Wednesday, June 27, 2018

La Yeon (Seoul)

June 2018

23rd Floor, The Shilla Seoul, 249 Dongho-ro, Jangchung-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, Korea
Tel: +82 2 2230 3367

When the Michelin Guide decided to publish its guide for South Korea, there were questions as to the kind of restaurants it would consider worthy of its highest accolades. Korean cuisine, though popular globally with its iconic kimchi and Korean BBQ, wasn't as visible in the fine-dining scene outside of Korea until quite recently, with the successes in the US by David Chang with his Momofuku chain (though he popularised Korean street food in a gitzy manner in NY, and not imperial fine dining) and more recently Yim Jungsik with his epynomous restaurants in Seoul and NY (though it was his NY restaurant which first got noticed). So it would have been easy for the Michelin Guide to award its three stars to recognised global restauranteurs like Pierre Gagnaire (like what they did when they awarded the only three stars to Joel Robuchon in Singapore - which incidentally is closing this month). Instead, two local Korean restaurants, Gaon and La Yeon, were awarded the inaugural three stars for the Korea Guide, and still retain them to this day.

We visited La Yeon for lunch on a rainy summer day. It is located on the top floor of the chic Shilla Hotel on the hilltop overlooking Seoul. We were hungry that day and opted for the full La Yeon menu with a bottle of Morey St Denis. It turned out to be a long leisurely lunch where we enjoyed probably the finest Korean cuisine we have ever had. La Yeon's food is contemporary Korean, and perfectly executed its dishes in a subtle yet focused manner. It was one of those meals where we would eat every single morsel on the plate, even the pickled sides which sometimes I avoid. In a way, we felt that there were similarities between La Yeon and Lung King Heen in Hong Kong: both are champions of local haute cuisine, both received three starts in the first guide published in their respective cities, both include western fine dining touches, wine list and etiquette without compromising their local cuisine, and both were where we had fantastic meals.

Crisps and dried dates - ridiculously addictive.

Welcome Dish - steamed egg custard with diced shrimp. Though this looked like and had the texture of Japanese chawan mushi, a very intense prawn stock was used instead and the dish had a very strong umami flavour.

Chilled Keen's Gaper Salad with Wild Greens Sauce - cold grilled clams with bamboo shoots

Pan-fried Korean Beef Slices coated with flour and egg - tasted better than it looked

Steamed Red Mullet with Red Pepper Seasoning Juice - a real 'WOW' dish. The soup was a prawn stock which had a peppery and yuzu finish and the fish was cooked perfectly. This is a dish we would come back for.

Chargrilled Korean Beef Sirloin with pickled onion and seasonal vegetables - There were 3 beef choices, and we selected the sirloin and the beef slices below. Both were superb and very memorable, and even the salad was delicious.

Thin chargrilled slices of Korean Beef Marinated in Soy Sauce with pickled onion and seasonal vegetables

Mixed Rice with vegetables and Korean Beef Tartare - of the rice/noodle choices, we took the beef tartare and abalone below. We felt that the tartare dish was better (the beef was actually frozen beef slices) whereas the abalone dish wasn't taste-optimised. The pickled vegetables were fantastic, even the nondescript vegetable soup which I suspect was made using the same intense prawn stock used in the earlier dishes. The extra treat was the pear kimchi which was quite refreshing.

Hot Pot Rice with vegetables and abalone

Seasonal fruit, Iced Treat, Compote, Jelly - Korean orange

Korean tea and refreshments - cinnamon tea and red bean mochi

Gaggan (Bangkok)

June 2018

68/1 Soi Langsuan, Ploenchit Road, Lumpini, Bangkok 10330, Thailand
Tel: +66 2 652 1700

We were lucky to get a table at Gaggan. Ever since Anand Gaggan announced that he was going to close his eponymous restaurant in Bangkok by 30 June 2020, it seems like the whole foodie world has been talking about going there to try it. Which I guess suits the purpose of announcing a closure: it focuses people's minds on something they have always wanted to experience but don't because of inertia. We were guilty of this as well. Though Bangkok is 2 hours flight time away and I go there 3-4 times a year for business, the idea of booking a restaurant in Bangkok 2 months in advance seems alien to us (we would happily do this for a restaurant in Europe, for example, we booked El Cellar de Can Roca exactly one year before our dining date). Several times in the past few years, I have tried to casually call to book a table at Gaggan for the night that I was there for business but have been (expectedly) unsuccessful. So finally we got off our collective behinds and made the call to try get a table in advance, which we did for a date 6 weeks later on a late Monday night seating, and also made the travel bookings. For the first time in about 30 trips we have made to Bangkok over the past 15 years, we were travelling there specifically to eat at a restaurant. For us that was a first for a restaurant in South East Asia.

Gaggan is the most unlikely of restaurants. It has for the past 4 years been acclaimed as the best restaurant in Asia (by Asia's 50 Best Restaurants). It sits in the heart of Bangkok which proudly regards itself as a culinary capital (for Thai food), yet it is an Indian restaurant owned and run by an Indian chef (Anand Gaggan). Internationally, outside of Asia, it has also been very highly ranked and recently reached no. 5 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list, an unprecedented high for a restaurant in Asia. Incidentally it also has 2 Michelin stars in the new Bangkok Michelin Guide, and Anand Gaggan has his own episode on the Netflix TV series, Chef's Table, which features some of the most famous chefs in the world. Watching that episode on Netflix before our trip was very useful; it set our expectations about the meal and gave us an early understanding about the philosophies of Chef Gaggan which would help us understand the food he was going to be serving us.

Set in a bungalow off a main street in the heart of Bangkok city, the dining room was small and intimate, which was apt given that some of the dishes were presented to a few tables together as a group and we would sometime peep at the expressions and eavesdrop at the comments made by our fellow diners from the other tables. In many ways, the entire dining experience was not meant to be enjoyed individually or even with your table alone, but with the other guests in the immediate vicinity. This aspect of the dining experience, we felt, was most similar to a meal we had several years ago at Muguritz in San Sebastian, Spain.

There was no menu at Gaggan, only a single tasting menu of 25 dishes, articulated in print simply in the form of 25 emojis. Each of the dishes was either with Indian culinary influences or, in few cases, Thai-inspired, with also a few with a combination of both, but in any case prepared in the most whimsical and innovative fashion. Objectively, this kind of cuisine, made famous by El Bulli 10 years ago and then carried on by the other European greats subsequently, has somewhat become a dated concept in recent years. But we gave Gaggan a lot of leeway on this point because it was presenting Indian food in this format and that in itself was new to us.

Below are the 25 dishes with their emojis, and with tasting notes where we felt necessary to include them.

Cucumber 🥒 Aloe Vera

Yoghurt 💥Explosion - this is the 'house special'. Styled in the manner similar to the El Bulli 'Olives' (now available at the Adria Brother's restaurant Tickets), this was Indian yoghurt made using the reverse spherification method, resulting in a thin jelly like layer which breaks in the mouth releasing the yoghurt. At the point when this happened, it triggered a sensation which gave a clear imprint in our minds: "right, we are now having Indian food".

Lick it up 👅Brain Curry - our earlier reference to Mugaritz was also in context of this dish. It was a dish which required the participation of not just our taste buds but also our eyes, ears and hands. Three different flavoured pastes were spread on the plate, and when the plates were served to all the tables around our vicinity, the waiter would bring a stereo out and blast the Kiss song "Lick it up" while suggesting that we pick up the plates and lick the pastes to enjoy the curried goat brains.

Caviar 🥚Horseradish Egg

Tom Yum 🦐Kung - thick paste of Tom Yam Kung eaten out of a deep fried prawn head.

Eggplant 🍆Cookie - one of our favourites, this was meringue cookie (meringue was used a few times in this meal) with spicy eggplant filling.

Chilly 🌶️Bon Bon - another favourite of ours, the white chocolate was eaten as a whole and when broken, would release a spicy soup. The sweetness of the chocolate combined nicely with the spice.

Idly 🍚Sambar - This was a vegetarian stew made into a foam over a rice muffin.

Yum 🐠Pla Duk Foo - We suspect this was solely Thai-influenced, it was the familiar flavour of spicy and sweet Thai fish.

Keema 🐐Pao - Indian mutton filling in a Chinese-style steamed bun

Turnip 🌮Uni Taco - this was very good.  Fresh raw sea urchin was first eaten off a thin slice of turnip, then underneath in the sea urchin shell, was more sea urchin with turnip cream, some wasabi and green caviar.

Chutoro 🍣 Sushi - we loved this also, flame-charred raw tuna belly atop rice meringue with a small globule of liquid ginger to complete the flavours.

Foie Gras 🍊Yuzu Ghewar - another interactive dish. The Indian sweet cake was placed on one hand with the other hand being sprayed with yuzu juice, and when eating the Ghewar, the scent of the yuzu would complement the taste of the Ghewar.

Anago 🍫Mole - Grilled ill coated with chocolate sauce

Kintoki Carrot 🥕Rasam

Pork Vindaloo 🥟Black Garlic Momo

Scallop Uncooked 🥥Raw Curry - another favourite of ours, this was scallops with 'stones' which were dehydrated curry on an edible shell sitting on a bed of sea salt. This was very good but a warning, when picking up the 'shell', avoid too much of the sea salt getting on it otherwise it will be too salty.

Prawn 🍤Balchao - nothing innovative about this but it was super delicious.

Return of 🇬🇧The CTM - much has been made about serving Chicken Tikka Masala as a staple Indian dish, and Chef Gaggan obliged, but only to prepare a 'sandwich' using meringue as the bread for the CTM.

Edamame Shitake Charcoal

King Crab Curry 🦀Rice Paturi - This was much closer to mainstream Indian cuisine and was appropriately the final savoury course. Despite its simplicity, we loved it.

Beetroot 🌹Roses

Flower 🌼Power Rose

Origami 🍬Caramel - origami made using milk curd with caramel cream and dehydrated chocolate and caramel soil.

Yin Coffee ☯️Yang Sesame - combination of coffee and white sesame ice cream.

This was an epic 3 hour meal which ended way past midnight. Every course hit the spot with more than a few really standout ones. Creating a menu like this was very daring on the part of Chef Gaggan  (i,e. serving a meal with nothing but 25 amuse bouches) but we felt that he pulled it off really well, by ensuring that every course was edible and relevant (we have eaten at many other top restaurants who try a similar style but they all invariably 'sacrifice' a few dishes amongst the numerous courses to focus on a few outstanding ones). We have not eaten anywhere else in East Asia which can execute this kind of cuisine with such high level of excellence and consistency.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Narisawa (Tokyo)

October 2017

Minami Aoyama 2-6-15, Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-0062, Japan
Tel: +81 3 5785 0799

Our visit to Narisawa was long overdue. It was after all our first trip to Tokyo since 2011 and during that time, Narisawa gained much international attention, to large part because of its increasing omnipresence in The World's 50 Best Restaurants list over the past decade. When our trip to Tokyo this time was confirmed, Narisawa was the first restaurant we tried to book and to our good fortune, a table was secured. Located in the quiet and upmarket Aoyama district in Central Tokyo, it is easily accessible by subway, but we encountered a heavy downpour at that time and had to brave a good distance of unsheltered streets from the subway exit to reach the restaurant.

The dining room was a small but cozy space, decorated in the style of Japanese minimalism with modern edges. Their very international staff provided us with flawless service that night, and the pace of the meal was just right. The meal was also excellent, with every single course making sense in the order with which it was served, in tune with the autumn forest theme. Particularly memorable were the quail dish and the grapes dessert. As with any top restaurant specialising in 'cross-over' cuisine, there is always the question of whether the cuisine is Modern European with a local twist (which is more commonly the case), or vice versa. What pleasantly surprised us was that Narisawa (at least for the meal we had there) was the latter: it was essentially a modern Kaiseki meal which used mostly Japanese cooking techniques on a variety of different locally-sourced ingredients to create a very balanced taste profile, but wrapped in a quintessentially Modern European dining experience (e.g. our meal was nicely accompanied by a bottle of their house Blanc de Blanc champagne).

Satoyama Scenery and Essence of the Forest

- spring water - slight bamboo taste from the bamboo cup
- spinach and bamboo powder over sesame paste with twigs made of rice crackers

"Bread of the Forest 2010" - Moss

- chestnut bread, allowed to rise on table

Sweet Shrimp, Ishikawa - Hebesu, Miyazaki

- shrimp with dashi stock, slight tanginess
- in the style of cerviche

Salmon Roe, Hokkaido - Sudachi, Tokushima
Sea Urchin, Wakayama - Green Yuzu, Aichi

- sea urchin was on bed of chopped squid

Continuation of bread - put in a hot stone bowl and left to cook

Akashi Sea Bream, Hyogo
Kurakakoi Kombu, Rebun Island, Hokkaido

Completed bread with 'moss' butter

Bonito, Yamaguchi - Kabosu, Oita

Eggplant, Kyoto

- eggplant done 3 ways, covered with tomato water jelly and shitake mushrooms

Spiny Lobster, Kanagawa - Onion, Hyogo

- onion cream, sweet onion deglaze

Quail, Aichi - Burdock, Mie

- quail was perfect, intense charcoal-grilled flavours
- barley risotto base

Rosy Sea Bass, Ishikawa

- zucchini, tomato salsa

"Sumi 2008" Kobe Beef, Hyogo

- charcoal grilled rump steak
- intense sauce of red wine, beef stock and steam-aged for 48 hours
- gingko nuts and japanese pepper

6 Kinds of Grapes, Oita

- many different flavours and textures with yuzu sorbet. Superb

Chestnut, Kumamoto

- in season, very good

Matcha, Fukuoka

- looks like macaron but is rice cracker filled with red bean like traditional Japanese dessert.