Wednesday, 26 December 2012

A Review of Waku Ghin, Singapore - Better than Tets

It was with some trepidation that I stepped into Waku Ghin for the first time.  

You see, the evening before I left Sydney for good, I met with a few friends at Tetsuya Wakuda's eponymous flagship for a final blow-out meal.  Those were the days when the Aussie dollar bought a mere 86 US cents, "sub-prime" was how you described a below-par steak and Tetsuya's was ranked 5th in the World's 50 Best Restaurants List.  Adopting the parlance of that era, my dinner at Tetsuya's could also be described as "sub-prime".  The food was almost uniformly lukewarm, monotextural and just plain uninspired.  Even the much-vaunted confit Petuna ocean trout with fennel and celery salt failed to provide any of the promised excitement.

So imagine my surprise when Waku Ghin provided me with one of my best meals of 2012.
Chef Tetsuya Wakuda - In Supreme Form
Waku Ghin is one of the unfortunately-named "Celebrity Chef Restaurants" at Marina Bay Sands.  Located next door to Guy Savoy on a terrace overlooking the main gaming hall, it aims to recreate the intimate atmosphere of a Japanese counter restaurant, with four separate counters / private rooms accommodating a total of 25 diners per sitting.  Like Tetsuya's, you have no control over the menu, so you pays your S$400++ (roughly US$385 including tax and service) and you eats your food.  Unlike Tetsuya's, there is a far more Asian bent to the cooking here, along with the greater access to the international larder allowed by Singapore's permissive quarantine regime.  

Photos are courtesy of my friend Ian Lee, who had to put up with me for over four hours while we ate.

Amuse Bouche: Japanese Bonito Tataki, Soy Caramel, Orange
Wine Match: Billecart-Salmon Rosé NV

The red iron-rich hue of the bonito promised a big meaty flavour and duly delivered, and the reduced soy caramel added a rich, sweet-saltiness.  The fresh acidity of the orange supremes cut it all through beautifully.  Great start.

Entrée 1: Egg Custard, Uni, Botan Ebi, Oscietra Caviar
Sake Match: Masuizumi Platinum Nama for Tetsuya's, Junmai Daiginjo

If there's a single dish on which Waku Ghin built its reputation, this is it.  The quality of the ingredients was amazing, with the gently sweet bass notes of the custard washed over with the nuggets of raw Japanese sweet shrimp, the creamy brininess of the sea urchin and salty bursts of caviar.  It is very good, but perhaps a little rich for me at this stage of the meal.  The sake is a brilliant pairing with the various seafoods - dry, clean and cleansing.

Entrée 2:  Anago (Sea Eel) with Confit of Zucchini and Seared Foie Gras, Freshly Grated Japanese Wasabi and Sansho
Wine Match: 2010 J J Prüm Riesling Kabinett

I've had this now classic / hackneyed combination on various occasions, most recently at Au Jardin with Sebastien Lepinoy.  But whereas Lepinoy gave both components equal billing, the star of the show here was clearly the eel and its kabayaki-style marinade.  The anago (the less oily sea-going cousin of the river eel unagi) was grilled just so it achieved a lightly smoky caramelisation, while the thin tranche of foie gras provided a bit of textural contrast.  The Prüm had enough zippy acidity to work with the fats in the eel and foie, and pronounced stone fruit on the palate which complemented the marinade beautifully.

Entrée 3:  Salt-steamed Alaskan King Crab Leg, Extra Virgin Olive Oil with Lemon Juice and Lime Zest
Wine Match: 2011 Domaine Vacheron Sancerre

Our chef brought out the raw legs for our inspection, before steaming them on a base of rock salt.  The crab does not absorb any saltiness from the base, which acts merely as a conduit for higher temperature steam to cook the crab.  The final product was anointed with nothing more than citrus-infused extra virgin olive oil, and it needed nothing more.  The flesh was sweet, tender and set off by the citrus and herbaceous notes in the olive oil, a triumph of simplicity and ingredient quality.  The original wine pairing (I forget now what it was) was flawed; the sommelier thought otherwise, but he very kindly offered to replace it with the very easy-drinking Sancerre.

Entrée 4:  Tasmanian Abalone, Fregola, Rocket and Chicken Consommé
Wine Match: 2008 Pierro for Tetsuya's Chardonnay

Wakuda is a champion of Australian produce, particularly from the southern island state of Tasmania.  With this course, each guest gets one whole abalone, which reclines on a bed of fregola (Sardinian pasta balls), rocket and French cherry tomatoes.  The abalone is sweet, chewy and almost unctuous without being rubbery or cardboard-y, and thanks to the light acidity of the tomatoes and bitter crunch from the rocket, it's all very fresh tasting.  Wonderful stuff, and my Dish of the Month for December 2012. 

Main Course 1: Slow-braised Canadian Lobster, Shellfish Stock, Tarragon, Preserved Lemon
Wine Match: 2010 Felton Road for Tetsuya's Pinot Noir

I'm not really a lobster person, but this dish made me sit up and take notice.  Claws and tails are slow-braised in copper pots on the induction stove (yep, those aren't really grill plates), and watching the chef baste the succulent claws in the rich, dark broth in front of us adds to the anticipation no end.  I remarked to the chef on the intensity and complexity of the stock.  Do you remember the botan ebi in the sea urchin course, he asked?  Well, he took the shells and heads from the sweet Japanese shrimp and boiled them down with the lobster shells.  Unfortunately, the Pinot Noir was waaaaay too green and tight even with food, and needed a good hour in the glass before its fruit and spice notes started to show.

Main Course 2: Ohmi-gyu (marbling score A5) from Shiga Prefecture, Spring Onion, Garlic Chips and Citrus Soy Daikon Dipping Sauce
Sake Match: Isojiman M for Waku Ghin, Junmai Daiginjo


Because a meal here is as much about the ceremony and interaction as it is about the food, chef grates some fresh Shizuoka wasabi on a sharkskin grater.  Only in a circular motion, of course, as demanded by tradition in order to optimise the texture of the wasabi.  We are also presented with the raw rolls of ohmi-gyu; check out the contrast of the marbling against the striking red of the beef.

The beef was lightly heated against the residual heat of the induction stove, just enough to brown the exterior.  As one expects from top-grade Japanese beef, it was tender, melted in your mouth, and had only a subtle meaty flavour (go grass-fed if you want the full in-your-face beef flavour).  There is a very light hand behind the beautifully golden and uniformly cut garlic chips, which I put away like Pringles on a lazy afternoon. The daikon dip added freshness but really isn't necessary.  The Isojiman M sake, the first time Isojiman has produced a private label for a restaurant, is full, structured and foursquare, perhaps the most masculine junmai daiginjo I've had the pleasure of tasting.  It's a single-estate sake from a specific rice paddy plot, much in the same way as a great single vineyard wine.  

Rice Course: New Zealand Snapper, Chicken Consommé, Yuzu, Rice

I mentioned earlier that Waku Ghin has a stronger Asian influence than Tetsuya's, and nothing illustrates this better than a soupy rice course to finish our savouries, much as would be done in a traditional Japanese kaiseki meal.  The freshness of the seafood in the previous courses is such that despite the intensity of flavour, you don't feel weighed down at all.  It is only when you have something as homely and cleansing as this that you realise your palate has been working overtime. 

Bonus Course: Cold Somen, Yuzu, Junsai Lily Bud, Dashi

This was a bit more of a challenge for me.  Loved the noodle, loved the touch of yuzu, loved the umami of the dashi, but the junsai lily buds are coated in a natural jelly (the less charitable would call it mucus) which reminded me of something from Prometheus.  The taste was rather neutral, but the texture was rather difficult to stomach.

Tea: Gyokuro

A ceramic cup of gyokuro (Japanese green tea brewed from leaves grown in the shade of the tea tree) finishes our savoury repast.  The tea itself has a very unusual rounded, savoury flavour, almost like the umami from seaweed.

A Short Walk down the Corridor...

After tea, we are kindly requested to take our desserts in a special room with a floor-to-ceiling vista of Marina Bay.  Now every press release, every sycophantic blog you read proclaims how wonderful the view is from the dessert room.  It's not.  Actually, it is a rather ordinary second floor view of Marina Bay.  It also didn't help that Psy was doing a free concert on the Sands forecourt the following day and the ordinary view was further downgraded by masses of scaffolding and stage cloth.

So yes, I do prefer the teppanyaki rooms and with hindsight, the move appeared symbolic of the ending of the first, and the start of a new (and I must say, far less convincing) phase of the evening.

Dessert 1: Cold Strawberry Soup, Lychee Granita, Coconut Sorbet
Wine Match for All Dessert Courses: 2009 Casa del Inca Pedro Ximénez

It was OK, but I had a few issues with this dish.  Firstly, the too-pronounced vanillin flavour of the coconut stuck a discordant note with the fruity-sweet strawberry and lychee.  Secondly, the sugar level was a bit too amped up given the very Japanese flavours on which we concluded the savouries.  Thirdly, the PX overwhelmed the fresh-fruitiness of the dish.  I would have thought that an Alsatian Gewurztraminer Sélection de Grains Nobles or something similar would have been a better match.

Dessert 2: Cold Soup of Dates, Tonka Bean Ice Cream, Candied Orange Peel

Better than the previous effort, this dessert had a rather Middle Eastern feel to it with the dates and candied orange.  However, this is the second dessert in a row which has deviated from the concept and flavour profile of the savoury courses, and my palate is not particularly receptive to the change.

Dessert 3: Chocolate Mousse Cake with Vanilla and Macadamia

The best dessert of the night, but I can't say that it's any better than Christophe Grilo's very similar (in ingredient terms, at least) "Le Royale" at Canelé Pâtisserie.  The chocolate brings out some herbal notes in the PX, which are reminiscent of the Chinese herbal-medicinal paste pei pa ko (this is not a good thing).  I was surprised because I do like a good PX with chocolate, but I couldn't help thinking also that a Tokaji Aszú 6 putts would have worked wonders with this dessert.

Mignardises: Macarons, Choux with Amaretto cream, Matcha Crispie, Hazelnut Meringue and Chocolate Truffles

Competent, much like the other dessert courses.

A few comments about the incidentals.  Because this is for the most part a counter-style meal, thanks to our articulate and knowledgeable chef, the level of service is excellent.  Crockery and cutlery are cleared with precision, and beverages are conscientiously topped up.  While the wine list has a welcome emphasis on great Australian vintages and Japanese sake, and is better priced than Sky on 57 (i.e. identical vintages for less money), a couple of the selected wines were too young and were therefore not drinking particularly well on their own, let alone with food.

I'm having a tough time believing that the genius who composed the savoury courses is the same person who designed the desserts, because there doesn't seem to be any sensible thematic consistency between the two parts.  To transition from Japanese green tea and wagyu beef to a strawberry soup and coconut sorbet, with its very Western sweetness quotient, struck me as being rather naive.  Which is a damned shame because the savoury courses (the Engineer spawn aside) are some of the finest I have eaten anywhere.  

That said, I thought the dinner overall was still amazingly strong, and that Waku Ghin better merits its $400++ price tag than Tetsuya's did its A$195 all those years ago.  Waku Ghin was ranked No. 39 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants List for 2012, and it very much deserves that accolade.

Now, if only they could put a little more work into the desserts...

The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, Atrium 2, #02-02
10 Bayfront Avenue
Singapore 018956
BYO Policy: BYO not allowed.  Please click here for a list of Singapore restaurants which allow BYO, and their corkage policies.
Tel: +65 6888 8507
Reservations required, at least a month in advance.  Two sittings per night at 6.00 pm and 8.30 pm.

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