Friday, 3 August 2012

Gourmet Japan Dinner - Michelin-starred Chef Sebastien Lepinoy at Au Jardin, Singapore

It was around 6 pm on a Friday evening, the witching hour when our brains collectively turn to mush and to thoughts of alcohol, when my phone rang.  It was my old comrade Raymond Lim, le deuxième grande fromage at the Les Amis Group, asking if Emily and I were free for dinner at the very romantic Au Jardin in the Botanic Gardens that evening.  Sebastien Lepinoy, the executive chef at Les Amis’  one-Michelin-starred Cépage in Hong Kong, was doing a promotional visit as part of Gourmet Japan, he explained, and was cooking a special menu with Japanese produce.  “With my compliments”, he added.

I’m never one to decline a meal from a Michelin-starred chef, much less when it’s free.  And I had never sampled Lepinoy’s food before, so I checked with She Who Must Be Obeyed, replied to Raymond in the affirmative, and immediately began to regret my decision.

I should explain myself.  Anyone who has lived in Singapore will know that you can never get a taxi when you most need it.  The situation gets worse when it rains, and this evening saw a downpour of unprecedented intensity even by tropical standards.  So what did I do?  Jump in a train and a bus to the Gardens, and fumbled my way to the lovely black-and-white colonial era bungalow that houses Au Jardin.  When I arrived, I was soaked to the bone marrow.

But the kind folk at Au Jardin would not tolerate the thought of a valued non-paying guest getting pneumonia on their account, so manager Bernard Mak rummaged in his wardrobe and offered me a choice of his shirts for the evening.  I know some Michelin-starred restaurants who provide jackets for their underdressed guests, but a shirt?  With much embarrassment, I selected a check-patterned number with French cuffs and took my seat.

Bread Course: Cherry Tomato Foccaccia with Uni and Sakura Ebi
Aperitif: 2002 Laurent-Perrier Brut Millésimé

This was going to be our staff for the remainder of the evening, freshly-baked bread studded with a glob of sea urchin and sprinkled with crunchy, sweet little dried shrimp.  The champagne had a typical yeasty bouquet and an intriguing savoury finish.

First Entrée: Floating Snowball, Floral Bouquet, Chilled Corn Soup, Hidden Treasure of Oscietra Caviar
Wine Pairing: 2010 Alain Calibourdin Pouilly-Fumé, Les Cris

The snowball was a poached meringue, topped with edible flowers from Japan.  The sweetness of the chilled soup was punctuated by the odd salty note from the caviar.  I’ve never been a big fan of the sturgeon eggs, but this dish was so visually beautiful it didn’t really matter.  The wine was a revelation, with some beautiful aromas, smoky and minerally.

Second Entrée: Foie Gras & Anago en Millefeuille, Daikon & Apple Matchstick Salad
Wine Pairing: 2009 Egon Müller Scharzhofberger Riesling Kabinett

Ocean eel (as opposed to the more popular freshwater unagi) and foie gras terrine.  You know you are spoilt when you start thinking of this luxurious, delicious terrine as comfort food, but I grabbed the proffered baguette and started slathering on chunks of the good stuff with a dainty scatter of the apple matchsticks.  The apple adds a nice crunch and acidity, but for the most part, I just wanted to bask in the unrepentant decadence of the terrine.  But don't you want balance?  Don't you want lightness? No, not at this moment.

I had the 2010 Scharzhofberger a couple of weeks ago here, but the 2009 had a far more pronounced petroleum bouquet, but still with a reassuring acidity and lightly sweet citrus on the finish.

Third Entrée: Hokkaido “Uni” over petit Lobster Flan, Fennel Emulsion
Wine Pairing: 2009 Daniel Dampt et Fils, Chablis 1er Cru Vaillons

Four pods full of lobster custard, each topped with an intimidating lobe of sea urchin. According to our friendly waiter, chef recommended that we eat the first pod without the fennel, the second one with, and the third and fourth ones to our liking.  I liked the uni, the flan was OK, but the flavours were disparate and textures too similar to maintain much interest beyond a couple of bites.  The fennel was lightly salty and warm, but added a much-needed “glue” to bind the lobster and sea urchin together.  The Chablis was closed, and did not have the lovely minerality of Fevre’s 2009 Vaillons.

Main Course: Kagoshima Beef Tenderloin, Melody of Vegetables and a Touch of Wasabi
Wine Pairing: 2003 Château de Fonsalette, Côtes du Rhône, Cuvée Syrah

The Bizarre Foods guy would describe this dish as “Oh my God, this is meat budderrrrrrrr...” Tender, barely greasy, almost melting in the mouth.  The vegetables shared star billing, with their vibrant colour and crunch.  The jus was made from a stock and wasabi base, very good.   Interestingly, Emily ordered hers well done and there was more pure beef flavour in hers.  The Fonsalette had very beautiful flowers on the nose, followed by nice, ripe red fruits on the palate.  Top billing for both dish and wine, whether as individual components or a pairing.

Dessert: Trilogy of Sweet Corn – Soufflé, Ice-cream, Caramel Popcorn
Wine Pairing: 2005 Hans Tschida, Sämling Trockenbeerenauslese

Great.  Ice-cream was pretty much the frozen quintessence of Japanese sweetcorn, and the popcorn was a little fun on the side.  I love my soufflés and this one proved itself worthy of my affection.  The TBA was intriguing, with an almost viscous texture and loads of honey, citrus and crystallised ginger notes.  A perfect pairing with the soufflé.

Mignardises: Carolines of chocolate with black sesame, chestnut

I have never heard of Caroline before and could only presume that she was Madeleine's long lost sister.  In actual fact, she was a mini-eclair, a slender choux tube with Japanese-inspired filling.  Not bad, and the coffee was pretty good also, a cut above that at Guy Savoy.

I later learned that Lepinoy had been to Japan a few months before with Les Amis’ head sommelier Daisuke Kawai to visit some top restaurants and learn about the flavours.  According to Kawai, Lepinoy is very interested in Japanese ingredients and flavours, and given his training with Joël Robuchon, that is not very surprising.  What was surprising was the presentation of a very Franco-Japanese tasting menu, borrowing heavily from the Japanese school of presentation, but also with a sincere desire to showcase the individual components of the dishes at their best without too much interference. 

In summary, a very good dinner, and my thanks to Raymond Lim and Les Amis Group for the last minute invite, and also to Bernard Mak and his crew for looking after us (and for the shirt!)

PS Au Jardin is a lovely restaurant but it is a pain in the behind to get to.  They offer a buggy service to the restaurant from the Visitor's Centre at the Botanic Gardens, and if it's raining, they can even pick you up from the main Holland Road entrance, so just give them a call when you get there.  No don't thank me, just send money.

1 Cluny Road
EJH Corner House
Singapore Botanic Gardens
Singapore 259569
BYO Policy: 1-for-1, otherwise $80++ per 750mL bottle, $40++ per half-bottle and S$160++ for magnums.  For a comprehensive list of Singapore restaurants which allow BYO and their corkage policies, please click here.
Tel: +65 6466 8812

23 Wing Fung Street
Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2861 3130

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