Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Review of Lafite, Kuala Lumpur - There's Life in the Old Lady Yet

Maybe it's because I'm still an insecure young whippersnapper, maybe it's because I was not born with a million-dollar trust fund, never in line to rule the world by birthright.   Whatever the reason, I never cease to be dazzled, if only for a second, when I walk into the grand lobby of the Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur.  And much of that halo effect was derived from the hotel's long-time gastronomic crown jewel, the restaurant aptly named Lafite.


To say Lafite is a legend in Malaysian culinary circles is to understate the case.  For whatever reason, Malaysia's fine dining culture has been extremely slow in developing, and the 5-star hotels have dominated this sector to a degree unseen elsewhere.  In this (it has to be said, incredibly complacent) pack, Lafite has been the alpha rooster since it first opened its doors in 1985.  

But things have not always been rosy.  The restaurant has undergone various crises in the last decade, not least one revolving around its identity.  Its reputation, built solidly on a superlative wine list, correct service and equally classic French cuisine, suffered when it inexplicably turned to molecular cuisine in the late Noughties.  I vaguely remember a lunch with a member of management during the reign of the scientist-manqués.  The food was frankly unmemorable, ingredients were obviously second-rate, and only my good manners (thanks Mum) kept me silent.

I was, of course, not the only one to be disappointed thus.  Lafite seemed to stumble from pillar to post and never quite recovered its famous poise, alienating many of its crusted-on clientele.  A remark from one such former guest was "The place has needed a rocket up its overpriced and under-delivering arse for years".   When I met up with a few industry personalities a fortnight ago, they were whispering that "Lafite no longer has a chef de cuisine".  You could taste the glee and schadenfreude dripping thick from their maws.  

I visited last week, and I must say first impressions are not reassuring.  The lighting is dull and seat cushions are worn, providing no support for my rapidly-expanding posterior.  There are three other tables of diners, and they may all as well have been attending a particularly sombre funeral, for the amount of fun they were having.  Maybe it's the reputation of the place, but I don't see why anyone sensible would dress to the nines and pay a small fortune to come to a place like this, only to then gingerly poke at your food in solemn silence.

So I decide that I need a drink, particularly as my dining companions had not yet arrived.  I peruse the wine list, looking in vain for the one wine you would think a restaurant named Lafite should stock in abundance, and which would be suitable for a few moments of silent contemplation: vintage port.  

The list, allegedly compiled by Gerard Basset OBE, MW, MS, Wine MBA, is devoid of any fortified wines.  So I ask if they serve any vintage ports by the glass.  My friendly waitress brightens up.  "Yes we do sir, let me get you the list".  The drinks list from the bar arrives, and I turn to the relevant page.  Cockburn Ruby, Royal Oporto 10 years, Royal Oporto 20 years...there isn't a vintage port in sight.  So I raise the issue with my waitress again, who is more adamant than Wolverine that they serve vintage port.  "Look sir, it is here", she says indicating the Royal Oporto wines.  "Those are tawnies, not vintage ports", I reply.  She insists they are vintage, and I do all I can not to play the "YEAH, WELL I WAS THERE THREE WEEKS AGO!!!" card.  Finally, she relents and says she will talk to the sommelier.  This invisible personage, clearly far too important to come speak with me in person, sends word through my waitress that yes, the Royal Oporto wines are indeed tawnies, and they don't have any vintage ports.  See, that wasn't too hard...was it?

I need to say four-and-a-half words about "Mr Basset's" wine list: I'm not a fan.  As one of my dining companions delightfully put it, the wines by the glass look like they had been chosen based whether the importer offered a volume discount, rather than any consideration of quality.  Value for money is poor, and the list is dotted with eye-catching vintages like Yquem 1924, which looks great on paper until you learn that 1924 was a notoriously mediocre vintage for Yquem, a fact even the Château acknowledges on its website.

So I was not particularly blown away by the pre-gustative gestures.  To make matters worse, the breads, a couple each of mini baguettes, ciabatte and ryes, are bland, served with Echiré unsalted butter still in their foil wrapper.  They look good though, I guess, but I march to my fate, hoping for the best but expecting the worst.



Entrée: Wild Mushroom, Langoustine, Basil (RM120++)


This doesn't look like much, but it is surprisingly good.  A thin yet suitably firm and flavoursome buckwheat crepe is topped with cubes of sauteed wild mushroom tossed in a cream of Thai and lemon basil, before being topped with a film of "melted" langoustine.  The basil cream is quite strong though, and while it works beautifully with the mushrooms, it overwhelms the very thinly-sliced langoustine.

I don't have a picture of it, but my companions' Grilled Octopus with Black Garlic (RM120++) is excellent, tender and yielding to the knife, while the flavours are surprisingly synergistic.

Main Course: Cod Fish, Cod Donuts, Seaweed and Charlotte Potato Mash (RM112++)


Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first.  The cod has that distinct texture of thawed frozen fish, which is a bit more distracting than it should be.  But it is not the first time I have encountered mediocre imported seafood this trip; a mere two evenings ago, in the midst of an excellent tasting menu at Nadodi, it was no coincidence that the only two bad dishes out of eleven were seafood courses.  

As for the good stuff, the Charlotte potato mash is incredibly sinfully buttery, putting me in mind of Robuchon's iconic potato-butter hybrid.    Despite the fish being frozen, it has actually been cooked quite well, with a nice sear on the outside and remaining moist on the inside.  The seaweed emulsion eventually finds a flavour rapport with the fish.  Good.  

Again, I don't get a picture of my companions' 48-hour braised Angus Short Rib (RM125++), but it is again exceptional , even if the sauce is a tad sweet and over-reduced for my palate.  With this, we drink an eminently forgettable 2012 Moulin de La Lagune.  I'm not a claret man at the best of times, and with a second label from a mediocre vintage from a decidedly middle-of-the-road classed growth, this clearly wasn't the best of times.

Dessert: Braised Pineapple, Breton Crumble, Vanilla Ice Cream (RM48++)


Quite good.  The pineapple is tender, well-cooked and has great flavour, even if it doesn't quite have the wanton caramelisation of Blumenthal's Tipsy Cake.  Some might find the crumble a tad under, but the ice-cream is creamy and delicious.

My companions' Chocolate Textures dessert (RM48++) hits all the right notes, leaving me craving that little glass of vintage port, a craving which will go unsatiated tonight.  However, a plate of unripe Bordier cheese (RM86++, no choices) leaves us as cold as the cheese itself, and I find myself yet again bemoaning why Bordier cheese has suddenly become so ubiquitous in Malaysia and Singapore.  I don't know, perhaps they should swap the Echiré for Bordier butter, and get the cheese from somewhere decent?  Very disappointing.

Conclusion

It was a funny thing.  I was getting on a roll being all negative and critical about various aspects of the restaurant, but I had to take a step back and reassess my prejudices each time food was presented (except for the Bordier cheese plate) because these plates looked good, demanded attention, and often tasted excellent.   It was clear that there was talent in the kitchen, and I was glad to see it in the hotel's new executive chef, Olivier Pistre.

Pistre, the longtime second to renowned chef Philippe Labbé (who won two stars at the Château du Chevre d' Or and the Shangri-La Paris' L'Abeille), was appointed executive chef at the Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur in March 2017, in charge of all restaurants, catering and banqueting, etc.   "But I told them if they want a chef who sits behind the computer, they got the wrong guy!" he laughs easily.  

I like Pistre: he is sincere, hardworking, eager to please, well aware of Lafite's reputation within the Shangri-La Group and working hard to restore it.  He says he inherited a good team, but he needs them to gel, so he is in the kitchen every night for dinner service, and tries to do lunch service as well.  He has sought to rebuild the entire experience from scratch, even knocking down the price of its seasonal four-course menu to a very competitive RM278++ while work is in progress.  Pistre is clearly not going down without a fight; suddenly, the various death whispers, the lack of a chef de cuisine indicating the vultures were circling overhead, seem very premature.

Malaysia is a country in which a lot is vested in labels; you only need to look at the number of people (Singaporeans included!) who invest in fake datukships to know this.  Pistre is clearly keen on ensuring he justifies his label as a longtime veteran of Michelin-starred restaurants, and I would love to see him restore Lafite to a restaurant to which I could return time and again.   For someone who hasn't a king's ransom in his inheritance, that would be the highest praise I could offer.  

Watch this space closely.  I certainly will.

LAFITE
Executive Chef: Olivier Pistre
Owner: Shangri-La Group
Score: 14/20

Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur
11 Jalan Sultan Ismail
50250 Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia
Tel: + 60 3 2074 3900
Email: restaurantreservations.slkl@shangri-la.com

Reservations recommended.  Budget from RM 98++ for lunch and RM 250++ for dinner.

2 comments:

  1. "Underperforming and overpriced arse" - sounds familiar! Chef sounds excellent. I will look to get our IWFS to target a dinner deal there. Cheers!!

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    Replies
    1. Cheers Brian. Can't remember for the life of me who said that though...

      Yes, full of promise and climbing its way back up. I like a good, positive story.

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