October 27, 2017

Writing the dissenting opinion

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A few weeks ago I received a kind invitation to a media tasting of a "collaboration" between Chef Agustin Balbi of HAKU and Chef Matsuo Hideaki (松尾英明) of Kashiwaya (柏屋).  Being a "freebie preview", it's completely understandable that this had been scheduled in the middle of the afternoon in order not to take up valuable revenue-generating seats during regular business hours.  These types of events have always been a pain in the backside for people like myself who have a regular day job, but given that this particular event was on a Friday afternoon and I was assured that "this is worth it", I somewhat begrudgingly got out of the office and crossed the harbor for this "lunner"...

I spotted a couple of familiar faces upon arrival, and I was strategically placed next to my friend KC - who was strategically placed against the wall on the long end of the L-shaped counter.  That would turn out to be a very smart move...

First, a flute of Champagne to start...

Duval-Leroy Fleur de Champagne Premier Cru - nice balance on the palate.

Then came a few nibbles:

Kibinago (黍魚子) - the silver-stripe round herring was deep-fried, and pretty tasty.

Nori cone - with dashi (出汁) cream, "ahgatsuo" (probably hagatsuo 歯鰹, or striped bonito) and coriander, ginger, chili.  The nori (海苔) cone was hardened in a dehydrator, which made it hold its shape despite the wet and creamy filling.  The raw fish tasted more like katsuoboshi (鰹節), with pretty strong flavors tasting more like deep-fried fish than the kibinago...

Morcilla - with a dab of dashi mayo on top.  Very nice.

Black tea and katsuoboshi consommé - dashi + tea, with chanterelles.  No salt here, just purity of flavors.

First Frost: ika / bellota ham / konbu - sliced spear squid (槍烏賊), konbu (昆布), and jamón bellota, with dried cauliflower, cauliflower purée, squid ink dots, and chives.  The dish was finished by sprinkling dehydrated sake kasu (酒粕) powder on top, which is meant to resemble the first frost of winter.

Between the konbu and the jamón, there are some pretty heavy flavors here... but thankfully there is still a reasonably good balance.  The sake kasu powder was rather hard and crunchy, giving the whole thing a harder texture balance than expected.  The good thing about the dish was that it was served warm, which gave it a hearty feel that is appropriate for winter.

Now... before getting here today, I had seen a ton of pictures of the next dish - apparently a signature of the restaurant.  I was internally conflicted about this dish, as it pushed the button on a couple of pet peeves of mine.  I was pretty sure we would be tasting it today, and as I walked toward the restaurant I was going through some internal debates in my head...

First of all, this dish was made with chutoro (中トロ) that I can only assume to have come from a bluefin tuna caught near Nagasaki (長崎).  I normally don't eat bluefin tuna for sustainability reasons, but since nobody asked us about our dietary restrictions, I kept quiet and ate it.

Bridge: chutoro / caviar - with my first bite containing only the tuna and beef tartare, I tasted some acidity along with the chives.  This was rather nice.  Of course, the caviar added an abundance of salt, but I thought it was reasonably balanced as long as the right ratio was achieved between the eggs and the raw tuna and beef.

We were meant to spoon the contents onto these paper-thin wafers made from potatoes - which curiously had a lacquered texture on one side and a matte texture on the opposite side.

So... I thought the flavors were reasonably good.  But believe it or not, KC and I were the only pair not to finish what was on our shared plate.  Everyone else had the good sense to lap it all up.  So why didn't we?!

At the risk of sounding like a total ingrate (asshole) who dares to complain about being fed Japanese bluefin tuna, French beef, and caviar without having to pay for it, here's what I felt was wrong with the dish...

Agustin introduced the ingredients in the dish, including beef from Alexandre Polmard ("one of the top producers of beef around the world" - yes, I know who he is and have had his beef... thank you very much) and the fact that it was topped with 15 grams of Kaviari Kristal caviar ("one of the most famous, prestigious brands of caviar" - hmmm... yes, I know it's a French brand but these are farmed in China...).  Of course, we must not forget the gold foil that has been tweezered on top of the caviar.  And everything was served up on hand-cut crystal plates.

In short, everything about this dish screams BLING.  Top/expensive/prestigious ingredients served on a plate that sparkles under the light.  Oh, and so does the gold foil on top.  That's very shiny, too.  As I would soon post on Facebook, I.FUCKING.HATE.GOLD.FOIL.IN.MY.FOOD.  It's one of those stupid things that add nothing to the flavor of the dish, only bling designed to impress.  Unfortunately, gold foil doesn't impress me.  In fact, it does the opposite.

Taste-wise, there was nothing wrong with this dish.  It was perfectly enjoyable, and 98, nay, 99 people out of 100 would be "wowed" by it.  Who the fuck would complain about having all of these premium/luxe ingredients in one bite?  Well, I guess that would be me.  I'm the one guy out of 100 who feels that this dish is totally contrived.  It just feels like someone decided that the best way to impress the diner was to throw a bunch of expensive ingredients together.  Completely over-the-top and 120% Instagrammable.  I once laid similar accusations on a similar dish - albeit with much cheaper ingredients...

Oh, and the other person out of 100 who didn't care for the dish was sitting next to me...  But unlike me, he wasn't complaining about the dish on philosophical grounds...

Presence: Kagoshima A4 wagyu - another premium ingredient.  Hey, it's only natural to be served Japanese wagyu at a Japanese restaurant, right?  Above a particular price point, diners would almost certainly demand to see it on the menu.  And when the chunks of beef were presented on the hibachis (火鉢), the smoke coming from them was incredibly fragrant and, as KC said, "mouth-watering".

If only that were true of the taste.

The sauce made from beef bones - with a little bit of black pepper - was spooned on top of the beef.  On the side we had a dab of black garlic purée as well as a powder made by drying soy sauce.  While the exterior had a lovely, smoky flavor, the beef itself was... disappointing.  Yes, the beef was very, very soft and tender.  In fact, it didn't seem like I was chewing on beef at all, but something else that yielded easily to the force of my teeth.  Curiously, I had trouble seeing the marbling inside the A4-grade beef, and the beef tasted bland.  There was no beefy flavor, and it desperately needed the sauce.

So here again, the poor chef hit a brick wall against this jaded diner.  Over the last few years, I've gotten very used to eating amazing beef like 12-year-old Rubia Galega that's been dry-aged for more than 4 months.  Or the incredible Hanwoo from Korea.  Beef is normally the last thing I'll pick out as main course from a restaurant menu, as I find pork, duck, lamb, venison, or a good chicken more interesting.  And if you wanna impress me, you'd better come to me with more than some soft but tasteless stuff.   After eating those four pieces of supposedly premium Japanese wagyu, the feeling of satisfaction I would have wanted -and expected - was sorely lacking.

Oh, my neighbor had the same sentiments.  Now, do you see why we're such good friends?

This pumpkin came from Saga Prefecture (佐賀県), and on top of the little squares inside sat slices of culatello, topped with black garlic sauce and slices of white truffles.

Nothing wrong here, but just wondering why this came as a "side dish" to the beef... especially putting pork and beef together.  I was told, apparently, that the white truffle was pre-sliced onto a separate plate, then placed on top of the culatello later.  Not exactly how I would have served it.  But come to think of it, if you wanna impress me by putting white truffle on top of some meat, why was it on top of the culatello and not on the wagyu?!

Perhaps there was a good reason and it was explained by Matsuo-san, but I was probably too busy scratching my head over this dish and failed to properly pay attention...

Nature breeze: nashi pear / yoghurt - inside the hollowed pear from Saga Prefecture were chunks of the pear, panna cotta, yogurt from Hokkaido, and pear granita.  Refreshing and delicious.

Petits fours - these matcha (抹茶) and yuzu (柚子) chocolate bon bons were delicious.

Was this a terrible meal? Not by a long shot.  With the exception of the wagyu, everything else tasted fine.  Some of the bites were delicious - including the "bling bling" dish of caviar and tartare.  And even with the wagyu I could not fault the execution - I simply prefer more flavorful beef than what I was served.  So while I would never say that any of the dishes failed, at the same time I also wasn't "wowed" by any of them.  At the price point being charged for such a meal (ignoring the fact that I myself did not have to fork out money for it) - and with these types of premium ingredients - I would most certainly expect a few "wow"s.

So I guess it's all about not meeting expectations.  I was - perhaps mistakenly - expecting this to be more similar to one of those "four hands" collaborations that are all the rage nowadays.  In that case I would have wanted to see a lot more input from Matsuo-san, and I had a hard time figuring out his influences.

Many thanks to the powers that be for this kind invitation.


Anonymous said...

Full marks for your integrity but don't be surprised if you are not invited back for another freebie.

Anonymous said...

Bravo, that is exactly why I love reading your blog. So many bloggers have gone on to become agents. It is not uncommon to see reviews put up by various bloggers raving about the same restaurant, the same dishes, with similar photos displayed. One knows immediately they had been to a freebie dinner and reviews were written under obligation. How sad!
I also revolt when I see gold leaf on food, they add nothing to the food and they do nothing for me. I pity them that they have to resort to such gimmicks and I end up avoiding the restaurant.

Peech said...

LOL! The whole PR community in HK knows that I could care less about not getting their invitations... If they want to invite me and I find the invitation interesting, I'm happy to go. If not, I eat very well on my own without their freebies.


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