Saturday, 31 January 2015

A Review of Aziamendi - Michelin-Star Quality Dining in Greater Phuket, Thailand

Across the Sarasin Bridge from Phuket Island, a boutique pleasure dome called Iniala Beach House is re-defining luxury and gastronomy in the greater Phuket area.

Opened by English entrepreneur-cum-philanthropist Mark Weingard, Iniala brings together some of the world’s leading designers, including the Campana Brothers of Brazil, Spain’s A-Cero (who designed star footballer Fernando Torres’ beachhouse) and Thai design doyen Eggarat Wongcharit.  Set against the tranquillity of Natai Beach, the 20-bed Iniala provides a self-contained, hedonistic experience miles away, literally and conceptually, from the crowded beach resorts of a typical Phuket summer holiday.

But Iniala is gaining headlines for its flagship restaurant, Aziamendi, for two very good reasons.  Firstly, its Executive Chef Eneko Atxa is, at 35 years of age, the youngest chef in Spain to win three Michelin stars for his avant-garde Azurmendi Restaurant in Biscay.  Secondly, with accommodation at Iniala starting from US$795 per night in the low season, it is probably the only flavour of Iniala that us mere mortals will ever be able to afford!

As with all things at Iniala, no expense has been spared in the creation of Aziamendi.  Its head chef, talented young American Alex Burger (below left) spent five years working in Daniel Boulud’s New York empire and spent a few months as a stagier at Azurmendi in 2012, catching Atxa’s eye and making him the natural choice to head up Atxa’s Thai outpost.  David Inglada, formerly Best Restaurant Pastry Chef of Spain (below right), leads the desserts section as well as the entire Iniala pastry operation.  The front-of-house is headed by Behzad Davarkia and sommelier Fabien Etienne, both most recently working at Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner in London.   As Burger adds, “Many of our kitchen team have worked or trained overseas.  I looked for staff who were young, motivated and could speak English at a good level”.

The Aziamendi experience really starts in earnest before you step into the restaurant, a dark-glassed ground floor space beneath the futuristic Graham Lamb-designed Penthouse Suite (yours for a measly US$2,000++ per night during low season).  The dining room itself is large, with enough space between tables to squeeze in a small village or two.  The design and art theme which drives Iniala are very much in evidence here; the wavy ceiling designs reflect the inspiration of the Andaman Sea, while the restaurant’s entrance is flanked with works from famous Southeast Asian artists.  In keeping with its tropical resort theme, is that there is no fuss or formality when it comes to dress codes: guests walk in in T-shirts and three-quarter length pants without any self-consciousness (or contempt from the floor staff!)

Of the dinners I have had at such restaurants, it must be said that this one at Aziamendi gets off to one of the roughest and most disappointing starts.  Guests are invited to take their hors d’oeuvres outside, including a cherry tomato “grafted” onto a bonsai tree (a homage to Azurmendi).  However, in the smouldering heat and humidity of Phuket in April, the tomato and raspberry puree-injected tomato limply falls off its “stalk” and onto the immaculately maintained lawn.  The same fate awaits a “peanut” composed of crushed peanuts, which literally wilted in my fingers within a couple of seconds and collapsed to join its friend the tomato on the grass.

But much as in boxing, it is not about how many times you get knocked down, but how many times you can get up.  Once we are back in the restaurant, everything starts to look up.  Guests are led to the kitchen pass, where a naked Chiang Mai free-range egg yolk rests on a metal spoon.  A chef deftly pierces a little hole in the yolk’s membrane, taps about two-thirds of the yolk before replacing it with a syringe full of warm truffle purée.  Taking it in one mouthful, you get the creamy textured yolk, the intense, earthy perfume of the truffle and the comforting warmth of the purée.  The ingredient and flavour combination is classic, but the presentation is dramatic. And the entire tableau proves another point: the kitchen has utmost confidence in its chefs and physical set-up, and hides nothing from its guests.

Truffled Egg
The savoury courses are genuinely world-class, and Burger’s food reminds me in no little way of Andre Chiang’s.  While each plate often incorporates multiple preparations, each pristine element is left to find its own voice with few adornments.  Take his Fine de Claire oyster topped simply with sliced salicornia (a saltmarsh herb)and seawater jelly.  The salicornia with its light crunch and savoury notes, and the jelly with its mouth-filling marine saltiness, serve only to emphasise the character of the oyster.  Likewise, “Foie Gras Ashes” is firmly grounded in its local terroir, served on a piece of Natai Beach driftwood suitably cleaned, treated and planed down.  The aesthetic is very natural, very unfussy, and the foie gras terrine, topped with shavings of frozen foie gras, tastes very, very good.

Foie Gras Ashes
Incorporating Asian flavours with Atxa’s Basque sensitivities, Burger has also managed to adapt some of Aziamendi’s classic dishes to a new audience.  Atxa’s “Earth Tea Service”, imagined at Azurmendi as a distillation of champignons de Paris, is given a distinctly Eastern twist with the addition of local shiitake and king oyster mushrooms.  The result is a quintessence of umami, rich and persistent on the palate, yet still warming and refreshing.

Earth Tea Service
I also love the fact that the long menus (11+ courses for the “Twist”) are punctuated with light, flavoursome soup components, whether it be the shot glass of armagnac-infused black magic served with squid ink-dipped baby squid hot off the plancha, or a dashi stock served with suckling pig and pumpkin noodles, a subtle nod to the East Asian tradition of serving noodles in the final savoury course.  Using soup as a medium allows the kitchen to deliver strong, punchy flavours without cloying the palate, or relying on heavy sauces unsuited to the tropical climate.

Sommelier Etienne struggles valiantly against Thailand’s punitive alcohol taxes, offering pairing flights composed entirely of Thai or Basque wines at THB 2,000++ and THB2,200++ respectively.  The Basque wines come from Bodega Gorka Izagirre, owned by Atxa’s uncle.  The Thai wines are not going to rock your world, but are perfectly fruity and approachable when properly chilled.  Etienne is also happy to provide a more traditional pairing from his 400-label list, ranging from Roederer Cristal Rosé to a 2011 Robert Weil Riesling Trocken, almost colourless yet with the trademark acidity and minerally petroleum character.  I admire that Etienne is also making the effort to train up his local brigade.  Despite the fact that I am dining this evening with Iniala GM Danny Drinkwater (himself a very talented chef) and Weingard’s ex-wife, wine service is conducted very capably by one of the local staff.

Desserts follow a similar theme, trying to make use of local ingredients such as mango and coconut.  While pleasant, they do not make the same impression.  Which is a shame, because Inglada is a true savant and I cannot believe that he is achieving to his potential at the moment.  His breakfast croissants, for example, are buttery miracles and undoubtedly the very best I have had in Asia.  While he is responsible for conceptualising Aziamendi’s desserts, he is not in the kitchen during dinner service so I can only imagine he does not want to burden others with his genius.

Despite what I said earlier about relative affordability, dining at Aziamendi is not cheap, and its set menus start from THB6,000, comparable to a top-level European restaurant in Singapore.  But you see, and more importantly taste, where the money has gone.

I need to mention the philanthropic angle of the Iniala-Aziamendi project.  5% of all Aziamendi's revenues (not profits) are donated to Weingard's Inspirasia Foundation, as are 10% of all of Iniala's room revenues.  And more than just a Phuket high-season play, Aziamendi shuts at the end of April, and relocates as a pop-up in another exotic destination.  “It’s great for team morale, as opposed to just being quiet during the monsoon season”, Drinkwater shares, “and it gives them the opportunity to travel”.  This year, it was Malta’s turn, with the Aziamendi team opening for 100 nights in an old palazzo in Valetta.

With the experience of a full season behind them, Aziamendi’s team will doubtless be keenly watched this year by gastronomes from the region and beyond (on the evening I was there, I recognised two-Michelin starred Italian chef Norbert Niederkofler amongst the diners).  While Kuala Lumpur is experiencing a dining renaissance with the high-profile openings this year of Nobu and DC Restaurant, the general trend elsewhere in the region appears to be the introduction of casual concepts by celebrity chefs such as David Thompson, Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay.  Against this backdrop, Aziamendi’s naked ambition is a very welcome change. 

40/14 Moo 6 Natai Beach
Khok Kloi
Phang-Nga 82140 Thailand
Tel: +66 93 779 2312

Advance reservations essential

An edited version of this article appeared in the October-November edition of Life Inspired, the Sunday Star's lifestyle liftout.

Friday, 16 January 2015

A Review of Luke's at The Heeren - Good Comfort Food at Uncomfortable Prices

In my bumbling, random way, I had managed to never set foot in one of the Luke's restaurants.  Perhaps it was the fact that they charged nine dollars per oyster, as heinous an act of highway robbery as ever occurred on Orchard Road.  Whatever it was, I finally decided to bite the bullet at Luke's Heeren outlet and see what the fuss was all about.

The View of Orchard Road from the Oyster Bar

Friday, 9 January 2015

Friday, 2 January 2015

A Review of Clifford Pier - Great Singaporean Food in a Hotel, Awful Hotel Wine List

During the dog days of another Singaporean Christmas, I thought a little treat was in order.  So I snuck across the OUE Link Bridge to Clifford Pier, which was been winning quite strong reviews for its distinctly Singaporean menu.