Sunday, 14 September 2014

A Review of Jaan's Ultimate Krug Menu - The Triumph of Experience

After my maiden visit to Julien Royer's Jaan early last year, I wrote that while the meal was supremely enjoyable, I had the sense that the young Royer, who had just turned 30 at the time, was still in the process of finding his voice.  But a year is a long time in the life of a chef and a restaurant, and a visit a couple of weeks ago left me with conflicting thoughts: is Royer, with an extra year of maturity and experience under his belt, perhaps the best fine dining chef in Singapore today?

I was invited recently back to the towering phallus-like Swissotel the Stamford to sample Jaan's "Ultimate Krug Menu".  The name says it all really: it is a menu paired with Krug champagnes, and is, well, ultimate.  Jaan is the only restaurant in Singapore appointed by Krug Champagne as a Krug Restaurant Ambassade, joining the illustrious company of restaurants such as Flocons de Sel in Megeve, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, my wife's favourite restaurant in the whole world L'Assiette Champenoise, and Brasserie Enfin in Kuala Lumpur (yeah, I did a double-take too).  

Now Krug is rarely mentioned in my household, and seen even less often in my glass.   If you are in the same boat, allow me to repeat a story I heard a couple of decades ago, which told me all I needed to know about Krug champagnes,and the Krug family which still runs the house under LVMH's benevolent umbrella.  When a male baby is born into the Krug family, he is given a taste of Krug champagne before his first taste of mother's milk.  Verb. sap.

As it happened, Royer was on a half-day when I visited, so his trusty sous Kirk Westaway would be cooking for us this evening.  I like to think that Royer feared the power of my rapier-like keyboard and decided to throw Westaway to the proverbial lions, but the truth is probably that he just needed an evening off.

To start the evening off, the charming manager Frank Philippe pours us a glass of Ruinart Rose NV.  "Because you will be drinking Krug for the rest of the night, I thought you might like something different to start".  The Ruinart is surprisingly fruity, with strong aromas of strawberries and blueberries.  

Many restaurant critics like to say "you can't eat the view".  Sure that's true, but that's no reason why I can't and shouldn't enjoy it.

Canapés: Beetroot Macaron with Cervelle de Canuts, Parmesan Tart and Tomato Fondue, Cantal and Walnut Crackers; Lentil "Hummus" with Cereal Tuiles; Mushroom Tea and Cep Sabayon

First, a platter of three dainty treats.  The beetroot macarons are pleasant if a little rustic-looking; certainly, I think they would have a greater trompe l' oeil effect if they had the frilly feet and smooth finish of a typical macaron.  The filling of cervelle des canuts, a Lyonnaise cream cheese mix made tarter with vinegar, is brilliantly set against the sweetness of the beetroot.  The parmesan tartlet and tomato fondue is excellent, quality natural products allowed centre-stage.

This is one of Royer's signature starters, and I enjoyed it as much today as I did back then.  This version appears to have more textural contrasts, though, with whole lentils studded in the top and the lentil / chestnut paste mixture being blitzed to a finer consistency and some free-floating oil helping it all slide down more smoothly.  It is sweet, nutty and gorgeously rustic.

The Mushroom Tea and Cep Sabayon is again, nutty, earthy-sweet and with that wild umami from the fungi, and I find this to be a common flavour profile in Royer's cooking.  Grains of toasted buckwheat add texture and substance.

First Entrée: Hand-Dived Scallop "Au Naturel" with Radish, Dill and Horseradish
Wine Pairing: 2000 Krug Clos du Mesnil

Wonderfully clean and focused flavours.  The scallop, wild and harvested by hand from the cold waters of Norway, is sweet, smooth and sexy.  Two kinds of radish pickles add a little hit of salt and acid, while the parsley coulis adds a contrasting touch of bitterness.

The Clos du Mesnil immediately announces its greatness, with a bracing but not abrasive acidity, and a finish that goes longer than a Fidel Castro rally.  Personally, though, if I was spending over a thousand bucks on this bottle (that is the average price on Wine Searcher), I would leave it alone for at least another five to ten years before touching it again.

Second Entrée: Zucchini Trumbetta, Burrata Artigiana, Tomato "Collection", Nicoise Olive
Wine Pairing" 2000 Krug Vintage

I am told that this dish is intended to be a showcase of the trumpet zucchini, an heirloom zucchini from Italy.  Here, the zucchini is presented in three ways: a flower stuffed with burrata and fried as tempura, simply seasoned and presented as a crudite, and cooked and presented in the fashion of pasta.  Accompanying this declinaison are wedges of heirloom tomato and olive tapenade.  Little pinches of artisanal burrata provide seasoning and an unctuous, chewy texture that explodes with flavour.

For me , though, having been in Singapore for seven years, the zucchini is the clear hero of this dish.  It is always a pleasure to enjoy a wonderfully fresh and delicious vegetable, a rare pleasure on this island where almost all of our produce is imported (meaning harvested before its prime and chucked into cold storage for a period before it is put on sale).

I am not a fan of the Krug Vintage 2000.  People like to describe certain vintages as "winemaker's vintages", which is another way of saying that the winemaker needed to pull out all stops in the cellar to produce decent wines.  2000 was probably a "marketing department vintage" in Champagne, in that it was probably too good a marketing opportunity not to declare 2000 as a vintage year.  The Krug 2000 struck me as being a bit thin and unbalanced, and fell short compared to the non-vintage Grande Cuvee.

Third Entrée: 55 Degree Rosemary Smoked Egg, Sous Vide Potato Balls, Toasted Buckwheat
Wine Pairing: 2000 Krug Vintage

This is another of Royer's signature dishes.  While I liked it on my last visit, I thought the rosemary smoke was too aggressive, and off-putting.  I don't care whether the smoke carries a rosemary perfume, threads of smoke worming their way into my nostrils are not an ideal precursor to anything, let alone a meal.

This time, however, the dish seems to have evolved, with less of the burning rosemary under my glass bowl.  Chorizo has stepped in the place of the jamon, adding a mildly spicy touch, and sous vide balls of potato are chewy, pillowy bites of comfort.  You can tell from the colour of the New Zealand organic egg's yolk that it will taste amazing, and it does.  In its current evolution, this is the ultimate decadent breakfast dish: I would be happy to go to sleep after eating this, just so I can wake up and have it again.

First Main Course: Brittany Blue Lobster, Barley Risotto, Manjimup Black Truffle, Mushroom "Ketchup"
Wine Pairing: Krug Grande Cuvée NV

Philippe brings the live Breton lobster to us on a wooden tray, and the lobster is rather reticent to meet me.  Philippe apologises, "He was a lot more active earlier, but then he saw Kirk and...", finishing with an eloquent Gallic shrug.  

I don't particularly enjoy the ritual of meeting my food eye-to-eye, but I guess that is the price, and it's a fair one, of asserting my primacy at the top of the food chain.  Thankfully, my crustacean friend gives up his life for a good cause.  Breton lobsters cook to a more substantial, "tougher" texture than the soft, smooth Maine lobsters, and the cuisson of this lobster is absolutely spot-on.  The risotto is chunky with large barley grains, and the mushroom ketchup, which always looks like oyster sauce to me, adds that peasant earthy-sweetness that Royer seems particularly enamoured of, cut through with a vibrant acidity that brings the entire dish to life.  The only let-down in this dish is the black Manjimup truffle, which is elusive on perfume and flavour.

The Krug Grande Cuvée is a man's champagne, meaty, chunky and with lots of oomph.  For me, it was the best-drinking champagne on the evening.

Second Main Course: Hay-Roasted Bresse Pigeon, Corn, Bread, Liquorice
Wine Pairing: Krug Rosé NV

Beautifully cooked pigeon, with its iron-rich sanguine flavour tempered with the sweetness of creamed corn and friend bread.  My only criticism is that the breast bled a little into the liquorice sauce poured on at the table (see the pink streak in the bottom-right hand corner of the dish).  But this is not a cooking competition, and the dish is still extremely enjoyable.

Cheese Course

Jaan sources its cheeses from Bernard Antony, and we enjoy a brie de Meaux, Saint-Maure, Abbaye d'Echourgnac, Fourme d'Ambert and Roquefort.  Cheeses are in excellent condition and served with beautiful slices of fruit bread and crackers, as well as three fruit conserves.  Big credit must go to our server Ling, who does a very decent job explaining the cheeses, and also pronouncing their names!  Many a good waiter in Singapore has come face-to-face with their shortcomings when serving cheese, and it is an uncomfortable experience for the diner to go through the process with them.

Pre-Dessert: Kyoho Grape, Elderflower Snow, Sago Pearls

I'm not going to dream about this preparation when I go to bed tonight, but it was a good palate cleanser after a strong-smelling and tasting cheese plate.

Dessert: Gariguette Strawberries

There is nothing I like more than a good strawberry dessert, and this deconstructed mille-feuille is nothing short of excellent.  Shards of puff pastry are interleavened with slices of gariguette strawberrry, marshmallow and yoghurt sorbet, while Westaway spoons on more chunks of gariguette strawberry cooked in strawberry jam table-side.  Flavours are beautifully balanced, with the natural sweetness and acidity of the fruit complemented with tartness from the ice-cream. Beautiful contrasts of temperature (cold ice-cream, room temperature marshmallow and strawberry, and hot strawberries) and texture (crispy puff pastry, fresh and cooked strawberry, and chewy marshmallow) make this a brilliant finish.

I remark to Ling that this was a far superior dessert to Royer's signature "Choconuts" (at least the 2013 version thereof).  Ling seems to regard my comment as sacrilege, and says I should really try Choconuts, version 2014.  Well, that's another thing my pancreas can look forward to.

Petits Fours

Pleasant, but I would be hard-pressed to say much more about these.  Perhaps more memorable for the visual effect.


To be honest, calling this the "Ultimate Krug Menu" sells the menu short, because for me, the food far overshadows the wine.  People like to say that Champagne pairs with anything, and while there is truth in that statement, the reality is that it is rarely the best match for anything.

Royer's food now has a laser-like focus.  The product is now, more than ever, the hero of each dish, and each evolution of his dishes has been to emphasise the quality of the starring ingredient.  His food has a more mainstream and universal appeal than say, Andre Chiang's: flavours are earthy, strong, peasant-like yet incredibly refined, thoughtful and shorn of pretension.  That Westaway was able to deliver preparations of this quality is as much a credit to his skill, as it is to Royer that his brigade can function so well without him.

This was the strongest meal I have had in a Singapore restaurant this year.  I will continue keeping an eye on what Royer does in the future, not because I think he is still finding his voice, but simply because it is a sheer pleasure enjoying the work of an artisan at the peak of his powers.

(Edited June 2015: Julien Royer has now left Jaan, apparently tendering his resignation the day after the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants award ceremony.  He will be starting a new venture with the Lo and Behold Group in October 2015 at the National Art Gallery.  There hasn't yet been a formal announcement of Royer's replacement, but I cannot imagine that Fairmont-Swissotel F&B Director Nick Flynn is going to miss a beat on this one).

Level 70, Equinox Complex
Swissotel the Stamford
2 Stamford Road
Singapore 178882
BYO Policy: $100++ per 750mL bottle; BYO not otherwise allowed.  Please click here for a list of Singapore restaurants which allow BYO, and their corkage policies.
Tel: +65 9199 9008

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