September 22, 2014

Gaga for Gaggan

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It's been almost six years since I began my boycott of Thailand - for their government's inhumane treatment of the Rohingya which began two administrations ago.  Given that I haven't stepped foot in the country for more than a decade, it's natural that I haven't paid any attention to what's new and hot in terms of restaurants in the country.  Names like Nahm and Bo.lan simply appear as blips on the edges of my radar and quickly fade away.

The first time I read about Gaggan was from Scubagolfer, and he wasn't particularly impressed with all that foam.  Afterwards I once again told myself that I wasn't missing anything by not going to Bangkok, and wondered whether once again the people responsible for San Pellegrino's The World's 50 Best Restaurants had somehow hyped the place up...

A couple of months ago, word came around that Chef Gaggan Anand was coming to the Landmark Mandarin to do a pop-up.  This was exciting news, because it gave me an opportunity to taste his food while still maintaining my boycott.  By the time Chef Richard Ekkebus from Amber told me that seats were "selling out fast" the last time I saw him, I knew I needed to make a move pretty quickly.  Thankfully I was able to secure a table on the first night - traditionally the least desirable evening when it comes to pop-ups.

During the cocktail hour, the bar served us a couple of signature cocktails from the restaurant as well as some nibbles inspired by street food in India.

Frozen Bite - pineapple juice, coconut water, lime juice, coconut and lime (?) foam.  Definitely very tropical.

Pani puri - one of the cooks was busy injecting the sweet, white chocolate shells with the acidic and spicy mix which was coriander water, cumin and other spices.  Topped with some silver foil.  Very interesting mix of flavors here.

Yogurt explosion - aaaaahhh... the trademark "spherification" from Gaggan's time with Ferran in Barcelona.  This actually tasted like lassi.  Yum.

Spiced nuts in edible plastic bag - inside the rice paper bag were spices alongside wasabi peas and coated peanuts like the ones I used to buy from Koh-Kae in Thailand.

Keema pav - minced lamb filling with what I thought were lentils.

Paradise - coconut water, coconut milk, lime juice (?) and a sprinkle of tonka bean powder on top.  A little too rich for my taste...

We subsequently moved to our assigned tables, and after some words from the chef, dinner was served!

Viagra® : freshly shucked oyster, kokum reduction and horseradish ice-cream - we were instructed to eat the leaf along with the lemon foam first, then move on to the oyster with the pungent horseradish ice cream and kokum reduction.  I think the horseradish would have been a little overpowering were it not for the acidity of the kokum...

2012 Pascal and Nicolas Reverdy Sancerre Blanc Terre de Maimbray - nose of flint, mineral, and slightly ripe, very aromatic.  Dry on the palate, which was a perfect match with oysters.

Willy Wonka and foie gras factory : foié gras mousse with spiced red onion, raspberry-hazelnut praline and glaze - very interesting to have such a light, airy mousse made with foie gras.  I thought I tasted a little turmeric.  Not surprising to see the use of raspberries here, but the red onion glaze was very yummy.

Alchemist's cake : dhokla: lentil flour cake with curry leaves, mustard seeds, dates and coconut ice-cream - given that I'm not well-versed in the diverse "Indian" cuisine (if there were such a thing...), I had no idea what Gujarati dhokla tastes like in its original form.  I found the cake a little too dry.  The blend of spices like mustard seeds and curry leaves was interesting, but I would have preferred a little more coconut ice cream to make the thing more moist and easier to go down.  Such is the opinion of this idiot...

2012 Sebastiani Chardonnay Sonoma Coast - as New World as it gets when it comes to Chardonnay... tons of vanilla, tropical and floral notes.  Very ripe on the palate.  I first commented that this was "very Cali", but that puzzled My Favorite Cousin because to her, it tasted just like an Aussie Chard...  I guess many New World Chardonnays all taste like this...

Down to earth : summer vegetables, asparagus, morels, mushrooms, artichokes with 62°C egg yolk and truffle chilly air -  Wow!  What a fantastic dish!  One's first impressions when reading the list of ingredients would be that this was just like any of a number of similar dishes found in many places - soft-boiled egg with mushrooms and truffles.  But it was much, much more than that.  The soup had a really strong kick to it, coming from black pepper, chili powder and coriander.  What a nice surprise!

Bong connection : red mullet in green chilly herb marinade with Bengali mustard, sweet potato, cauliflower and spiced gel - the other underwhelming dish, which was a sentiment shared by everyone at the table.  Even though I know how particular Richard is about the fish he sources in his kitchen, I just found this red mullet pretty uninteresting.  Yes, the mustard was spicy and pungent, and had a very distinctive kick to it, but I didn't think it added to the fish or brought out its flavors.  The sweet potato spiced gel was nice, but the frozen cauliflower powder on the side was predictably bland.

2009 Nevis Bluff Pinot Noir - interestingly this seemed to be mostly cool fruit, with lots of forest and dried herb notes, perhaps tasting a little bit of stem.  There was also some ripeness in the fruit.

Portuguese connection : Iberian pork, sous vide for 48 hours with pickling spices, served with a vindaloo curry reduction - how do I not like a block of pork belly, especially when it's iberico?!  And when the sauce was as familiar as vindaloo, and the pork was cooked with spices such as star anise... can you say INHALED, boys and girls?

2011 Couly-Dutheil Chinon 'Domaine Rene Couly' - a little smokiness, almost like Chinese medicine along with exotic spices.  Kinda tannic still... Paired well with the pork.

Jhinga nisha : fresh water prawn grilled with curry leaf infusion and mango chutney - what a beautiful dish!  Chef Gaggan apologized at the start of the meal for not being to recreate every dish perfectly in someone else's kitchen, since there was no way that he could carry a 500-lb tandoor with him as part of his luggage.  Well, it would seem that he did very well using Richard's stock of binchotan (備長炭) when bringing this dish to life, grilling the prawns at 360°C.  The smoky flavors were just incredible.  Classic tandoori flavors and very spicy, with curry leaf foam and coriander, as well as a small dab of mango chutney on the side.  One of the best dishes this evening.

Best memory : free-range lamb chop sous-vide, grilled and finished with green herb oil - initially the chops they served me were pretty flat-looking, and since I preferred my lamb to be on the raw side, My Favorite Cousin very kindly swapped hers with mine.

But when I cut into it, it would seem that the flat chops she was now digging into were more pink than mine.  Very curious.  In spite of this, the lamb chop was extremely yummy, with lots of spices coating the exterior.  The beetroot purée helped temper the flames a little... as did the fragrant basmati rice served on the side.

Spiced croissants - these were some of oiliest croissants my fingers have ever had the pleasure of holding... They were simply oozing butter.  I was also surprised at how brown they were... almost to the point of getting charred.  We didn't understand why they were called "spiced croissants" at first, since they tasted just like any other... until we found large chunks of flakes bearing Sichuan peppercorns that had fallen off.

2010 Fattoria di Petroio Lenzi Chianti Classico - slightly higher acidity here.  This was OK, but in reality my taste buds weren't exactly operating at full capacity after the lamb chop...

Divine : mango snowball, pistachio and white chocolate powder - my snowball had clearly fallen off its base on the way to me, which was a bummer.

Cracking the thicker and harder-than-expected chocolate shell revealed the mango cream inside, flavored with cardamom.  This was OK, but everyone at the table immediately thought of the dessert at RyuGin (龍吟)...

2007 Schlumberger Pinot Gris Spiegel - a little ripe and slightly tropical.

Dinner itself took close to four hours - a very long affair... but we didn't mind.  This was such an interesting and delicious meal, and was certainly a real eye-opener for all of us.  For someone such as myself who loves molecular/modernist/progressive cuisine, I think Chef Gaggan certainly hit all the spots for me.  I only wish I had a better background in Gujarati cuisine, so that I could fully appreciate how the dishes had been inspired by their originals yet deconstructed with modern methods - the same way that I appreciate Alvin and what he does at Bo Innovation.

Chefs Richard and Gaggan came over at the end and we chatted a little about how the food tonight was taking the classics and giving them a modern interpretation.  Chef Gaggan said something along the lines of "some people want to preserve the classics, but some people want to go and destroy it".  I guess there's no question as to which camp he belongs to!

Well, the day I decide to break my boycott on Thailand is the day that I'll pick up the phone and make a reservation for Gaggan in Bangkok.  Until then, I'll have this dinner to reminisce over.

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