Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Mind-blowing Restaurant Andre

I heard too much good things about Chef Andre Chiang's restaurant in Singapore that I guess I must give it a try, so I made a lunch reservation on the only day I was free from meetings, even that meant I need to sit in a fine-dining restaurant for 2 hours by myself.

Restaurant Andre was housed in a little white 3-storey building behind a hotel in a quiet neighborhood near Outram. With my flight schedule I had to go early so I was the first customer to arrive. The maitre d' was already expecting me at the door as I walked through the door and he showed me my table on the second floor at a corner by the window.

They served a single prix fixe menu - a 5-course set which changed regularly, so that saved everyone's trouble of picking and choosing. The wine list was compact - just a 5 pageful in a small booklet. Head sommelier Ken Hasegawa dropped by and explained the philosophy of picking the precise collection of wines that came from boutique wineries - mainly French - with grapes grown in small production and using organic and biodynamic techniques, which match the dishes served. Obviously I couldn't finish one whole bottle by myself for lunch, so I asked Ken-san to pick two glasses to go with my meal. 

I started off with a series of "snacking" - essentially the amuse bouches. On the wooden box there were the porcini crepes, chicken skin masala, patata bravas and "fish and chips", and all was "planted" in a bed of edible soil. Porcini was thinly sliced and chicken skin was pressed to paper-thin thickness and both were dried in a dehydrator - it's like munching with a potato chips only with much different and intense flavors. I couldn't figure out what the patata bravas got inside (other than the baby new potato) but it's certainly good-looking and delicious. The "Fish and Chips" was an interesting one - righly-seasoned deepfried yellowjack - done the Japanese way - was wrapped inside a croquette with potato mash (hence "fish and chips"). The taste is straight-forward (compared to everything that afternoon), but I liked the presentation and the texture. Okay, that's just the FIRST dish.

There were 3 more amuse bouches - on 2 separate dishes which came at the same time. On top of the shrimp "head to tail" is the shrimp head deep fried and sit on a cornet with garlic aioli made of the shrimp meat and roe. Then there's a lobster "sandwich" - wrapped in a paper, and a spoonful of popcorns - in the form of a mousse. All were nicely done - I particularly enjoyed the shrimp "head to tail" with one shrimp being "deconstructed" and combined back together in different shape or form to become one dish again. 

And after that, my real lunch began. First course is Blue Lobster "Raviolis"- which consists of 2 pieces of Brittany lobster which sat on top of pickled tomato-celery juliennes and covered by a jellified sheet (maybe agar with some consomme) and some edible flowers and herbs. On the side was a splash of pineapple-strawberry-sago vinaigrette, tomato seed jelly, wild strawberries (which were hard to find in this side of the world), then 2 thin slices of rhubarb crisp and lemon thyme sorbet. (Oh by the way, even though I did ask questions during the meal, I didn't come to know every single details of every dish - that means some of the description was based on my educated guess and could be wrong or incomplete)

I don't know what to say because this is mind-blowing in all dimensions. Presentation was impeccable and almost like a painting with beautiful colors and strokes. The taste combination was extremely complicated (and almost overwhelming) but somehow they molded together well. And it's refreshing and certainly palate awakening - which made it a perfect first course.

Second course was a warm salad of scallop potato "gnocchi" - once again, a beautifully presented dish with thinly sliced, and sous-vided scallops wrapped in potato mousse (hence the name gnocchi) with caviar on top. On the sides were three kind of asparagus - green, white and some wild ones, chargrilled Brussels sprouts, thinly sliced leek, then dressed with wild herbs and butter foam. The potato wasn't buttery at all and worked well with the slightly cooked scallops and crunchy asparagus. It's delectable, but if I really have to be super picky - I think the Brussels sprouts brought an unwanted bitterness (slightly) and disrupted the harmony, and the champignons - said to be included in the dish - went almost unnoticed. I think it's in the foam but I couldn't quite taste it. Then I am biased - I am not a particular fan of Brussels sprouts. Guess instead of a 10 out of 10, I can only give this a 9.

Third course was said to be the longest serving item in Chef Andre's menu and obviously something that is immensely popular. It's a classic combination of two treasured and loved ingredients - black truffles and foie gras, with the foie gras "jelly" cooked in chawanmushi consistency, and topped with black truffle coulis. The unmistakable aroma from that of the Perigord black truffle arises from the small white ceramic bowl as the lid was lifted. The deep colored and rich black truffle coulis was obviously overwhelming, but it's balanced with the creamy foie gras custard, as I carefully put a little bit of each into the wooden spoon and tasted. This is the dish Andre was very proud of and rightly so, and I love it as an intermezzo which kicked up a gear to prepare my taste bud for the main course that came after this.

The main course - oyster blade "a la plancha" - doesn't look as elaborate as the previous courses, but as I had it bite by bite, I slowly appreciated the subtle complexity. The oyster blade - a beef cut near the shoulder - came from Australia. It's said to be grilled - a la plancha - but I think it's probably done sous vide and finished up with the torch. I love the balance of meatiness and fattiness of it as I cut along the grain of the meat effortlessly, and the texture was everything I expected it to be. On the side was a taboule of wild grain couscous, slightly thickened roasted onion jus at the bottom, and on top, a baby onions with the leaves deeply chargrilled and the bulb pickled. There's also some aromatic oil (almost like a pesto) sitting on a thin slice of pickled onion. I had doubts in my mind when I dipped a small piece of beef into the oil - wondering if that combination would even work - but it's amazingly good. And the onion slice - at first glance I just dismissed that as a gimmicky way to present the dish by using it as a sauce dish - but gosh, that was pickled perfectly and I secretly called this my favorite part of the dish just because it came out of the blue.

Before the final course came, I was served two pre-desserts. First was a mango "disc" served with a bamboo skewer and topped with granny smith coulis. Not bad, though I would prefer a bigger contrast of sweetness from that of the mango, and acidity and tartness from that of the finely-diced green apple. I didn't think much of the second one - a honey icecream with berries and cherries served in a Japanese lacquer bowl - but it turned out to be as complicated as this could be. Mixed berries was made into a mousse then siphoned, a meringue then crumbled and a granita (flash frozen by liquid nitrogen) then shaved. Cherries were pitted, halved and pickled, then all these glued together with a creamy icecream with subtle sweetness. Every bite came with something new and blew me away. (but when I got home and downloaded the pictures, I realized I forgot to take a picture of it!! I guess I didn't want the granita and icecream melted away so I ate it immediately)

I loved the plating of the dessert - all the components were placed on one side of the brown stoneware dish with the rest left blank. That reminded me of the intentional empty space (留白) which is a common technique in Chinese traditional painting, which left much to the imagination of whoever appreciates it. For the dish, the apricot was grilled and caramelized, served under a disc of caramel, and then there's a "sponge cake" - the siphoned version made of apricot as well, toasted almond floretin, some hint of pistachio, and a pink grapefruit sorbet and tiny pearls of lychee ice. This is a very clean and refreshing dessert, and to me, is almost like a showcase of tropical fruits commonly found in Asia, a reminder of the culinary richness this side of the continent can offer to the world, which in a similar way, a role that Taiwanese-born, super talented chef Andre Chiang has been playing, and played so well.

I asked Ken the sommelier to pick me 2 glasses of wines to go with the meal and he went with Languedoc for both the white and the red. I first started with a glass of Roc D'Anglade 2010 - a peculiar white made predominantly with chenin blanc (an uncommon choice of grape in the region hence the wine can only be labeled as "Vin de Pays du Gard" instead of AOC) It has a distinctly deep, almost greenish color, a bit of grassy note, a green apple and stonefruit with subtle mineral palate, and a long finish. I told Ken-san I wanted something full-bodied yet refreshing and this is exactly that. Probably not something you can keep for long but it's an awesome wine.

At first I wasn't too sure about the choice of the red as Ken brought it over - it's from Domaine Gauby in the Languedoc-Roussilon region. I thought that might be a bit too powerful, but it turned out to work well with its medium body, earthy nose and a good wood and dark fruit on the palate. And it's the hint of herbaceous note hidden behind that made me concur this is just a perfect match for the main course.  

I guess the first word I can utter out to describe Chef Andre's cooking style was harmony. He never tried to push to bring one particular component of the dish into the limelight but instead made everything work together as one dish. The minimal use of seasonings was evident and he just tried to bring the best of each ingredient by itself. I guess that's where his Asian background came into play, and along with the perfect western cooking techniques, created something very unique and beyond description. For example, most of the time beef was prepared with emphasis on the rich flavors, but the one I had was much mellow yet every bite came as a surprise. Or the berry pre-dessert - it looked naively simple with icecream and crumbled berry meringues, but as I dig deep into the lacquer bowl I keep finding new stuff inside with different tastes in each bite, like unwrapping a surprise present. 

I thoroughly enjoyed my lunch at Restaurant Andre and think it deserved being named one of the best in Asia (it's ranked number 38 in the latest World's 50 Best Restaurant award). On my way out, as I walked out the elevator I had a glimpse of the kitchen as the glass door coincidentally opened and had a quick chat with Andre who's supervising the crew. He described the lunch offering at the restaurant being "straight-forward", and suggested I go back for dinner, which would be even more elaborate. Well, I don't know, he could just be humble, but if I start calling this spectacular meal straight forward I don't know how I can eat at any other places. Anyway before he even said that I was already convinced that I need to go back soon for dinner and see what other stuff Chef Andre has up his sleeves - it's just the matter of when.

More pictures on my flickr page:

Where? Restaurant Andre, 41 Bukit Pasoh Road, 089855 Singapore
Menu Highlights? "Perigord Black Truffle Coulis, Warm Foie Gras Jelly, Fleur de sel and Japanese Chive"
Roc d’Anglade Blanc 2010, Vin de Pays du Gard
Domaine Gauby Vieilles Vignes 2010, AOC Côtes du Roussillon Villages

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