Sunday, 23 March 2014

Chinese Herbal Cuisine at Majestic Restaurant - A 2014 WGS Masterpiece

Last week at the Majestic Restaurant, I had one of the most unique dining experiences in recent memory. Cooking with Eu Yan Sang herbs, executive chef Yong Bing Ngen produced a masterful six-course showcase in Chinese herbal cuisine.  Paired with a selection of vintages from Hugel et Fils of Alsace, not only was this meal a true eye opener, but it also enabled a critical examination of one's own deeply-held prejudices.

Restaurant Majestic 大華

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Celebrating 20 Years at Les Amis - Improving Like a Fine Wine

Les Amis racks up its 20th birthday this year, quite an achievement when you consider the fickleness of the Singaporean dining public.  I could be wrong on this, but I have good reason to believe that Les Amis is the longest-lasting, oldest independent (i.e. not in a hotel) "Western" cuisine restaurant in Singapore's young history.  Just as remarkable is the fact that it has remained in the one spot throughout those two decades, whereas stalwarts such as Iggy's and Saint Pierre have had to relocate in their much shorter existences.

Friday, 7 March 2014

A Review of the New La Strada, Scotts Road, Singapore - Italian by Les Amis

La Strada, the Les Amis Group's Italian trattoria, is like Uncle Tom Rowley's anecdotal "bloody opera singer" in the Rumpole books - it just keeps popping back.

In its first reincarnation, it was a ristorante-cum-pizzeria that occupied two lots of prime Claymore Hill real estate (its name, Italian for "the street", signified Les Amis Group's physical occupation of the entire stretch of Shaw Centre west of the carpark ramp).  It then underwent renovations and came back as a trattoria, sans pizzeria, and before long, sans its founding chef, Italian-Australian Leandro Panza.

It closed soon after, and its former premises were taken up by more Les Amis Group concepts, the phenomenally successful Caveau Wine Bar and Annam, a rather less successful attempt at Vietnamese fine dining (I visited Annam on a couple of occasions, and it was the only time I had been genuinely disappointed at any of the Les Amis Group outlets).  Annam's demise paved the way for the rebirth of La Strada, now under the management of my former Les Amis colleague Danny Zhang.

I was here for a wine dinner featuring the redoubtable Tuscan winery Marchesi Antinori. At $98++ for five courses and matching wines, I didn't have too much to lose, and it would (hopefully!) be a pleasant way to re-acquaint myself with an old friend.

First Entree: Norwegian Scallop Carpaccio, Citrus Fruits and Horseradish Emulsion
Wine Pairing: 2012 Castello della Sala Bramito del Cervo Umbria IGT

They say you eat with your eyes first, and let me tell you, my eyes were not impressed.  Without being rude, this honestly reminded me of something my little girl threw up once.  Thankfully it tastes better than it looks, very clean and fresh-tasting with the fruit-horseradish combination putting me in mind of the wasabi prawn dish so often encountered these days at Chinese restaurants.  It was a fair bit underseasoned, however, and a little sprinkle of salt perked it up no end.  The wine, 100% Chardonnay from Antinori's Umbrian estate, was delightfully smoky and stone-fruity, not entirely unlike Mr Rapet's 2009 Pernand-Vergelesses Clos du Village, albeit less structured than that distinguished wine.

Second Entree: Char-Grilled Cardoncello Mushroom with Baby Asparagus and Prosciutto
Wine Pairings: 2010 Antinori Marchese Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG; 2008 Antinori Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG

I had never before encountered a cardoncello on my plate (which is not to say that I have encountered one in a random dark alley or somewhere similar), but it was wonderful: meaty, crunchy and tinged with a sweet char from the grill, while the prosciutto added a needed salt-hit.  The puddle of chicken jus, though, struck me as being a very French touch.

Wine-wise, the Marchese Chianti was way too young and unforgiving to be enjoyable, but the Badia a Passignano opened up nicely after an hour or so to reveal some lovely black fruit.  Patience will be well-rewarded with this wine.  Thankfully, Monopole (who sponsored the wines for this dinner) brought a lot of stock with them, so we had an adequate supply of well-aired wines even towards the end of the evening.

Third Entree: Braised Beef Cheek Open Raviolo with Baby Spinach and Ricotta Cheese
Wine Pairing: 2010 Tignanello Toscano IGT

An open raviolo is no raviolo.  Not being racist or wanting to discriminate against bottomless pasta dumplings, but the pasta-filling ratio is a relevant concern for discriminating (oh hell, whatever) gluttons such as myself.  Once I re-calibrated my expectations, it was a good dish, and smooth.  That was the one word that kept recurring in my head as I ate this: smooth.  The beef was braised to a delightful tenderness, the spinach was beautifully blanched, and topped with nubbins of ricotta which semi-melted in the heat, making the whole dish even more smooth.  Like the scallop, it was again underseasoned.  I couldn't help wondering at this point if the kitchen was under orders to underseason the food so as to let the wine take centre stage.

As for the Tignanello, it was good.  I can't say much more because it was stubbornly closed.  There were masses of extraction and savouriness somewhere in there behind the oak, but they didn't reveal themselves even with double-decanting and a few hours of air.

Main Course: Oven-Roasted Spanish Suckling Pig with Cabbage Confit and Caraway Jus
Wine Pairing: 2010 Solaia Toscano IGT

When I saw this dish, my mind ambled into the Tardis and flashed back to 2011.   I tasted it, and my palate jumped into a Delorean back to the same year.  What was happening that year...good God, this was a dish from Les Amis!  Not just any dish, but the signature suckling pig that I was helping to dish out, and subsequently ordered on numerous occasions following.  It was as lusciously fatty, crispy, meaty and satisying as I remember, made all the more poignant from not having had it for a couple of years.  I went across to Timothy Goh, who seems to be presently heading up both the wine programme for the Les Amis Group, as well as its sister company Vinum.  "This is the Les Amis suckling pig!" I accused.  "Yes", said Tim.  "You know who is the chef here (at La Strada) now?"  Well, no; it turned out to be Joon Kian Pow, who was formerly senior sous to Armin Leitgeb at the mothership.  Another mystery solved for the evening.  It also explained why the previous dishes had a bit more of a French aesthetic than you have a right to expect from an Italian trattoria.

It also turns out that Tim had asked for this dish as he thought it would be an excellent pairing with the Solaia.  I'm not brave enough to disagree with Tim about matters vinous, and he was spot-on as always, with the protein softening the tannins of the wine and bringing out a more sensuous texture and feel.  Again, I felt the Solaia was still extremely tightly wound, and needs many more years to show but a fraction of its potential.  It was more approachable than the Tignanello, though, and was clearly a wine of more distinction.

Dessert: Tiramisu
Wine Pairing: 2007 Castello della Sala Muffato della Sala

A very nice, classic tiramisu, although I would have preferred a higher proportion of the espresso-dunked savoiardi biscuits to break up the textural monotony of too much mascarpone.  The Muffato della Sala, an intriguing blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Grechetto, Traminer and Riesling is rich with honey, flowers and lychee, but the finish drops off completely, leaving me a little unfulfilled.  Maybe I've just been spoilt by having drank too many excellent Alsace VT and SGNs (and recently, Sauternes as well, I am ashamed to admit).


I am glad La Strada is back.  I think they have taken a risk by taking on an old Les Amis hand as head chef, not in terms of the objective quality of the food, which is terrific, but in terms of (a) how authentically "Italian" one expects the food to be, and (b) public perception.  And from what I've had tonight, it isn't the most authentic Italian restaurant around the place, although the flavours and spirit clearly have an Italian inspiration.  I suspect I may need to order from the regular menu to comment further on this point.

But the product is very good and the new team appear to be holding up well; they managed to serve a delicious tasting menu to every diner in a full house without getting into the weeds.  Front-of-house was stretched at times, especially when it came to providing bread (absolutely critical for a wine dinner at which such serious wines are being served), but it was friendly and accommodating when I managed to flag them down.

All in all, a very enjoyable wine dinner, and the perfect excuse to see La Strada back in form again after all these years.

#01-11 Shaw Centre
Singapore 228208
Tel: +65 6735-6656
Reservations recommended