Friday, 9 November 2012

Sky on 57 - A Lunch with Thierry Fritsch

I was lucky enough to be invited to lunch at Sky on 57, the current home of Singapore’s first bona fide celebrity chef, Justin Quek.  Quek, as most gastronomes in the region will know, was one of the four original “Amis” who founded Singapore’s Les Amis back in 1994, before blazing a trail in Taiwan with his modern French cuisine.   But I looked forward to this lunch with especial pleasure, as I would have for company Thierry Fritsch, Export Project Manager for CIVA (essentially the governing board for Alsace wine) and Alsace wine connoisseur, and Gregoire Debré, Head of Sopexa for Southeast Asia, Taiwan and India.

Thierry Fritsch, ambassador of Alsace Wines (photo courtesy of
I have never been to Sky on 57, and my first impression is not positive.  I tell them my reservation is under CIVA, as I had been told.  The receptionists have no record of this.  They ask for the name of the contact who made the booking.  I tell them.  “We have no record of that contact, sir”, says the receptionist.  They take me around the restaurant to see if my companions have arrived, a bit pointless seeing I have never met Fritsch or Debré and wouldn't know what they look like (which I tell the staff!).  After an aimless circuit of the restaurant, I pull the nuclear option and demand to see the reservations manifest.  Unbelievably, they agree, and sure enough, my contact is on the list.  Then my phone rings: it is Debré, telling me he and Fritsch have already arrived and are seated, obviously unbeknownst to and unnoticed by the geniuses on the front desk.

Fritsch is a lean, elegant gentleman, whose excellent English carries the slightest hint of the exotic.  Put simply, what this man doesn’t know about Alsace wine is not worth knowing.  A trained oenologist who has worked with regional giants such as Josmeyer, he has travelled the world, particularly Asia, for over 15 years spreading the gospel of Alsace.  More than that, Debré says, Fritsch’s work has won a place for white wine in the Asian consciousness, and created a realisation that Alsace deserves a spot on any truly complete wine list.  His visit here is brief, however.  Taking a detour from a family holiday in Vietnam, he judged the “Best Sommelier in Southeast Asia” competition in KL earlier in the week, before a two-day stopover in Singapore for meetings and to host a trade tasting.

Over a complimentary flute of the Widow, he asks me “So, you are a blogger?”  I take the snobbish high ground.  “I am a writer who also happens to blog”.  When I tell him about my interest in Alsace and my visit to the region last year, he can hardly disguise his surprise.  When I learn that Asia accounts for barely 5% of Alsace wine consumption, with Japan chugging half of that, I see where he's coming from: Alsace wine lovers in Singapore must be a rare breed indeed!

Sky on 57 offers a business luncheon, S$50++ (around US$48) for three courses, and S$60++ (US$58) for four (the fourth course is soup).  The wine list arrives, the kind of list on which almost every inflated price ends with an “8” and leaves you in no doubt which market they are aiming for.  We leave Fritsch to select our beverage.  Of course, he surfaces with an Alsace wine, a 2007 Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Gris Grand Cru Kitterlé.  “I love Riesling with food”, he apologises, “but they only have Clos Ste Hune and I didn’t want to wake Hubert Trimbach and ask him to give me the bottle”.  You only get the joke when you notice that the bottle is listed at S$530 nett (around US$434).

Our conversation turns, as do all discussions on Alsace wine, to the controversial Grand Cru system.  Fritsch tells me that the AOC rules have recently changed.  Whereas there were previously only three AOCs (Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée) in Alsace (being AOC Alsace, AOC Cremant d’Alsace and AOC Alsace Grand Cru), there are fifty-three with effect from the 2011 vintage, with each of the 51 Alsace Grand Cru vineyards now being registered with their own AOC.  This brings the system more in line with Burgundy’s grand cru classification.  To illustrate the change, our wine today is classified AOC Alsace Grand Cru, and the name of the classified vineyard “Grand Cru Kitterlé” must appear on the label.  From 2011 onwards, the wine will carry on its label “AOC Alsace Grand Cru Kitterlé”.  Small difference, “and it changes nothing for the consumer”, assures Fritsch.  I think this might be a positive move in the long run; quality-minded growers’ associations, now given their own appellation / legal playing field, can start setting “unofficial” rules to police the quality of wine from that appellation.  If these practices are legislated in the future, this may provide the foundation of an official quality hierarchy amongst the Grands Crus.

Bread and butter are brought to the table, followed by our entrées.  

Entrée: JQ's Signature foie gras xiao long bao.

I help Fritsch and Debré to the xiao long baos, and they approve of its rapport with the wine.  A luscious coppery-golden colour, it has an intense nose of honey, apricots and smoke, and a rounded finish.  It has enough acidity to cut through the fatty texture of the foie, and the light smokiness goes well with the truffle-y hints in the filling.  I am not, however, impressed with the xiao long bao itself.  It does not contain enough broth to be worthy of the name, effectively weaselling its way out of the technical challenge that is a perfect XLB.  Having to eat from the actual steam basket is also rather odd.

Main Course: Oriental Fried Rice, Wok-Fried US Kurobuta Pork Fillet, Asian Pepper Sauce

Looking for a spicy dish to match against the residual sugar of the pinot gris, I choose fried rice with pepper pork fillet.  Fritsch opts for a fish curry, while Debré goes for a braised Welsh lamb with herb crust.  The rice has the smoky fragrance of real wok hei, but disappoints on the palate.  While the pork is succulent and tender, the spiciness of the pepper has clearly been toned down for non-local palates.  The wine is rich enough to stand up to the pork, but the pepper sauce has nothing to say to the wine’s sweetness.

Our conversation then turns, as do all discussions on wine in Singapore, to the ridiculous price of wines here.  Fritsch argues that one of the strengths of Alsace wine is that they represent great value.  “Not here”, is my response.  “Why?” asks Fritsch.  “Is it the tax, shipping?”  Mark-ups, I say.  According to Debré, many importers bring in only small shipments of Alsace wine, not knowing whether they can sell the wine and certainly not interested in holding obsolescent inventory.  But because the volumes are so small, many Alsace winemakers do not visit on any sort of regular basis, leading to a vicious circle as importers struggle to get marketing support from producers.

Dessert: Classic Apple Tart Bordaloue

My apple tart is delicious, with caramelised apple and a pastry that goes from luscious and comforting on the inside, to crusty and sweet on the outside.  A trolley of cakes and pastries is wheeled over for Fritsch’s examination and his choice is plated with a melange of sliced berries.  Coffee is OK without being earth-shattering.

Fritsch is quick to dispel a myth about Alsace's sweet wines and their role in Alsatian gastronomy.  Whereas wine drinkers would normally pair a dessert wine with, well, dessert, Fritsch says that Alsatians would eat dessert on its own.  "For us, late-harvest wines should be drunk slowly after the meal, as wines of contemplation.  They need to be appreciated by themselves.  If you drink anything with dessert, the wine will taste a lot drier than it is".  We sip the Schlumberger Pinot Gris, and of course, he is right.  The rounded finish now seems almost astringent by comparison.

After a wonderfully educational and enjoyable afternoon, we say our farewells.  Fritsch, only half-jokingly, tells me “I have come to Singapore to see you.  Now you must come to see me in Alsace”!  The pleasure would be all mine, believe me!

Walking back across the bayfront, I’m left in two minds about Sky on 57.  While it is hasty to pass judgment on one cheap(er) lunch menu, I saw enough to make me wonder about its direction.  The cuisine is schizophrenic without lapsing into fusion.  On any given day, your repast could consist of foie gras XLB for entrée, bread and butter, Singapore-style beef hor fun for your main, followed by a European pastry trolley.  It is also inconsistent – from what we ate, the European offerings appear stronger across the board, probably a reflection of Quek’s French training. 

We also encountered a few shortcomings in service.  Apart from the reception SNAFU, other jarring incidents included my entrée arriving well before my guests’, and the cessation of water service after mains were cleared.  This is a three-top we’re talking about, not a state reception.  I should also recount another unsatisfactory service experience.  Marc Kreydenweiss, the Alsace winemaker, is hosting a winemaker lunch here on Saturday, 24 November.  I emailed a reservation request for three spaces.  They wrote back, confirming my booking and asking what time I would be arriving.  I wrote back, saying I thought it was hosted by Kreydenweiss and shouldn’t there be a fixed starting time and if so, could you please let me know what it is?  My query failed to elicit even the courtesy of a response.

In short, Sky on 57 has all the aspirations to be a fine dining restaurant but lacks the necessary hardware and software.  With its views, décor, location and captive audience (i.e. guests in the 2,000 hotel rooms downstairs), it doesn’t need to provide a particularly memorable experience to keep the crowds coming in.  In my view, it doesn’t.

Sands Skypark, Tower 1, Level 57
Marina Bay Sands
Tel: +65 6688 8857

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