Saturday, 10 October 2015

Sweet Singapore 1 - A Dessert Degustation by Cheryl Koh of Les Amis

I have 32 sweet teeth.  I also have a dessert stomach.  Hell, I recently catalogued my wine collection (such as it is) and found I had more sweet wines than table wines.  To make matters worse, my family also has a strong diabetic history.

I believe these characteristics make me eminently qualified to write this, the first post in a series which I have titled "Sweet Singapore".  I want to shine the spotlight on the talented pastry and dessert chefs of Singapore, whose emotions are recollected in tranquility rather than the rough-and-tumble of the hot kitchen.  More often they are not, their works, however ephemeral, are overshadowed by the savouries.  I say now, "this ends here".

To start this series, I visited Cheryl Koh of Les Amis, a born-and-bred Singaporean chef who has been seducing diners with her mix of classic technique and bold yet sophisticated flavours. Having worked at the Raffles Hotel, the Michelin-starred Laserre and then most recently Cepage in Hong Kong, she has been leading the pastry programme at Les Amis since her return home in early 2013.

I first tasted Cheryl's desserts during a "welcome dinner" at Les Amis to break-in their new culinary team, led by executive chef Sebastien Lepinoy and chef pâtissière Cheryl.  After eight courses of tremendous cooking, Cheryl wheeled out a trolley, the arch-traditional chariot des desserts.  And what wonders did I find!  Baba au rhum, tarte au chocolat amer, cherry clafoutis, fig tart.  I felt my alcohol-tinged imagination sweep me back to Paris, and I wasn't to be disappointed at tasting.  The baba was light yet suitably rum-soaked, the crumbly shortcrust on my bitter chocolate tart supporting the lingering finish of the dark chocolate, the cherries of late summer exploding in my mouth.

Yet since then, I have had nary a glimpse of this elfin genius.  Les Amis' menus feature a goodly number of savoury courses (typically at least 5), but always with only one dessert.  Don't get me wrong, I like Lepinoy's cooking, in fact I love it, but having only one dessert is kind of like the fleeting, very occasional flirtation with the girl-next-door; you think you like her, but you never have the opportunity / courage to really find out.  All you have is a puppy dog infatuation and a warm contented feeling when she flashes her pearly-whites at you.  Very pleasant, heartwarming even, but ultimately unsatisfactory.

So of course I grasped the nettle and asked my old friend Royston Soo to help me organise a four-course dessert degustation at Les Amis, and he was only too happy to comply. My friend Mel had been pestering me for months to do a lunch at Les Amis, so I thought bringing him along might silence him for a moment..

Royston very kindly set up the Chef's Table for two, which gives us a superb view into Les Amis' brand-spanking new kitchen.  Appropriately enough, the sweet section of the kitchen is in the foreground, and Cheryl is expediting desserts with her back to us.

First Dessert: Pear Williams

Slices of Williams Pear from the Loire Valley are poached in their own juices, infused with star anise and bourbon vanilla, overlaying a caramel crème pâtissière.  The combination of pear and vanilla is classic, spiced up with the star anise, and the pear slices are incredibly tender yet firm enough to hold their shape and maintain the structure of the dome.  Mel loves his caramel so the creme pat does him in.  Very good.

Second Dessert: Reine des Reinettes Apple, baked in a "savarin" mould served on a spiced biscuit, with cinnamon ice cream

Reine des reinettes apples from the Loire Valley (there's a pattern here, and I'm not surprised to also learn that Lepinoy is also a native of the Loire Valley) appear in two preparations here, first diced and infused with cinnamon, and sliced and folded over in a savarin mould before baking.  The underlying cinammon biscuit reminds me of a crispy, thin speculoos and adds a further textural dimension.  "Soft-serve"(at least that's what it reminds me of) cinammon ice-cream is then piped onto the baked apple and ringed with a green coulis from Granny Smith apples.  Flavours are unrepentantly apple-y, with the tart Granny Smith preventing the whole lot from going over the top.  Again, very good, if a bit bigger (in all material respects) than the Pear Williams.

Third Dessert: Chocolate Mille-Feuille; Cocoa Puff Pastry with "Alunga" Milk Chocolate Ganache

Surprisingly, Lepinoy introduces our third dessert.  Apparently, Alain Passard first introduced the chocolate mille-feuille at his three-Michelin-starred L'Arpege in the 1980s, mixing cocoa powder into the dough prior to layering it with the softened butter.  This is Cheryl's hommage to that variation on the classic recipe.  I love the flaky, crumbly pastry, and doubling up on the chocolate is a great idea , but I find the ganache rather thick and rich as a filling given there is no other sauce or fruit element on the plate.  Still an enjoyable dish, but I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn't already had two desserts.

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

Cheryl's signature dessert, I have encountered the Mikan (Japanese tangerine) on previous occasions but never have I been so grateful for it.  This is a "nose-to-tail" rendition of the mikan, with all parts of the fruit utilised: the peel candied and stuffed with a mikan sorbet and panna cotta, a whole segment of the fruit presented on top and the unadulterated juice used as a sauce.  The dish is sweet, cold, only lightly tart and amazingly refreshing, a suitable finish to a large meal (or an orgy of sugar, as here).  Superb, and in the context of the progression, this is my favourite dish of the tasting.  The only discordant note is the Earl Grey jelly, which doesn't seem to add much apart from its texture.

Chocolate Truffles

Cheryl brings this little platter to us, a stunning blown sugar swan with dark chocolate truffles rolled in cocoa powder.  The truffles themselves are great, but I have to admit I am more taken with the sugar work for the swan.  When was the last time you saw such sugar work presented in a restaurant?  Certainly, outside of sugar-working and pastry competitions, I had thought these pièce montée-type ornaments had gone extinct!  I was very glad to be wrong on that point.

Le Chef

I catch up with Cheryl after the sugary feast, to thank her for her valiant efforts and their delicious results.  

Cheryl is very honest with where she sees her work and its positioning, especially its insistence on traditional flavour associations and classic technique.   "What we do here is very un-trendy", she says without any self-deprecation.  "And we do everything in-house, even the sugar work".  Cheryl indicates her "sugar man" through the window of the chef's table, and he goofily grins and waves at us.  "Our pastry cooks haven't done sugar work since they left school, and they love getting back in touch with what they learnt."   Yep, he really seems to be enjoying himself!

I mention to Cheryl how, even purely from an aesthetic point of view, I enjoy the structure and perfect symmetry of the forms she creates.  She agrees, before quipping "Most of the desserts you have in restaurants these days look like gardens!"  And when I mention the chariot des desserts, she gets really excited and mentions she would love the chance to do it again.  I promise her I will be back with a large group soon just so she can execute it for us.


I set this date up expecting to be blown away, and I was.  Cheryl's palate is classic and focused, eschewing the wankery that marks most hipster kitchens (microwaved sponges, soils, foams, micro-herbs and edible flowers, etc.).  There is not, as one often sees with the gardens, a veritable cornucopia of ingredients; instead, all techniques and frills are trained on bringing out the flavour of the star ingredient.  And they taste very, very good.

Singapore restaurants have largely abandoned the classic French recipes and techniques, which I think is a damned shame.  I am all in favour of freestyling and liberal expressions of creativity, but the reality is so many "modern desserts", devoid of classic technique or knowledge of flavour associations, or merely carbon copies of "unique dishes" encountered elsewhere by their authors, never reach the heights of the classics.  Speaking of classics, when was the last time you saw Paris-Brest, the 105-year old dessert consisting of a choux pastry sandwiching praline cream, on a Singaporean restaurant menu?  Well, here at Les Amis if you had visited for lunch a fortnight ago (I hadn't). And there's a reason why people are still making it 105 years later.

Cheryl's stylings are so vastly different from her avant-garde predecessor Daniel Texter (the German-born Noma alumnus who is now plying his craft with Adriano Zumbo in Melbourne) that they need to be tasted to be believed.  Which is not to say that they are staid or trapped in the past.  The desserts I tasted today are still modern - fruit-based, light, certainly not overly sweet or laden with heavy flour or other carbs.  I am not going to say which is better as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this beholder very much likes the direction in which Cheryl Koh is taking the sweet side of Les Amis.

NB Cheryl has also set up a pastry boutique along Claymore Hill, Tarte by Cheryl Koh, which sells various dessert tarts for takeaway.  If dining at Les Amis is not your thing, you can sample Cheryl's work here.  I had an Iranian pistachio tart a few weeks back, a delightful little number with a pistachio-based frangipane, light pistachio cream and a gorgeously light, flaky pastry.  It seems this woman can do no wrong.

NB2 Who would you like to see featured in a new instalment of the Sweet Singapore series?  Drop me a line via email or in the comments section.

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$55++ for lunch; from S$170++ for dinner

1 Scotts Road, 
#01-12 Shaw Centre, 
Singapore 228208
Tel: +65 6235 3225
Small tarts from $8-9, regular tarts from $30-$34.

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