Friday, November 21, 2014

Chef's Tasting Menu at Vasco

We made our reservation a month ago to try out Vasco, one of the many new restaurants opened recently at PMQ, in a Saturday evening. The restaurant shared the duplex premise with Isono Eatery and Bar, a more casual tapas bar under the same management just one floor below. We did try Isono a couple months back soon after its opening and weren't 100% impressed. But Vasco is positioned to be the finer version, plus I did hear some good words about the food here from various people, so I suppose it's worth a try.

With the atmosphere at Isono being hip and lively with the open dining space and a bar in the middle, in comparison Vasco was more subdued with dim lighting, only a handful of tables in the compact dining area and a few private rooms at the back. We were seated in one of the private rooms which was definitely roomy for 6 of us - a long table with couch on one side and armchairs on the other, and a curtain separated us from the corridor.  The dinner menu has a choice of a la carte dishes plus 2 tasting menus - first the 8-course Chef's Tasting Menu and second the seasonal white truffles menu, both of which must be ordered as the whole table. Given we were already truffle-d out (for obvious reasons), we went for the Chef's Tasting Menu with some of the best dishes the restaurant has to offer.

While we were studying the menu, the waiter brought us a platter of finger food - with olives with olive pearls, jamon-wrapped mini grissini, cumin-scented roast pistachio and a foie gras "sandwich". Out of the four I liked the pistachio most - with the exotic smoky flavor - except I think they ought to find a better way to serve than putting them inside a plastic wrap which I think was kinda awkward. Wrapped in a piece of edible rice paper instead?

Amuse Bouche #1: Gazpacho with Cockles

Amuse Bouche #2: Mussels with Mentaiko-Escabeche Sauce
Five different flavors of Bordier butter (original, mushroom, tomato, spinach and beetroot (from far to near)
The tasting menu started with 2 amuse-bouche dishes served in sequence - first was the gazpacho with cockles and the second a wine-poached mussels in a light escabeche sauce with a hint of mentaiko. Both were delicious, especially the sauce that went with the mussels. The waitstaff also brought in a choice of 5 different olive oils to go with the house-baked sourdough bread, and 5 butters with different flavors which seem to have become a thing for this restaurant. I personally quite liked the original, mushroom and tomato flavors but not so much of the spinach and beetroot. Later on we also had a little roll of brioche with bits of jamon inside - that was excellent as well. We had to restrain ourselves from having too much of those breads - after all it's a long menu ahead of us.

Raw tuna loin with liquefied watercress, tomatoes and turmeric vinaigrette
Our first course was "Raw tuna loin with liquefied watercress, tomatoes and turmeric vinaigrette" I wondered what liquefied watercress was when I looked at the menu, and when the dish arrived, I realized that's what we called "puree" in the civilized world. I think while each individual items were well-prepared and some of them did work together, it's still a bit too crowded with all the strong, somewhat contrasting flavors present. But I did like the balance of the celery "icecream" and the fatty chopped tuna tartare with slices of radishes on top.

Lightly charcoal-smoked oyster with soft onion cream, small squid ragout and crispy bread
Second course was "Lightly charcoal-smoked oyster with soft onion cream, small squid ragout and crispy bread". I think that was the weakest link of the evening. The dish lacked flavor overall - the oyster has good texture and served with a fancy "pearl" made with oyster juice on the side, but all I could taste was some cream and nothing else. Or I was just biased against any cooked oyster. Anyway to me the dish was rather disappointing.

Roasted foie gras, nori and duck consomme infused with citronelle, horseradish and hazelnut salt
Our third course of "Roasted foie gras, nori and duck consomme infused with citronelle, horseradish and hazelnut salt" was a much improvement to the previous oyster dish. The foie gras was lightly seared and infused with cherrywood smoke, and the intense consomme topped with finely-shredded nori offered a balanced umami flavor to the rich taste from that of the foie.

Red Palamos prawn and sea urchin on a seabed with crustacean mayonnaise
It's easy to see why the fourth course of "Red Palamos prawn and sea urchin on a seabed with crustacean mayonnaise" received much praise and considered one of the signature dishes of the restaurant. The presentation was impressive - like a prawn swimming in a sea of waves washed up on a beach served on a fancy, blue glass plate - and the taste was great. The red prawn jetted in from Palamos was super fresh and reminded me with kuruma-ebi usually served at the end of a good sushi meal, and the prawn along with the sea urchin worked well with the creamy "mayonnaise" infused with shrimp and crustacean flavors.

Roasted amadai with saffron rock fish essence, baby spinach and gribiche sauc
I also liked the next fish course, which was "Roasted amadai with saffron rock fish essence, baby spinach and gribiche sauce". It's a simple and classical dish really, but it's highlighted by a piece of very good amadai (tilefish) fillet, which was cooked just right with a silky texture.

Roast french pigeon, pork and dry tomato stewed, apple cream and liver toast
The main course tonight was "Roast french pigeon, pork and dry tomato stewed, apple cream and liver toast". It's quite decent - the pigeon breast was cooked to medium rare and was flavorful, though I would like to understand more how all the different components were supposed to work together - in particular I thought both the sun-dried tomato and the little piece of toast smeared with foie gras was a bit too insignificant size and flavor-wise to contribute anything to the dish and the porcini mushroom, sauteed, rolled and served on the side, didn't have much aromatic flavor which I expected given we were right in the middle of peak porcini season. The dish looked very promising when it arrived at the table, but I felt like I was a bit let down when I tasted it.

Rice and cardamon essence soup with Arbequina olive oil sponge and frozen cream
After the waiters bussed our main course dishes away, they brought in an interesting pre-dessert, which was "Rice and cardamon essence soup with Arbequina olive oil sponge and frozen cream". A good palate cleanser, I think - the olive oil sponge and icecream was very light, but I couldn't quite taste the cardamon in the "soup" which was served at the table. But the sponge "cake" was nicely made and the lemon foam on top gave the dish a good acidity kick.

Chocolate leaf with apricot jelly and frozen coffee
Our dessert was "Chocolate leaf with apricot jelly and frozen coffee". Once again, you couldn't fault the presentation of the dish - a piece of chocolate molded in leaf form sat on top of a quenelle of coffee icecream (yes, that's the layman term for "frozen coffee") and underneath was a chocolate sponge cake. On the side there's a smear of apricot jelly (in fluid-gel consistency). True, the color combination was appealing and surely made a good Instagram picture (with lots of likes perhaps), but the coffee and chocolate and sweet apricot together... I wasn't sure it worked in terms of taste - I felt like chef somewhat sacrificed the right flavors for style here. 

Petits Fours were served in a fancy tall glass container and a small, bite-sized mango mousse served on a separate plate. They were all decent - I especially liked the melt-in-the-mouth hazelnut candy wrapped in paper. The mango mousse was simple but rather delicious too with almost like a soft, spongy texture.

The wine list was long but I wouldn't necessarily call it the most interesting of all - I felt like basically they just threw you all the cliche choices, marked them up by ridiculous amount and let you figure out yourselves. For one if they claim the restaurant to be heavily Basque influenced, do you mind telling me what's the philosophy behind pages and pages of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Italian selections? (Only reason I could think of is the wines probably came from Drawing Room, an Italian restaurant under the same group which was closed earlier this year). Anyway we settled for a village burgundy which was light-bodied, with cheerful cherry on the palate and medium finish. One that was certainly approachable and pleasant but didn't give you much to remember it by. But they do have a good by-glass and half-bottle selections so if you are in the smaller dining group and/or want to try a few more different choices, that's a good thing.

Overall the service was alright - though I expected a bit more given they called themselves "Fine Dining". Across the table we had a hard time understanding what the staff said when they came by to explain the dish - whether it has something to do with the communication skills or the genuine knowledge of the dishes (or lack thereof) I couldn't quite figure out. The other things were just sloppiness - dishes were brought in before they took away the plates from the previous course, in more than one occasion they were brought in at a different time for the whole party etc - which was probably somewhat tolerable in a regular restaurant but not one I would expect from a finer establishment. But nonetheless we liked the ambiance of the restaurant - we were lucky to have seated in one of the private rooms, but even the outside tables looked cozy and comfortable (and not crowded at all on the day of our visit).

Let's get one thing out - I think the food was alright, not mind-blowing but decent enough, though I may sound a bit harsh at times. By that I meant there were a few dishes that I really liked, that we finished everything and the portion was just right, and we left fairly satisfied food-wise. I reckon there were some "questionable" choices of ingredients and cooking here and there but I fully respected chef's creativity and most of the dishes by and large worked okay. But behind the fancy presentations (and using somewhat too-sophisticated terms to describe his dishes), I am hoping the chef will work just as hard in the fundamentals and put more thoughts in to bring the wow factor in the food itself. I found that's lacking tonight and ultimately that's what mattered most to me. With a high price tag comes high expectations from the customers and I don't believe they have deliver to that level yet - for now I will put the restaurant under "work in progress" tray and observe how it will hopefully evolve and improve. But still, it was a fun evening of meeting old friends and new, and I think we all enjoyed this much.

When? November 16 2014
Where? Vasco Fine Dining, 7/F Block B, PMQ, 35 Aberdeen Street, Central
Menu Highlights? Red Palamos prawn and sea urchin on a seabed with crustacean mayonnaise
Drinks? 2007 Morey St Denis Domaine Nicolas Potel

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