Sunday, 13 March 2016

Review of Bar-a-Thym, Singapore - French Omakase with Winemaker Marc Beyer

I first visited Bar-a-Thym during the dog days of the haze in September last year.  I never got around to writing a review of that meal, in part because I was lazy and mostly because the PSI reading that night was around 270.  Every time the sliding door slid open (which was more often than I would have liked), I caught a most unwelcome nostrilful of Sumatran arômes de fumée.  I did enjoy the evening despite all that, and the cooking of chef-owner Francois Mermilliod (ex-Absinthe and Flutes at the Fort) showed a lot of promise.  When my friend, the winegrower Marc Beyer of the renowned Maison Leon Beyer in Alsace said he was visiting Singapore, I decided a return visit was in order.

Marc Beyer and Wines at Bar-a-Thym (courtesy Kenneth Tiong)
We reconvened the Alsace Society to welcome Marc on his first visit to Singapore since 2012 (I first met Marc at Taberna during a tutored tasting that visit).   When Marc walked in, he asked one of the waiters where Francois was from.  When the answer came back "Perpignan", Marc grinned at me and said "Ah, so he's a Spaniard, he's not even French!"  I hesitated to remind Marc not to open that particular can of worms.  When Francois came around to say hi, Marc greeted him "Ah, l'espagnol de Perpignan!" Francois, never short of a comeback, shot back "Ah, l'allemand d'Alsace!"  Marc shot me a glance in mock horror and burst out laughing; they started chatting and tasting the wines, in what I can only describe as a very authentic French bonhomie.

Marc gave us a sneak peek at his stunning 2010 Rieslings (as yet commercially unreleased, so perhaps a world first exclusively for Society members?) and some library vintages which he shipped over specially for this visit.  I gave Francois a budget of $150 per diner, and asked him to work his magic (with a few suggestions, of course!).

Aperitif: Léon Beyer Cremant d'Alsace NV

A blend of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Auxerrois, vinified using the methode traditionelle (cf. proseccos).  It's hardly going to change your world, but with a vigorous fizz and a clean, fresh finish, it makes an ideal and refreshing aperitif for the Singapore climate.

First Entrée: Duo of Gillardeau and Irish Majestic Oysters
Wine Pairings: 2010 Léon Beyer Riesling "Les Ecaillers"; 2001 Léon Beyer Riesling "Les Ecaillers"

A very generous pair of each oyster variety, freshly shucked with the liquor still inside the shell.  The 2010 Ecaillers is a stunning wine, with intense aromas and palate of fresh lemons and limes, finishing with a laser-like acidity and a distinctly saline finish.  I insisted that Francois serve oysters to match with this cuvee; Marc's father Leon Beyer II vinified this wine to go with the thousands of oysters opened during the Coupe Leon Beyer oyster shucking competitions, which took place before lunches at the gastronomic Club Prosper Montagne.  From the chalky and limestone-rich Sundel hillside of Grand Cru Pfersigberg.  A beautiful match with fresh oysters, and one which removes the need to add fresh lemon or other acids to the oyster.  The 2001 was far more integrated and restrained, which Marc suggested would go better with a cooked fish dish.

Second Entrée: Hokkaido Scallops with Braised Daikon and Yuzu Emulsion
Wine Pairing: 2008  Léon Beyer Riesling Comtes d'Eguisheim

The scallops were beautifully cooked, just raw on the inside with a gorgeous sweetness, and I liked how the dashi-braised daikon added some notes of umami without overwhelming the sweetness of the scallop. Marc agreed, saying the only way he could have improved on the dish would have been with a bit more seasoning before cooking.  The Riesling Comtes d'Eguisheim, vinified from fruit from the Stich hillside (limestone, marl and clay) of the Grand Cru Pfersigberg, emanates an intensity and power that cuts beautifully through the scallop, with the very clean acid signature of the 2008 vintage.  Incidentally, the heterogeneity of the Pfersigberg (and other) "vineyards" delimited by the Alsace Grand Cru system, is the main reason why Leon Beyer does not use the Alsace Grand Cru designation on its labels (although, as I learned from Marc, Beyer applies for, and obtains, the right to use the designation at every harvest and vinification for its Comtes d'Eguisheim range, although it never exercises that right).

First Main: Iberico Pork Pluma Cooked on the Plancha, Red Chard
Wine Pairing: 2008 Léon Beyer Pinot Gris Comtes d'Eguisheim

I was perfectly comfortable with this pairing on paper, but unbeknownst to me, Francois chose to dress his grilled pork shoulder pieces with a jus that was both sweet and mildly spicy.  The Pinot Gris is, in keeping with Beyer's house style, dry and mineral, and I would have been perfectly comfortable serving it with pork, but I think the sauce proved its undoing.  That said, the pork is absolutely stunning on its own (bravely cooked pink to maintain the gorgeous juiciness and fattiness of the cut), and the wine, again on its own, is stellar, rich of body and varietally classic stone fruit character (rated 95+ points by Ian d'Agata for Vinous).  Marc didn't mind the pairing at all, so I guess the lesson here is to each his own!

Second Main: John Dory with Thyme and Truffle Jus , Grilled Vegetables
Wine Pairing: 2008 Léon Beyer Gewurztraminer Comtes d'Eguisheim


The original plan was to have a lobster a l'armoricaine, one of the classic associations for a big, dry Gewurztrminer, but unfortunately, Francois said he could not fit it into the budget.  So it morphed into a wild-caught New Zealand grouper, and I hoped that the meatiness of the fish, enhanced with the thyme and truffle jus and smoky sweetness of the grilled vegetables, would prove a good foil for the majestic Gewurz Comtes.  Unfortunately, the groupers decided to stay home when they heard Marc was visiting, so we had to make do with a John Dory.  Which is an excellent fish on most occasions, but while the vegetables and jus tried their hardest, the Dory's thin fillet and flaky texture was unfortunately overwhelmed by the intensity of the Gewurz.  Maybe we should have followed the traditional Alsatian way and wound up our repast with a hot foie gras preparation (although query whether that would have fitted into our budget?).  Again, however, I cannot fault the dish, which was superb.  The Gewurz is not your hedonistic fruit bomb of a Gewurz, but a more disciplined, stentorian vintage full of structure and minerality.  Marc suggested this may have been a more appropriate pairing with the iberico pluma with the mildly sweet and spicy sauce, and I dare say he might be correct.

To Finish: Tarte of Bernard Antony's Munster with Petite Salade
Wine Pairing: 1998 Léon Beyer Gewurztraminer Vendanges Tardives


A classic pairing and one which won unanimous praise from the guests.   I always love a good Munster, and in a context in which Alsatian late-harvest wines always seem to be paired with desserts (perhaps something to do with the general Asian distaste for cheeses, especially super-stinky ones like Munster?), the Gewurz's power went toe-to-toe with the Munster, creating quite a delightful little dance on the palate.  Apparently, this wine was originally harvested as a SGN, but given it fermented so completely and left only 30 grams of residual sugar per litre, it was bottled as a VT instead.  Regardless, its intensity, body and length mark this out as a wine of true distinction.  Along with the 2010 Ecaillers Riesling, my wine of the night.

Conclusion

Wow, just wow on all levels.  I was very impressed by the virtuosity of Francois' creations, and sending out 21 plates of each dish at once and maintaining sterling quality is not the easiest thing to do.  Bar-a-Thym is not the kind of place where they coddle with you with complimentary amuse-bouches, entremets, mignardises, etc., but you get what you pay for, and what you get is very good.  The downside for me, as it often is with the smaller restaurants backed by more modest budgets (contrast, for example, against some higher-profile recent openings such as Corner House and Odette), the spaces are small and loud, which are not entirely ideal for events such as winemaker dinners.  But of course, smaller investments require smaller returns on capital, so the experience is much more affordable.

Special thanks of course go to Marc Beyer for taking time out from his busy schedule to host this wonderful dinner, and for supporting the Society with his wines both old and new.  His grandes cuvées, dry and mineral to the point of steeliness, are not the easiest introduction to Alsace wines for the novice consumer.  But for the enthusiast who wants a gastronomic wine that refreshes rather than dulls, and who is looking for superb value ($68 nett for a bottle of 2008 Riesling Comtes d'Eguisheim?), one could do no better.  His 2008 range has won a range of plaudits and good mid-90s scores from harsh critics such as David Schildknecht (formerly Alsace editor of the Wine Advocate) and Stephen Tanzer and Ian d'Agata (both now with Vinous), so regardless of whether you are a points man or a very independently-minded wine lover, these wines are definitely worth checking out.

BAR-A-THYM
18 Gemmill Lane
Singapore 069255
Tel: +65 6557 2224 / +65 8339 7270
Email: bar.a.thym.sg@gmail.com
www.bar-a-thym.sg

Leon Beyer wines are available through SK Wines and Consultancy.  Please write to sante@skwines.com.sg for purchases and general enquiries.  

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