Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Richmond Station (Toronto)

June 2014

1 Richmond Street West, Toronto, Ontario, M5H 3W4, Canada
Tel: +647 748 1444

It was the end of a very short two day stay in Toronto and I wanted to have a good yet casual meal somewhere within walking distance of my hotel (in the Financial District). From my online searches (mainly on, my ideal dining destination would be a relatively new bar/restaurant in the middle of central CBD, Richmond Station. Opened a couple of years ago by two young chefs Carl Heinrich (winner of Canada Top Chef Season 2) and Ryan Donovan, the narrow shop space is dominated by a long bar counter and smaller tables along the side. Despite its appearance as a casual bar/diner, Richmond Station had been garnering rave reviews and was renowned for serving relatively simple yet good food.

Having made a late reservation, I got there just when the usual lunch crowd started milling out. I perched myself at the bar counter and with the help and recommendation of the very friendly wait staff ordered the oysters (specials on the chalkboard) and a glass of Californian Pinot Noir. The Macintosh oysters from Nova Scotia were very large and extremely delicious.

Their food menu was on a single page in a bistro-style. I ordered what I had read online to be one of their specialities: the quinoa salad. I have always been lukewarm towards quinoa but this salad was very impressive. Was it the deep-fried crispy bits, the balanced use of herbs and sautéed vegetables or the tangy mayonnaise? Whatever it was, the dish was very enjoyable.

The burger was also another dish which came highly recommended. And it turned out to be one of the best burgers I have had in a while. Aside from the perfectly toasted bun and fresh crispy lettuce, the patty was very unique. I'm not sure if it was deliberate but the patty had several different textures about it: the outer layer was slightly and nicely burnt, followed by the rather raw and juicy beef and then at the centre of the patty was another layer of beef which was a bit more cooked. Hence, there were 3 layers of beef within the patty, all of different doneness. The result? A burger which patty had texture in addition to taste. I was puzzled as to how they achieved it. Was a thin later of beef patty first grilled, then the rest of the beef combined to make the entire patty before the patty was grilled as a whole? 

To end off, a dessert which was rather out of place in a bistro. The 'Snozzberry" sherbert was a delightful splash of colour, textures and flavours with angel-food cake, ice cream and jelly. True to its name, I couldn't really put a finger to what the sherbert tasted like, it was a bit milky yet didn't taste like milk or vanilla. It had no discernible taste yet together with everything else on the plate, this dessert was quite special and was a memorable end to a very good lunch.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Jacobs & Co Steakhouse (Toronto)

June 2014

12 Brant Street, Toronto, Canada
Tel: +416 366 0200

I was visiting Canada for the first time, and finding myself in Toronto for a few days, I was looking forward to having a couple of good meals there to get a sense of the Canadian food culture. Problem was, I had difficulty in my research on fine dining in Toronto; it didn't seem like a widely discussed topic online. Even my friends and colleagues living in Toronto struggled to suggest dining options outside of cafes and Asian restaurants. In the end, my best source of ideas was still, and from the discussions on the topic in the forums, I picked a few places to try.

One of which was Jacobs & Co Steakhouse. I reckoned that when in North America, one should try to have a steak dinner, and this I read was probably one of the best in the city. Located along the fashionable Kings Street West (the 'Fashion District' in fact), Jacobs takes up a standalone two storey building which houses a large bar and pre-dinner drinks area, and an equally spacious dining room. I deliberately booked an early dinner reservation (6pm to be exact; I was afraid my jet lag would kick in if I ate later and affect the enjoyment of my dinner), and was surprised to find that the restaurant was already half-full by then (maybe in the summer, Canadians have dinner really early).  The restaurant was very well staffed and I was very warmly welcomed and shown to my seat.

I was dining alone, and conscious of that, my server spent a lot of time at my table throughout the night making conversation and generally keeping me entertained. The service that night was excellent. That might have influenced me somewhat to ambitiously order an entire bottle of wine being fully aware that there was no way I was going to finish it. However, I was looking forward to a nice juicy steak and wanted some good Californian Cabernet Sauvignon to go with it (the wines by the glass were not inspiring and they didn't have any half-bottles). At the recommendation of my server, I picked a 2009 Napa red from Othello which was relatively affordable and very enjoyable. This was accompanied by a warm onion loaf with herb butter.

As a starter, I had a selection of Daisy Bay, Shigoku and Kusshi oysters, which were very fresh. I needed to keep the early part of my meal light so as to make space for the beef, which was the main reason I was here.

Jacobs had a very good selection of beef. They had different types of Canadian beef of different cuts, USDA prime, Snake River Farms Wagyu and Australian Wagyu. On recommendation (after a lengthy discussion with my server on the different types of beef from the various Canadian farms), I opted for the Prime Angus - P.E.I. (i.e. Prince Edwards Islands, a region in Canada renowned for hormone and antibiotic free beef from cattle responsibly and sustainably reared) 16oz striploin.

It was served just the way I like it, medium rare on a sizzling pan with no sauce or condiments except for some salt. It was as good as a steak should be; flavourful without being too fatty; firm without being too chewy. With my Napa red wine and my perfect striploin, this was truly a memorable steak dining experience. It helped that Jacobs had a very civilised ambience and the lack of the noise and boisterousness customary in other steakhouses we've been to allowed me to truly savour the meal.

As much as I had enjoyed the dinner, I could only possibly handle a fraction of the mash potatoes (this was just a half portion). I skipped dessert as the 16oz steak, a bottle of wine and jet lag conspired to end my dinner early. This was one of the best steak meals I have had in a while and the experience was made even better by the superlative service and attention I got that night.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Dinner by Heston (London)

June 2014

Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, London, SW1X 7LA, UK
Tel: +44 20 7201 3833

Heston Blumental's Dinner had always intrigued us. It was set up with the concept of reviving long lost English recipes from hundreds of years ago and turning it into something which could be identified as haute cuisine. Having watched many episodes of The Tudors and being somewhat familiar with watching Henry VII's grand banquets (one would presume that the King of England would be served food which could conceivably be regarded as the finest of its time), we never got the impression that medieval English cuisine would be something we'd be dying to try soon (this brings the mind the bizarre whole swan dish which, when opened, would release dozens of escaping doves. This seemed to be something which delighted the good King).

Dinner now has two Michelin stars and is also phenomenally highly rated in San Pellegrino's The World's 50 Best Restaurant (it is currently ranked 5th), which was compelling evidence that Chef Heston's project seems to have gained wider acceptance in the otherwise skeptical culinary circles.

Dinner took over the space formally occupied by the now defunct Foliage (a one Michelin starred restaurant at that time which we quite liked) in the ultra-luxurious Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and replaced the walls of the kitchen with full glass panels, exposing the entire kitchen and the rather interesting pineapple roasting room (more on this later) to the dining room. The restaurant was quite casual, with naked table tops more appropriate in a bistro than a fine dining establishment. The service was also informal yet friendly and pleasant.

The restaurant tried to create a context of the meal we were about to have by having literature printed on the menu and even on the other side of the cardboard napkin fastener, explaining the type of cuisine (i.e. Ol' English), the year when each particular dish was popular, the cookbooks where the recipes were found as well as some of the eating habits of their early ancestors. 

Meat Fruit (c. 1500): mandarin, chicken liver and foie gras parfait, grilled bread: We would be highly impressed if indeed the English made dishes like that half a millennium ago. This was amazing. A perfectly formed mandarin orange with the fruit gelee encasing a globe of pâté which was perfectly balanced and, despite its size, not difficult at all to finish together with a slice a grilled rye bread.

Bone-in rib of Hereford Prime for 2 (c. 1830): mushroom ketchup with triple-cooked chips: This was a large portion of beef which we took some time to polish off. The beef was excellent, and had a unique smoky flavour quite unlike any other steak we have eaten. The triple-cooked fries were also very addictive, especially when dipped in the mushroom ketchup. The only regret we had was our choice of wine; we had a half bottle of Nuits-St-Georges which was way too soft for a dish as strongly flavoured as this one.

Tipsy cake (c. 1810): spit roast pineapple: Dinner's signature dessert is its spit roast pineapple with a type of cake similar to a rum baba except with pineapple syrup rather than rum. Next to the kitchen is the roasting room (visible from the outside through the glass windows) where the several pineapples are slow roasted throughout the day for this dish (occasionally a chef could be seen slathering the pineapples with syrup). It was delicious.

An excellent lunch was capped off with an earl grey ganache. All in all, though the food was very good and the meal enjoyable, we felt that one had to be in the right mood to properly enjoy Dinner. We did not find the usual sombreness about the menu, table setting or service which is typical for a two Michelin starred restaurant, but instead experienced a rather casual ambience and novel cuisine which was in keeping with its stated concept of the medieval English banquet.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Square (London)

June 2014

6-10 Bruton Street, Mayfair London, W1J 6PU, UK
Tel: +44 20 7495 7100

The Square is a modern French restaurant located off the upmarket New Bond Street which for a very long time has held on to two Michelin stars. It belongs to the same stable of restaurants which includes The Ledbury, a fellow double-starred restaurant but one which has garnered much more international acclaim, no doubt in a large part due to its mention in San Pellegrino's The World's 50 Best Restaurants list (it sits in 10th position this year). Nonetheless, The Square (despite its relative anonymity) always has the reputation of being one of the finest restaurants in London and is a favourite of many of our friends who know the London scene well.

Located along the main road and just next to a traditional British pub which is more symbolic of British culinary traditions (till recent years of course), The Square opens up into a predictably square dining room. In the few times we've been there, the crowd had always been quite formal and business-like, and the rather spacious table alignments creates the sense of discretion which perhaps makes it an ideal location to hold confidential business discussions over a meal. Despite the current trend towards informality in some of London's newer and hip restaurants, eating here still feels like a serious affair and the waiters are decked out in crisp suits and have an appropriately snooty demeanour while providing the most professional of service. This place evokes memories of the pre-Lehman banking boom years when it would be customary to find City bankers in their three-piece Saville Row suits sipping their champagnes and discussing the new models of Aston Martins they intend to buy with their next bonus. The same discussions are probably still taking place nowadays, except the players now are more likely to be Russian oligarchs or Chinese industrialists.

I was here on a work day lunch, hence it was inadvisable for me to go on a bender and have champagne and the customary full bottle of wine. This did not prevent us from having a proper drink, as the rather comprehensive wine list included a very decent half bottle Gevrey Chambertin which was very enjoyable.

We started off with an amuse bouche of tuna cracker and lamb tartare on toast. The cracker was tasteless but the tartare on toast was pretty good.

My starter was the salad of cooked and raw spring vegetables with Montgomery cheddar "fondue", crisp quail egg, shoots and flowers. This was very well put together and highly enjoyable, with the cheese fondue (which had a tinge of turmeric flavour) particularly memorable.

The slow-cooked fillet of turbot with crushed Jersey Royals, pickled celery, mussels and cider was unexpected. Firstly, the fillet was cooked to a lesser degree of doneness which I was used to, and hence did not have the firmness I expected from a turbot dish. However, in this case, it really worked against the backdrop of the mussels and heavy-flavoured mussel/cider sauce. It was as if the main character of the dish wasn't the fish, but instead the fish was a base on which the mussels were able to express themselves. I thought it very impressive.

To finish up the wine, a small selection of some of our favourite cheeses were picked from a decent spread on the cheese trolley.

We finished off our very satisfying lunch by luxuriating on the very rich dessert of milk chocolate bar with salted peanuts, praline and banana, and proceeded to polish off the mignardises as well.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

L'Auberge du Vieux Puits Gilles Goujon (Fontjoncouse)

July 2013

5, Avenue St Victor, 11360, Fontjoncouse, France
Tel: +33 468 44 0737

Tucked in a very quiet and secluded part of South France, is a tiny hamlet of Fontjoncouse. No one would ever think of going there except to visit the highly regarded three Michelin Starred restaurant of Chef Gilles Goujon. We drove over an hour from Carcassonne for lunch there, though a mix of motorways and small country roads, across farmland and craggy and rocky mountains alike, which was scenery typical to the Aude at the base of the Pyrenees Mountains. The restaurant is part of a property which has accommodation as well, and is located over a several old wells (hence the name L'Auberge du Vieux Puits which is translated as 'the inn of the old wells'). The floor of the reception area of the restaurant has a glass cover over the opening of one of these wells, but other than that, there was no additional significance of the wells which was of any real interest to us. There was an outdoor patio overlooking the carpark which was a pleasant area to start the meal with an aperitif or to end one with a digestif.

We were initially seated at the reception area and served some amuse bouche, where they also gave us the menu and wine list. The amuse bouche was good, but I thought it was a bit awkward for us to eat and enjoy it while seated on the sofa with a giant leather-bound wine list on my lap.

Shortly thereafter we were shepherded to the dining room, which was quite large and roomy, and despite the isolation of the area, it was quite full (two-thirds full) that Friday lunchtime.

The waiters were initially stiff and stuffy when we first arrived, but warmed up slowly as the afternoon progressed and ended up making conversation with us throughout the meal. But in comparison to the zest and youthful enthusiasm of the staff at Franck Putelat where we had our meal the previous day, the waiters here were more uppity.

We liked the simplicity of the menu. It was a limited choice of appetisers, main courses and dessert and hence made it easy for us to order. As we sat down comfortably at our large and spacious table, our meal commenced with a clear tomato gazpacho with mozzarella, was quite brilliant with its perfectly balanced flavours.

L'oeuf poule Carrus "pourri" de soleil sur une puree de chichoumey, sabayon de lard fume, briochine de pomme d'amour et cappuccino a boire (Local chicken egg on a chichoumey puree, smoked bacon sabayon, apple briochine and cappuccino drink): This was probably the best egg dish I have ever eaten. The egg, which the waiter very proudly informed me was laid in the vicinity, had such a creamy and rich yolk and this was matched perfectly with the bacon cream. The accompanying brioche was very handy to mop up the remnants of the sauce.

Gambas de Palamos juste raidie sur un crumble de tomate Marmande, vinaigrette d'herbettes a l'huile d'olive et citron confit (Palamos prawn with stiffened tomato crumble, herb vinaigrette, olive oil and lemon confit): My wife had the other signature dish. It was good, but she was disappointed because it was no match for the Denia prawn we had at Quique Dacosta a week before. Also the vinaigrette made the dish too acidic which detracted from the umami goodness of the prawn. The accompanying prawn broth and tomato popsicle were also good but she regretted not ordering the egg dish which I was having.

Emince de Boeuf de Baraqueville mature, cuit "Josper", trinchat de legumes "pot au feu" a la moelle, une chartreuse de gardianne aux olives taggiasche (Sliced aged Baraqueville beef grilled in Josper Grill, trinchat of vegetable stew stuffed with bone marrow, with sauce of chartreusse de gardianne and taggiasche olives): We both opted for the beef, which was also excellent. The sauce was to die for, and reminded us why French fine cuisine still occupies such a special place in our hearts over every other European cuisine.

The waiter was very proud of his selection of local (i.e. from the region) cheeses. These were very unfamiliar to us (they didn't have our usual favourite French cheeses) and consisted mostly of goat and hard cheeses. They went down very well with our bottle of the local Languedoc claret.

Fausse cerise finement cassante, sorbet noyau, tiramisu mascarpone a la pistache sur un clafoutis sable et jus de melasse a la verveine ("Cherry" with brittle core with pistachio tiramisu inside, on a bed of baked cherry clafoutis): Desserts were next and they too impressed us. This was a very interesting twist to the usual tiramisu, with the cream inside the brittle sugar covering and the crust sitting right below the apple-shaped 'cherry'.

Sable feuille de chocolat, surprise de framboise et mousseux "Guanaja", sauce choc o'the et sorbet framboise ("Guanaja" chocolate sable with raspberry and raspberry sorbet): The chocolate sable was also very good though not as special as the 'Cherry'.

Unlike other top French restaurants we have eaten at, this one didn't overload us with a trolley-load of sweets and mignardises. The meal ended with some very nice canales and chocolates.

Final Thoughts: We ended our lunch in the patio outside, slowly sipping our wine and enjoying our sweets and coffee. Chef Gilles came out to introduce himself to us and chatted with us for a bit. He came across as a very passionate yet humble and approachable person. Our meal here was an unusual one for a French three Michelin starred restaurant. For once we did not feel like we were going to explode. The menu was short and each course was very well executed, and the kitchen did not feel like it needed to show off too much by trying too many fancy things or overloading us with food. The meal was reasonably priced for the category of restaurant and if not for the relative isolation of the location of this place, the egg dish alone would bring us back here again soon.