October 24, 2009

Cooking with a Michelin-starred chef: deuxième chapitre

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I've been looking forward to this lunch for a few weeks now.  I had the good fortune of being invited by the publishers of the WOM Guide to attend a cooking class - followed by lunch - hosted by Caprice.  They have been showcasing the Provençal cuisine of Chef Philippe Jourdin, who is visiting with his team from Michelin 2-star Faventia at the Four Seasons Resort Provence at Terre Blanche.  As I wrote in my email response some 2 minutes after receiving the invitation:  "Free lunch? At a Michelin-starred restaurant? Cooked by a visiting chef from a Michelin-starred restaurant? Who in the right mind would turn it down?"

The small group of us gathered in the kitchen to to watch Chef Philippe and Sous-chef Stéphanie Le Quellec show us how to cook line-caught sea bass fennel aroma with green asparagus panache and olive oil emulsion.  Chef Vincent was given the task of translating Chef Philippe's explanations into English.  The group of us watched in wonder as the chefs went through each step slowly, all the while explaining the rationale behind some of them.  We remarked to ourselves that we learned more than ever about asparagus in just a few minutes.  A lot of thought has gone into the preparation of ingredients so that no unwanted flavors would end up in the final product.

When it was all done, all the components were carefully placed on a plate in a beautiful presentation.  Chef Philippe remarked that the area which showed the most progress has been in presentation, and I would not argue with him.  Top restaurants around the world present their food like works of art, and sometimes what's put in front of me almost look too beautiful to eat.

Shortly before lunch service starts, we cleared out of the kitchen - so the chefs can actually cook for other customers - and moved into the cellar behind the kitchen.  As usual Jeremy and his staff decorated the table beautifully.

Our amuse bouche was a wonderful eggplant gazpacho with tomato sorbet.  The eggplants were peeled so that the flavors came from only the flesh and "caviar".  The tomato sorbet was so interesting - providing some sweetness to the mid-palate but then kicks in with savory notes just on the finish.  A thin strip of bread lay on the side with a bit of tapenade spread on top.  Feeling like I'm in Provence already!

For wine pairing Sebastien brought out the 2004 La Courtade Blanc, made on the Ile de Porquerolles just off the Côte d'Azur.  The wine is made from a local varietal called Rolle, and showed nose of lemon zest, mineral, flint and a bit of white flowers.  Very aromatic and ripe on the nose.  Acidity was pretty high mid-palate with a bit of tartness, with a ripe finish.

The first course was quite surprising - warm duck foie gras des Landes, lemon macaroon, candied citrus peel and badian anise.  While it's customary to pair the fatty foie gras with something fruity and acidic, I've always thought that lemon would be a bit too much.  In this case, there was a pool of lemon curd sitting inside a ring of candied peel.  This curd was very, very tart and threw me off completely.  But then the genius of Chef Philippe becomes evident as I take a piece of foie, dip into the lemon curd, and top it with a piece of the lemon macaron.  The sweetness of the macaron completely neutralizes the acidity of the curd, and it becomes heaven in my mouth.  Wow!

The foie gras was paired with the 2005 Mas Amiel.  I have always liked this wine in the past, but not today.  It was "hot" and high in alcohol, with a bit of citrus notes.  Not very sweet today.  Short on the finish and quite disappointing.

The main course of corvina fillet, fennel aroma, green asparagus panaché and olive oil emulsion was the dish we had just learned, except the chef substituted the choice of fish.  Corvina is interesting in that, like cod, it remains quite moist and tender after cooking, yet there is a firmness about it.  It also comes apart quite easily into "flakes" as I cut into it.  Needless to say the Australian asparagus was wonderful - sooo sweet and tender.  There were four different textures of asparagus on the plate, and we had just finished witnessing the work that went into making all this possible.  Yum!

I am grateful that once again Jeremy was generous in sharing his babies with us.  We had a selection of four types of cheese, paired with a glass of 2004 Pibarnon Rouge, made from Mourvèdre.  It was fine to drink and the tannins blended with the cheese, but this time there was no "wow" from the marriage of the wine and cheese.

Rove Brousse - this fresh cheese from Provençal goats was served with a bit of olive oil.  According to Jeremy it has now become uneconomical to produce, as 3 liters of milk is used to produce just a small ball of cheese.  It was beautiful with nutty, creamy flavors and just a hint of salt.

Selles-sur-Cher - this beautiful goat cheese from the Loire valley was already runny by the time it came to me.  The center was creamy and nutty on the mid-palate, with a bit of acidity on the finish.  The outer mold, which separated easily from the creamy center like shedding skin, tasted musty with salty flavors.

Comté - I think this is about 4 1/2 years old by now... just wonderful.  Curiously it was a bit sweet mid-palate, with the usual toasty and nutty flavors.

Fourme d'Ambert - a very intense blue, and very salty.  Interesting to see that during the aging process the cheese is injected with Vouvray moelleux, one of my favorite types of dessert wines.

Finally we get to the desserts.  The tropical coconut express, sablé Breton and coriander jelly, Granny Smith apple sorbet was pretty nice. The tube of coconut mousse was light and not too sweet, with an interesting center of coriander jelly.  The sorbet was wonderful and refreshing.  In fact this was so light that our hostess practically inhaled the whole dessert before I even had a chance to touch it...

I was tipped off about a certain strawberry-themed dessert, and we were graciously served two of these to share amongst us.  The bottom of the tower contained strawberry sponge cake, with a layer of vanilla cream wrapped around it and placed in a pool of strawberry consommé.  On top we have some butter biscuit with lemongrass jelly, encased in a kind of  strawberry panna cotta.  A few halves of strawberries are placed on top of this, along with a thin layer of marzipan.  What is most interesting, however, are the letters F R A I S E made from strawberry jelly.  OK this all sounds very complicated, but the reality is that this was one of the best strawberry desserts I've had in recent memory.  The flavors here were so intense - I didn't taste the lemongrass, though - and I was really loving it.

I was pretty full at the end of the lunch, although thankfully not as stuffed as usual.  I am now a big fan of the cuisine of Chef Philippe, and maybe on a future trip to France I'll actually be able to visit him at Faventia.

P.S.  Later in the day I ran into Chefs Philippe, Stéphanie and the pastry chef at Wanchai Computer Center shopping for electronics.  Pretty funny coincidence...

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