May 21, 2016

Singapore trip 2016 day 1: disappointing birthday dinner

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I try to meet up with my friends Mr. and Mrs. Ho every time I'm in Singapore.  We've been friends for a long time, and have shared many culinary adventures together - including that fantastic dinner at elBulli.  This time around we're celebrating Mr. Ho's birthday a little early, so after some discussion we decided to get ourselves a table at the Tippling Club.

Tippling Club has, of course, been regarded as one of the top restaurants in Singapore for the last few years.  My first impression of the restaurant wasn't a good one, as it was featured in an article in the Wall Street Journal about cryptic menus - leading me to write a post about my pet peeves regarding menus.  Nowadays the Tippling Club has entered the ranks of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants for the last 3 years, and certainly would expect to bag themselves a macaron or two when the Rubberman publishes their first Red Guide for Singapore next year.  So it moved to the top of my hit list.

We started the evening at the Ho residence, where I saw the kids and their bunny before bedtime.  As was customary, Mr. Ho also opened a nice bottle of white wine as an aperitif.

2006 Beaucastel Blanc Rousanne Vieilles Vignes - lots of tropical fruits like mango, ripe and sweet on the palate.  Drinking deliciously.

After a nice stroll, we arrived at the restaurant and were seated at a table near the bar area, in full view of the open kitchen.  One could choose from either the 5-course or 10-course menu, but the whole table most take the same number of courses.  Given that both Mr. Ho and myself wanted the full 10 courses, Mrs. Ho gave in and joined us for the full experience.

First we started with a series of snacks:

Tom yum with coriander tempura, deep-fried curry leaves, coconut - this was kinda interesting... I could definitely taste the lime, coconut, and a little bit of spice from the tom yum cream.

Bocadillo - with chorizo, tomato, and olive oil caviar.  Very tasty.  Love the chewy texture of the chorizo being sandwiched by crispy wafers.

Corn cracker, garlic aioli, sakura shrimp - with pea powder.  My cracker had gone a little soggy but I was accused by my dining companions of taking too long to snap pictures... which was, of course, not true...  The aioli was very tasty, as were the sakura shrimps (桜海老).

Smoked and charred red bell peppers, soya wasabi mousse - the peppers were pretty tasty - with crunchy charred exteriors crumbling to reveal the true flavors inside.  The accompanying mousse was a complete FAIL.  It was just so incredibly salty... to the point where one has to wonder why the chef thought it necessary.  It reminded me of my experience at Alinea, where there were courses which compelled me to reach for a drink in order to wash away the saltiness on my tongue.

Manchego bread puff, Manchego mousse, Manchego cheese - this was very good... with a mouthful of Manchego and the fragrance from the hazelnut oil caviar.

Deep-fried mushroom nori roll, algae powder, oba vinaigrette - I can't believe that, in 2016, there are still chefs who think having diners injecting something into the food by squeezing a pipette is still cool.  It's the kinda shit I hated about Richard Ekkebus' cuisine at Amber back in 2007, and Richard outgrew that years ago...

I think the roll was already kinda mushy before the injection of liquid, so it only got worse.

Our palate cleanser came as a shot of tomato gazpacho with olive oil and basil oil.  Nice.

Then the procession of 10 courses began...

Alaskan king crab, liquified scrambled eggs, shallot puree and lobster veloute - the slow-poached crab was pretty tasty.  The two globs of what must have been 'liquefied' scrambled eggs were kinda interesting... although I must confess that I had a hard time identifying the contents inside purely from the flavors.  The salsify on top was pretty nice and crunchy, and the jus was sweet and flavorful.  Overall a pretty good dish.

Razor clams, purple Brittany garlic soup - buried under the parsley chip were wild Scottish razor clams and milk-braised parsley root, which were immersed in the garlic soup.  There were also three parsley 'dots' on top.  The garlic flavors of the soup helped to make this a warm and comforting dish, and there was just enough seasoning/salt to be just shy of becoming too salty.

Foie gras coulant, passionfruit center, Chinese celery financier - the presentation here is certainly visually appealing and interesting... A cylinder of foie gras pâté, almost like a skinny torchon, sitting on a bed of crumbled financier made with celery and mixed with cocoa nibs and celery gel.  Topped with thin strips of crunchy celery.

But cutting open the coulant revealed the problem with this dish... There was simply way too much passion fruit coulis inside.  The acidity dominated the dish, to the point where one had difficulty tasting the foie gras.  Foie gras should be the star here, but it feels like passion fruit has usurped the star status.

When someone who proclaims to love foie gras chooses not to finish a foie gras dish, that should tell you something...

False risotto of artichoke and potato, jamon, confit egg yolk, avruga caviar - more trouble.  First of all, the nomenclature is wrong.  Besides potato, the other brunoise in this "risotto" (and the ingredient used for the chips) was topinambour - otherwise known as "Jerusalem artichoke" or sunchoke.  It is not at all the same thing as artichoke.  To make this mistake in the introduction - and worse, on the menu itself - is a ridiculous mistake for a restaurant trying to play at this level.  The "bellota jamón" was also introduced as "J5"... which I believe should be "5J" or Cinco Jotas as that is a brand name.

The real problem with this dish, though, was again the flavors.  While I was not surprised to find some acidity in a dish featuring Jerusalem artichokes and jamón ibérico, the dish turned out to be incredibly salty.  Yes, the jamón can be a little bit salty at times but in reality it also comes with sweet and nutty flavors.  The salt also didn't come from the confit egg yolk.  It appears to have come from, among other things, the avruga caviar... which was completely unnecessary in this dish.  Let's face it... avruga caviar isn't even caviar.  It's a fucking processed food ingredient made to look like caviar, but it neither has the right texture nor the right flavors... and in the end all you get is salt on your tongue.  And the illusion that you're serving your customers a luxe ingredient - which it is most definitely not.

Another dish that my friends did not finish.

Kingfish, aubergine, pea and green curry puree, tom kha veloute - the poached yellowtail kingfish was very nice and tender, and Mrs. Ho thought the foam on top was very similar to otak-otak... The aubergine caviar and Thai basil were nice and all, but for some reason there were chunks of celery that had obviously been salted or marinated or whatever... If one chomped on the celery alone, one would again be left with a ton of salt on one's tongue.  What, exactly, was the purpose of having the celery in here?!  The dish would be so much better without it, with all the flavors coming together pretty harmoniously.  The celery was definitely a "WTF" ingredient for me...

Mangalica pork collar, nuka vegetables, nori, cinnamon infused dashi - I was so looking forward to having some Mangalica pork, but this was ruined by... you guess it... too much salt.  The pork was brined and cooked sous vide, and while it was very, very tender it was also very, very, very salty.  Adding insult to injury was the topping of carrots and cucumber which had gone through the Japanese nukatsuke (糠漬け) fermentation... so that they, too, were salty.  Or maybe that was the cinnamon dashi (出汁) that was poured on top of everything which... yup... added more salt.  The france of yuzu (柚子) in the dashi couldn't hope to save the dish form being a total disaster.

A4 Toriyama beef, horseradish burrata, Japanese fruit tomato, artichoke - the final nail in the coffin.  By course number 7 we were all pretty full... and the kitchen sent out this incredibly heavy dish for a knock-out punch.  And succeeded.  Neither of my friends finished their dish.

The wagyu (和牛) from Toriyama Farm (鳥山牧場) was indeed very marbled and premium, but unfortunately too rich for us as it came after the heavy assault we had just gone through.  While I understand that many people feel that horseradish is a good complement to beef, we were puzzled by its combination with burrata.  The addition of Japanese sea grapes (海葡萄) seemed like a novel idea, but it tasted heavily of the ocean and clashed badly with the beef.  Finally, the slices of wagyu that went through the Japanese kobujime (昆布締め) process of seasoning turned out very, very salty... AGAIN.

At least the chunk of Jerusalem artichoke at the bottom was introduced correctly this time... even though the menu still got it wrong.

At this time both Mr. and Mrs. Ho threw in the towel and declined any more dishes.  Mrs. Ho came to a full stop while Mr. Ho skipped the next two dishes and only took the very last fruit-based dessert.  Cat the manager was kind enough to take this into account and deducted some of the charges from our bill.

Cheese, a daily creation from the pastry kitchen - "quesa de torta" with sourdough crumbs, potatoes, pickled shallots, olive oil caviar.  At least there was some acidity here to help cut down the richness... and the black truffle (?) bits were nice and fragrant.

Sweet treats - as if we didn't have enough food, I got more playful bites before hitting the desserts...

A bottle of pills came and these were supposed to be my strawberry cheesecake medication...

They did taste of strawberries, complete with having seeds stuck in between my teeth.  There were also bits of savory crust.

Mandarin and Madras curry - a frozen ball of ice that tasted strongly of both.

Violet fizz bomb - actually also tasted somehow of nori (のり) seaweed to me...

Chocolate ganache, banana and avocado puree, poached banana, sorrel - with caramel rum poached banana and banana chips.  Well, banana and chocolate do pair well together.  The avocado dots had so much surprising acidity, however...  Oh and the leaf was introduced as "shira leaf", but perhaps they meant sorrel?

Strawberries and cream, creme fraiche sorbet, yoghurt and white chocolate rocks - there were strawberry rocks at the bottom instead of the chocolate rocks stated on the menu, along with a strawberry sablé.

Taking out some of the foam on top showed the mint granité and the crème fraîche sorbet.  There were also some Japanese strawberries macerated in strawberry liqueur.  When I asked for the type of Japanese strawberry used, the response was "ichigo strawberries".

This was the second time this year that staff at a fine dining restaurant came to tell me that they were using "ichigo strawberries".  Dude, ichigo (苺) is the Japanese word for strawberries, not the name of the strawberry cultivar or brand name.  If you are expecting to display a Michelin star or two on your door, I expect you to know your ingredients.

Finally, after all that, the petits fours...

Raspberry and pink pepper praline

Grapefruit mousse

Dehydrated blueberry cheesecake

Now... the main event tonight was actually not the food but the wines.  Specifically, a very special bottle of wine.  Many years ago (it has been so long that neither of us remembered exactly, so let's say it was 10 years ago) I had given Mr. Ho a very, very nice bottle of wine from his birth vintage.  It was a gem in my collection, and I had chosen to part with it as a sign of my friendship with Mr. Ho... with the stipulation that the bottle must be drunk with me.  Tonight Mr. Ho very graciously allowed me to collect on my debt.

1976 Yquem - double-decanted due to a broken cork.  What a lovely wine!  Loads of honey, nutty, grapey notes... with dried prunes and Medjool dates.  The wine opened up with time and just got richer and more amazing over the course of the evening.  Such an incredible privilege to be able to drink this 40-year old nectar!

2001 Comte de Vogüé Musigny Vielles Vignes - opened for an hour prior to decanting.  This needed to be chilled to a more suitable drinking temperature.  A little smoky with leather, eucalyptus, dried herbs, and forest notes.  Long finish.

The wines were simply fantastic tonight, and we were very happy to have shared the experience together.  Too bad the food fell far short of our expectations, and I felt bad enough that I picked up the tab.

In spite of the disappointing food, the service tonight was better than I had expected.  Besides being fairly attentive with wine service and all, and deducting some cost off our bill for not taking the full 10 courses, the restaurant also graciously decided to waive their standard corkage for both of the bottles we brought along.  It was unfortunate, then, that I was fuming by the end of dinner that I did not notice this fact until after I returned to my hotel room.  I would have added back some tips to show my appreciation.

P.S. One final rant about this restaurant.  I know that many diners like the idea of an open kitchen so that they can watch the kitchen at work.  I'm not one of those people, but I wouldn't mind so much as long as the kitchen is properly ventilated.  Unfortunately, this kitchen isn't.  When I'm paying good money for a meal, I don't want to be smelling the kitchen making other people's food - because it interferes with my dining experience.  My olfactory experience should consist solely of what's on the plate in front of me.  I would also be extremely bothered if I could not properly smell and enjoy my glass of wine... which was the case at various times tonight.  This is a HUGE pet peeve of mine, and there's little reason for me to return to a restaurant that delivers this kind of experience.


Unknown said...

Really disappointed in this review, you need to train your palate a little better so you are able to understand what you are eating. Negativity has cursed you. Please try harder.

Peech said...

Thank you, chef, for your kind suggestion. I will attempt to eat out even more often at fine dining restaurants than I already do so that I can come to a basic understanding of what y'all trying to deliver. Time to call upon my chef friends in Hong Kong and elsewhere to help!

Noah said...

The comment you’re referring to might have been posted as “anonymous” but he clearly said “this is chef speaking now” in his message. So how can you tell him he doesn’t have the balls to identify himself?

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. We all have different tastes and that’s fine if you didn’t like the food. But coming from a top 50 judge, I would expect a more constructive feedback. Instead, this review is written as a personal attack to the restaurant and its staff.

Peech said...

Since the chef and his band of buddies are predictably jumping in and demanding my head, may I humbly direct everyone to an earlier post of mine on the subject of criticizing restaurants:

To Noah: where did you get the feeling that this was a "personal attack to the restaurant and its staff"? If I wanted to maliciously attack a restaurant, I certainly would not be heaping praise on some of the dishes, and certainly not praise the service, and publicly lament the fact that I should have tipped the restaurant (as I normally do) when I paid the bill. My attacks would have been all one-sided and negative, which this post was most certainly not.

Did I berate the staff and the kitchen for not meeting my expectations? I certainly did. Was my language harsh? It certainly was in a few instances. It reflects my writing style and my feelings about my experience. But 'personal' attacks they were not. I criticize everyone the same way when I feel they have fallen below certain acceptable levels of service and/or food, and I judge more harshly for restaurants that place themselves - through pricing or otherwise - in the fine dining/Michelin star category. I have no need to do hatchet jobs on anyone in particular, and everyone gets the same treatment - even chefs with Michelin stars who are personal friends of mine.

So, yes, I was unhappy with part of my meal. And I was unhappy that my friends were unhappy about their meal, and what should have been a happy, celebratory occasion turned out not to be enjoyable for us. Did my disappointment and anger come through in my writing? It certainly did. I will remind everyone that this is, after all, not a professional restaurant review but a page in my diary, so I have free rein to write in whichever manner that pleases me. But did my emotions cloud my judgement regarding the execution of the dishes? Not for a second. There was too much salt in some of the ingredients - a sentiment shared by all of us at the table - and the flavors were disjointed. In our opinions.

FWIW, I very calmly and politely shared these very comments with the restaurant manager on my way out, when asked. I'm pretty sure our disappointment was pretty evident on our faces.

Juventus73 said...

Quite surprised by this poor review as I've eaten in Tippling Club many times and have had a wonderful creative and attentive dining experience and service. Perhaps you shouldn't choose open kitchen restaurants full stop. I fear you forget Sir that dining is an experience and an assault on the senses - where you can experience the creative thought process of a Chef director and his team . I admire these top world beating chefs and wholly acknowledge the time effort and shear brilliance that goes into creating such amazing dishes . You tried it you didn't like some of it - well that's life. I guess you won't be going back.


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