April 1, 2017

Beyond Chungking Express

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We were getting together with a couple of friends we haven't seen in a while, and searched for a fine dining restaurant which had a corkage policy that could accommodate us.  Amber was out of the question, and Guillaume Galliot doesn't start his stint at Caprice until May.  I was looking to revisit old favorites which I've somehow neglected for a while, and Pierre was an obvious one.  A couple of quick calls to the restaurant later, and we were back at square one.  Apparently the corkage policy there wasn't very accommodating, either.

So we decided to go back and visit Sato-san at Ta Vie旅.  We've always been free to open as many bottles as we'd like here - paying full corkage, of course - and I've never not had a great meal.  After all, this is one of my absolute favorite restaurants in town.

I had seen a few pictures of Sato-san's new dishes

Caesar salad topped with hotaru squid, hotaru squid caesar dressing - it's firefly squid (蛍烏賊) season again, and I just loooove these little buggers from Toyama Prefecture (富山県).  I've always loved Sato-san's version of Caesar salad, replacing the anchovies with a better ingredient.  There's also shredded Japanese spikenard (独活), croûtons, cheese shavings, and the pepper chiffonade (糸唐辛子) that Japanese chefs seem to love. The little dab of sauce on the side was made with the liver (?) of the firefly squid.  Yum.

I always look forward to the homemade butter.  I don't mind that it's unsalted, because it is so, so, so light and ethereal.  How many chefs do you know who make their own butter?

And the butter is used on the homemade nukazuke (糠漬け) bread.  I love this bread, but tonight the texture seemed a little more airy than I remembered.

"Clam chowder", whelk Matsubu twist clam and peas with chef's twist - the bowls were placed in front of us, then another tray was carried table-side, bearing two large whelks.  The "chowder" was then poured from the whelks into our bowls.  In the bowl were chunks of 真つぶ貝 - the largest and highest-quality whelks.  I was pretty surprised at how soft they were.  The onions were nice, but those sugar snap peas were simply divine!  Everything was just very elegant and came together naturally.

White strawberry, cherry, fruits tomato tossed with Thai basil with Burrata cheese - this dish originally had beetroot, but since neither Hello Kitty and I care for this earthy ingredient, we asked for a substitution.  So, instead of something we dislike, we got... Japanese cherries!  These were called Sato Nishiki (佐藤錦) from Yamagata Prefecture (山形県).  Imagine that... a chef named Sato serving us cherries bearing his name...  These came with Japanese white strawberries called Hatsukoi No Kaori (初恋の香り) from Yamanashi Prefecture (山梨県) and Amera tomatoes (アメーラトマト), on top of a bed of creamy Burrata, and garnished with some really fragrant Thai basil.

At first glance this seemed like another twist on the traditional caprese, but it is so much more!  The red fruits - including the Amera tomatoes - were just incredibly sweet and fragrant.

"Civet" braised abalone with abalone shell - my second time savoring this dish.  The abalone from Jeju Island (제주도) - braised in a jar in water bath - was very tender.  The pearl onions and mushrooms worked well with the abalone and the abalone liver sauce.  The "shell" on top was a delicious cookie which tasted like I shouldn't ask how much butter had been used to make it...

House made pasta with "aonori" sauce topped with premium uni - as usual, an extra complimentary course from Sato-san.  I shan't ever get tired of having this pasta with seawater sea urchin (海水雲丹), especially with all the umami from the seaweed.

Pan-seared Ise-lobster, sauce vin jaune Chinois - the Ise lobster (伊勢海老) was cooked PERFECTLY - which is to say it was barely cooked and still pretty raw.  Served with bok choy (白菜仔), morels from Yunnan (雲南), asparagus, and foam/sauce made with 10-year-old Shaoxing wine (紹興酒).  Really, really good.

Charcoal roasted French duck breast with "Inca" potato tossed with fuki butter - once again, the execution was perfect.  The duck breast was more rare than rosé, so I guess I'd call it saignant...  but so, sooooo tender and delicious. On the side were fiddlehead ferns, Alpine leeks (行者にんにく), "Inca" potatoes coated with with butter flavored with finely diced butterbur (蕗), and chunks of root chervil.  I had never had root chervil before, and was surprised at the starchy texture - which was kinda in between potato and plantain.

Iced sakura Oolong tea - very elegant, with the mild fragrance of cherry blossoms.  The slightly salty flavors of the cherry blossoms certainly made it interesting.

Almond ice cream with meringue, fresh strawberry, scent of sakura blossom, covered with fragile candy glass - one of Sato-san's signature desserts that I've had numerous times, and I still think it amazing that a seemingly simple dessert could deliver such harmony.  Going from the sugary sweetness of the meringue to the creamy sweetness of the almond ice cream; then to the strawberries with the fruitiness along with refreshing acidity; to lemon cream which delivered a fine balance between acidity and some slight bitterness; and finally a little saltiness from the cherry blossoms.  Lots of layers here, but everything was subtle and none of it in-your-face.

Crêpe with "kinkan" and ginger, hot mandarin honey sauce flavored with black truffle - a more fruity and citrusy dessert... A different version of crêpe Suzette.  The warm mandarin honey and truffle sauce was drizzled over a quenelle of vanilla ice cream.

I love kumquats (金柑) for their intense, citrusy fragrance, and here we've got ginger chiffonade bringing a little more zing to the mix.
Mulberry compote and gélee - this was the petit four which accompanied Hello Kitty's pandan and lemongrass tea.  I love mulberries.

I wanted a different petit four, so I asked for some coffee.  This was Tano Batak Mandheling from around Lake Toba in Sumatra, roasted in Taiwan.  Very elegant.

Chocolate and kaffir lime pudding - the real reason I wanted coffee tonight.  The kaffir lime just makes this chocolate pudding incredible.

The three of us who were drinking tonight managed to clear out three bottles, although I did manage to save some of the bubbly and the white Burg for Sato-san...

2006 Roses de Jeanne Creux d'Enfer, dégorgée à 10 Avril 2010 - nose of strawberries and later sweet like honey.  Really nice depth of flavors along with a hint of bitterness.

1999 Coche-Dury Meursault - the nose was sooooooo huge and explosive, with so much toast and roast corn.  How can I not love this?!

2004 Mugnier Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Amoureuses - served a little on the warm side.  Very sweet and fruity nose, lovely and floral, along with a little toast.  Very sexy and always a pleasure.

I found out at lunch earlier today that the Hungry Tourist also had plans to dine here tonight, and in fact ended up being seated at the next table.  What a coincidence!

Also at lunch today, Jinlovestoeat told me that she's never been to Ta Vie旅, and despite staying at The Pottinger, she chose instead to dine at VEA last night.  Well, as much as I enjoyed my sole dinner at VEA last year, in my mind there simply is no comparison.  As Hello Kitty described, with VEA the emphasis is on theatrics, but Ta Vie旅 is on a different level.  As our friends tonight were the very same people who brought us to VEA last year, we went through a comparison of the two restaurants.

As their career progresses, many chefs goes through a stage where they try to impress by creating dishes that are fancy and complex - thinking that it will dazzle diners and critics.  The truly great chefs will eventually get past this, and what they present to diners are dishes that are deceptively simple, yet somehow achieve the seamless integration of the ingredients to deliver the "wow" factor - seemingly without much effort.  We agreed that Vicky is still slogging his way through the former stage, while Sato-san has undoubtedly reached the latter.  Both have put a lot of thought into their dishes, but the dishes at Ta Vie旅 - while they can also be visually dazzling - just feels more natural and comfortable.

My friend, who is both a big fan of Chef Vicky Cheng and a real film buff, chose an analogy using the career of director Wong Kar-wai (王家偉).  Vicky's dishes are like Ashes of Time (東邪西毒) - with a jaw-dropping cast weaving through a complex plot, requiring some serious work in the editing room.  Sato-san, however, has clearly delivered us dishes that feel like Chungking Express (重慶森林), Happy Together (春光乍洩), or beyond - where the style feels much simpler and natural.

Yes, boys and girls, we DO talk about things other than food and wine at the dinner table.  And sometimes, just sometimes, that conversation can be real interesting.

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