Sunday, 8 September 2013

A Review of Sebastien Lepinoy's Les Amis - Taking Les Amis Back To The Top

I can finally announce that Sebastien Lepinoy, previously Executive Chef at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon and Cépage in Hong Kong, has been appointed the new Resident Chef at Les Amis, Singapore.


A Robuchon protegé, Lepinoy worked with the great man for 13 years, including opening Robuchon's Hong Kong L'Atelier as Executive Chef and winning two Michelin stars in his own right.  For whatever reason, he was unable to achieve the same level of recognition from the Red Guide for his work at Cépage, winning only a sole annual macaron during his three-year tenure.

With the closure of Cépage, and Les Amis' inability to attract the calibre of talent that it desired after the consecutive departures of chef de cuisine Armin Leitgeb and chef pâtissier Daniel Texter, Lepinoy was invited to assume the reins at the Singapore flagship.  With him returns the very talented Singaporean pastry chef Cheryl Koh, whose handiwork we would enjoy later in the evening.

I was recently invited to dinner to sample Lepinoy's creations.  Joining me at the table was a veritable who's who of Singapore's F&B industry, so it was a great forum at which to exchange our views and insights into the food.

I apologise in advance for the lack of photos, but the lighting in the main dining room at Les Amis is not conducive to photo-taking, so I would rather go without than fail to do justice to Lepinoy's creations.

Bread Service

Bread and butter is once again an event unto itself at Les Amis.  Seven varieties of Jean-Yves Bordier's traditional beurre de baratte, including the much-vaunted (and rare) beurre aux algues (seaweed butter), are offered to diners.  The bread selection is also more generous than it was under Texter, with a savoury bacon and Pommery mustard roll proving particularly addictive.

Pour Commencer: Le Beluga Iranien, peche 2013, en quadrilogie:
 - Balanced on a White Asparagus Blancmange;
 - With Assorted Roseval Potatoes;
 - On cold angel hair pasta, chives and seaweed; and
 - With Scallop Maki

I normally don't like caviar, but Lepinoy may have just managed to convert me with this four-pronged assault of sheer deliciousness.  It is not the caviar itself which makes the dish, although the fact that Lepinoy uses the Real Frickin' McCoy (i.e. Iranian Beluga) means that on the produce quality front, he already has a headstart over 99.99% of caviar dishes in Singapore.  Rather, it is the subtle accompaniments that he uses which showcase the flavour and texture of the caviar: a yielding blancmange, al dente angel hair pasta, creamy potato slices arranged as petals of a flower, sweet, tender scallop tartare enveloped in seaweed.  I have refrained from naming "Dishes of the Month" for a while now, but this is a possible dish of the year.


Le Foie Gras: with French River Eel, accompanied by citrus fruits and a bonito bouillon


The foie gras tranche, and "tranche" is the operative word because it's certainly not an escalope, is too large and its exterior is not sufficiently caramelised.  The eel is redundant, while the citrus concoction adds acid, bitterness and fruitiness, a good counterpoint.  But it is not sufficient because the fundamental flaw with this dish is that there is simply too much foie gras.  Thank heavens, then, for the cleansing, just slightly umami bonito bouillon, which washes down the fat and citrus bitterness with ambrosial ease.  I must say that I preferred Lepinoy's terrine of foie gras and anago which he served at last year's Gourmet Japan dinner at Au Jardin.


When I voiced my concern about the portion size, one of the guests agreed with me, before adding, "Industry people like us can complain about the portion being too big, but if you were Joe Blow coming in here and ordering foie gras, wouldn't you want a huge piece?"  I take the point, but I disagree.  If Joe Blow ordered a tasting menu, presumably with a view to finishing it, taking a huge serving of foie gras early on can, and often would, interfere with his enjoyment of later courses.

Le Z
éphyr: Soufflé of Aged Comté Cheese, garnished with Black Truffle

When does generosity become excess?  When fresh Western Australian black truffles are sliced too thickly, could be one possible answer.  While the truffles have a more pronounced fragrance than most Australian examples I have encountered, they are also sliced too thickly for my liking, giving them a woody and not wholly pleasant texture.  The soufflé itself is very nice and light, capturing perfectly the complexity of comté, but it is again perhaps a little too generously proportioned.


La Langoustine: Langoustine of Cornouaille, with "a Funny Salad".


Brilliant.  The langoustine is wrapped in a thin membrane resembling a wanton skin before being deep-fried, crispy and only lightly oily, highlighting the freshness and sweetness of the shellfish.  The "funny salad" (salade folichonne, to give it its original French description) is a Caesar salad with Asian influences such as strips of toasted seaweed and sesame, which refreshes your palate after the deep-fried mouthful.  I would have served this course before the foie gras, but that is my only very minor complaint.


L'Amadai: Amadai Fish Cooked with Crunchy Scales, Served in a Bouillabaisse with Saffron Rouille

This dish is about as confused than a teenager in the midst of puberty.  Don't get me wrong.  it's a good dish, if you knew to add the rouille to the stock (please note, servers, not everyone knows to do this), which was otherwise a little light on flavour and texture.  And if the crunchy scales (a favourite technique used by Robuchon chefs worldwide and the likes of Guy Savoy and Pierre Gagnaire) weren't doused in a hot soup which kind of defeats the point of crispy skin/scale fish.  


Le Boeuf: Grilled Fillet of Aged Ohmi Wagyu, with Bitter Herbs and Meat Jus


Very good.  A great piece of meat, well cooked, given life and never boring due to the myriad of aromates on top.


Le Veau: Grilled Veal Chop with Roasted Asparagus and King Mushroom, Veal Jus


At this stage, I was about to ask the manager Farhan to load me onto a wheelbarrow and let it run down Claymore Hill, so full was I.  I was therefore mortified when the wiry Lepinoy wheeled out a trolley with a dinosaur-sized grilled côte de veau.  In my food-induced coma, all I recall was very tender, pure white veal, and an assortment of very fresh vegetables.


Le Mikan: Candied Whole Mikan Stuffed with Panna Cotta and Sorbet, on a light Earl Grey Jelly


A very complex composition.  The mikan, a Japanese tangerine, has its peel extracted as a single piece, poached to remove the bitterness before being candied, and stuffed with a mikan-infused pannacotta and mikan sorbet.  The Earl Grey jelly at the base adds a cleansing tannin and a citric unity with its slight bergamot nose.  But the mikan is roughly the size of an oversized mutant mandarin, and in stuffing the peel to recreate its original dimensions, Koh is challenging the capacity of my dessert stomach, which unfortunately had to take some of the overflow from the veal.


La Chariot des Desserts: Rum Baba, Chocolate Tart, Fig Tart and Cherry Clafoutis


My tastes in food are as old-fashioned as my tastes in music, and when Koh wheels out yet another trolley bearing four time-honoured French desserts adorned with a garnish of seasonal fruits, I swooned.  I feel my alcohol-fired imagination sweep me back to France, where a trolley of desserts is often the grand parting gesture at starred-restaurants.  This over-the-top, old school tableau shows Koh's mastery of traditional techniques and recipes, after displaying her modern chops with the reconstructed mikan.  A plate is presented to each diner, with a generous portion of each dessert.  In a Wildean fifteen minutes of weakness, I yield to multiple temptations.  And each one of them is absolutely sublime, in particular the clafoutis and baba. 


Now I am not sure if this is going to be a regular feature of Les Amis' dinner offering or whether this is a one-off special for the very high-calibre guest list I had the privilege of joining for one night.  But if I had any advice for the good folks at Les Amis, they must keep this dessert trolley.  It is a gesture rooted in the heart of French culinary tradition, and to mark a break from the Germanic and post-modern / minimalist tenor that marked the Leitgeb-Texter era, Les Amis could do no better.

Analysis


There was a time, not so long ago, when chefs with mere experience in Michelin-starred kitchens were exalted and rare commodities in Singapore.  We are very fortunate to now enjoy food from the likes of André Chiang, Tomonori Danzaki, Eric Bost and now Lepinoy (I have omitted Bruno Menard from this list, as I understand Menard doesn't actually cook at his local establishments as a matter of routine), who have won stars as masters of their kitchens.

And it really shows on the plate.  While I greatly enjoyed Leitgeb's cooking, there was a slight reticence about it, almost as if he was confronted with not-very-flexible expectations, and the knowledge that he had to work within those parameters.   While dynamic, his cooking, for those who paid attention to such matters, was also formulaic.  Lepinoy, on the other hand, cooks with supreme confidence and an unshackled hand.

His cooking is by no means perfect.  Portions often err on the side of being too generous, and the soggy, crispy-skinned amadai dish was such an obvious mistake I literally did a double-take.  But you cannot dispute Lepinoy's talent, (generally) light touch, desire for the best produce and knack for blending multicultural flavours (as a Robuchon boy, this last was to be expected).  While on this evening, I did not witness a level of technical virtuosity as I have observed from his ex-Robuchon stable-mate Danzaki at Robuchon Sentosa, Lepinoy's cooking has a lot more soul than at Robuchon Sentosa, and is therefore infinitely more satisfying.

Another thing I noticed when I was doing a little reconnaissance on the Les Amis website is that prices have been drastically lowered, even with the introduction of an arguably more highly-credentialed team.  A seven-course degustation menu now costs S$280++ (US$260 including taxes and service), compared to S$320++  (US$295) during the Leitgeb-Texter era.  Perhaps with the realisation that the competition in Singapore has intensified at all levels of dining in recent years, Les Amis seems determined to offer more quality and value to its guests.  While it's still a long way from being cheap, I hope this encourages people to return to Les Amis, because Lepinoy and Koh's food definitely deserves a look.

LES AMIS
1 Scotts Road
#02-16 Shaw Centre
Singapore 228208
Tel: +65 6733 2225
Email: lesamis@lesamis.com.sg
BYO Policy: 1-for-1; otherwise $80++ corkage per 750mL bottle, $40++ per half-bottle and $160++ for magnums.  Please click here for a list of Singapore restaurants which allow BYO, and their corkage policies.
Reservations recommended.  Budget from S$45++ (US$41) for lunch; S$150++ (US$138) for dinner

6 comments:

  1. great writing as always Julian
    lucky you for the invitation ..
    what are your top 3 high-end dining places in Singapore?

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  2. Thanks as always BPS!

    At the moment, in no particular order, Andre, Les Amis and Guy Savoy. If you ask which one I would like to dine at tomorrow, Guy Savoy. Eric Bost's cooking is unfairly underrated, and I really hope this changes come the announcement of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2014 in February.

    Waku Ghin and Jaan (in that order) are close, but Jaan really falls short when it comes to its wine pairing / offering (ignoring for now its oppressive BYO policy). Waku Ghin is absolutely world-class for savoury courses, but is let down awfully by its desserts.



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    Replies
    1. I'm not really sure whether it's Eric Bost or Guy Savoy ... Savoy's food was not that easy to understand and appreciate by many Asians. Normally, he will take one ingredient and prepare a few different ways to show variation/contrast in color, texture, temperature etc. while taste-wise not that "flavorful" - our asian food tends to be richer and more 'delicious' (read: due to stronger spices)

      I suppose as locals you've been loyal to and growing up with Les Amis, any kind of sentimental feeling there? I didn't see you mentioning Chef Danzaki or any top Japanese restaurants (except Waku Ghin serving more fusion kind of food) among your fav. gastronomy destination ...

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  3. Good question re Les Amis. You are right in that I first went there 10 years ago (oh my God, has it been that long?) so it has loomed large in my consciousness for some time. But I do believe that Lepinoy and Koh are currently producing as good food as ever came out from Les Amis' kitchen, and in any event, the Les Amis of today is a far different beast than what it was in the early 2000s.

    As for Japanese restaurants, if you had asked me the same question 4 years ago, Kunio would certainly have been on my list. I think Danzaki is quite possibly the most technically brilliant and precise chef on the island, maybe even all of Southeast Asia, but I find the experience formulaic and stifling (and not in the sense that I feel intimidated in any way). Shinji is on my to-do list for this year, but do you have any recommendations for me?

    As for Bost, you may well be correct. Of course food is subjective, but even if it is not to your particular flavour profile or preference, one should be able to judge a dish on its objective merits. And especially so amongst the so-called arbiters of taste who cast votes for awards such as the WGS and Asia's / World's 50 Best, etc.

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  4. So for you, the current Les Amis (the combo of Lepinoy and Koh) is the best state of the restaurant? My first experience was with Gunther and have yet tried any Justin Quek's cooking. Have you been to Sky on 57?

    Ah you're right, Kunio was very good for Singapore standard though no where near the level of his flagship ryotei at Arashiyama. If only Tokuoka-san had given more stuffs at that price tag ... also if only the casino had bailed out his restaurant ... I agree on your view about Chef Danzaki. But wouldn't you say the same thing to all or at least most of Robuchon's restaurants? Technically savvy with precise execution and delicious taste but without any "soul"

    Throw away the value of money argument, Shinji was the most sophisticated and best Japanese place on the island period. Others ... well, Hashida (have not been there yet) seemed to attract plenty of people's attention nowadays. Many people also praised Ki-sho kaiseki

    Do you plan to attend for the announcement of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2014? Is WGS any good? My favorite food event in Singapore was Wine, Food and Arts Experience at Raffles hotel - alas no more

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  5. Yes, I think so. Armin Leitgeb was really hitting his stride in the last six months of his tenure, I thought, but at that stage, Texter was looking a little tired.

    Re Robuchon - agreed, but that's also precisely why it's not in my personal top three!

    Yes, I will be at the Asia's 50 Best announcement; will you?

    WGS can be very good. WFAE was very headline-grabbing, lots of very big names, lots of stars and very big name wines, but the prices of the final edition were so outrageous and I actually wrote to them and asked them not to be so stupid. A week or so before the event, they sent out a mailer offering a 30% discount on the original price of all the events. Too little, too late. A very sad end for what was a great event.

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