Sunday, 1 December 2013

A Review of La Barca Ristorante & Wine Bar, Singapore (and a bottle of 1983 Lynch-Bages!)

La Barca at the Goodman Arts Centre, run by former one-Michelin-starred Tuscan chef Michele Sorrentino, was the venue for a recent mid-week dinner (and incidentally, my first face-to-face encounter) with wine blogger Richard Chen of Ric's Wine Journal.

Planning on food and venue was all going well until Richard mentioned he was bringing a bottle of 1983 Château Lynch-Bages.  How does one, of limited years and even more limited means such as I, try to match such a bottle?  Before I go any further, I should clarify that my concern wasn't about trying to bring a better bottle or engaging in some daft contest.  Rather, I was endeavouring simply not to let my dining companion down!

Dr Chen's 1983 Lynch-Bages
A quick rummage in my cellar found mostly young Burgundies, far too young to drink and certainly mere infants compared to Richard's Lynch-Bages.  I had a brace of delectable Grand-Puy Lacostes with a couple of decades on them, but I had already set them aside for a future tasting.  Being an Alsace man, I asked Richard how he was with sweet wines.  "Good", came the reply.  So out from the cellar came a bottle of 2002 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Goldert Vendanges Tardives (try saying that quickly after a few glasses).  Regular readers might remember my disappointment with the last bottle of this wine which I sampled a couple of months ago, so I was keen to revisit it and (hopefully) put the failings of the last tasting to bottle variation.

A short skip down from Mountbatten MRT saw me at the Goodman Arts Centre, a strange location for an Italian ristorante (by definition an upmarket eatery) if I ever saw one; surely the "starving artists" would not be patronising this fine establishment?  The main dining room of La Barca is beautiful, with a lot of room between tables and a likable, elegant simplicity.  And I learned that La Barca is also a favourite with wine drinkers thanks to its policy of corkage-free Wednesdays.

Richard took the initiative of pre-ordering a truffled Bistecca ($18++ per 100 grams).  On the night, we found out that our Bistecca weighed in at around 1.4 kgs, so it was really a question of which primo piatto we wanted to share!  Given Sorrentino's Michelin-starred chops, we decided to go for a pasta.

Primo Piatto: I Pici di Pasta con Ragu di Costine di Maiale ($28++ for an entrée-sized portion; picture below is half of an entrée-sized portion)

Delicious.    To be honest, I found the pork rib ragu a little bland, but it allowed me to really taste and focus on the pasta.  The pici, a thick hand-rolled pasta, has a delightful texture, with more bite than a Jaws movie.  This persistence allows you to enjoy the flavours as they unfold on your palate, the comforting light savouriness of the pasta laced with sweetness and tartness from the tomato ragu.  A smashing dish and one that I would return to order again, except I wouldn't make the mistake of agreeing to share it!

To Accompany: A Glass of 1983 Château Lynch-Bages

I didn't really know what to expect as my experience with old Bordeaux is limited.  In my glass, I found a very drinkable claret, savoury with tertiary characters, earth, minerals, pencil lead, dried red fruits, with a nice tartness on the medium-length finish to keep me interested.  Tannins are fully resolved, so it goes down easily.  It is not going to improve, but for a wine from a vintage destined to be overshadowed by the legendary 1982, it is holding up well.  I certainly would not have guessed that the wine was 30 years-old, judging from taste and colour.

Main Course: Truffled Wagyu Bistecca alla Fiorentina

Do you remember the "Bigfoot Pizza" from Pizza Hut back in the 1990s?  Well, this was the beef version, scattered with generous shavings of fresh autumn truffles, served on a truffle sauce which I imagine was based on truffle juices from tinned black truffles, and scented with white truffle oil.

Being honest again, it wasn't bad, but it was disappointing.  The wagyu T-bone, from Rangers Valley in New South Wales, Australia, supposedly has a marbling grade of 3-4.  This is the Australian scale of measuring marbling, mind you, not the Japanese one.  The Australian scale tops out at 9+.  Regular Angus beef usually weighs in around grade 2-3, so how much wagyu blood is really in this, you may justifiably ask?  But to maximise marbling (and also carcase weight) at slaughter, the cows are finished, if not fed for longer, on grain.  Unfortunately, this meant that this steak fell squarely between two stools, lacking both the blissful, buttery tenderness of wagyu and the prominent beefy flavour of good grass-fed Australian meat.

To be fair, $18++ per 100 grams is a very modest price to pay for "wagyu", but why bother with such frivolity when the genuine bistecca alla Fiorentina is from a fully grass-fed animal?  It may well be that Sorrentino has decided that Singaporean diners do not want grass-fed beef, preferring the tender caress of its grain-fattened cousin.  And he may be right; certainly, none of the beef featured on his menu is grass-fed.  But I do not really see the point of serving a steak that wears its wagyu credentials proudly on paper, only for the diner to be disappointed at the tasting like I was.  

The accompanying potatoes, on the other hand, were gorgeous, with a flavoursome, crispy crust on the outside, and a seductively waxy interior.  The sauteed spinach was also fresh and nicely cooked.

With a little help from Messrs Lynch et Bages, Richard and I somehow managed to finish off the entire steak and its accompaniments.  We were too far gone for solid dessert, however, so decided to pop the cork on my contribution.

To Finish: 2002 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Goldert Vendanges Tardives

I was praying, after the success and successful consumption of the Lynch-Bages, that my Gewurz would also be in fine form.  Thankfully, Bacchus was smiling on me (or was it the biodynamic calendar?).  The smoky, honey-scented gorgeousness was back, along with some tart stone fruits (apricots?) on the mid-palate and acidity balancing the obvious sweetness.  I can't explain this variation with any confidence, which is why wine frustrates yet intrigues me in equal measure.  Richard certainly seemed to enjoy it, so I guess my job was done!

Two of the stars on the night

I like La Barca, and there is enough going for it that I would definitely like to return, particularly to try more of their pastas and dessert.  The pici was very possibly the best pasta dish I've had all year, and the vegetable sides with the bistecca were executed to perfection.  I am reluctant to judge a restaurant based on a boring piece of steak, although to be fair, the chef who is buying in this stuff has to take some flak for that.  Personally, I would prefer Sorrentino to do what he does best, rather than pander to what he thinks the Singaporean palate wants, even if it is just putting one grass-fed bistecca on the menu.  Who was the wise man who said "Build it, and they will come?"

That said, all in all, a very enjoyable meal, and I suspect a return visit will be in the offing.

90 Goodman Road
Goodman Arts Centre, Block C
Singapore 439053
BYO Policy: Corkage-free Wednesdays, otherwise 1-for-1 of $50++ per 750mL bottle.
Tel: +65 6346 5813

(Wine photos are courtesy of Dr Richard Chen)

Postscript: Out of curiosity, I looked by the biodynamic calendars for lunchtime on 20 September (the date on which I last consumed the 2002 Gewurz) and 20 November, the date of the dinner described above.  Apparently, 20 September lunchtime was the tail-end of a phase of "Root Days", on which wines apparently suck, whereas dinnertime on 2o November was the tail-end of a "Flower Day" phase, during which aromatic wines are apparently showing at their best.  Or I could blame the first bottle for being slightly oxidised.  Or maybe we were already drunk when we consumed it.

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