Thursday, November 23, 2017

La Vie Thomas Bühner

For a foodie in search of the very best among German restaurants, a visit to Aqua naturally will be followed by having a meal at La Vie, a culinary landmark in the Lower Saxony state. The restaurant was housed in the old building, known as Haus Tenge; it was located in the heart of Osnabrück's historic old town. Contrary to its exterior and surrounding, the interior of la vie had plenty of contemporary elements. The main dining room, covered about 20 people, was well-spaced with elegant brown curtain, large tables, wooden floor and modern arts. The hallway was lined with wooden panels and on the 2nd floor, there was a smaller (private) dining room with colorful chairs and beige walls. In short, the 'simple' decor displayed an understated luxury of the restaurant.

Similar to the building, the cuisine of chef-owner Thomas Bühner also combined the classic and modern elements. He skillfully integrated traditional French cuisine as the foundation with modern technique by exploring various range of textures and flavors to produce avant-garde dishes as well as innovative menu. In addition, Chef Buhner was adventurous and loved using top ingredients from around the globe, often producing European fusion. Despite this, he would ensure that the dishes served at his main restaurant were unmistakably German in its root. His tasting menu (no a la carte here) was well-structured and carefully sequenced. The food here was more than just some wonderful dish by itself but more like a symphony ... though I somehow disrupted it by mixing some "tunes".

My meal began with some nibbles. First, it was consomme of walnut with wakame (seaweed) tea and new leaves - a bit salty but felt healthy; then it's followed by Thin goat cheese with grapes - tangy & light met with juicy & sweet flavors. The bread was of high quality and made from scratch here. There were 2 kinds: Sourdough with cumin had nice crispy crust and soft inside. It was served with deep Spanish olive oil and creamy French butter. Secondly, Focaccia with thyme was aromatic with puffy texture. There were 2 menus you could choose from - Tradition & Qualite, served mainly the classic dishes of La Vie. Another one was Le Grand Chef, served innovative and avant-garde dishes of Thomas Buhner. I selected the later one since it had more dishes. Furthermore, I added a couple of dishes from the chef's specialties ... talking about me being greedy

Le Grand Chef menu with some extras

Wagyu japanisch 30 d dry aged | salad kabeljau consommé (Japanese Wagyu beef, dry aged for 30 days, served with Cod fish, wild herbs salad, and saffron + fish consomme) - The thinly sliced beef, by itself, was pure and creamy (a decent pairing with the salad) while the radiant Cod was delicate and light. The consomme was flavorful but a bit too intense - it complemented the fish better while somewhat too dominant for the wagyu, distracted the wagyu's natural flavor instead of enhance it. Overall, it was still a nice dish

Saint Pierre & King Crab {cresson, chanterelles | wasserkresse, pfifferlinge} (John Dory and king crab served with watercress and chanterelle mushrooms) - The white fish was firm and rather mild in contrast to the tender and 'sweet' red crab. The sea creatures were combined with subtle white Cod fish sauce, earthy / woody mushrooms and their cream, fresh & nutty green peas, peppery but not-so-pungent watercress sauce. Innovative dish with tons of elements in which you could try many different variations. It was interesting & quite delectable though at times not necessarily harmonious

Octopus | wildschwein – emulsion kimchi | apfel (Octopus served with Iberico pork belly and its emulsion, kimchi + apple sauce) - The thick octopus, carefully cooked, had good texture (pleasantly bouncy). The pork was tasty albeit very small. The more concentrate flavor was coming from the dark boar emulsion, then in contrast to it, the kitchen prepared lighter and a bit sour kimchi / apple sauce. A dish with Asian influence that went well ... nice combination and not as complex as the previous dish; like it

Accompanied by wine: 2016 Weingut Manz Weissburgunder (fresh, fruity and quite good balanced)

Spargel weiß | tintenfisch | carbonara style (White asparagus, formed like noddles, served with thin squid underneath, salmon roes and consomme) - The asparagus and the squid showed some texture contrast; the salmon caviar was pleasant, popping with briny yet sweet ocean flavor. The squid broth was rather strong that sometimes it overwhelmed the main ingredients. It's alright

Auster (gillardeau) | kalbsbries portulak | austernsauce (Gillardeau Oyster served with sweetbread, purslane leaves and oyster sauce) - The oyster was excellent - refined, plump, a bit nutty and sweet - truly a premium ingredient. It went along well with the 'pure & simple' sweetbread - creamy texture and mild flavor. The oyster sauce, thankfully not overly salty and strong, brought together the main produces and the many elements on the sides such as leeks, turnip, potato and quince; they made the overall dish to be more delicious. Awesome! A great example of maximum dish (a dish with numerous ingredients) that worked together properly. The flavor and even the plating showed some Chinese influence - not so beautiful ;)

Accompanied by wine: 2014 Testalonga Chenin Blanc El Bandito (white wine from South Africa; light, fresh, floral perfume, and "pure + natural")

Etouffée taube | wacholderrauch karamellisierter kürbissaft (Etouffee Pigeon smoked with juniper smoke and served in caramelized pumpkin sauce) - The Canadian pigeon was pink with thin but crispy skin, hence the carefully seasoned and meticulously cooked meat was succulent, flavorful and juicy. The dish was really delightful. The sauce (pumpkin + pigeon jus) enriched the wonderful bird - simple, generous portion and perfectly executed - love it very much

Filet de bison Canadien {racine de tournesol, ortie, morilles | kerbelwurzel, brennesseln, spitzmorcheln} (Filet of Canadian Bison served with chervil root, stinging nettle and morels) - The bison meat was naturally leaner and less flavorful than beef, but it was still tasty, slightly sweet with no gamey taste. The chervil root was good - some nutty flavor, starchy texture, quite fragrant - a good 'pairing' for the bison. The white sauce (sour cream & soy milk) was decent, neutralize any cloying flavor while the morels were intense. I was told that the presentation showed how German people often ate their veggies + meat + cream altogether. A well-deserved classic from La Vie

Accompanied by wine: 2014 Vietti Langhe Nebbiolo Perbacco (nice body, decent complexity in particular in the nose, some acidity and fruity - a good Italian red)

Tonkabohne & edelweiss I geeist  selleriemilch I dill (Tonka bean and white chocolate served with celery milk, green apple, iced, olive oil and dill) - At first, I thought it was a vegetable dessert, in fact looked like salad, since it's predominantly green. I usually was not a fan of white chocolate but I was glad that it's not too sweet here. Tonka bean was a versatile ingredient (great taste and scent); it's pretty much the backbone of the flavor. There were lots of elements with different textures ... When I scoped many different ways, they generated many pleasant taste and "feel". An innovative dessert that worked better than I initially expected

The petit four introduced some unfamiliar flavor combinations. For instance: a macaron of black tea and lemon, chocolates with curry flavor and for fun, there was a gumball machine containing chocolate in yuzu, cherry and passion fruit flavors. Forgot to mention that, the pre-dessert was sweet caramelized soya milk ice cream with grapes and green melon; no sour or acidic taste. The wine served was also sourced from all over the world, consistent with La Vie's approach. The pairing above was satisfying.

The service has been exceptional throughout. I reached Osnabrück by train and was picked up by the restaurant's staff driving Mercedes-Benz S class with the restaurant's logo. The round trip transport was provided for guests dining at la vie. With 4 staffs, including the assistant sommelier, taking care only 10 of us during lunch, they delivered smooth hospitality. The wine and water were topped up promptly, dishes arrived in good pace and for a lone guest like me, I was offered some magazines and the senior staff took time to chat with me. After finishing his cooking class, Thomas Bühner visited each table in the dining room including mine. He even took time to sit in my table and patiently listened and answered my questions. It was a weekend lunch in a small town, probably that's why the atmosphere was relaxed and guests tended to dress down (I was the only one with jacket and tie).

La Vie offered one of the most attractive dining experiences in the country. The kitchen was very ambitious and had unique approach towards contemporary German cuisine. Thomas Buhner was not afraid of creating complex dishes featuring many components (there's hardly any meaningless element) yet they did not lack focus; in fact, they usually worked together harmoniously. Dishes after dishes displayed the ingredients natural flavors, some texture contrasts and the chef's imagination without being pretentious. It's recommended that a foodie visiting Germany should make an effort to detour to this place. You can see the pictures of the food: La Vie May '17  

Food (and Wine): 95 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 96 pts

Overall: 95.5/100


Saturday, November 11, 2017

Guy Savoy Paris

Guy Savoy, the Legion d'Honneur recipient, is one of the most famous and respectable French chefs. His eponymous restaurant has held 3-star Michelin for 15 years or so. I had a chance to savor his creations for the 1st time in 2008 when the restaurant was still located at rue Troyon (now converted into a sea food restaurant named Etoile-sur-Mer), then around 2013 in Guy Savoy Singapore (closed for good unfortunately). The meals were good but nothing spectacular. However, the restaurant attracted my attention again when the chef-owner announced that he would move to a grander place at Hôtel de la Monnaie, on the Left bank near the Seine. It became a reality in 2015; in addition early this year La Liste selected restaurant Guy Savoy Paris to be at the top of its list. I thought that probably now it's time to return there and it happened when I visited Paris in May 2017.

As I arrived at the restaurant, I had to walk up a majestic red-carpeted staircase. Then, as you approached the main entrance, the door would open on its own accord. I was escorted to my seat by the hostess and soon after that, a familiar face greeted me - Mr. Hubert Schwermer! I was surprised and glad that he's still with the restaurant. I was not after any particular dishes of Guy Savoy, hence degustation menu was my logical choice. The meal began with several amuse-bouche, such as small foie gras sandwich, a plate of vegetables and purple beetroots. There was no more bread trolley (or bread pairing). The bread was baked in the house and supplied by Frederic Lalos, the youngest "Meilleur Ouvrier de France" winner.    

Set Menu: Colours, Textures and Flavours

L'huître concassée, granité algue et citron (“Concasse” of Oysters, seaweed and lemon granite) - The oyster tartare was fresh, briny and filled with iodine essence. The seaweed, tart granite and a bit of olive oil highlighted the creamy and tasty oyster. It's a dish that's full of ocean flavor; very pleasant

Surprise de homard (Lobster 'surprise') - The lobster, served slightly below room temperature, was surprisingly rather lack in flavor but the texture was still nice. The subtle clear consomme and carrot helped the shellfish - decent but not as delicious as I had expected

Caviar, l'œuf en sabayon fumé (Caviar, potatoes with smoked sabayon and chips) - The mild and earthy potatoes were 'improved' by the creamy & flavorful sabayon as well as distinctly nutty & salty caviar. Dip the crisp chips in the light, smoky yellow 'sauce' to optimize the experience ... it was a very good caviar-based dish but I missed the Colors of caviar

Accompanied by wine: 2014 Chablis Premier Cru Côte de Léchet Domaine Jean Dauvissat Père & Fils (In short, it's long, beautiful and complex - floral & herbal aroma, mineral nose and delicate taste. A good matching for the oyster and lobster) 

Des legumes ('Vertical' vegetables) - Essentially, it was a combination of raw and cooked seasonal vegetables served with their broth and perfumed by lemongrass. Some of my seasonal items were asparagus, carrot, leeks, celery, radish, turnip etc; alright - not as impressive as l'Arpege veggies

Un morceau d'énorme turbot cuisiné tout simplement (Fillet of giant Turbot, cooked simply) - About 1 hour before this course finally arrived, the staff brought and showed to all customers the giant "pretty" Turbot that would be cooked as part of the dish served at degustation menu. The fish was firm and yummy especially when eaten with the sauce made of its jus and vinegar. In contrast to the firm Turbot, we had softer and buttery mashed potatoes. A nice and balanced dish!

Puy lentils with black Truffles - This was an extra dish from the kitchen. A simple and humble dish that was carefully prepared can be awesome. The lentils were earthy with some peppery flavor; they went along well with the scented truffle

Accompanied by wine: 2015 Condrieu Les Grandes Chaillées Domaine Du Monteillet Stéphane Montez (Aroma of oak and honey, less dry compared to the my earlier wine, medium palate and a bit bitter - quite good pairing, but I may not enjoy to drink this by itself)

Soupe d'artichaut à la truffe noire, brioche feuilletée aux champignons et beurre de truffes (Artichoke soup with black truffle; layered brioche with mushrooms and truffles) - The timeless and arguably the most popular dish of Guy Savoy. I felt that the soup was more intense and deeper in flavor than during my first visit, which was a good thing. The rich soup worked in harmony with the salty parmesan, pungent / garlicky truffle and flaky + 'sinful' brioche with black truffle butter. I asked for a second brioche to wipe clean the soup

Selle et carré d'agneau « version Sud » (Saddle and loin of lamb; 'South version') - I forgot to take the picture of this dish. The young milk-fed lamb was from Pyrenees. The saddle was fine, smooth and flavorful while the loin was fatty, tender and also delicious. It was served with artichoke, spinach and the lamb jus. The portion was very small sadly ...

Accompanied by wine: 2014 Saint-Joseph Cuvée Le Berceau Domaine Bernard Gripa (Deep, some fruity and tannin, woody - a lot of potential for further development, 3 more years should be more ideal. It went nicely with my lamb course) 

Saint-Nectaire, la croûte et le champagne en gelée (Rind-on Saint Nectaire farmstead cheese with champagne jellies) - The cheese was kinda sweet with rich & creamy texture and fruity aroma. The condiments 'helped' elevate the already succulent cow cheese a bit ..

Coconut sorbet with pineapple and passion fruit - A good palate cleanser that almost tasted like "deconstructed" virgin pina colada. Sweet, refreshing and a bit sour

Le mille-feuille minute à la vanille de Tahaa (Millefeuille ‘à la minute’ with Taha’an vanilla) - What can I say? It's pretty much perfect. The puff pastry layers were light and delicate but held the vanilla cream well. The Tahitian vanilla cream was amazing - pure, not overly sweet and fragrant; I ended up finishing the 'extra' cream put on the sides. It's the most delicious thing I ate for this meal

L'écrin de chocolat noir (Dark chocolate parcel) - The presentation was visually beautiful. It was made of Papuan dark chocolate with its strong cream, sea salt biscuit and chocolate sorbet. Pure decadent for chocolate lovers

At the end, Hubert himself came and served me trolley of ice creams, sorbets, dessert jars and traditional biscuits. This was one of the best things about the 'old school' French gastronomy. There were lots of stuffs but the small portion was just right. I had praline and vanilla rice pudding (the best), passion fruit and chocolate macaroons, strawberry shortcake, cheese and chocolate cake, caramel cream and sorbets (mango, ginger and earl grey). Overall, the food was about as good as the one I had nearly a decade ago except the desserts were much better. The service dropped slightly simply because the restaurant was full and the staffs tried their best to balance serving the dishes promptly and entertaining guests. Approximately, there were at least 50 diners occupying 5 different salons, therefore I could understand why compared to my last visit, the hospitality was less personalized. I did not see chef Guy Savoy visiting the dining room or greeting guests this time.

I was glad that Guy Savoy finally got a much deserved and better place for his restaurant. The establishment was palace-like and architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte led the renovation of this old building so that it would be more 'relevant' in the 21st century. The interior was generally dark with some shades of grey; high ceiling and tall windows allowed plenty of natural lights. The 'dominant' black colors were contrasted to the bright and white tablecloths as well as a few colorful tableware decorations. Similar to his old restaurant, there were plenty of (modern) paintings and sculptures enriched this dining room and enhanced its atmosphere. Ultimately, a meal at Guy Savoy was not about incredible and uber delicious dishes. It's always the whole package - high level cooking using superb ingredients; affable, fun and caring hospitality; comforting environment and generous food by the host. Regardless of any not-so-positive things I wrote here, I was glad that I made this return. The link for the pictures: Guy Savoy Paris May '17

If any of you want to see how Guy Savoy food has progressed, here are the pictures of my old meal at rue Troyon: Guy Savoy Oct '08

Food (and Wine): 95 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 95 pts

Overall: 95/100

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Da Vittorio Roberto Cerea

Many of the top restaurants in Italy are located somewhat out of major cities. In addition, they are family restaurants and often became elite institutions when the 2nd generation took over the business. Da Vittorio, a lovely hotel-restaurant based on a beautiful country estate near Bergamo, is one of them. It was found by Vittorio Cerea, then reached the multiple-star status under the guidance of his sons - Enrico and Roberto Cerea. However, during my lunch, only the younger brother who's also known as "Bobo" was around. The restaurant specialized in cooking fish and seafood; the pasta was, as expected, also exquisite. The preparation was mostly traditional (innovative technique was present but minimal) with emphasize of using fresh and high quality ingredients reflecting the Lombardy tradition. The menu was relatively vast that made it quite difficult what to choose given that I was dining alone. Because of this, I decided to order menu 'omakase' - let the kitchen's creative flair surprise and delight my palate. In this menu, apparently only 1/4 of my dishes was taken from the a la carte items. My meal began with bread stick, brioche and a few other in-house bread. Then, the staff brought hors d'oeuvres: panzerotto with tomato, mozzarella and anchovies - a classic and comforting Italian food which was also tasty; quail egg with eel inside - salty and decent. The rest of my dishes were as follow,

Carte Blanche

Spring cherry - It was actually a combination of rich foie gras, bitter chocolate and sweet cherry; a fresh, unique and delectable opening

Bouillabaisse jelly served with taratufi, sea urchin and tangerine snow - Since it's still an early part of the meal, the kitchen put on another refreshing dish; it's also creamy with some texture contrast - alright

Tuna tartare served with soy caviar and ginger - The 'well-marinated' tuna, served underneath the soy caviar, was superb, tender and delicious; probably the best tuna I've ever had in Europe. The "black caviar" gave some pungent ginger smell, little spicy and soy umami flavor. These ingredients matched very well with each other - really good

Egg "a la egg" - Arguably the best and 'most complex' dish for my meal. It was served in a martini glass and there were many layers of indulgences: chives, pepper cream, potato, fish cream, scramble egg, poached quail egg, salmon roe and generously served Beluga caviar. Scoop it from top to bottom to savor several delicious and heavenly produce altogether. Briny, earthy, fragrance, and many other good qualities were inside this glass. An excellent dish!

Shabu shabu Oneglia prawns served with mint, pink pepper and peach cream - The Sicilian 'langoustine' was fabulous and fresh; only the outside was cooked and the inside was still a bit raw. The prawn was inherently sweet, nicely complemented by the peach sauce and contrasted to the slightly bitter mint and lime granite

Polenta and pica so aka smoked mackerel served with polenta, onion and olive oil - The humble dish was inspired from the world war 2 story taking place in Bergamo when people did not get much privilege to eat (more) lavish food. The fish was kinda sour in decent texture while the polenta was ok and not really soft. For such a modest dish ... the taste was not too bad

Risotto served with artichokes, shrimps and bitter campari orange - The risotto was beautifully cooked and delicate; it's combined with flavorsome of artichoke cream, sweet shrimp, slightly bitter mandarin and distinct smell from the squid ink powder. Though it might not be the best risotto I've ever had, it was a scrumptious dish especially the many extra 'toppings' to accompany the rice

Squid served with parsley mousse and black polenta - The fried baby squid was succulent, tasty albeit a bit salty. The mousse of parsley and potato was mildly bitter, earthy and 'brighten' the dish flavor whereas I found the black polenta seemed to be disconnected with the main ingredient

"Vittorio style" paccheri pasta - This was the signature pasta of the house using the special recipe of its founder, Vittorio Cerea. The paccheri pasta (large tube shapes) was served with 'special' tomato sauce mixed with salt, pepper, carrot, onion, garlic, olive oil, aged parmesan and most importantly fresh and high quality tomatoes. It was simple and delicious; the sauce was balanced with lovely flavor while the pasta was perfectly cooked (al dente)

Deconstructed scorpion fish, stewed and raw - I think it was my fist experience consuming this known poisonous fish. The raw one (tartar style) showed the fish's natural mild flavor and tender texture inside the tasty fish broth. The stewed one, mainly the cheek part, served with pak choy and lemon grass sauce (revealing Asian influence) was moist and more flavorful. A delightful experience ... a bigger portion should be better

Capon ravioli in its broth served with parmesan cloud - The "tortellini" was filled with a mixture of capon meat, beef and veal; tender and very well executed. The key part was the broth made of tasty capon, savory & nutty parmesan and moderate black truffle. Smells good and lovely in the palate - a common home-made dish elevated to the gastronomy level

Duck breast served with coffee and guanaja chocolate - The Challan duck was meaty, delectable but a bit dry; the skin was flavorful but not too crisp. The 'dry' issue was redeemed by its delicious "sauce" on the sides consisting of duck reduction, red radish, chocolate etc. There was also small crepe with duck's offal inside. I liked the fish/seafood better but it's still a high quality meat course

Citrus pulp with pistachio and chili ice cream - The sour citrus foam with a few peanuts and mandarin orange was 'covered' by the flavorful pistachio and chili ice cream (with a hint of 'heat / spiciness'), alright

Mojito sorbet with buttermilk cream - Essentially, it was a sweet and creamy buttermilk & vanilla panna cotta accompanied by refreshing sorbet with mint and lime taste. Better than the previous dessert nevertheless nothing spectacular

The desserts were possibly the least impressive dishes at Da Vittorio, at least from this lunch. However, thankfully that the petit fours were better especially: cannoli - fresh & wonderful with light yet crispy shell. The delicious and creamy vanilla custard was filled immediately so that the cannoli would not feel soggy; house-made panettone - a classic made in the honor of Vittorio's wife. This bread was soft and spongy with good aroma and flavor; cotton candy with some chocolates on top was ok. The wine list was extensive and I drank 3 glasses of wine (2 whites and 1 red). I forgot to write the details, more or less: Cortona chardonnay, Tuscany; Ca' del bosco chardonnay, Lombardy; and '06 Barolo nebbiolo d'alba, Piedmont.

Da Vittorio's surrounding and dining room was magnificent. When the weather was good, guests could dine outside with immaculate ground and charming facade. I was seated inside, facing the kitchen; the interior and the atmosphere were classic, elegant and quintessentially Italian yet not intimidating at all. Inside this cozy room, there were pretty floral arrangement. The superb food and lovely setting was accompanied by excellent service. Staffs were professional and friendly, delivering flawless service. Chef Roberto Cerea himself would come out of the kitchen a few times, greet guests and make sure the meal was great. Bobo Cerea and his team would do everything they can to ensure guests were happy. Indeed, it was a memorable lunch. The food was exquisite, easily among my top 3 best Italian restaurants and the hospitality was the finest I've ever experienced in Italy. Had the restaurant's location been easier to reach, I would love to visit here more often. The pictures of my long lunch: Da Vittorio May '17

Food (and Wine): 96 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 96 pts

Overall: 96/100

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée - 4th visit

Alain Ducasse understands the importance of overall experience when diners having meals especially at his eponymous restaurants. He has been successfully applying such concept and I could testify from my own experience spanning a decade or so at his Plaza Athénée restaurant. Comparing my 1st meal here in 2006 vs the latest one in 2017: many things have changed (such as the food, interior design/decor, chefs de cuisine etc.) yet the general impression I had after each dinner has always been terrific. Great chefs are never afraid of taking risk to reinvent himself and managed to accomplish that goal in the end; Alain Ducasse is certainly one of those chefs. However, to attain this objective, it is impossible to do it alone. From my observation, the most essential glue and most reliable factor for such triumph here is no other than - Denis Courtiade, the restaurant director. Mr. Courtiade, the recipient of numerous prestigious service awards including the world's best maitre d'hotel, has been leading Ducasse main Paris restaurant since 1996 (at 59 Poincaré). Denis ensures the kitchen and dining room staffs work together in harmony; he has been working with 4-5 different head chefs and each time the transition he oversaw has been smooth. Moreover, many of his apprentices have become the restaurant managers at 3-star Michelin restaurants / 5-star hotels worldwide. For my case, whether I dined here with my parents, with my wife, or alone - all experiences have been consistently excellent.

Close to 9 PM, as I was walking out of my hotel room to the Alain Ducasse restaurant. Denis Courtiade had been waiting in front of the restaurant. After he saw me, he looked at his watch, smiled and escorted me to my table, located all the way in the back near the cabinet filled with opulent culinary objects. We greeted each other, had a short chat and discussed what I wanted to eat that evening. Looking at the menu, eating amuse-bouche then anticipating my meals for the next few hours - this was usually one of the happiest moments in my life. Not long after that, the waiters served plenty of things on my table: cereal & gluten free bread with butter and salt, fresh juice (a mixture of green peas, lemon, & ginger), smoked sardines on peanut 'pancakes' as well as chickpea moose with sea bream tartare, the latter was the best among the amuse-bouche items. The current table was made of an artisan oak wood without the usual pristine tablecloth to cover and it only had a single decorative item. a glass candle holder. My table might be 'humble', but the rest of the interior design, in white-woody/golden theme, was celestial with high ceiling, luxurious chandeliers, circular banquettes and its polished stainless steel backs and so on. Let's go back to the food and my menu was like the following,

Le menu Jardin Marin (Menu Garden - Marine)

Pois chiches des Hautes-Alpes, vésiga tiède-chaud, caviar doré (Chick-peas from Hautes-Alpes mountains served with sturgeon bone marrow and golden caviar) - Denis recommended me this dish and it was my first experience consuming dried Vesiga (the marrow from sturgeon fish's spinal cord). It was gelatinous and uniquely chewy, a very pleasant delicacy actually. The vesiga was a wonderful contrast to the nutty, tasty and grainy chickpeas. The high quality caviar was briny, pop-in-the-tongue, a bit sweet and salty flavor oozed into my mouth. Interesting variations that worked very well together. Once again, Alain Ducasse showed his mastery in creating excellent caviar-based dish 

Chanvre de Bretagne, morilles brunes et blondes, asperges vertes (Hemp seeds from Brittany served with brown and blond morels, green asparagus) - Chef Ducasse loved his "cookpot" dishes and they're almost always provide a balance of being tasty and healthy. Hemp seeds (mostly at the bottom) were known to be nutritious and tasted like sunflower seeds / pine nuts with rather soft texture. The morels and their creamy sauce were indeed delicious while the thick wild asparagus was somewhat crunchy and displayed Springtime flavor and aroma. Although it's a 'vegetarian' dish, it was quite heavy and rich ... nevertheless very good

Accompanied by wine: 2005 Savennières Clos de Saint Yves - Domaine des Baumard (Dry, medium body, pale gold, moderate finish, plenty of minerality; not bad but nothing spectacular)

Turbot de l’Île Vierge, concombre de mer, petits pois et févettes (Vierge Island Turbot served with sea cucumber, green peas and broad beans) - This perfectly seasoned and cooked (with its bone) Turbot was fabulous; one of the best I've ever had. The flesh was succulent, juicy and flaky. Moreover, it was rich, gelatinous and deliciously fatty. I would be happy to savor this fish as it was by itself. However, the kitchen would rather integrate this impeccable Turbot with fresh & a bit sweet peas and beans, slightly acidic green sauce and chewy sea cucumber. My favorite dish of the night 

Homard du Cotentin, les œufs émulsionnés, navets primeurs (Cotentin Blue lobster served with shellfish eggs emulsion and turnips) - The lobster was really tender, fragrant and flavorful. The emulsion sauce was quite powerful but nicely absorbed and balanced by the turnips (with no bitter taste). I wish the portion had been larger ...

Accompanied by wine: 2014 Chassagne-Montrachet Lucien Muzard and Fils (Deep, long finish, smell of fresh grass & rose, vibrant acidity; decent and should be better in the next 2-3 years)

Fromages frais et affinés pour vous (Fresh and matured cheeses, served with toasted bread) - Selection of the day were
-Comte: sublime hard cheese with rich, creamy and nutty flavor
-Stilton: pungent having less aggressive flavor of the common blue cheese; unique taste (peppery, salty & intense)
-Salers: semi-hard cheese with complex taste (nutty & strong onion bite) but pleasant
-Sheep cheese: slightly sweet, earthy with relatively mild taste and aroma
Very good cheese indeed. Diners were welcome to select more from the cheese cart but these were good enough for me

Rhubarbe récoltée par Gisèle Taxil, au naturel et glacée, crème de fenouil (Gisèle Taxil rhubarb in natural and iced form with fennel cream) - The rhubarb has been refined in such a way that the tart acidic flavor was enjoyable in contrast to the sweet, versatile & aromatic fennel. The best part was the 'cake' in triangle form with good crust outside, soft and flavorful inside. Eat them together interchangeably to get the maximum experience from this dessert - better than I expected

Chocolat de notre Manufacture, orge toastée, sorbet cacao-single malt (Chocolate from our Factory served with toasted barley and cocoa-single malt sherbet) - The restaurant changes its chocolate desserts from time to time and they're usually awesome. This time was a decadent one for pure chocolate lovers (no milky stuff). The dark chocolate was intense & bitter and the toasted barley generated nutty flavor. The best part for me was the addition of rather strong whisky-flavored sherbet; the spirit helped to immediately remove any cloying flavor one might have from earlier dishes. Not often I liked a dessert with hardly any sweet flavor in it

Accompanied by wine: 2008 Vouvray moelleux 1er trie Le Mont Domaine Huet (Medium yellow, moderately sweet & a bit spicy, aromatic nose, good mineral, fruity)

Following Alain Ducasse latest tradition, after the dessert, the kitchen would serve the classic Baba au rhum - this sweet & light sponge cake soaked in premium rum and served with delectable vanilla cream was incredible. Every bite was still an indulgence even after having eaten it a few times. In addition, they also gave seasonal fruits and this time was fresh and sweet strawberries grown in the Versailles garden. Once again, Romain Meder delivered immaculate dishes with clean flavors. He made sure that the pristine and fresh ingredients shine even when food sometimes looked a bit complex. I was thoroughly satisfied with my meal. 

The service was professional, attentive and approachable. Dressed smartly in black now, the large number of dining room brigade meticulously performed their tasks. The friendship I had with Denis Courtiade certainly helped elevate the hospitality to another level. In the middle of the meal when I felt full and needed to take a short break, he gave me a brief tour of the hotel restaurants and bars. Furthermore, he came twice to my table and we had some conversations about many subjects. Closed to midnight, Denis informed me that he had to finish some administration works at the office and thus, he might not be able to bid farewell when I left the restaurant. Even though it was on Monday, the restaurant was full and I was the penultimate guest leaving the restaurant. Mr. Courtiade earlier told me that the inclusion of this restaurant in the 'the 2017 world's 50 best restaurants' - ranked no 13 - helped the restaurant attract more clients. For those who love the new and healthier approach of French cuisine here and do not mind having zero meat / poultry, Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée is definitely one of the finest gastronomy places one should visit. You would feel special and important, at least for 3-4 hours. You can see the pictures of this meal at: Ducasse Plaza Athenee May '17

Food (and Wine): 96 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 98 pts

Overall: 96.5/100

Monday, June 26, 2017

Aqua Sven Elverfeld

The city of Wolfsburg in Germany is almost identical with Volkswagen; after all more than half of its residents working for the company. There are VW factory and a theme park featuring museums, various pavilions of VW car brands such as Audi, Porsche etc. as well as car towers. However, what brought me to this Autostadt (car city) was a 3-star Michelin restaurant named Aqua, located on the ground floor of the Ritz Carlton hotel. Aqua has always been the 'product' of is current executive chef, the talented Sven Elverfeld. He came and opened the restaurant in 2000 and within 8 years, Chef Elverfeld managed to achieve Michelin highest accolade and Aqua became the first 3-star dining place in the Northern Germany region. Prior to Aqua, Sven Elverfeld has been working in numerous countries abroad. With such vast experience and curious approach, Sven developed his distinctive cooking style, that later with a few other chefs, known as the New German school / cuisine. He successfully integrated French + German technique and used mainly local ingredients to re-interpret traditional food and create contemporary dishes with cutting edge flavors. What were they like? I ordered the following degustation menu consisted of 8 courses. In addition to these, there were a few snacks at the beginning and extra sweets after the dessert (not written here; please refer to the photos link below)

Grand Journey menu

Gänseleber & Trauben Ziegenfrischkäse, Walnuss & Eis "Müller-Thurgau Hasennest" (Foie gras & grapes served with Goat cream cheese, walnut and ice cream) - The chilled duck liver was very velvety and luscious without being cloying. The tartness of the grapes offset the richness of the foie gras while the ice cream and cheese also balanced the creamy liver. The crunchy walnut provided some texture contrast to the soft foie gras. Hands down, the best foie gras I ate during this Euro trip and arguably one of the finest duck liver dish I've ever had

Forelle aus der Lüneburger Heide Neubokeler Spargel, Schinken-Velouté, Erbsen and Rhabarber (Trout from Luneburg Heath served with Asparagus from Neubokel, ham veloute, peas and rhubarb) - This freshwater fish was carefully cooked, resulting in a delicate texture and mild taste (somewhat nearly bland). The "stronger" flavors were derived from the salty ham & Trout 'caviar', sweet & starchy peas, and earthy asparagus - the vegetables reminded us that we're in the Spring season. A creative dish to elevate the Trout ..

Atlantik Rochen & Calamaretti Sauce Rouille, Puntarelle (Atlantic Ray and Calamaretti served with Sauce Rouille and puntarelle) - This fish was crisp and firm; the squids were chewy. The squid ink was a bit salty but not overpowering and worked relatively well with the garlicky Rouille sauce having saffron flavor and color which I liked a lot. The green puntarelle generated slight bitter flavor. A dish with interesting color and flavor variations 

Bretonische Seezunge  Pistazien-Haselnussbutter, Schwarzwurzel & schwarzer Sesam (Brittany Sole served with Pistachio-hazelnut butter, salsify and black sesame) - The Sole, whose texture was in between delicate and firm here, was of high quality and delicious due to the rather intense "green butter" sauce. The salsify, having faintly 'oystery flavor' nicely supported the fish flavor in this dish. Black sesame's role to the overall taste was minimal - my favorite fish for this dinner

Gesottene Lammzunge & Lammbries "Bolognese" Fregola, Pancetta & Radicchio (Boiled Lamb tongue and lamb Sweetbread "Bolognese" served with Fregola, pancetta and radicchio) - The presentation was gorgeous, wasn't it? The tongue was boiled to soften its texture and rich taste. Hidden inside the tongue was the tasty lamb ragu, pasta and Italian bacon. There wasn't any foul lamb odor, even the swetbread was tender and moist inside. Again, the kitchen did a magnificent job in interpreting the 'bolognese' flavor - better than I initially expected 

Rehrücken aus der Altmark Spitzkohl, Wildsalami, Senf, Holunder-Kapern & Beeren (Saddle of Venison from Altmark region served with Cabbage, game salami, mustard, elderberry-capers and berries) - Germany apparently has 'longer' hunting season than France and people could still savor wild Venison in May. The venison, slowly cooked at low temperature, was awesome: succulent, delicious and smooth with hardly any hint of musky / pungent flavor. The cabbage, berries and other side dishes worked reasonably well in enhancing the meat though for me, this red deer with its jus was sufficient to make me happy 

Rohmilchkäse vom Wagen (Cheese selection from our trolley with bread on the side) - The cheese at Aqua was solid though the variety not as impressive as the one I usually see in France. The comte was 'only' 24 months nevertheless I was pleased with what I chose - good quality. I picked (forgot the exact name) cheese from Swiss and Spain, goat cheese from Pyrenees and French cheese with herbs

Johannisbeeren mit Fenchelpollen & Burrata Sud vom Johannisbeerholz & Kartoffel (Currants with fennel pollen and Burrata served with Stock from currants wood and potato) - There were plenty of things here without any particular dominant ingredients. Yet, the pastry team work their magic to create a dessert that combined different flavors: sour currant, licorice + buttery sweet fennel pollen, and soft and delicate burrata. Additionally, it had a hint of woody and earthy taste. While it might not be mind blowing, it's still a good dessert - pleasant in my mouth 

Aqua only serves 5 dinner per week for the fortunate approximately 30 people each night. Hence, no wonder, Sven Elverfeld and his team were more than capable of regularly providing an array of high quality, beautiful and detailed dishes; Sven would optimize his ingredients to produce maximum flavors and texture variations. I am very pleased with dinner meal. The only feedback would probably be: there were too many fish dishes albeit from different water and kinds. I declined the full 10-course tasting menu because the additional items would be Mackerel (another fish) & 'merely' sorbet as a palate cleanser.

The dining room was quite huge and with minimalist design. Nearly every table has each own small cupboard nearby containing cutleries; this definitely made the staffs' work more efficiently. The table was big and widely spaced with each other; diners had to speak loud enough to be heard by guests at the other tables. I was seated at the far end of the entrance with pretty landscape can be seen from the full windows featuring outdated factory spaces, water from the artificial lake and the green lawn. The "simple" dining room design allowed diners to focus on the Chef Elverfeld's avant-garde cuisine.    

The hospitality was warmed, fluid and professional led by Jimmy Ledemazel whereas the specific waiting staff for my table was a friendly young German gentleman who spoke fluent English. Despite his youth, he was confident, never late to top up my glass and always around whenever I needed something. The kitchen ensured the dishes, prepared with care and attention, to arrive at steady pace. There's hardly any dull moment waiting. Delicious food and modern cuisine, relaxing and prompt service, spacious and immaculate dining room - Aqua possesses all the important factors to be among the best restaurant in Germany, or even in Europe. The special journey I took to Wolfsburg was indeed worth it. Picture of the dishes: Aqua May '17

Food: 96 pts

Service: 95 pts

Overall: 96/100

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Taillevent Alain Soliveres

Taillevent is a Paris icon and one of the most important landmarks in the history of French haute cuisine. The restaurant was found by Andre Vrinat in 1946 and named after the nickname of a legendary chef from the 14th century called Guillaume Tirel. Taillevent was identical with 3-star michelin especially when Claude Deligne was leading the kitchen while Jean-Claude Vrinat (Andre's son) was often perceived as the finest maitre d'hotel in France, if not the whole Europe. However, things changed fast when in 2007, Taillevent lost its third star and Mr. Vrinat passed away in early 2008 due to lung cancer. In spite of these challenges, Taillevent has been doing relatively well. Under Alain Soliveres (the current chef de cuisine since 2002), it comfortably keeps the 2-star status though everyone here certainly works very hard to reclaim Michelin's highest honor. After more than a decade of indulging and appreciating various gastronomy food around the world (mainly in Europe and Asia), I eventually decided to visit this famous dining institution last month. As I was looking at the menu, the staffs brought in a small plate of Gougeres (Comte cheese-flavored choux pastry). It was a very good nibble, served warmed with light choux and containing pleasant cheese flavor. In less than 10 minutes, I made up my mind and ordered the seasonal tasting menu - it was supposed to be the last week of Morel mushrooms.

Menu Asperges & Morilles

Crispy Langoustine with sweet and sour sauce - The amuse-bouche at Taillevent displayed some Asian influence. It was a tasty Dublin bay prawn with delicate & sweet 'meat'. The sauce, having a hint of spiciness, was fine

Asperges Vertes d'Anjou, Gelée de Verjus et Caviar Osciètre (Green Asparagus from Anjou, served with Verjus jelly and Oscietra Caviar) - The asparagus was crisp yet tender; it's delectable without any bitter flavor. The acidic verjus jelly (acted like a refined vinegar 'sauce') and briny caviar enhanced the overall flavor of the dish. The kitchen truly thoughtfully prepared all elements here and the presentation was exquisite

Accompanied by wine: 2014 Domaine Didier Dagueneau, Blanc Fumé de Pouilly - a dry white wine from Loire Valley. It was fresh, medium-bodied with distinctive smell and a bit complex texture-wise. A good pairing with my vegetable dishes

Asperges Blanches Angevines aux Saveurs Printanières (White Asparagus from Angevine farm, served in Spring seasonal flavors) - The cooked white asparagus was a bit mild and slightly sweet; texture-wise, it was delicate (thus, I like using a meat knife to cut through and eat it). The overall flavor of this dish was intensified by watercress 'sauce', parmesan and some seasonal vegetables

Homard Bleu Sauté a Cru, Morilles Blondes et Coquillages (Blue Lobster in "browned" jus served with yellow Morel mushrooms and Shellfishes) - The lobster and morels were carefully executed resulting in delicious dish. I really liked the meaty and tender lobster's claw. The shellfishes were alright while the mushrooms were 'nutty', meaty and tasty. The sauce, mainly derived from the lobster jus, was stronger than I expected but balanced by fresh herbs juice on the side; very satisfying

Accompanied by wine: 2008 Domaine Didier Dagueneau, Pouilly Fume - more complex than the one I drank above, but balanced & buttery. It's full bodied, dry, mineral with acidity

Turbot Sauvage en Tronçon, Asperges Vertes et Morilles Blondes Asperges Vertes et Morilles Blondes à Peine Crèmes (Wild Turbot cooked on the bone served with Green Asparagus and Yellow Morels in a slice of 'cream') - The turbot was perfectly cooked and simply marvelous. Keeping the 'middle' bone and the fat added unique & delicious flavor to the already wonderful fish. The delectable sauce was made of white wine + the fish bone. The morels and asparagus were good but "the king of fish" here just outshone all other ingredients. My favorite dish from the tasting menu!

Faisselle aux Fruits Exotiques, Parfait a la Passion et Citron Vert (Kind of 'strained' Fresh cheese and Exotic fruits served with Passion fruit mousse and caviar Lime) - This dessert has everything and it's a good option especially for the Spring season. Sweet. sour, & fresh flavors; creamy & crisp texture. For maximum enjoyment, consumed a few things together and I had no problem to wipe clean this dessert in a very short time

Petit four - It's often an after-thought as served towards the end, but I had to admit the pastry team took them seriously. Canele, chou cream, mango tart and the chocolate were delicious. They're accompanied by the complimentary Cognac petite champagne from the house. A nice way to end a very good meal

The wine list was very extensive and somewhat daunting, but a few of them was reasonably priced. If you're bored or wine lover, flipping trough the Taillevent's 'carte du vin' was an enjoyable activity by itself. The restaurant's building was apparently a former private mansion of the Duc de Morny. It had a classy entrance. The interior design of the dining room was elegant yet discreet and the ambiance was both restrained and comforting. I was seated at the Lamennais dining room with wooden panels, lush carpets and modern artworks; the natural light was minimal here. Taillevent's 2 main dining rooms were relatively big (they could comfortably accommodate 60+ people). However, since it's pretty quiet during my lunch time, I was seated in the sofa booth that normally would be used for 4 diners. The service, led by Jean-Marie Ancher (a former right hand man of Mr. Vrinat), was polished and smooth in the old school fashion way. Napkins were replaced whenever you left your table and water was constantly refilled. All the front staffs delivering the hospitality were gentlemen. They're competent, respectful and helpful but don't expect to have much engaging conversation. The clientele was diverse; in my dining room, more than half of them did not speak French. Similar to other Parisian top restaurants, wearing a tie was no longer mandatory and a jacket was only encouraged during lunch but required for dinner. Overall, it was a very good meal in many aspects and I wish Taillevent's team all the best in the pursue of regaining the 3rd "macaron". I think they have a chance ... Here are the dishes' photos: Taillevent May '17  

Food: 94 pts

Service: 94 pts

Overall: 94/100

Monday, April 24, 2017

Kashiwaya Hong Kong

Michelin Japan, introduced about a decade ago, has 'changed' the Japanese food industry. There are more and more people flock to Japan, made restaurant reservations at top dining places become increasingly very difficult. On the opposite direction, to meet the 'demands' for high quality Nihon ryori, many Japanese chefs (particularly from elite sushi-yas and top kaiseki places) ventured out in which Hong Kong and Singapore have become their main destinations. While Tenku Ryugin opened a few years earlier cooking more modern Japanese cuisine served in chic dining room, the latest Kashiwaya HK focused more on the traditional kaiseki served in a room with authentic Japanese decor. Knowing that this Kashiwaya, centrally located near the CBD area, was the sister restaurant of the famous 3-star from Senriyama Osaka, I did not doubt that it would be good. Upon entering the restaurant (on the 8th floor) and walking along the hall way, the atmosphere was discreet and elegant. I learned that the interior was done by Japanese artists and painters themselves. Since I was dining alone, I was seated at the long and bright main counter. I ordered the Akane menu, consisted of 10 courses. The lunch took place during the Autumn season of 2016

Sakizuke (Amuse-bouche): Kuruma Prawn served with delicacy, grated chili, Mizuna leaf, and red + yellow Daisy crown - The ebi was fresh and slightly grilled. It was nicely paired with refreshing leafs and 2 different chrysanthemum leaves. Below, there was lightly flavored dashi. A good opening

Kae ("Change"): 
Part 1 Sweet soy stewed River fish served with roe, Mozzarella cheese, Rock mushroom dressed with wasabi, and fresh Sea Urchin - The Ayu fish and Uni brought richer tastes; they're balanced by rather mild cheese and wasabi.
Part 2 Two kinds of soy marinated wild catch Avocado, Tuna, Sea Urchin, wasabi, Shiitake mushroom, grated radish and red crown daisy - The marinated Maguro was good; they're integrated by creamy avocado and uni as well as firm mushroom.
The dishes were meticulously prepared using premium ingredients and they were satisfying. My only 'complaint' was that there seemed to be too many things put together.

Nimonowan (Simmered dish): Sake steamed Tile fish served with sweet potato, carrot, wheat mochi, Matsutake mushroom, green vegetable and yuzu - The Amadai was carefully steamed resulting in tasty and tender fish; the Matsutake was meaty and delicious. The most important part was the perfectly balanced dashi with clean & umami flavor that held all elements together. An awesome soup!

Tsukuri (Seasonal Sashimi):
-Karei (white fish of right eye Flounder) was fresh, pure, rather tender with clean taste. It was served with tart ponzu sauce and radish
-Ika (Squid) was a little bit sticky but tender and naturally sweet
-Otoro (Fatty Tuna) was relatively rich in flavor though not immediately melting in the mouth
They were served with special soy sauce that's cooked with kelp, hence became thicker and more intense. I prefer the 'normal' or lighter version of the shoyu.

Hassun (Small side dishes representing the season):
1st Kelp marinated White fish with Crab miso, yellow / red / green crown daisy and grilled Matsutake mushroom - The kelp intensified the fishy taste of the white fish; the miso and mushroom were other dominant flavor here
2nd Sweet potato and diced Hamaguri clam in checkered pattern - The clam had interesting texture in contrast to the potato's
3rd Crown daisy tempura with Gingko nuts - It was crisp but plain in taste
Overall, they were alright. Hassun, more often than not, was better for the eye than for the palate

Yakimono (Grilled dish): Grilled Butter fish marinated with Yuzu soy sauce and fried Sweet potato - The Ibodai was juicy, rich and delicious. The sweet potato, surprisingly, complemented the fish well. At first, I suspected they would be too strong when consumed together; nice small portion 
Hachimono ('Simmered' dish in a bowl): Carrot cake, Blue swimming crab and Enoki mushroom in thick sauce with Crown daisy tempura and grated yuzu - The Watarigani were served in generous portion (as if they looked like noddles). The sauce, made of the blue crab and enoki, was light but flavorful. Inside the soft yellow carrot cake, one would find fish, lotus and carrot. Overall, the dish was refined without being cloying that I had expected initially

Shokuji ('Rice' dish): Matsutake mushroom Congee served with Mitsuba leaf and egg - The congee was more like rice inside a soup. It might not be a very inspiring gohan dish, but it was more than decent. A warm soup with plenty of egg and some mushroom (also accompanied by some sour & crunchy kono mono) served in the middle of cool Autumn was enjoyable

Okashi (Sweets): Chestnuts paste with sweet Red bean - The confection looked pretty, quite tasty and not overly sweet; quite good given that I'm not a big fan of red bean

Mizumono (Seasonal Dessert): Papaya, Muscat, Pione grape served with milk pudding and cointreau jelly - The dessert was not complicated and delicious. The fruits were fresh and sweets, mixed with delicate pudding as well as orange-flavored jelly. A refreshing way to end the kaiseki journey

Although I might not be able to point out to any dishes that were spectacular, the food was consistently good. Dishes were labor intensive and meticulously prepared using premium, seasonal and fresh ingredients. Compared to the price in Japan, it's definitely not cheap. Because of this, I decided to consume hot ocha only. The hospitality was polite and friendly; my tea was almost always hot and the pace of the food was just nice. Seated at the counter and having 1-2 junior chefs in front of you certainly helped in terms of explaining the dishes. Only 3 people was at the counter, but there was a large group consisting of about a dozen people (from Mainland China) in the hall/main dining room. A veteran hailed from Kashiwaya Osaka, Chef Atsushi Takahashi was in charge of the Hong Kong branch. The restaurant took pride of the food; if Takahashi-san were not around, Kashiwaya would be closed that day. It was a very pleasant experience indeed: delicious food accompanied by high quality service inside a comfortable dining room. As of now, it will not be easy to find a better restaurant serving exquisite classical Japanese kaiseki in Hong Kong. You can see the pictures: Kashiwaya HK Nov '16 

Food: 94 pts

Service: 93 pts

Overall: 93.5/100

Friday, February 24, 2017

8½ Otto e Mezzo Hong Kong

The name Umberto Bombana, a native of Bergamo, is no stranger among Hong Kong's gastronomy lovers especially in the world of (high-end) Italian cuisine. A couple of years after the closure of Toscana where he used to be the head chef, Chef Bombana established his own restaurant (located in the Alexandra House) in which he has more freedom to express his passion and talent. The identity of the food is unmistakably Italian. The dishes often looked simple, a reminiscent of comforting Italian home cooking, yet they're refined and detailed displaying distinct flavors and textures generally only found in the fine dining institutions. However, Bombana does not limit himself in terms of the origin of the high quality ingredients used at his restaurants. For instance, it's normal to find Japanese seafood and beef, French blue lobster and even Australian truffle in the Otto e Mezzo menu. Bombana believed that in order to create the best possible dishes, he had to be able to use the finest produce from around the world.

I had the opportunity to dine at Otto e Mezzo (the name is a tribute to the chef-patron favorite movie by a top Italian director, Federico Fellini) last November. Oct & Nov have always been identical with the season of white truffle from Piedmont region. It's also widely known that Umberto Bombana is often considered as "the king of white truffle". After this meal, I finally understood why such recognition was valid. The Alba truffle dishes here were all served as part of the a la carte menu and I was fortunate to be able to savor some of them. I learned that Chef Bombana loved mixing the small and big size of fresh truffles when he shaved them in front of the guests. As expected, white truffle dishes were not cheap but the generous amount of the sliced truffle justified that. 8-10 grams of Alba truffle per dish was the standard. Please see the pictures from the link below to believe. What I had for the dinner:

Amuse-bouche: Potato cream soup with wild mushrooms and a couple slices of white truffle - The soup was warm, tasty, creamy and not too rich; complemented nicely by the musky Alba truffle. The Autumn mushrooms were fine - a good way to whet my appetite

Roasted Hokkaido Scallop with Wild Mushrooms, served with mushroom jus and braised / crisp salad - Both scallops were well prepared (lightly battered and pan seared), sweet and tender; the middle flesh was cooked medium. On the top, there were raw & crunchy porcini and at the bottom, there was wild matsutake. The sauce was delicate mushroom jus. A very enjoyable dish

Confit "Taiyouran" Organic Egg served with Potato Emulsion, Confit Potato, Chanterelle Mushrooms and Alba White Truffle - The earthy Alba truffle shavings were very generous. Egg + (white) truffle is match in heaven. Even better when a special egg such as an organic Taiyouran was used. The egg was naturally sweet with its bright/rich orange & runny yolk without dominating the aromatic and exquisite Alba truffle. The creamy potatoes brought the dish into harmony while the nutty & meaty girolle enhanced the dish overall delight. Excellent!

Homemade Tagliolini served with Butter, Parmesan and Alba White Truffle - Another 'sea' of white truffle; who could refuse such lavish shaving of aromatic truffle? Fresh tagliolini + Alba truffle is another classic matching. The sauce was simple and flavorful, supporting and absorbed well by the al dente pasta. Of course, the (lots of) pungent & luxurious white truffle on top brought this 'humble' Italian noddles to (a much) higher level and vice versa. A must-have dish @ 8 1/2 during the truffle season especially in Oct - Feb

"Fassone Veal" Tenderloin served with Braised Artichokes, Mushrooms, Aromatic Cheese and Alba White Truffle - Yes, I've never got enough of this precious fungus from Alba for this meal. The veal meat, lightly 'breaded' and medium/medium rare in the middle, was incredibly tender (despite being lean) and inherently sweet with lingering flavor. The relatively light & clean veal helped to intensify the white truffle flavor. The sauce and 'cream' artichoke nicely connected main ingredients. Superb main course!

White Truffle Gelato served with Chantilly, Nougat and Crisp Chestnuts - There were a few things here (that worked well together): the 'whipped cream' was not too sweet, the vanilla gelato was decent, the nougat and chestnuts gave crispy textures. Except the strong Alba truffles, the rests of the elements here had moderate & pleasant flavor - decadent

To accompany these many wonderful dishes with Alba white truffle, as per the sommelier's recommendation, I drank a glass of 2005 Barolo Ceretto, Bricco Rocche (a red wine from Piedmont region using Nebbiolo grape). I enjoyed it very much; the pretty wine in deep crimson color was bold and concentrated, having good tannin, fruity nose, and long finish. It matched the best with the veal. Since the staff poured a generous portion, one glass of alcohol was sufficient for me. The meal was indeed excellent. The amount of white truffle served was 'shocking' in a good way. Umberto Bombana's focus was how to optimize the Alba truffle's flavor and fragrance instead of the mushroom acting as a supporting element. In addition, the simple and delicious food focusing on a few (top + luxurious) ingredients by highlighting their texture, flavor and freshness was very suitable for my palate.

Centrally located near the financial district and high-end shopping areas, 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo's dining room (which can comfortably seated 50 people or so) interior design was contemporary and clean. As you entered the restaurant, you would find a bar and a few small tables. From the floor to the ceiling, the elegant decor was consistently using sleek dark wood. Walking further, the main dining room felt "open" with a few mirrors, long panel windows overlooking the Chater road and walls decorated by modern paintings. The chic and relaxing atmosphere was beautifully supported by professional and warm hospitality. I never had difficulties finding any staffs whenever I needed something. There were at least 2 Italian gentlemen managing the dining room and they're attentive and sincere without being obtrusive. The rest of the staffs were doing fine too. Initially, I knew that I would have a very good meal here. Little did I know that by the end of the dinner, this would rank as the best dining experience I've ever encountered in China (better than my meals at Robuchon au Dome or Sushi Shikon). Well done Chef Bombana and his team! Picture of the dishes: Otto e Mezzo Nov '16

Food: 96 pts

Service: 94 pts

Overall: 95.5/100 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Shoukouwa Singapore

Singapore is never short of high quality Japanese restaurants. As a matter of fact, every year, there are capable and native Japanese chefs opening new elite dining places in the island. The latest addition that probably caught even many seasoned foodies and critics alike off guard was a tiny sushi-ya at One Fullerton named Shoukouwa. Approximately 5 months only after the opening, Michelin awarded this sushi place 2-star (pretty unusual practice by the red guide book). It may not be completely "new" since the head chef was Masakazu Ishibashi, a Hokkaido native. He is the master chef of Ginza sushi ichi group - he occasionally had special events a few times here annually in the past. However, since the opening of Shoukouwa, Ishibashi-san has spent most of his time these days in Singapore. He stands behind the counter regularly and rarely lets other chefs to serve sushi to the diners. When Chef Ishibashi is off or visiting other sushi ichi branches in Asia, he would especially fly in his colleague from Tokyo to be the temporary chef de cuisine as Shoukouwa. Like many other high-end sushi-yas in Japan, this place only offered omakase; there are 2 kinds and guests can choose whether they want to have the shorter version or a longer one. To fully experience the best of the chef's creations, I opted the most comprehensive one - menu Hana. After a few snacks, the chef served some sushi and mixed them accordingly. Ishibashi-san wanted to make sure that diners would not feel full if he gave the sushi only towards the end (I will arrange the otsumami and sushi separately below for easier reading). 

Kabura mushi (Steamed Eel with grated turnip/radish, wasabi and some other vegetables) - A traditional Japanese appetizer, typically served during a cold season. Quite a decadent opening. The steamed stuffs were tasty and relatively sweet with a touch of 'hot' wasabi while the aromatic dashi was also pleasant
Sashimi platter - My 'Sakana' consisted of:
-Kawahagi (Filefish) wrapping its liver - succulent and creamy
-Mirugai (Geoduck) - very crunchy and a little sweet
-Saba (Mackerel) - flavorful with distinct fishy aroma; a versatile fish
Nodoguro (Slightly seared Black throat Sea Perch served with soy sauce, leek, ginger flower etc.) - The Nodoguro was fresh, tender, and delicious with slightly crispy skin (good texture). The mixed of chopped vegetables gave interesting taste variations though a bit too strong for my taste 

Hokkaido Kegani (Hairy crab served with jelly sauce and a bit of shark's fin) - A fresh, meaty and refined kegani with its natural sweetness; it went along nicely with the flavorful sauce; awesome!
Cooked Tachiuo (Silver Scabbard fish served with tuna belly) - After slightly grilled, the Tachiuo became softer, still meaty in light flavor. The tuna here, however, was rather mediocre - tender but rather flat in its taste
Kaki no Shiraae (Persimmons in tofu sauce) - It's deliciously awesome! The sauce was versatile and I imagined it would be suitable to be paired with other fruits. This dish can be a dessert too

Crab croquette - This deep-fried croquette had a nice crisp and light crust while the inside, in contrast, was filled with rich & velvety creams, cheese and muddy crab meats - rather too intense / rich for me
Awabi don with "matcha sauce" - The Chiba abalone was sake-braised, thickly sliced and slowly steamed for several hours. The result was a tender and delicate abalone (barely chewy) with slightly sweet and buttery taste. The 'green-tea' sauce, made from a mixture of awabi's liver, miso, egg & oil, was delicious with little bitter flavor and certainly elevated the overall flavor. The shari could be used to wiped out any left over sauce ... I wish to have a second helping for this outstanding dish 
Uni, Ikura and Gohan (Sushi rice topped with Sea urchin, Salmon roes & wasabi) - No kani this time since we had plenty of crab earlier. To compensate, Masa-san gave us generous amount of ikura. A dish that was full of decadence: rich, sweet, creamy, fresh, delicious & balanced. It's usually served towards the end of the omakase

Kinmedai (Golden-eye snapper) - rather sweet with unique texture; decent
Shima Aji (Striped horse mackerel) - good texture and quite fishy but in a good way. It was full of flavor explosion and went well with red vinegar shari
Buri (Yellow tail) - the left one in 'sashimi' form was smoky and flavorful; the right one in sushi form was oily and delectable
Akami Zuke (Marinated lean tuna) - the soy sauce/sake and red vinegar rice brought out the maguro's natural sweetness
Chutoro (Medium fatty tuna, aged for 10 days) - a marvelous piece; succulent and luscious!

Shimo Furi? (In-between Chutoro and Otoro) - A refined, smooth and delicious cut with the right texture and temperature. The red vinegar rice optimized the toro's flavor
Kama Toro (Lightly seared back-cheek part of Bluefin tuna aka 'gill flesh') - very marbled with elegant taste
Uni (Sea water Sea urchin in gunkan style) - cold, creamy and sweet as expected
Sayori (Half beak) - clean, quite soft, sweet & delightful
Akagai (Ark shell) - top quality, pleasantly chewy with deep flavor

Katsuo (Bonito) - Fatty (in the Fall), fresh & fine; scallions gingers were used to reduce some smell
Anago (Salt water eel glazed with 'sweet' sauce) - delicate and delicious
Negitoro Temaki (Chopped toro with spring onions and sushi rice wrapped by crunchy seaweed) - tasty flavor variations; good
Tamago (Omelette) - sweet and milky but a bit 'sticky'; still enjoyable

Miso soup - served with clam and wakame; above average
Kudamono - Musk melon and pears. High quality of sweet & watery Japanese fruits

The food was generally very good in particular the sushi. Most (if not all) pieces were nearly flawlessly prepared and executed. The fish/seafood had the right texture, temperature and was well seasoned/'sauced'. Masakazu Ishibashi used 2 different shari: the one with white vinegar was applied to lighter & cleaner (white) fishes while the one with red vinegar was utilized for fattier & more flavorful items such as some different cuts of maguro. For the drink, due to the expensive meal, I only had a hot ocha in which the staffs never failed to refill. The service was similar to my experience at Ki-sho. Staffs (all of them were gentlemen wearing suits) were warmed, observant and discreet but they're always ready to respond tp any questions or needs you have. Chef Masakazu was also easy going, comforting and modest. He liked entertaining diners and helped a group of Mexican businessmen with restaurant recommendation in Japan. Overall, the atmosphere was relatively casual. The main downside of the experience was probably Shoukouwa's dining room. It's small, had no windows and lacked any interesting decor. Besides a private room for 6-people, the counter only accommodated 8 people (fully booked on that day) at most and the dinner was divided into two time slots. A future return to this place is likely and as of now, Shoukouwa immediately has become among my top 3 favorite restaurants in Singapore. Well done Michelin Singapore! Please follow this link for the meal's pictures: Shoukouwa Nov '16

Food: 95 pts

Service: 94 pts

Overall: 94.5/100