June 10, 2015

(Not) In Bruges

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Every year, the Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hotel does a few "pop-ups" featuring renowned chefs from around the world.  The quality of these chefs is generally very, very high, with many of them heading two- or three-Michelin starred establishments.  This is due in no small part to the efforts of Richard Ekkebus who, as the public face as well as the driving force behind Amber, has ensured the restaurant was ranked among the World's 50 Best Restaurants for the last 5 years running.  Increasingly, these chefs come from the kitchens of other restaurants ranked among the World's 50 Best, as Richard continues to enlarge his network.

I had the pleasure of attending two very good events last year - with Azurmendi and Gaggan.  Both featured cuisine that was creative and revelatory.  I missed out on a couple of these earlier this year due to my busy work schedule, and as I continue to be in overdrive mode, I haven't paid too much attention to the list of incoming chefs.

Two days ago, I received an invitation from the hotel's PR department to join a pop-up dinner featuring the cuisine of Chef Gert de Mangeleer of Hertog Jan - a restaurant just outside Bruges, Belgium with three Michelin stars and recently ranked No. 53 on the World's 50 Best (yes, I know this sounds like an oxymoron...)  After rearranging my feeding schedule, I happily accepted the invitation.  As I've said before, Richard is not someone you turn down...

Then I saw some Twitter traffic between Richard, Gert, and Chef Gaggan Anand... and hugging was mentioned.  Since the Entourage movie just came out last week, I decided to channel Ari Gold and suggested that the three guys just "hug it out".  Richard then suggested a "group hug" when I came to dinner tonight.  So, yes, I was really looking forward to having this group hug and preserving it in perpetuity with a picture.

There was the usual cocktail session before dinner, with Chef Gert and the kitchen team preparing and serving snacks out in the open.  We sipped on R and L Legras Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs - the house pour at Amber - while I chatted with fellow diners who would be seated at my "media" table.

Crispy chicken - peanuts - puffed rice - this was very, very good.  The rice crispies and the crispy chicken skin were very toasty and yummy, so much so that I told Your Highness that I could smell it coming from his mouth as he was chewing about a meter away from me.  Nice peanut flavors, too.

Goose liver - passion fruit - anise seeds - now THIS was interesting.  These looked like mini char siu buns (叉燒餐包) or something, but were in fact meringue shells filled with foie gras and passion fruit cream, injected from the bottom.  The bottom was closed off with a thin, translucent wafer flavored with Coca-Cola.  Sprinkle some anise seeds on top and voila!  The amazing thing was that when you put the thing in your mouth and bite down, the whole thing crumbles into a powdery, creamy pile that quickly disappears.  Poof!  But the flavors were just so good!

Potato - smoked eggplant - miso - a dot of miso and a dot of smoked eggplant mash sit on top of a "nest" made with deep-fried strands of potato.  Garnished with pretty chive flowers.

West-Flemish cured beef - black garlic - lime - this was a mystery.  There were "rods" of beef inside these crispy, cylindrical shells, although I didn't taste any black garlic.  There was a little acidity here, although I assumed it was coming from the tomato powder on the exterior.

We took our seats, and Richard came into the room and introduced Gert.  Gert talked to us about purchasing 3 hectares of land just outside the city of Bruges 5 years ago, where diners are served in a barn dating to the 18th century with protected status.  They grow all their vegetables, herbs, and flowers on their own land, and in fact has flown them in by air for this pop-up.  Truly impressive.

Candied pointed bell pepper, fresh goat cheese and anchovy, tomato broth with marigold - cutting open the bell pepper reveals a filling of goat cheese, anchovies, chopped green olives and perhaps something else green that was crunchy.  The subtle and elegant floral notes in the tomato broth was lovely.  The filling was a little on the salty side, but this was neutralized by the paired rosé, while the wine highlighted the flavors of the anchovies.

2013 Terre Nere Rosato - a rosé from Mount Etna on Sicily.  Nice and fresh, with honey, peach, a little flint and a little bit of oak in the nose.

Royal Belgium caviar with watermelon and mozzarella pearls, dashi vinaigrette - this set the standard in terms of presentation for the rest of the evening.  Wow!  Just.so.pretty.  Caviar placed inside little cones made of sliced kohlrabi, served with little pearls of milky mozzarella and watermelon, and garnished with nasturtium.  The flavors were just so well balanced, with the sweetness from watermelon and the milkiness of mozzarella tempering the saltiness of the caviar.  Of course the acidity, too.

2009 Tement Sauvignon Blanc Grassnitzberg - very rich, thick and viscous on the palate.  Nose was a little pungent, with definite notes of polyurethane and plastic, along with a little pipi de chat.  Some lemon and muscat grapes, too.  Very full on the palate, and a pretty nice wine overall.

Asparagus from Sijsele with tamarind and fresh herbs from our garden - and they only get prettier.  This was pretty much nothing but veg, and it all came from Hertog Jan's farm.  Apparently this dish was inspired by Michel Bras' gargouillou.  The beautiful asparagus was poached in clarified butter, and in fact the waitstaff drizzled more clarified butter onto the herbs.  The thin biscuit sitting at the bottom tasted of cumin, and there was a nice tang of acidity coming from the tamarind.  A beauty to behold, and a beautiful combination of freshness.  It was a walk in the gardens, indeed.

Speaking of clarified butter... I can't help but think of a friend who once mused about tying a certain female celebrity to a chair before proceeding to force-feed her clarified butter.  You know who you are...

2011 Joh. Jos. Prüm Riesling Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett - nose was more pungent and in-your-face than expected.  Reasonably sweet on the palate for a kabinett.  Heck, I'll never get tired of drinking German Riesling...

Marinated langoustine with pickled beetroot, raspberry and vanilla - we were now presented with another flower, only this was crafted from wafer-thin slices of beetroot.  It was such a beautiful work of art that Your Highness posed for pictures as if contemplating the similarities between this and Georgia O'Keeffe's poppies.

Underneath the flower was the marinated but raw langoustine, not exactly chopped up like a tartare, but it's kinda been torn apart.  We also have these rolls made of ribbons of pickled beetroot, whose nice and crunchy texture contrasted with the langoustine.  Into the mix comes raspberry coulis and raspberry pulp, as well as smoky vanilla seeds.  Another dish combining a gorgeous look with wonderful flavors.

2012 Jean-Marc Pillot Puligny Montrachet Les Noyers Bret - buttery, ripe, and oaky nose.

Kohlrabi ravioli with smoked Oosterschelde eel, goose liver and yuzu - the little "dumplings" here were made with smoked eel from the Oosterschelde delta on the Dutch and Belgian border, in wrappers made of thin slices of kohlrabi.  They were sitting on little medallions of foie gras pâté, with yuzu cream.  The smoky flavors of the eel were outstanding, and the dish was surprisingly not too rich in spite of the foie.  Again, you've got contrasting textures as well as contrasting flavors... but they all seem to come together harmoniously.

2011 Leflaive et Associés Monthélie 1er Cru Sur la Velle - very prominent nose of toasty corn, which obscured the fruit a little.  Not bad, and I thought the wine paired well with the smoked eel.

Wagyu beef Stroganoff style with marinated mushroom and spicy peppers - by now we are used to the stunning presentations, but I still can't help but marvel at the sight of this dish.  The vibrant colors were simply stunning, with the green from the fern providing sharp contrast to the orange of the "Stroganoff" sauce and the shichimi (七味) powder, as well as the purple chive flowers.

Side view shows the beef resting on top of a cylinder.

The beautiful marbled beef from Miyazaki (宮崎) was tender and yielded to the knife "like buttah"... And I made sure I took each bite with a little bit of the sauce.

The "cylinder" beneath the beef was a roll made with marinated pepper, and filled with marinated mushrooms, spicy beetroot, and green peppercorns.  This thing packed a nice punch.  I definitely felt the flames dancing on my tongue, and the wine from a hot, alcoholic vintage certainly didn't help.  I described the wine pairing as "pouring oil on fire" to my neighbor FineFoodDude.

2005 Señorio de San Vicente from magnum - double-decanted 4½ hours prior to serving, and I can definitely see why.  Really ripe and sweet on the nose, with a little pencil lead, vanilla, oak, and later on that exotic coconut butter I love.   Nice and rounded on the palate, very smooth.

Rhubarb with yoghurt and blossoms - the tuile was filled with yoghurt and rhubarb foam on top.  I definitely tasted some orange blossom, and perhaps rose.

Cracking the tuile reveals a collection of frozen yoghurt balls at the bottom.

Lheraud Pineau des Charentes Collection Perle Rose - wonderful sweet nose, with a little straw and definitely sugarcane.  Minty, too.  Slightly medicinal on the palate, but very sweet and alluring.

What a fantastic meal this was!  The combination of the flavors, the stunning presentation of each dish... Everything about this meal was screaming "three stars".  This was modern European cuisine at its best, and I'm incredibly grateful for the invitation.  One day I hope to be able to sit at a table in the barn and take in the view while savoring Gert's food.

P.S. One disappointment of the evening came after we were done.  I was looking around for Richard and Gert to take that group hug picture, but the two of them had skipped out - no doubt gone drinking and take a late-night dinner.  I guess I'll have to get my Entourage moment another time...

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