Sunday, 10 March 2013

Raffles Grill Review - "Liquid Gold" Sauternes Dinner

Two of my most disappointing meals in recent memory have been at the Raffles Grill.  Sure, no one who knows anything about Singapore dining today regards the Grill (or the Raffles Hotel in general, for that matter) as being of any great relevance.  But it is a crying shame that a grand old name with so much history, and through which portals so many sophisticated travellers pass, cannot boast a decent European restaurant to save its life.

So when I received a mailer from Raffles about a four-course Sauternes dinner promising delights such as 1942 Doisy-Daëne, a decision which would have been obvious in other circumstances (or venues, to be more precise), I had a good, long, hard think before committing.  I was reassured, however, by the fact that Raffles’ Deputy Executive Chef Nicola Canuti (a trusted Alain Ducasse lieutenant in a past life) was descending from his lofty perch to create the menu and run the kitchen on the night.


In the haunting twilight of our tropical evenings, walking up to the Raffles never fails to give me a real sense of occasion.  It’s not the history of the place or the famous writers who have lived there (I have no particular affection for Maugham and Hemingway), but to see this magnificent edifice, rising proudly in stark white while the rest of the nation prepares for the night, is a sight indeed.  And the Grill itself is a beautiful room.  I just hoped that the food would not disappoint.  If I did, the prospect of waterboarding my sorrows with Sauternes was not a very appealing one (at least not to my pancreas).


But on this occasion, we had an added treat.  The wines would be introduced by heavyweight representatives of the three Châteaux, Coutet (Aline Baly, owner), Guiraud (Augustin Lacaille, Brand Ambassador for Asia) and Doisy-Daëne (Fabrice Dubourdieu, son of the current owner Denis).  I’ve set out my commentary and brief tasting notes below.

We are greeted with a glass of non-vintage Champagne Thiénot Rosé, poured from magnum.


Freshly baked bread on the nose, cherries and citrus on the palate, puckeringly dry and acidic on the finish.  Not the best champagne I’ve had but a decent start to the evening’s proceedings. 

First Entrée: Loch Fyne Smoked Salmon, Royal Heart of Palm, Chardonnay Vinaigrette


A very good start, and a very nice pairing with the champagne.  The flavour of the heart of palm is elusive, but it has a texture which is crisp and soothing and the same time.  The salmon is very good, and serving it as chunks, as opposed to the standard slices, made a great textural counterpoint to the palm hearts.  I only wished they were a little more generous with it.

Second Entrée: Foie Gras du Sud-Ouest, Noble Grapes, Maine Lobster Fricassée
Château Coutet 2007 and 1973


It’s a rather odd-looking dish, with a very un-Gallic lack of sauce.  However, once I tasted it with the wines, the whole thing started to make sense.  The foie went beautifully with the 2007, whilst the lobster paired perfectly with the 1973; the converse pairings were not as good.  While decent, the dish was not perfect: the lobster pincer was overcooked, so it was set to the texture of firm chicken liver.  The foie gras, while perfectly cooked with a good sear and a wobbly interior, was underseasoned, although this wasn’t anything a pinch of salt couldn’t fix.


Château Coutet 2007 - Candied citrus, honey, white flowers on the nose, tarte tatin-like on the palate.  Good acidity and balance.

Château Coutet 1973 - Chinese herbs on the nose, oranges on mid-palate, almost grand marnier-esque.  While the acid on the back palate is still prominent, the finish falls away rather dramatically.

Main Course: Challans Duck Breast a l'orange aigre-doux, celeriac mousseline, red and yellow beetroot
Château Guiraud 2009 and 1989


A beautiful dish, with a very rich jus and perfectly pink duck.  It was, however, marred by soggy skin, which is never appetising next to squidgy duck fat.


Château Guiraud 2009 – A bouquet of menthol and acacia honey, with caramelised ginger and more honey on the palate.  The higher alcohol content is obvious (2009 was a very ripe vintage across France).  Slightly one-dimensional with one-note sweetness and low acidity.  But what a transformation when tasted with the duck!  The orange jus and rind brought out spades of marmalade flavour in the wine; it was like eating oranges from heaven.  It opened up later in the evening to reveal some ripe banana character.

Château Guiraud 1989 – The same menthol and rich honey notes, dark caramel.  Unlike its younger cousin, it is very structured, with similar layers of marmalade and oranges.  Wonderfully complex and lasting finish.  Wine of the night for me.  It didn’t improve as much in concert with the food, but then again, it didn’t have as much ground to make up.

Dessert – La Fraise (strawberry jelly, strawberry foam, strawberry sorbet, strawberry coulis)
Château Doisy-Daëne 2006 and 1942


This was the only dish that really landed with a thud.  Aesthetically, it looks about as pleasing as a mutant starfish and the flavours weren’t much better, with an overt superficial sweetness overwhelming the wines.  The strawberries were also very sweet, but without any real strawberry flavour.

On a side note, when I asked our waiter at the start of the meal where the strawberries came from, she replied “France”.  I raised my eyebrow.  “In February?”  She said she wasn't sure and would check - surely enough, the reply came back that the strawberries were from the US.  But of course, most Raffles diners would probably have swallowed the first BS answer and marvelled at the sweetness of the "French" strawberries.  There is no shame in saying that you don’t know and will check with the kitchen. 


Château Doisy-Daëne 2006 – A nose of paraffin, mint and honey, with more hints of caramel and honey to taste.  Not particularly sweet, which made me wonder about the rationale for the pairing.  Framed by a beautiful mouthwatering acidity.

Château Doisy-Daëne 1942 – It’s not often you get to taste a wine older than yourself, rarer still a wine older than your father.  Smells of toffee, soil, potatoes, with more earth, dried fruit (raisins), rancio, oaky, and potato peelings on the palate.  Apparently the wine stayed in oak barrels for three years as there was a shortage of glass and bottles during and immediately after WWII, which might explain why the oak presence is still so noticeable after all these years.

Overallm this was an excellent dinner.  A downside was that the representatives were invited to introduce their wines before their respective flights, but (with the notable exception of Fabrice Dubourdieu) did not actually say much about the vintages we were tasting.  While there is a lot to be said for not utilising the power of suggestion before the guests actually taste the wines, there is nothing wrong with making general comments about vintage conditions, ripeness, etc.

It was also a great way to remind us of Sauternes’ versatility with food.  OK, the foie gras pairing is an old classic, but I wouldn’t have thought of matching aged Sauternes with lobster.  The way the duck a l’orange just brought the young Guiraud to life was also a revelation worth the price of admission (S$186 nett, or around US$150), as was getting the chance to taste a WWII vintage wine.  It takes balls to promote a wine dinner  in Singapore paired solely with Sauternes, and credit must go to Raffles’ Wine Director Stephane Soret for that.

The food was surprisingly pleasant, and Soret has also crafted an intelligent wine list not at all unreasonably priced by Singaporean restaurant standards.  This is a marked change from what I remember from my last visit, a chart full of big names and even bigger numbers that would have made Ronnie Biggs blush.

It’s going to be a long road back after four years in the wilderness, but it seems the old patient may still have some life in her yet.

RAFFLES GRILL
1 Beach Road, Raffles Hotel
Singapore 189673
BYO Policy: 1-for-1 only, BYO not otherwise allowed.  For a more complete list of Singapore restaurants that allow BYO and their corkage policies, please click here.
Tel: +65 6337 1886

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