

10 Sep

Having lived on-and-off in Providence for three years now, I have eaten a few things in this little city (founded by that magnificent advocate of religious liberty, Roger Williams, in 1636). It may be of some modest interest to my friends and readers in or around Providence, how I negotiate eating in the area. Here are some tips, arranged loosely by geographical area.

General Providence (The high-points of Providence food)

  1. Flan y Ajo – good seafood tapas.
  2. birch – exciting new restaurant by Ben Sukle (previously head chef at the Dorrance), opened in summer 2013. review to come. Preliminary comments on the summer 2013 menu: get the raw scallop, dehydrated beets, pt judith catch, and summer berries.
  3. north – interesting Asian-fusion seafood cooking (the chef worked with David Chang at Momofuku Ko). Good noodles.
  4. Los Andes – interesting Peruvian food, a bit out of the way if one doesn’t have a car.
  5. New Rivers – good oysters (Tuesday is oyster night), but they also do a great fluke here.
  6. La Laiterie – I like their lunchtime incarnation, Farmstead, for its burgers and pasta. But their fancy food come night, leaves me a bit cold.
  7. Gracie’s – Gracie’s does duck well. But the rest is not very memorable, unfortunately.
  8. Ellie’s – Ellie’s is Gracie’s bakery division. It has nice breads.
  9. Pastiche – one must try the Pastiche fruit tart, as well as their chocolate torte. Their apple tart is also very good.
  10. Bacaro – generally heavy-handed main courses (esp. the pasta), but the duck brioche and truffle scallops on the tapas menu are very good
  11. Cook & Brown – good cocktails and desserts, pasta mains so-so.
  12. Not Just Snacks – nice briyani

Thayer Street area (Brown’s main throughfare).

  1. Kabob and Curry has a good Cauliflower Mushroom Curry, and a Tikka Masala, Pair that with naan & papadum, or if one is feeling indulgent, fruit and coconut naan.
  2. Soban has great Korean chicken wings (4.75/5), and a good stone-pot bibimbap. The stews, however, are unconvincing. The place has been recently sold, so the new management may or may not preserve the recipes. Wait and see.
  3. Chipotle is a great food option for the time-strapped student. I usually get rice bowls when I go there for lunch.
  4. Meeting St Cafe has a good “garbage” cookie (meaning white chocolate, oats, coconut, dark chocolate etc. etc.) Most Brown students know this already.
  5. Bagel Gourmet (Bagel Gourmet Ole if you’re up on Thayer) has a good breakfast burrito (4.5/5). Their everything bagels are also good, and if you’re looking for dessert, the cinnamon raisin walnut cream cheese is pretty good.
  6. East Side Pockets – decent chicken and falafel wraps, good baklava.

The Food Trucks

  1. Plouf Plouf – The duck burger, maybe the creme brulee. Avoid anything non-meat.
  2. Lotus Pepper – decent vermicelli (3.75/5) [I still miss Pho-natic on Angell St, which closed in 2011] and banh mi.
  3. The rest are unremarkable. Mama Kim’s standard has dropped precipitously since its 2011(?) opening, and it is the best of the bunch.

Wickenden area

  1. Abyssinia has a great steak tartare dish called kitfo that I like very much (4.5/5). The teff injera is nice to have but not noticeably different in taste from the default serving bread.
  2. The Duck & Bunny has very good crepe-pizzas (“crèpzza”s), as well as very nice Devonshire scones with cream and jam.
  3. Avoid Al Forno. The dirty steak (their signature dish where they cook the steak directly on hot coals) is very ordinary in taste, and overpriced at 42++. The desserts are unremarkable.

Wayland Square

  1. Red Stripe has a good Red Stripe grilled cheese and tomato soup, as well as decent steak frites.
  2. La Laiterie: as above.


  1. Cahill Irish Porter Cheese from Eastside Market – a great brown cheese made with beer.
  2. Humboldt Fog Cypress Grove Chevre. I just discovered this cheese recently at Eastside Market. Coated with edible vegetable ash, it has at least 3 distinct textures, a slightly bitter outside, a gooey middle layer, and a thick mashed-feta-like core.
  3. Seven Stars Olive Bread, East Side Market or Seven Stars Bakery. An inspired decision, to put juicy, briny olives in a crusty loaf.
  4. Fleur du Maquis, Sicilian goat’s cheese, found in Farmstead. I first tasted this in Paris, and I think this is the best of the herb-encrusted goat cheeses. I was thrilled to find it at Farmstead. Seasonal.
  5. Sea Salt and Olive Oil Tortas, from Eastside Market. Decadent snack.
  6. Dorset Cereals: Fruit Nut and Fibre Muesli. Great with Greek yoghurt.

Cookbooks: Among the college student cooking set, I often notice Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen cookbook, or her recipes from her blog. That, and America’s Test Kitchen/ Cook’s Illustrated, offer some of the most practical advice for home cooks.

Inadvertent effects from partially defrosting a fish

9 Sep
  1. I had two pieces of 1.5cm sole frozen together. [I was using Rachel Khoo’s Pan Fried Sole recipe]
  2. Partially defrosted for 2 hours (by immersing in warm water). [from laziness, or ex pigritia]
  3. Then I fried it for about 3-3.5 minutes each side on high heat.
  4. The end result, was a deliciously watery center portion that was just cooked through (though the downside was a slight flakiness to the meat), that is like the poor man’s version of Cantonese steamed fish.
  5. I wonder if there are recipes that call for only partial thaws (to achieve a particular texture?)