Saturday, September 21, 2013

Bar La Vina

Back to some San Sebastián posts - we obviously went pintxo hunting - visited countless bars and each of them had their own atmosphere and specialties. This place La Vina was well known for their cheesecake that you'd have with a glass of sherry. It had a slightly homemade texture, light yet with enough cheesecake texture, a burnt exterior, caramelised edges and good cheese flavour. Absolutely delicious and something I can still remember (8.75/10). probably one of the best desserts of the trip.

Stranger's Reunion Shashouka

Trying breakfast at Stranger's Reunion - as you may know, Ryan and his team has created a new breakfast menu in collaboration with a chef from Axil coffee roasters and it includes interesting items like shashouka and eggs florentine and ham hock. 

Needed some recommendations - and in the end I ordered the shashouka. It was decent - certainly the eggs weren't overlooked, tomatoes were sweet enough - there was the addition of pine nuts on top which provided some texture. I thought the shashouka could have been more spicy certainly since i remember shashouka to be a little fiery with the added flavour of cumin and some middle eastern flavours. Not bad but perhaps just a 7/10.

My espresso from Bali was really excellent - a heady mixture of dark chocolate, and cherry fruits. it starts bright and fades to a syrupy dark chocolate aftertaste. Excellent espresso (8.5/10)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Ledbury, London

The Ledbury might just be the most respected restaurant in London right now - I won't say it's the "hottest" table, since perhaps Dabbous and Viajante can lay claim to that title - but certainly it's a restaurant that has been well-respected and liked by almost everyone in the food scene in London and by many of my friends who have had the fortune of dining there. Brett Graham, the chef, has been lauded as a true star, well-known for his innovative, creative cuisine - and being so young. Oh, the Ledbury also holds 2 Michelin stars, by the way. And getting a reservation here was tough - I had to book about 1-2 months in advance. So it was with great expectation that we made our way west to Ledbury Road in Notting Hill.

The dining room was pretty nice - big and spacious with wood panelling on the walls and a high ceiling. Pretty elegant and not stuffy at all.

The service, while excellent, paled slightly in comparison to Gordon Ramsay which I visited the day before.

We began with an amuse bouche - this was foie gras tart - a good starter, no doubt.

We were offered a selection of either the lunch menu at 35 quid, or to order from the Ala Carte Menu. I went with the set lunch with an additional course from the Ala-Carte (the grilled mackerel, which is apparently one of their specialties).

heirloom tomatoes with goat's cheese salad
The first course I had was heirloom tomatoes with goat's cheese salad. This was delicious - the tomatoes were fresh and sweet as they should be, and contrasting well with the creaminess of goat's cheese which was wrapped in pastry sheets. I enjoyed this summer helping. (8/10)

mackerel with shiso
Next was the dish I ordered from the ala carte menu, which was the flamed mackerel with avocado puree and shiso. A lovely dish - the mackerel was well cooked, oily, cut through by some herb (cumin?) and flavoured well - the skin being crisp and tasty. The addition of fried shallots was a nice touch, and balanced by some cucumbers and greens which were fresh. A long aftertaste - that was what I recorded down. Good dish. (8.5/10)

sea bass with broccoli stem and black quinoa
After that, I had the main course - which was a sea bass with broccoli stem and black quinoa. The fish had good texture and contrasted well with the quinoa on top - with the sauce complementing well. To be honest, this was a bit tame after the strong flavours of the mackerel. (7.5/10)

passionfruit souffle

We shared a passionfruit souffle which was excellent - one of the best desserts of my entire trip. The passionfruit flavours were fresh, zesty, and shone through the souffle which was light and fluffy. Excellent dessert and well worth the calories. (9/10)

watermelon panna cotta

What didn't fare so well was the watermelon with panna cotta - which was just so; not very exciting though certainly quite refreshing.  (7/10)

cheese platter

We ended off with some cheese from La Fromagerie, all of which was excellent. 

From my dining experience at the Ledbury, I'd say this is a strong contender for London's next 3 star restaurant, whenever it arrives. The food is excellent with some standouts, the price not too exorbitant, with good service and atmosphere. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Akelare, San Sebastián

If you have yet to set forth in the coastal city of San Sebastián (Donostia), Basque Country, you're definitely missing out on one of the loveliest cities in all of Europe, even the world. Nestled along the Atlantic coast on the north side of Spain, and comprising 3 beaches and 2 rocky outposts (small hills) with the city wrapping around them, it's certainly a lovely sight for the senses. The beaches are filled with sunbathers, swimmers, surfers - all summer - and along the beach promenade, there's a carnival atmosphere of people just walking around, buskers performing incredible jazz music, and so on.

And, specifically concerning food (since this is a food blog anyway), San Sebastián has the largest concentration of 3 star michelin restaurants in the world per capita - seriously. In or around San Sebastián there's three 3 star restaurants - Arzak, Akelare and Martin Berasategui, and there's also 2 star Mugaritz that's well known as one of the top restaurants in the world, being in the top 10 of the San Pellegrino List. And just an hour's drive away lies Azurmendi, (which I shall be blogging about another day), and Extebarri - which is that famous grill restaurant where the chef from Burnt Ends used to work at. San Sebastian's also known for the pintxo crawl - where locals would throng the streets every lunch and dinner time through the old town, hopping from bar to bar. Pinxtos is basically the Basque version of tapas - so named because traditionally the food came on a toothpick.  

With so many choices and only 3 days - we picked 2 three-starred Michelin restaurants, Akelare and Azurmendi (which I shall be blogging about later).

Akelare has been lauded by reviewers on the Internet as being one of the most creative and delicious restaurants around, despite its relative inconspicuousness in the gourmet world. The head chef Pedro Subjana is, along with Juan Arzak (of Arzak), known as one of the forefathers of modern Basque cuisine. So naturally we had strong expectations. 

The restaurant's located within a half an hour drive from central San Sebastián - it's located along a ridge overlooking the Atlantic Ocean which makes for a spectacular view. The view is fantastic especially during lunch - where the sky stretches for miles without end. I'm not sure if this photo does the view justice actually but you get the idea. That's partly the reason why we chose to go there for lunch - to experience the view in it's sunlit splendor.

Amuse bouche
There are basically 2 menus we can order - one was the "Aranori" menu and the other the "Bekarki" menu. I had the Bekarki menu - while requesting one item from the Aranori menu (the prawns cooked in the "Oruju" fire) while another of my dining companions had the Aranori menu so we could try some of the dishes from there. 
The amuse bouche comprised a "sea garden" of various interesting nibbles. They were eye-opening certainly, but nothing really exciting.

We move on the real dishes which were far more interesting - and to start off, I had the prawns cooked in the "Oruju" fire which was actually from the Aranori menu but I decided to order it since it's renowned to be one of the signature dishes of Akelare. It was a visual spectacle - the waiter brought a pot with lava rocks and the prawns to your table, and a visual spectacle ensued as the prawns were flambeed over the rocks and liquor, and then plated individually over french bean puree.
Prawns and green beans

This dish was a real spectacle and a delight to eat - and all because of the really good ingredients used: the prawns were very sweet, and cooked in this way had a lingering smoky aftertaste. Sucking on the heads was a particular delight. The french beans lent some contrast to the dish and did not overpower the stars of the show, the prawns. A great dish and I see why it's been on the menu for so long. (8.75/10)

The scampi and monkfish
Next up, to continue the "sea" theme, we were served with smoked monkfish, scampi and a "green broth infusion". This really tasted of the sea - the monkfish was sliced very thinly and plated all around the dish; and the green broth infusion (which tasted of the sea - probably containing scampi stock albeit a bit too salty as saltwater is) was then poured over the sliced monkfish and the scampi. A good dish, nothing outstanding though. I felt it was too salty generally. (7/10)

Foie gras with "salt" and "pepper"
Next up, one of the standout dishes of my European journey: sauteed fresh foie gras with "salt flakes and grain pepper". Another whimsical dish, the waitress came to us informing us that she was sprinkling "salt" and "pepper" over the foie gras, and I remember my dining companion being horrified, probably thinking that this was a horrible way to botch up foie gras, as the waitress sprinkled those condiments over the foie gras. But of course those weren't real "salt" and "pepper" - in fact they were really flakes of puffed grain and sugar. There was a lovely contrast of textures - the foie gras was really top quality, with a lovely silky texture, and this contrasted against the crunchiness of the condiments. More importantly, the taste of the foie gras was just sublime, accompanied by a Sauternes reduction (I was so impressed by the sauce that I asked the waitress what it was and she told me what it was) - the taste was simply incredible and truly magical. I remember putting each morsel of foie gras into my mouth, closing my eyes, and savouring each moment with joy and thinking wow this is really incredible and wonderful and as good as it gets. The combination of the top quality foie gras, the Sauternes, and the condiments really made this a fabulous dish and one of the best I've enjoyed on this trip. (9.5/10)

Turbot and fake kotkotxa
Next up, we had turbot with a fake "kotkotxa". Kotkotxa is really a Basque specialty and it refers to the delicate pendulums of flesh growing in the throat of a hake or cod. Now, turbot, being a flat fish, does not have a kotkoxa, so the playful chef decided to fashion one for the turbot by using the fish oils to make a kotkoxa. It came with a mayonaise-like sauce as well. This dish was actually just okay as the turbot wasn't as tasty as I would have liked it to be - cooked well certainly but rather boring and it required me to immerse the turbot in some of the herbs to render more taste to it. The "kotkoxa" was soft but of course nothing like the real thing. To me - an average dish at best: (7/10)
Cod and cod tripe
Next up, we had a desalted cod box with shavings: this consisted of cod, cod tripe, and a slight tomato water - just slightly tangy. A pretty good dish - very "fishy", if you like - and with various different kinds of textures in the dish to make things interesting. The shavings were crunchy, if you like; combined with the gelatinous textures of the cod tripe, and of course we have the cod. (8/10)
Pigeon with Mexican mole
The main course was another star of the lunch - Roasted wood pigeon with a touch of Mexican mole and cocoa. The pigeon had a really strong gamey flavour - somewhat "funky" and almost liver-like, and yet was very tender. The Mexican mole, slightly spicey, paired very well with the pigeon, I thought. There were many things going on here, but what was important was that the dish was absolutely delicious i.e. taste not compromised. (9/10)

Milk and grape, cheese and wine in parallel evolution
Next up, the cheese course - and this was interesting: the title of it was "Milk and Grape, Cheese and Wine in Parallel Evolution". Basically, from left to right, the cheese/milk/wine and the accompaniments become more intense as you move on. Of course, not a totally novel idea (we see it in many other restaurants), but what's important is the details. Here we had some lovely pieces in particular the 3rd one - where the milk and the fruit were layered nicely and played off each other. Of course, the most intense was the last dish - really strong flavours combining very well. Overall an interesting journey: (8.5/10)

Orange Tocino sheet with chocolate leaves
The last dessert course was orange "Tocino" sheet with chocolate "leaves" and dried mango flowers - a really flawless dessert. All the flavours combined very well together - the orange with the chocolate "leaves"; the dried mango flowers giving some depth to the tartness of the orange. A very good dessert: (8.25/10)

Overall, the meal at Akelare was one of THE meals of 2013 thus far - the food was very good, technically excellent, and rather creative, whimsical if you like. Importantly, there were a few truly outstanding dishes such as the foie gras and the pigeon - dishes that stick in your consciousness long after the flavours have gone from your palate. Quite exceptional and worthy of the 3 stars it holds.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Europe trip roundup!

Wow I'm finally back from Europe - specifically, London, San Sebastian and Barcelona. It was a great trip with some of my closest pals which was really nice since it's hard to be able to spend time together. 

And well yeah I had the honour of visiting many of the finest restaurants in those cities - altogether a total of 13 Michelin stars (6 from London; 6 from San Sebastian; and 1 from Barcelona).

There were many wonderful experiences, not least of them being attending a really good and spiritually fulfilling church service at All Souls Church in London; watching the lovely Sound of Music at the Open Air theatre in Regents' Park, London; and visiting San Sebastian which is really a lovely quaint little town which is really so beautiful - I'd highly recommend anyone who loves life to go there for a change.

To be honest - the local food scene in Singapore is just as interesting as those places I visited in Europe and the trick's the same - get good produce and bring out the best in them. As someone once mentioned, you can't get good dishes out of bad produce, and that's probably an area where Europe has an advantage as there's just so much good produce around - high quality stuff - that's able to make its way into the restaurants; whereas in Singapore, we have to import, and of course that raises costs which makes dining out here, at least in the fine dining sense, more expensive.

At most of the top restaurants - there was probably at least 1 standout dish that made me go wow - and hence where a restaurant is able to produce a few stellar dishes that make me go wow all the time, I'd say that's a sign of a first class restaurant. On that front, the restaurant that really made me go wow at almost all of the dishes is Azermundi, located slightly off Bilbao and was given its 3rd star last year (Andy Hayler also rated it a 20/20); and Akelarre was just as good (also a 3 star michelin). I guess that's what separates the exceptional from the excellent.

Here's a run down of my top 10 favourite dishes from the trip, in no particular order. I shall be blogging about the individual restuarants independently, but here's a teaser:

1. Foie Gras with "salt" and "pepper" from Akelarre
2. Oyster dish from Cinc Sentits
3. Pigeon from Cinc Sentits
4. Passionfruit Sorbet from The Ledbury
5. Scallop dish from Hedone
6. Pigeon from Akelarre
7. Lobster from Azermundi
8. Oxtail ravioli from Azermundi
9. Oyster from Hedone
10. Squid and squid ink from Azermundi

Notable highlight: Four seasons duck was always good and I had that twice.

Well have a good Tuesday fellas!