Friday, November 18, 2011

Andre: revisited Nov 11 (Singapore)

November 2011

41 Bukit Pasoh Road, Singapore 089855, Singapore
Tel: +65 6534 8880

Update: Andre was awarded 2 Michelin Stars in the inaugural Michelin Guide for Singapore in 2016.

So it was back to Andre for our long-awaited dinner (after the lunch I had here a few months ago piqued my interest - see earlier review: Andre Sep 11). It took us a while because of our long Italy trip in October and the fact that this must be one of the hardest restaurants in Singapore to get a reservation. Despite many efforts, we were not able to secure a table even 10 days in advance (we typically find it hard to book anything further than that as our own schedules are quite fluid). However, I had put my name and contact details with the restaurant manager, Stepan, such that he will contact me whenever he has a last minute cancellation and he can sit me for the evening.

It was indeed one such Friday that I received an email from Stepan about an available table, and we weren't about to turn it down. Having eaten there in the daytime, I was quite curious how the dining room would look in the evening (in the day, there was a strong reliance on natural sunlight through the windows and I was concerned that at night it would be too dark). However, as it turned out, the main dining room which could accommodate 6 tables of 2 pax each was very well lit (a little too well lit I though, but this was good for my photo taking so no complaints there).

At Andre, there is no a la carte menu for dinner but only a prix fixe menu which describes the 'theme' for each course as imagined by Chef Andre Chiang. The waiter will take instructions on preferences and allergies but all else is left to the Chef. I was quite surprised that we weren't shown a wine list though, and in that respect it was a bit disappointing. They did ask if we wanted wine with our meal (to which we said yes of course) and they proceeded to pair our courses with different wines (which to be fair were very well chosen).

Service at the beginning was unusually slow, and they left us unattended for what felt like a long time before even asking us if we wanted an aperitif (we'd expect that this should be the first thing they ask when we are seated). The food also took a while, but once it came, the remaining dinner took on a reasonably brisk pace.

We started with an interesting selection of amuse bouche. It was a selection of different bite-sized for d'oeuvres. This was reminiscent of how they did it in Piazza Duomo in Italy.

These consisted of the garden of deconstructed fish and chips and baked potato which was quite interesting.

Then the crispy chicken skin, which was done like the crispy roasted chicken skin done in the Chinese style, and was also very good.

Then there was the popcorn with vanilla cream on a metal spoon, which was sweet but was quite lost on me.

My favourite was the mushroom crisp (I had this during the lunch here as well) but salmon tartare (wrapped in paper secured by a wooden clip, which had to be removed before eating it) was quite ordinary and we didn't understand the whole wrapping thing.

Pure: assortment of various flowers and vegetables with kaffir sauce. This was the first course, and was quite a good mix of ingredients. The kaffir lime was a good touch and brought some pleasant acidity to the dish.

Salt: 'seawater' mash with deep-fried oyster gnocchi. The breaded oysters were very good and the mash decent, but we didn't think the 'seawater' taste really came out of the potatoes (other than the fact that it was salty).

Artisan: aubergine with duck tongue with salsify with macadamia powder and aubergine puree. For the second week in a row, we had salsify (after never tasting it before), and the crispy salsify was quite addictive (especially when paired with the macadamia powder). However the aubergine with duck tongue was a bit of a let-down.

South: raw fish with sorbet, japanese rice with grilled turbot, raw prawn, raw mackerel. It was at this point that the dinner started to get seriously good. The sashimi and sorbet combination was superb and the 'chirashi' of raw fish on japanese rice was simply divine.

Texture: potato in different ways, with squid, petit pois and chili flakes. Next was a very clever and visually stunning creation of squid, chili flakes and pea, accompanied by potato puree and potato puff. This tasted fantastic, though we took issue with the description which implied that the potato took centre stage (when it was merely an accompaniment to the squid, we felt).

Unique: barracuda with beurre blanc sauce. A very french style fish dish but asianised by the use of citrus to give it a tangy flavour. We thought it was very good.

Memory: Foie Gras with truffle jus. This was my favourite (and it was the one dish I had at the previous lunch which convinced me to return). Rich and decadent, and I could not have enough of this.

Terroir: Rack of rabbit with mustard seed, petit pois and root. The main course was a very light yet tasty rabbit meat which was cooked very juicy and tender. I don't usually get good experiences with rabbit which tends to be overcooked, dry and bland, but this was very good. We thought the mustard seed was a nice touch as it added a touch of sophistication to the dish.

Pre-dessert of Burrata ice cream with milk skin and rice crisps. This was an 'unsweet' dessert which was quite a good idea as it was a bridge between a savoury meat main course to an actual dessert which is bound to be sweet. The rice crisps provided the fun and the milk skin gave it the texture.

Dessert of fruit sorbet consisting of berries and chopped radish and a side of deconstructed yoghurt with marshmallows. Dessert 1 was cheerful and refreshing and I particularly liked the deconstructed yoghurt which was in a glass jar covered by an aluminum seal.

Deconstructed snickers bar. Dessert 2 was the house specialty, a mix and mash of the ingredients found in a snickers bar, i.e. nuts, caramel, chocolate. Delicious.

Petit four was surprisingly good with a selection of marshmallows, popcorn, madeleines and sugared jelly.

Final Thoughts: We felt that this restaurant lived up to its hype, though we'll probably need to come here again a few more times to see the range of Chef Chiang's repertoire to form a proper view. His creations were mostly very interesting and well executed, and we didn't feel that he sacrificed the cooking for visual effect. Service levels (aside from the delays at the start) were high but it's a pity that they didn't show us the wine list (perhaps they don't have one). In our view, it is probably the best restaurant in Singapore outside of the celebrity restaurants at the 2 integrated resorts.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon (Singapore)

November 2011

Hotel Michael, Resorts World Singapore, Singapore
Tel: +65 6577 7888

Update: L'Atelier was awarded 2 Michelin Stars in the inaugural Michelin Guide for Singapore in 2016.

It was a Friday evening for which we had no prior plans or reservations. I had expected to work late (as indeed I did, relatively speaking) and at 6pm decided to see if we could get a table at L'Atelier. We had dined at the L'Atelier in Hong Kong and Tokyo, but had always preferred Robuchon's more formal restaurants like Le Jardin de Joel Robuchon in HKRobuchon a Galera in Macau and Joel Robuchon in Singapore, mainly because we didn't enjoy sitting by the counter, elbow to elbow with the diners next to us, and propped on a high chair. We decided to try the Singapore L'Atelier this time, and fortunately, they were able to sit us late.

Though in the same location (the Joel Robuchon was located just next door and both restaurants shared a common entrance), the decor and philosophy of L'Atelier was very different. Unlike the opulence of Joel Robuchon, L'Atelier had a more oriental discreet feel with its red walls, dark wood panelling, chinese art and furniture and heavy use of lacquer in and around the room; and this was just the saloon.

The main dining room was dominated by a large open concept kitchen and a long bar counter with a few smaller standalone high tables on the other side of the room. The kitchen was set up as as show kitchen and the diners at the counter could watch while having dinner the chefs cooking and preparing every dish right in front of them. This is not a new concept but is one which has been mastered by the L'Ateliers around the world (at least the ones we have been to).

Unlike those in Hong Kong and Tokyo, we found that in Singapore, the counter seats were more spacious (it was our perception, we didn't take measurements) and hence more comfortable. The one thing which immediately struck us was how friendly the staff members were. We were greeted with genuine warmth and despite different people serving us over the counter throughout the night, each made the effort to make small talk, discuss the wines and the food and engage in banter with us. It was perhaps this aspect of the meal which we felt was most superior compared to Hong Kong and Tokyo.

We had a glass each of the house Bruno Paillard champagne and ordered a bottle of 2006 Gevrey Chambertin Vieilles Vignes from Vincent Girardin which was reasonably priced. It was quite young though and required at least an hour before it could be drunk. It was a passable Burgundy. The wine list at L'Atelier, unlike its counterpart in Joel Robuchon, is very short and rather limited. The wines were also very young, but on the flip side, I found the price reasonable.

Similarly, the menu was also short and limited. The ala carte menu was printed on one page (excluding desserts) so we opted instead for the Discovery Menu which looked quite good. Fortunately, none of the dishes in that menu were those which we had tasted before (we always ended up with at least one repeated dish whenever we dine at a Robuchon restaurant, this time being the exception).

L'Amuse Bouche: foie gras custard with red Porto wine and parmesan foam - This was a favourite. In addition to the above-described ingredients, there was also some pork brine which gave some additional flavour to the taste. Could have this by the bucket-loads.

La Saint-Jacques: carpaccio of scallops marinated with raw sea urchin - Fresh and light but if not for the 'French' chili flakes, would be quite tasteless. Interestingly, during this meal there was a frequent use of these chili flakes which would work well in Singapore but would be quite rare to find being used in Europe.

Le Homard: seared lobster on a macaroni with wasabi spinach - Another excellent dish, the lobster stock and red wine sauce were very good and the lobster claw cooked to perfection.

Le Salsifi: salsify confit and fried on a skewer with comte cheese - A light and rather interesting dish. The salsify was a kind of root, and would otherwise be quite tasteless (it reminded me of a cross between asparagus and turnip) if not for the delicious melted comte cheese covering it.

La Poule: chicken broth with foie gras ravioli and fresh herbs - The consommé was superb, though I felt the herbs were sliced too big and numerous and it was like drinking chinese tea and getting the tea leaves in my mouth. The ravioli were small yet delightful complements with the soup.

La Barbue: brill with herbs and spring sprouts - This tasted very asian, especially with the use of the chili flakes. It was very well cooked but wasn't the highlight of the evening.

Le Boeuf: french-style hanger steak with shallots - This onglet beef steak was very traditionally done. Despite the chewiness of the steak (which is a feature of that specific cut), it was very flavourful and juicy. It was accompanied by fries and the Robuchon signature mash potato, both of which were very enjoyable. The kitchen was very generous and would willingly give us additional portions of fries and mash potato.

L'exotique: exotic flavours on the island and coconut ice cream - Fruity and refreshing, a good palate cleanser to prepare for the heavier desserts to come.

Le Cube: roasted hazelnut dacquoise, creamy Caribbean chocolate - The chocolate dessert with chocolate ice-cream was a french classic but what was really memorable were the tarts which were served as petit four. They were: classic lemon tart, chocolate and macadamia tart, pineapple tart and raspberry tart. The lemon and chocolate/macadamia tarts were really good.

Final Thoughts: A very enjoyable meal. The standard of food and especially the standout service were the highlights of the evening. The staff at the counter were all very slick and personable, being able to engage every diner throughout the meal in French or English. There was a buzz about the restaurant. They had a sophisticated clientele and the lighting and decor were chic. The staff members were articulate and urbane and moved around with purpose. This feels better than the L'Atelier at both Hong Kong and Tokyo, and it's comforting to know that the Singapore dining scene has caught up if not exceeded the standards set in those 2 North Asian cities.

Al Sorriso (Novara in Piedmont)

October 2011

Via Roma 18, 28010 Soriso, Novara, Italy
Tel: +39 322 983 228

Update: In the newly released 2013 Italian Michelin Guide, Al Sorriso lost one star and now has 2 Michelin stars.

Tucked in a small hamlet in a town called Soriso which was 20 minutes drive from our hotel at Villa Crespi, is one of Italy's six 3 Michelin star restaurants (and the only one in Piedmont). When we got there at 8pm, it was already dark and the entire town seemed deserted. There was only one place which appeared to be open and lit; and that was the Hotel and Restaurant Al Sorriso. A humble-looking property run by a husband and wife team, Angelo and Luisa Valazza, we can only imagine that the hotel caters almost exclusively to restaurant guests (who do not wish to drive a long way back after dinner). Angelo runs the dining room and Chef Luisa is the much celebrated chef who runs the kitchen.

Interestingly, Chef Luisa is one of three women in Italy who hold 3 Michelin stars (there are six 3-star restaurants in the whole of Italy), which speaks of the domination of female chefs in Italy (as compared with France).

Update: In the 2012 Italian Michelin Guide which just came out after our visit here, there are now seven 3-star restaurants in Italy with the inclusion of Osteria Francescana

The dining room was simple and elegant yet a little rustic. The restaurant's interior and the quiet hamlet on which it was located reminded me a lot of Antine. In fact, there was a very Piedmontese feel about the restaurant. We were served by Angelo and two young wait staff in the most attentive manner possible. Angelo was very charming and would speak to us constantly throughout the dinner, asking about our meal, where we came from, etc.

The wine list is quite extensive but not necessarily cheap. I picked out a 1995 Rocche Dell'Annunziata Barolo from Paolo Scavino which was supposed to be very good (and a good vintage as well) but somehow it disappointed as it was quite acidic and wasn't like the great Barolos we have gotten used to.

Simplicity seemed to be the philosophy of the restaurant. You would not get any of the fancy stuff normally expected of a 3-star restaurant here, as the Valazzas seem intent on keeping everything down-to-earth and focusing on getting the fundamentals right.

Amuse bouche was a not insubstantial grilled aubergine, which was delicious in its simplicity.

The classic duck foie gras was probably the best executed foie gras in this form we have ever eaten. It was nothing innovative, just perfectly cooked (no veins, you'd be surprised how rare that is even in some of the top restaurants) and the sauce was brilliant.

The lobster with dried apple was also very good. The choice of the sweet fruit was interesting as it complemented the lobster well. There were some pine nuts and bean sprouts sprinkled around to add to the light flavours.

The large porcini mushroom was simply out of this world. Chef Luisa cooks the food with the minimum of fuss and in the way it should be cooked.

The saffron risotto was also very good, not too creamy and with a nice bite to it. The deep fried zucchini flower was also a nice addition.

At the start of the meal, Angelo was already raving about the beef. He kept saying numerous times that the beef was the most tender (he called it the most tender beef) and that we will not regret trying it. This was the local Piedmontese beef which was so tender that it could be cut with a spoon. Remarkably, its tenderness did not come from its high fat content, and the meat tasted surprisingly lean. The sauce, as can be expected, was excellent.

Al Sorriso had a good cheese trolley, and the 3 blue cheeses I had matched well with the rest of the bottle of Barolo.

 Pre-dessert was a simple vanilla ice cream.

The molten chocolate cake was a rather unexciting dessert to end of this meal. Though it was (as with the rest of the meal) perfectly prepared and the chocolate was very good, I would have expected something a bit more grand. That said, our experience dining in Italy is such that fancy desserts don't really form part of their dining psyche, and that generally they would be happy with a scoop of gelato, a piece of cake or a panettone.

The petit four consisted of some small pastries, nuts, chocolates and sweets which, to be honest, didn't look very appetizing. It was a bit of a flat ending to an otherwise fantastic meal. The entire meal was simple, well-cooked and unpretentious, yet unfortunately, for the dessert, I'd prefer something innovative instead of something simple.

Final Thoughts: This meal was an object lesson in simplicity. There was little surprise in any of the dishes but each of the main courses were prepared with such perfection. Each of the main courses could be judged on a standalone basis to be of 3-star quality. Chef Luisa's style of cooking didn't rely on fancy techniques, tricks, foams, garnishes or ingredients; lesser chefs will struggle to cook like that as there's nowhere to hide. With Angelo's forceful yet charming personality and Chef Luisa's skill in the kitchen, they are a formidable partnership. Pity about the desserts but then one must adjust one's expectations for dessert when one dines in Italy.

Villa Crespi (Orta San Giulio in Piedmont)

October 2011

Via G. Fava 18, 28016 Orta San Giulio, Novara, Italy
Tel: +39 322 911 902

Lake Orta is one of the smallest of the Northern Italian lakes and not one of the more famous (apparently even many Italians haven't heard of it, certainly the Italians in Florence and Venice who we spoke to), but is certainly the most beautiful lake anywhere in the world that we have spent time at. Its quiet tranquility is in stark contrast with the bustling larger lakes of Como, Maggiore and Garda where Italians and tourists flock during the warmer months. Dominating the landscape of the very peaceful lake (one which isn't crowded with yachts and ferries) is the secluded Isola San Giulio, where an old monastery lies. This island was dedicated to the patron saint of the region, San Giulio or Saint Julius, whose embalmed body still resides in the crypt in the chapel on the island. A small boat takes visitors to the island at regular intervals and one can spend anything from 20 minutes to half a day on the island, immersing oneself in the absolute silence of the quiet street which goes round the island. It is a place where you'd go to forget the now.

The main town of Orta San Giulio itself is a charming one-street hamlet by the water's edge. It has many small restaurants, gelato stores and shops selling local produce like sweets and amaretti cookies, as well as a small school for young children. Watching the children boarding the yellow school bus after school, we wondered what it was like to grow up in a picture-perfect place like this and how this would influence their perception of the rest of the world when they grew up.

Fittingly, in the vicinity of such a piece of heaven on earth, is the dramatic and stunning property of Villa Crespi, which houses both a luxury hotel as well as a 2 Michelin star restaurant of the same name. Built by a merchant in the 19th century in the style of the palaces of Bagdad, the moorish architecture sits in contrast to the generally Gothic influence of the structures in the area.

Villa Crespi overlooks Lake Orta and has a large ground (with a Marquee in the garden which can be used for daytime events like weddings etc). Every nook and cranny of the property is fled with ornate carvings, paintings and fixtures, and arabic words adorn the doorways. It was surreal to be brought back in time to admire the splendors of the Middle East yet find oneself physically in a remote lake in North Italy.

We stayed here for 3 nights (more below on the hotel itself) and had booked ourselves a table for dinner at the much lauded restaurant of Chef Antonio Cannavacciuolo for one of the nights. The dining room is located on the ground floor, and consists of 2 separate dining rooms and tables lining the corridor which faces the back garden and the lake. We were seated at the corridor, but unfortunately, it was dark and the views outside could not be appreciated. That said, the intricate interior decor itself made up for any lack of a view of the outdoor scenery, and we couldn't stop admiring the absolute beauty of the dining room.

Service here was very slick. All the wait staff were in black suits and black tie but I felt that the consequence of that was they were quite stiff. We chose the Sensations menu and also took with it the 'Bollicine' champagne pairing. It was the first time we had a different champagne for each course of the meal but it was actually fantastic, each of which went very well with the corresponding course.

Like Metropole, Villa Crespi had a water menu, from which we had to pick out the type and brand of water we wanted, depending on our preference of alkalinity etc. To us it was just water so we just picked whatever was familiar. There was a variety of breadsticks and breads, was a good accompaniment with the champagne.

Oyster with yoghurt and cucumber - This was fantastic. The tangy taste of the yoghurt and its creamy texture (in the refreshing cucumber flavour) worked very well with the raw oyster.

Octopus with green tomato soup - This was also very good. The octopus was very fresh and the tomato soup was neither sour nor creamy.

Skewer of grilled scallop and prawn with green apple and celery juice - The juice was sweet and there were slices of green apple therein, going well with the lightly grilled seafood. Delicious.

Raw scampi with mascarpone and spinach - the mascarpone and spinach puree was like a liquid salad. It was quite substantial and in this case, the raw scampi was the accompaniment instead of being the main focus. A very innovative and superb dish.

Ricotta cheese pasta with tomato soup - this was a tortellini stuffed with ricotta cheese which was in itself quite bland if not for the rich tomato soup. The flower petals and leaves were a nice touch which gave the taste an added sophistication.

Baby squid tagliatelle - The seafood sauce was very rich and the pasta was cooked al dente, which together made a satisfying dish. It was at this point that we were certain that despite the presence of 2 pasta dishes, the cuisine was actually more french than italian, with heavy emphasis on sauces and thick soups which are in fact sauces. Every sauce thus far was perfect and flawless, which is very much in line with French cooking philosophy.

Ombrina with smoked aubergine sauce - The ombrina was a fish (which I had never heard of until then) which was grilled and served with (once again) very good sauce. I didn't like the fish so much as it tasted a bit dry.

Veal with mushrooms - The veal was succulent and tender, but once again the highlight was the veal and mushroom sauce which was very good.

Pre-dessert of chocolate ice cream - it was a small dollop of ice cream and a drop of raspberry sauce.

Lemongrass sorbet with raspberry and green apple - It was a refreshing as it looked. The lemongrass sorbet was exquisite and the sour raspberry and sweet apple balanced themselves out quite well.

Tray of Petit Four - the selection of sweets was quite good, and had a mix of chocolates, macaroons, jellies and nougat.

Final Thoughts - Spectacular restaurant with a chef at the top of his game and a dining room to match. This restaurant could be transported to Paris and put amongst the great 2 or even 3 star restaurants there and wouldn't be out of place. Service could be a bit more relaxed and less uptight but otherwise it was a perfect meal in perfect surrounds.

We had booked a deluxe room but the receptionist very kindly upgraded us to the imperial suite which was an opulently-adorned room with a four poster bed, full views of the lake, a large dining table, a coffee machine and even a treadmill (which would have been well needed after all those meals). Service levels were very high and we had a very comfortable stay there.