Tuesday, 10 April 2012

db Bistro Moderne: Mondays in Alsace

On Mondays, db Bistro Moderne at Marina Bay Sands runs an Alsace dinner set menu.  While I’m not normally tempted by the it’s-early-in-the-week-so-let’s-do-a-special-to-draw-the-guests kind of menu, two things tipped the balance for me. 

Firstly, they offered a pairing with Hugel wines, to which I am rather partial (see here and here).  Secondly, db Bistro’s executive chef Stephane Istel is a native of Alsace, more precisely Irmstett, a small town 20km west of Strasbourg.  Istel is no mug, having worked with Daniel Boulud for seven years, including 18 months as a senior sous at New York’s now three-starred Restaurant Daniel and leading db Bistro Vancouver’s opening team.  When a chef of his calibre is given the chance to cook the food of his region and his childhood, it’s probably going to be pretty darned good.

(L to R): Pierre Paillard Champagne, 2010 Hugel Gentil, Riesling and Gewurztraminer Classic

I like the ambience here, lively but not raucous, but am also thankful I wasn’t seated facing the mall.  Mondays are the quietest nights at db Bistro, head sommelier Rajesh Gopal tells me, in which they typically do 90 covers, as opposed to an average 400 covers nightly from Thursdays to Saturdays.   The very spacious, modern kitchen is separated from the dining room by a misted panel, so you can see the French-fry guy in the nearest corner plating his output in steel cups lined with parchment.

We started with Pierre Paillard’s Bouzy Grand Cru NV “Cuvée Daniel” ($36++ by the glass).  Vinified exclusively for Boulud’s restaurants, this has an assertive yet pleasant yeasty and savoury character.  Funnily enough, this is the second time I have encountered Pierre Paillard’s champagne in the last month (the first time was here); this one was the better of the two.

(A rather large) Amuse Bouche: Assiette Lyonnaise

Before we go to Alsace, we must sample one of db Bistro’s signatures, a platter of house-made charcuterie ($26++).  Very nice, perked up by the traditional cornichons, nubbins of cured radish and the odd pickled mushroom.  Highlights for me were the foie gras terrine and duck prosciutto.  Toasted pain de campagne on the side was also good.

Bread Basket – Mini baguette, laugen bread and pain de campagne

(I will resist the temptation to which some Singaporean food bloggers have succumbed in calling the bread “complimentary” or “compliments of the chef”.  If you charge restaurant prices and insist on making your guests pay for bread, you must have lost your sense of hospitality somewhere on the stroll to the cash register). 

I have a weakness for laugen bread, and this one was top-class.  The baguette was crunchy on the outside but rather light and airy on the inside.  Huge brownie points: they brought some toasted brown rice bread when I told them Emily was gluten-intolerant.  The French are hardly renowned for their sensitivity to food allergies, so this was a very pleasant surprise, driven (I suspect) by Istel’s and Boulud’s North American experience.

After our southern detour, our Alsatian odyssey commences.  The three-course menu goes for $68++, an additional $32++ if you would like two glasses of Hugel wine paired with your savoury courses.

Entrée: Snail and chicken oyster fricassee, hazelnut spätzle, garlic confit and parsley and garlic coulis. 

I’m not sure how much this dish owes to Alsace, as it has a distinctly Burgundian flavour profile (it is also available on the everyday carte for $24++) but it ticks all the right boxes.  The chicken oysters, my favourite part of the bird, are cooked beautifully, the crispy skin properly rendered so it is devoid of any soft, oily fat.  The spätzle are delightfully chewy (as good as any I had in Alsace) and punctuated with the crunch of hazelnuts, while the nutty garlic chips haunt and tantalise.  Each flavour is layered beautifully and works like a charm.  As an aside, I also like how Istel has managed to work in the Alsacien element via the spätzle and simultaneously appeased the local palate’s craving for noodles/pasta. 

A glass of breezy, zesty Hugel Gentil 2010 (my favourite everyday quaffing wine at the moment) provides a welcome interval to what is a very rich dish.

Main Course: Pork choucroute royale

Alsace on a plate – sauerkraut (lots of it!) and, according to my waiter, pork done seven ways – rack, shoulder, head cheese, cheek, belly and a house-made sausage flavoured with juniper; yes, I know, that was only six.  The rich, fatty, pork-y goodness, all from UK organic suckling pigs, is cut by the acidic sauerkraut.  Flavours are robust across the board, and the waxy fingerling potatoes provide a much-needed clean carb hit.  Hearty stuff, but well put together.

I selected a glass of the 2010 Hugel Classic Riesling and, at Rajesh’s instigation, also had a taste of the 2010 Hugel Classic Gewurztraminer (you can choose one of the two for your pairing).  I recall the 2010 Riesling being excellent and I was glad to have it again tonight.  I wasn’t that impressed by the gewurz on two occasions in February, but a couple of months in the bottle appear to have done it some good, with more evident spice and fruit.

Main Course: Seafood Risotto ($32++)

This didn’t quite hit the spot, but we blame ourselves.  Who goes to a French bistro and orders a seafood risotto?  Well, Emily did…They were generous with the seafood but it was not particularly well-cooked or interesting.

Dessert: Alsacien apple tarte, cinnamon, vanilla ice-cream AND kirsch soufflé with cherry ice-cream

Photo taken after I took a forkful - looks far too good to resist, photo be damned!
I couldn’t make up my mind as to which one I wanted, so Rajesh kindly made up my mind for me.  The tarte, made to a recipe from Istel’s mother, was gorgeously rustic but refined, with big, flavourful apple chunks and a nicely browned top.  Soufflé was textbook and the kirsch influence was elusive, but with a taste of the superb hybrid cherry sorbet-cherry blossom ice-cream, all sins are forgiven.  On both desserts, the ice-cream was nestled within a little ring of streusel for that little extra Alsacien touch.

After all that food, the idea of jumping into a taxi home  is very tempting, but so is the idea of a walk back into town to get the digestion working again.  So we took a nice slow walk and enjoyed the views.

All in all, the food here is superb, classic bistro cooking.  While I’m sure Istel has the chops to push the boat out more, that’s not what db Bistro does, and tonight, we had a very enjoyable glimpse at the food of his native Alsace.  It is a lusty, rib-sticking, potentially heart-clogging cuisine but the excesses are tempered with skill and intelligence.  Istel clearly has a very good palate and his technique shows the virtuosity of his pedigree, despite it not being really demanded by the style of food.  In other words, a bonus for the lucky diner.

Rajesh’s excellent wine pairings also serve the cause well; objectively speaking, they are basic wines (from Hugel’s négoce range), but they have enough freshness and structure to work with such trencherman’s fare.  The only downside for me right now is the lack of a good vendange tardive or sélection de grains nobles to pair with dessert, but Rajesh will be looking to introduce more Alsacien wines onto db Bistro’s winelist, including more Hugel entries and a couple of good pinots noirs.  Watch this space.

A great option if you are looking for soulful bistro food, and very good value for the quality.  We will be back to try other items, but I would strongly recommend that you sample the Alsace menu soon while it’s still available.

db Bistro Moderne
The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands
2 Bayfront Avenue
Singapore 018956
Tel:  +65 6688 8525
Email: dbreservations@marinabaysands.com

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