Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Oops I did it again - Massimo Bottura Dinner Encore

The feeling of serendipity of sorts hit when I saw the press release 2 months ago about Chef Massimo Bottura being the guest chef at Shangri-la Singapore in late October, on the very weekend we happened to be in town to watch a tennis tournament. I couldn't quite believe such a stroke of luck hitting us twice - only a few months ago another coincidence led me to an unforgettable meal at another pop-up dinner hosted by Chef Massimo in Milan.

The October event was part of the Shangri-la hotel chain's "International Festival of Gastronomy" campaign, featuring 8 different chefs of Michelin-starred restaurants each offer a special menu at five of the hotel properties around the globe. Despite the initial sticker shock - let's just say it's not something we would normally be willing to pay for one meal - we confirmed the reservation as soon as it became available, as I figured an encore for a great meal without having to fly half the world is an opportunity too hard to miss.

The guest chef dinner was hosted at BLU, the lounge on the top floor of Shangri-la Singapore, and we were joined by some of our friends sitting at the next table, who are obviously more devoted to great meals than we are and decided to fly in from Hong Kong for the dinner. It was fun having the company of similar minds and we had a blast trying to strike a conversation across the tables, sometimes resorting to whatsapp messages or lip-reading.

The 9-course tasting menu was based on the dishes from Chef Massimo's Osteria Franscescana restaurant, currently rated three Michelin stars and ranked second best in the world by a prominent industry publication earlier this year. He is best known for his flamboyant cooking style with creativity beyond imaginations, cooking up a storm in the culinary world with his unique interpretation of traditional Italian cuisine at his hometown restaurant in Modena, a small town famous for its Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Balsamic Vinegar and Ferrari cars.

If there's any doubt of how far Chef Massimo can go to push the creative boundary, the pair of first course bites - described as "tempura with carpione" and "baccala & tomato" - should cast them away completely. First part was an unusual combination of a fluffy crunchy round made of potato flour topped with mashed aula fish and a fine quenelle of icecream made of cured carp and herbs. On another plate was a bite-sized crispy "pillow" biscuit with minced baccala fish and sprinkled with tomato powder on top. The "funky" savory flavors of the icecream combined with sharp acidity was indeed enlightening. While the taste of the second part was more down to earth and less of a surprise, it was a tasty quick bite.

A dish with eccentric colors appeared next and was listed on the menu as "Mediterranean". The cold soup of mint-green color reminded me of gazpacho with good acidity and slight seafood umami flavor. Floating on the soup was a dab of yogurt giving the dish some volume and a few "dumplings" of eel mousse, which was smooth and well-seasoned, each with a thin "wrapper" of sliced cucumbers and grated bottarga on top. Cucumber and eel may not be the perfect combination I had in mind but they worked well together, to my surprise.

The pasta course followed and later, Chef Massimo told us that this was a dish created specifically for the event. "Spaghetti from Napoli to Hokkaido" drew ingredients from two continents - clams from Naples and uni (sea urchin) from Hokkaido - and combined for a classic Italian pasta dish, topped with nori powder. The dish itself was alright and prepared with flawless techniques, and I like the addition of bits of finger lemon at the bottom for a refreshing taste, but I thought the nori was a bit too overwhelming and became somewhat of a distraction.

We were super impressed when the next course of "Fish Soup" was explained to us. The serving plate features a drawing of a fish - it's an image of a john dory individually painted with squid ink - then on the plate was a medley of 7 different seafood items and thin crisps of 3 different flavors made of squid ink, seaweed and clam juice. The bisque soup in a coffee cup, made with the same 7 seafood on the plate and to be eaten separately, was super rich and provided an interesting contrast to the fresh taste on the plate.

"The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna" is a dish we have seen and heard many times from Chef Massimo's documentary on Netflix and something I had the pleasure to taste at his dinner in Milan. I felt the three different flavors - tomato, basil and parmigiano - in the thin pasta "crisp" were less distinct than the previous version I had, but it came with a more substantial portion of 36-month-aged parmigiano foam and beef ragu underneath which was rich and gamey and so delicious. So even though both looked like the same dishes, I loved them for totally different reasons.

I have been anticipating the main course of the spin-painted veal in the weeks leading to our dinner. The dish has become one of Chef Massimo's signature, with a tender piece of veal tenderloin served on a backdrop of sauces of different colors splashed all over the plate for an artistic presentation. The veal was cooked sous-vide at 54 degrees and dusted with edible charcoal powder and sprinkled with sea salt. The plating was said to be inspired by a Damien Hirst painting now hanging at his Modena restaurant, with colorful "paints", sauces made of herbs, potatoes, beets, yellow and orange bell peppers and meat jus with balsamic reduction, becoming part of the abstract painting with good, distinct tastes to show forth adding on to the strong meat flavors from the piece of veal.

When I first saw the menu a few weeks before the dinner, I was curious with the serving order, with the "Caesar Salad in Bloom" coming after the main course. Referring to it as a pre-dessert by the waiter added to the suspense as he cleared up our table after we were done with the main course. Chef Massimo's Caesar Salad, as I remembered from the last meal, was nothing like a pre-dessert, but as it turned out, this time it was a totally different dish, one most of us at the dinner agreed was their favorite dish of the evening.

We could almost hear the unanimous sound of "wow" every time the dish was brought to a table. On a small plate the chunk of lettuce head was covered by bits of ingredients in different colors and shapes like confetti, with no less than 20-something different ingredients being used, we were told. While we stopped and stared at the beautiful presentation, the pleasant aroma rose above, with a bouquet of herbs and floral and chamomile that smell like a spring garden. We couldn't quite work out the exact list of ingredients being used, but the complex tastes from different ingredients did explode in every bite. My favorite part was the bits of pomegranate at the bottom that was sweet and fruity like a dessert. The complexity from a seemingly straight forward dish was simply mind-blowing.

"Oops! I dropped the lemon tart" was another genius and playful creation by Chef Massimo, came about when one day his sous chef dropped the last piece of lemon tart on the counter by accident. Seeing the beauty of the shattered piece he decided to serve that as is, and the dish stayed on the menu since. The part I found particularly interesting was not the "broken" tart and filling but the mini garnishes forming a straight line on the plate, which tasted like gummy candy to balance the citrus austerity from the zabaione and icecream.

Our last course was a small piece of hazelnut macaron with foie gras and a thin slice of white truffle sandwiched between. Not the first time we had white truffles in something sweet but I could say this is the best truffle dessert we have had. The combination of foie gras and sweet macarons with hazelnuts provided the interesting savory-sweet punch accented by the unmistakable aroma from the fine sliced white truffles.

We went with the wine pairing option available along with the tasting menu, and I think the flight of wines were okay. The Bellavista was classy and well-structured as I would have expected, with fine bubbles, mainly citrus on the palate and a hint of apricot of this 100% chardonnay production, going well as the aperitif to start. Putting a bottle of ale from an Italian artisan brewery for "Crunchy Part of the Lasagna" may raise some eyebrows but I think the wheat flavor did pair well with the pasta dough. I felt the Barolo from 2007 vintage didn't quite come to age yet or the bottle wasn't given enough time to breathe - still very alcoholic and tannic - but it worked alright with the veal main course with the predominantly red-fruit characters on the palate plus a hint of tar.

Well in general service-wise I felt a bit of a let-down, and without going into specifics (otherwise that would require a long separate post), I believe it came down to the hotel's front of the house team not being properly trained to cope with the rigor required to serve a fine-dining menu, and compounded by the fact that they were terribly short in numbers, an issue which became evident when we had difficulties trying to get hold of someone whenever we needed something and they kept running around frantically all night long. We did wonder whether the hotel was sufficiently prepared to host such a high-caliber visiting chef event at all.

Despite those minor hiccups it was a memorable dining experience that we are extremely grateful for and was certainly one of the highlights of this year's travel and eating. Chef Massimo's cooking is truly one-of-its-kind, and it's hard to witness a more creative culinary mind of our times than his. What an enjoyable evening filled with surprises and impressive display of mind-blowing, jaw-dropping dishes with beautiful presentations and great flavors. And I was excited to come away with an autographed copy of his cookbook and looked forward to reading it through.

At the end of the dinner, Chef Massimo came out from the kitchen with the team for a closing remarks and spent time dropping by every table talking to everyone. I half-jokingly told him that next time instead of us having to "chase" him down at wherever he's traveling, it will be far easier if we just travel to Modena and eat at Osteria Francescana instead. Now come to think of it, maybe we really should. In next year's travel plan perhaps? 

More pictures in my Flickr photo album: https://www.flickr.com/photos/g4gary/albums/72157660647053606

When? October 31 2015
Where? BLU, Level 24, Shangri-la Singapore, 22 Orange Grove Rd, Singapore
Menu Highlights? "Beautiful Psychedelic Spin-painted Veal, Not Flame Grilled", "Caesar Salad in Bloom", "Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart"
2009 Bellavista "Saten" Franciacorta DOCG
2013 Livio Felluga Terra Alte, Rosazzo DOCG, Friuli
32 Via dei Birrai Audace Birra
2007 Borgogno, Barolo DOCG
2013 Gewurtraminer, J. Hofstatter Kolbenhof, Alto Adige DOC
Nonino Grappa Cru Picolit
BLU at Shangri-la Singapore: http://www.shangri-la.com/singapore/shangrila/dining/bars-lounges/blu-bar/
Osteria Francescana: www.osteriafrancescana.it


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