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.

The Private Rooms, fully opened up

I have been eating at Les Amis since 2004, with all of its six chefs de cuisine with the exception of its founding chef, Justin Quek (I did eat at Quek's Sky on 57, although that probably doesn't count).  But it hasn't always been smooth sailing.  Gunther Hubrechsen had a rough start to his tenure, as he tried to replicate the dishes of his mentor Alain Passard without the same quality of ingredient.  His replacement Thomas Mayr, frankly speaking, wasn't up to the job and was shipped out after barely a year; I can't really remember any of the dishes I had during Mayr's tenure, except for a acrid chocolate cone and blood orange dessert which could have been whipped by any gormless SHATEC apprentice (he did go on to win a Michelin star in Hong Kong, so what would I know?).  The most recent kerfuffle was when Les Amis spent some 15 months looking for a new head chef after Armin Leitgeb's sudden departure, and Galvin Lim was forced to assume the reins in the interim.  That is also why I have written on Les Amis three times since I started this blog; it has been through three different head chefs in barely 24 months and the experience under each chef has been starkly different.

I dare say that with the new-ish team of Sebastien Lepinoy and Cheryl Koh, the ship is steadier than ever.  With a multiplicity of eating options now available on the island, surviving at the pointy end of the restaurant scene is a tricky proposition.  For this institution (and I mean in that in as positive a sense as possible), bringing up 20 years is a feat well worth celebrating, so I was most glad to accept my friend and Les Amis CEO Raymond Lim's invitation to join him and a few other media representatives for a celebratory lunch.

Bread and Butter Service: A Selection of Butters from Jean-Yves Bordier

Bordier is the Miley Cyrus of the premium butter world: wildly overexposed.  But unlike Miley, there is a good reason for Bordier's ubiquity - his butters taste damned good, with an almost cheese-like texture that is the trademark of the hand-beaten beurre de baratte.  At Les Amis, they take their butter so seriously that they serve six butters: salted and unsalted, piment d' Espelette (the angry-looking orange/red guy), smoked salt butter, beurre aux algues (seaweed butter that tastes of nothing but the pure sea and iodine) and yuzu butter.  All very different, all very pleasant.  To go with these, we are served baguettes, sliced sourdough and a very buttery brioche.

Amuse Bouche: White Asparagus Blancmange, Oscietra Caviar
Wine Pairing: 2002 Bruno Paillard Brut Assemblage

Very good.  From some angles, it looks almost too cute to eat, but it is delicious.  The blancmange itself is sweet from the white asparagus (currently in season, hooray!), punctuated with salty bursts from the caviar and lifted with the tartness of sour cream lining the bowl of the plate.  With a very light flavour and natural, organic presentation, this is very much a plate in keeping with the aesthetic of Lepinoy's mentor Joël Robuchon.

I'm no Champagne expert but I enjoyed the Paillard, which had a nice rounded finish that made me want to ask for more (which I did!)

First Entrée: Steamed Blue Crab and Hokkaido Sea Urchin on Lobster Custard, Fennel Foam
Wine Pairing: 2010 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru "Les Clavoillon" (from magnum)

Essentially, this is a chawanmushi with some French frills.  Again, light and delicious, with the pure flavours of the seafood shining through.  The fennel foam adds a transient piquancy that emphasises the crab's sweetness.  I didn't think it was such a good pairing with the Clavoillon, which threatened to overwhelm this delicate presentation with its oak.  Thankfully, this most august Chardonnay came in very handy with the next course.

Second Entrée: Wild Scottish Salmon, En Duo: Confit and Tartare with Aromates
Wine Pairing: 2010 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru "Les Clavoillon" (from magnum)

My confit was slightly overdone so it didn't have that nice silken texture, I suspect perhaps with the searing?  The tartare, on the other hand, was gorgeous with its hidden capers and a touch of wasabi.  The Clavoillon was excellent here, with melon, cashews and minerality all in a beautiful equilibrium.  It really could do with a bit more time though, especially if you have it in the larger formats.

Main Course: Grilled Dry-Aged Beef with Bitter Herbs, Asparagus and a Rich Jus
Wine Pairing: 1986 Château Pape Clément (en methuselah or something similarly massive)

I had to do a double-take on what beef this was; Raymond told me it was Ohmi wagyu.  It threw me for a few moments because this had some really bold beefy flavour to it, as well as the melt-in-the-mouth texture that you expect from a well-marbled cut.  Again, the white asparagus shows itself, this time with a couple of curls of black truffle and a little veal jus.

I didn't really know what to think of the Pape Clément, apart from the fact that I quite enjoyed it.  It is not a label with which I have had much experience; it certainly didn't have the colour or tertiary character I had expected for a wine of 28 years,  That probably had something to do with the fact that it was from a very large format bottle, and had the vigour and intensity of a wine some 5-10 years younger.

Dessert: Candied Whole Mikan, with Panna Cotta and Sorbet on a Light Earl Grey Jelly

I have previously described in some detail how Koh guts the mikan and re-assembles it into this orange ball of goodness.  I enjoyed it much more on this occasion, maybe because I didn't force-feed myself with as much savoury food as the last time.  But this is a light and not overly sweet dessert, perfectly judged to close off a very nice lunch.  

To the best of my recollection, the mikan I had in September was far larger than this one.  Even to this day, I can't recall it as anything smaller than Wladimir Klitschko's fist.  Or maybe it was the enormity of the task of finishing it which made it appear far bigger than it actually was!

Les Mignardises - Madeleines with Lemon Curd, Canelés, Coffee and Chocolate Religieuses

I recently chanced across a Singaporean food blog which asked a most profound question: "Why are they called petits fours when they only serve you three pieces?"  Because, you nice person, "four" in French doesn't mean "the number four", it is actually Parisian shorthand for "maybe you should stop writing about food".  Anyway, I gotta call these "mignardises" because I only got three pieces and I don't want to confuse the chirpy schoolgirls who read my blog; they probably have enough trouble working out why Hello Kitty still looks the same after 40 years.

Sorry for the tangent.  I have said before that Koh is a super-gifted pastry chef with a talent for both the classical and modern forms of the art.  I was so enamoured of her work that I cast a vote for her as Asia's Best Pastry Chef in the recent 50 Best poll (she didn't win, but hey).  The religieuses in particular, little choux puffs filled with crème pâtissière, were delicate and delightful.


Food and experience aside, this was the first of a series of events celebrating their 20 years, with many of them having a charity focus.  Dinner tonight at Les Amis, for a fixed price of S$380++, will see 50% of all proceeds (not profits) going to charity.  There will also be a big charity dinner with auction tomorrow night at Les Amis, and, I think, next weekend also at Au Jardin, which will be one of the last dinners at Au Jardin before it closes to make way for a mass-market wine bar.  According to Chairman Desmond Lim (no relation to Raymond), these dinners are to raise funds for the culinary programmes at Temasek Polytechnic and the Institute of Technical Education.  Les Amis has been supporting these institutions with scholarships and internships for their students, and it is nice to see Les Amis re-investing in the industry which has given them so much, and which in turn they have played a significant part in building.  Please contact Les Amis for more details on the charity events, and other promotions at Les Amis Group outlets until the end of March.

And of course, the dining experience at the flagship restaurant remains excellent.  I believe that Lepinoy and Koh are producing as excellent a combination of the savoury and sweet as ever came out of Les Amis'  kitchens, and today's lunch merely reinforced my views.  With the newly reduced prices, the Les Amis of 2014 also represents much better value than it has in recent years.

1 Scotts Road
#02-16 Shaw Centre
Singapore 228208
Tel: +65 6733 2225
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

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