Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Jaan and the Mysterious Case of the Heated Mineral Water

I was at Jaan for lunch the other day, my first visit since Julien Royer's departure and the ascension of his faithful sous Kirk Westaway to the top post.

I was expecting brilliance. After all, most of my previous meals at Jaan has coincided with Royer's periodic absences, and Westaway had proven himself numerous times to my delight.  Royer has since won two stars for Odette (while it is very good, I believe that one star would have been a more realistic assessment based on the standard applied by Michelin in France) and Westaway one at Jaan.  If nothing else, there was a forensic interest in seeing if the difference in ranking was justified.

So there I was, seated at a non-window table waiting for proceedings to commence.  I was a bit sad to see that the service team had changed, with the GM Frank Philippe having left, and his deputy taking a clutch of the old staff over to Royer at Odette.  But I was here for the food, and couldn't wait to see if and how Westaway sought to differentiate himself from his former boss.

Then something odd happened.  "Would you like sparkling or still water, Mr Teoh?" asked my waitress.  Now I am on the record as saying that the correct answer to this question is "warm water please". And it was especially the case on this day, as I had been freezing all morning in a typical subzero Singapore office / icebox and just wanted something to help me thaw out.

So I said "warm water please". My waitress must have read my blog post because I swear I saw the flicker of satisfaction on her face as she said "We serve warm bottled mineral water here, Mr Teoh, we don't serve tap water any more".  I stared at her in absolute confuzzlement. 

"Warm...bottled...mineral water", I repeated slowly, not quite believing what I was hearing. "Yes" she replied. "And we charge $5++ per head for it".  I just nodded numbly.  Frankly, I was so stunned at that moment that if you had asked me buy a copy of the "Michelin" Guide Singapore, I would probably also have nodded numbly as well.  Sure enough, our waitress brought over a bottle of warmed mineral water, the condensation near the lip of the bottle testifying to the warmth of the contents within.  "Tell me", I began, curiosity overcoming my amazement for a moment, "how do you get the bottle warm".  " We keep it in a hot water bath throughout service" my waitress replied nonchalantly, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. I was appalled.

Now I will admit that mineral water is not my thing.  There have been times when a little Acqua Panna has been very useful in cleaning some gunk (usually raw fish) from my throat, but generally, it adds little, almost nothing, to my enjoyment or experience.  So (a) why should I pay extra for it; and (b) how can I justify the environmental impact of drinking water that has been bottled and shipped halfway across the world, when Singaporean water is perfectly good to drink and there are less fortunate folk literally dying because they can't get a good, reliable supply of fresh, drinking water?  I can't, and I suspect most reasonable people can't either.  Why do it now, when there is no real doubt about the impact of human activity on climate and the environment?  And if flying a bottle of mineral water from Europe wasn't bad enough, keeping it heated throughout service in a hot water bath surely must be.

Jaan is clearly using this as a cynical revenue raiser.  They probably know that some diners order warm water to circumvent the "sparkling or still" ultimatum.  They clearly believe that by wringing a maximum extra $5.89 of revenue per diner (and it is a maximum, since some folks would order mineral water in any event), it is the difference between a profit and a loss, the difference between getting a bonus for the year or not, the difference between life and death.  By blocking off the warm water "out", they have circled the wagons and challenged the diner to a pissing contest.

But here is the hilarious (some would say tragic) part of this whole episode. The cheapest lunch at Jaan costs $83++.  You can't get a glass of champagne for less than $40.  No one who visits Jaan is trying to cheap out.  They are paying for the view, the service, the proper heavy cutlery, and of course Westaway's wonderful food.  Most people are there to impress, whether it's romance, business, social, gastro-tourism or just another wanker blogger snapping pictures of the sensational view.  Believe me, if I was trying to get "Michelin" stars on the cheap, I would go to that ridiculous soy sauce chicken joint, the bak chor mee place with the absurd two-hour queues or (if I was in a spendthrift mood), Alma by Haikal Johari.

So what has Jaan managed to achieve?  Instead of frustrating the cheapskate diners, they have ironically shown how cheap and calculating THEY THEMSELVES are, and how the true meaning of hospitality has once again been forgotten in the local industry, if it was ever known in the first place.

Now before I get anonymous comments from a bunch of angry cooks and restaurant owners, I know you are running a business. You have given, and continue to give, me a lot of joy (well, most of you anyway).  I want to support you.  I want to see you prosper so the dining scene here continues to improve.  So unlike those who merely criticise, let me offer you a constructive solution, and a solution which I think any reasonable restaurateur should have thought of at the outset: increase the price of your lunch menu by $5++ and let the great unwashed drink their tap water if they want to.  Believe me, Jaan isn't going to lose any business simply because they tacked on a few extra bucks to the bill.  I have seen the crowds there, and they aren't the kind who would baulk at spending a few dollars extra.  I do baulk at going back now, however, because heating up mineral water is the kind of cloth-eared stupidity you would expect from a Trump manque, not from a restaurant that prides itself on supporting artisanal (and presumably sustainable) production.

And why am I writing about this farcical money-grubbing exercise, instead of Westaway's excellent food (and it is genuinely excellent, very much deserving of its star in my view, and perhaps even more)?  Simple.  Because cheap, calculating acts leave a sour taste in one's mouth, when the experience of dining at a place like Jaan should have been an uplifting, restorative one.  And sour tastes are the most difficult to remove from one's palate, even if you are drinking heated bottled mineral water.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Review of Alma by Juan Amador, Singapore - Good but Unfairly Burdened by Expectations?

What is in a name?  Are you, presumably a discerning diner, entitled to lofty expectations of a restaurant simply because it has a famous star-spangled name attached to it?  If so, can you then expect that the restaurant serves food which, even if it wasn't created by the famous chef, at least bears the same DNA as his (and it is almost always a "he") cooking?  Such were the questions / first world problems seething in my mind as I walked to lunch at Alma by Juan Amador.

Amador is a German chef who runs a three-starred restaurant in Mannheim.  His cooking is supposedly influenced by Spanish (he is the son of Spanish immigrants), German and Asian cuisines.  He lent his name to this restaurant in the grand old Goodwood Park Hotel, which opened in June 2016 under the direction of his faithful lieutenant Christophe Lerouy.  Lerouy helped win Alma a "Michelin" star, before being shipped off to open another outpost of the Amador empire.  In came Singaporean chef Muhammad Haikal Johari, fresh from his adventures in Bangkok where he ran the Water Library in Thonglor.

I was here with K, my old friend from primary school.  K looked up the website and found they offered only a $39++ three-course menu at lunch (four choices each for entrée and main, with a fixed dessert) .  Now we are both cash-poor and time-poorer, and I really did not want to waste a precious lunchtime on a cut-price lunch menu.  The receptionist assured him over the phone that we could add a couple of extra dishes to the three-course menu, depending on what was available on the day.

So we are seated in a relatively minimalist but comfortable and spacious room.  We call the waitress over and ask what extra dishes we could order.  She shakes her head and says they serve only the three-course menu.  We relate our conversation with the receptionist but she remains adamant.  "If you want extra dishes, you can order another menu and choose the other dishes".  The only thing worse than one cut-price lunch menu is two cut-price lunch menus, so that isn't really an option.  We place our orders and off we go!

Potato Bread in a Hot Stone Sack

This rather quaint little cloth sack arrives at the table, filled with three potato bread rolls.  Why three, for a table of two?  The waiter tells me the bread is entirely free of wheat flour, which will come as a relief to coeliacs and others on gluten-free diets.  The bread is fresh and delicious, warmed by a handful of hot stones at the base of the sack.  A good start.

Entrée: Homemade Egg Tofu, Wild Mushrooms, Foie Gras Emulsion ($7++ supplement)

As regular readers may remember, I visited the Water Library's branch at Chamchuri, where I had a delicious tofu, mushroom and foie gras emulsion dish.  Hey, wait a minute...

The same dish, from Mirco Keller at the Water Library, Chamchuri
I will come back to this later, but again, the tofu was excellent; crispy, hot and providing a delightful lightness as a counterpoint to the rich foie gras emulsion.  Delicious.

Entrée: Salad with Pata Negra

And if you don't want to pay the supplement, you can have a salad!  K is really not impressed, and says he could get a salad of similar calibre from SaladStop.  He offers me a taste, which I politely decline on the grounds that I am not a rabbit.

Main Course: Boston Lobster with Angel Hair Pasta and "Thai Sauce"

The waiter introduces the dish as being served with a "Thai Sauce".  It was described on the menu as "Tom Yam", so K asks if he means "Tom Yam".  The waiter shakes his head.  "No sir, it is not tom yam, it is a Thai sauce".  I get the feeling he doesn't want to be cross-examined on what exactly is in the Thai sauce, so we let him stand down.

Lobster, mee kia, chilli padi (serious), spicy sauce.  Sound good?  It tastes pretty good too.  But again, does this dish have anything to do with Juan Amador, or is it a Haikal Johari dish, with the Thai twist reflecting his time in Bangkok (as the tofu almost certainly was, or was it a Mirco Keller dish)?  And it is clearly yet another permutation of that all-time favourite yet unbearably hackneyed Singaporean "Western restaurant" formula, namely:

pasta (to appeal to the local love for noodles, and it's dirt cheap) + expensive ingredient (lobster, caviar, truffle, to appeal to the local love for luxury ingredients) = profit (to appeal to the restaurateur's love for money)

But hey, you know, whatever sells...

Main Course: Kingfish with Saffron and Kaffir Lime Beurre Blanc

I had a nibble of this dish from the edge of the fillet, and it seemed overdone.  K disagrees, however, and seeing he had more of the fish and actually finished it, I defer to his judgment.

Dessert: Piña Colada

Rum and coconut "espuma" (Jesus, if I hear that word one more time, I swear I am going to send my army down to take out some bad hombres), pineapple "gazpacho", basil granita and croutons.  K finishes his croutons but leaves the rest of his dish basically untouched.  I find it too simple, a bit too sweet, and more of a palate cleanser both in size and flavour impact than a real dessert.  And I did ask them beforehand whether they could make me a replacement dessert as I really didn't like the sound of this one (the answer was obviously no).  No, I don't like piña coladas.


I have railed time and again against shitty bloggers who try to assess gastronomic restaurants based on their cut-price lunch offerings (yes, it's a real pain in the arse to have to pay for your own meals, isn't it?).  I don't do it myself, and when I write up a lunch, I always opt for a menu which bears a greater resemblance to the standard offerings at dinner.  This might take the form of a lunch tasting menu, or maybe a couple of a la carte orders to supplement the lunch offering.

But Alma just couldn't do it!  This restaurant, resident in one of Singapore's grand old hotels and bearing the name of a famous three-star chef, offers only a cheap cut-price menu with no possibility of add-ons, even with 36 hours' notice.  Look around boys. Ambitious new-ish openings such as Corner House and Whitegrass offer cheap lunch menus but also more complete tasting options.  Of course, perennial high-achiever Les Amis with its scrumptious four-course menu formule is only a little walk across Scotts Road...

Which brings me back to the first world problem I raised in the first paragraph of this post.  When does "Alma by Juan Amador" stop being "Alma by Juan Amador" and instead becomes "Alma by Haikal Johari" (or as a wag friend of mine suggested, "Ahmad by Haikal Johari" because the Spanish element in the lunch menus is tokenistic)?  As Haikal is apparently serving his own signature dishes, wouldn't the diners who pay attention to these things feel misled?  Not because the food isn't good because it mostly is, but with the "Michelin" stars and the resultant deluge of food tourists, I would argue that people would walk in expecting food with the Amador DNA.  At lunchtime, Alma doesn't deliver it.

A cheap lunch is never going to blow you away, hence my modest score below.  In this case, unfortunately, it also didn't give me any hint as to what I could expect if I paid the significant premium to visit at dinner.  But don't blame me, I tried squeezing blood from this particular stone and it just wouldn't yield.

ALMA by Juan Amador
Score: 13/20
Executive Chef: Muhammad Haikal Johari
Chef de Cuisine: Muhammad Sufian Zaini

How many Michelin stars did it get? *
How many Michelin stars it should get: None, but with a caveat on the lunch thing.

22 Scotts Road, Goodwood Park Hotel
Singapore 228221
Tel: +65 6735 9937
Reservations recommended.  Budget from S$39++ for lunch (no appetisers, petits fours nor coffee/tea are included) and S$138++ for dinner.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Review of Whitegrass, Singapore - Dude, Where's My Star(s)?

It has been a sloooow 12 months on the Singapore dining scene.  The economy is not exactly going gangbusters at the moment and the ambition of new restaurant openings is noticeably modest.  Even Gordon Ramsay, that temperamental purveyor of chilli crabs and Katong laksa, decided to open only the very mid-range Bread Street Kitchen at Marina Bay Sands.

Now I care a lot about my food; you don't keep a food blog running for four-and-a-half years if you don't care about your subject matter.  But I have found more in the way of exciting new openings in our northern neighbour than here, and I was beginning to get rather disillusioned with the local dining scene.

And then I went to Whitegrass.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Review of Wah Lok Cantonese Restaurant, Carlton Hotel Singapore - Zero Michelin Stars, Zero F--ks Given

From the many to choose from, one of the most egregious shortcomings of the inaugural "Michelin" Guide Singapore was its harsh treatment of Singapore's excellent Cantonese restaurants.  The idea that classic stayers such as Cherry Garden, Hua Ting, Hai Tien Lo, Imperial Treasure Super Peking Duck (amongst others) were not worthy of any recognition, while Forest (owned by the major sponsors of the "Michelin" Guide, Resorts World Sentosa) and Shisen Hanten deserved one and two stars respectively, is questionable if not downright laughable.   Indeed, according to the geniuses at "Michelin",  Singapore's best Chinese restaurant is a Szechuanese restaurant adapted to Japanese tastes.  Go figure.

Another of those old stayers is Wah Lok Cantonese Restaurant at the Carlton Hotel Singapore (the one near City Hall MRT, not the Carlton City Hotel near Tanjong Pagar).  This was my first meal there, despite having heard many good things about it over the years.  And how glad I was that I did finally manage to visit.

After a very successful Alsace Society tasting of Domaine Albert Mann's excellent new vintages, we took a few of the leftover bottles (all of them, actually) and a few fresh ones to Wah Lok, where a pre-ordered suckling pig awaited...

We weren't really in a mood for a set menu with all that alcohol coursing in our veins, so with the exception of the suckling pig, all of the dishes were ordered a la carte on the evening and are generally available every evening.

Amongst wine drinkers, the most popular start to a Cantonese meal seems to be the Oily Trinity: Cantonese siew yoke (roast pork belly with crackling), deep-fried whitebait and fried frog legs with ginger.  And it's hardly surprising: across all human civilisations which have mastered the production of alcoholic beverages, the combination of heat, salt and grease are universally regarded as the best sponge for alcohol.  The siew yoke  and whitebait are very good, but not really much more than what you would expect from a restaurant of this standard.  The frog legs with ginger, on the other hand, are outstanding.  Some might find Wah Lok's version a bit heavy as the slices of young ginger are also battered, but they are so tender, juicy and without any overt gingeriness that I could eat these all day, especially with a glass of the Emmanuel Brochet Champagne which we had at the table.

Then it is time for the pig, which is served in two courses.  First the skin (as above),  served with steamed buns, scallions and hoisin sauce, utterly gorgeous and a beautiful combination with the full-bodied and textured Albert Mann Pinot Gris Hengst Grand Cru 2013.  Secondly, the meat fried with salt and pepper, which is perfectly fine but which I felt could do with a bit more salt.  On a side note, I was blown away by the Mann wines from the Furstentum Grand Cru, elegant and restrained unlike so much Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer on the market. I haven't had anything remotely resembling an ordinary wine from Furstentum's limestone-clay soils, and would recommend interested folks to also explore the Furstentum wines from Weinbach (especially their Gewurztraminer, and any late-harvest wine) and Paul Blanck (and of course Mann).

Beef cubes fried with black pepper sauce are tender and extremely flavoursome.  Slivers of deep-fried garlic add nuttiness and a lovely textural counterpoint to the spicy beef.

A couple of other dishes also hit the spot: a croquette of mashed yam with duck, a mixed vegetable dish with vermicelli in a thick brown sauce, and an amazing soupy rice, traditionally a simple finish with soup poured into the claypot after cooking rice, to loosen the last grains, but enhanced with the addition of crab meat which added a very welcome sweetness without detracting from the subtlety and finesse of the dish.  This dish was never part of my family repertoire, but it must have appealed to some atavistic gastronomic memory.  Simply bloody superb.

With some very decent desserts (cold guilinggao with sugar syrup for me), the final bill added up to some $88 nett per head (or around $74++).   And we were as stuffed as foie gras ducks.

Some of the excellent Alsatian wines served at dinner

In these days when the Singapore restaurant market is looking for more casual dining experiences (the final proof of this being the casual but excellent Bar-a-Thym's Francois Mermilliod opening an even more casual bistro in Clementi), it is always a genuine pleasure to find a "new" top-flight dining experience, where good food is served in a very comfortable environment.  And I like the fact that it does not charge corkage for BYO wines, although they are only prepared to provide one wine glass per diner for the evening.  BYO-ers should therefore also BTO glasses.

Wah Lok is a stalwart and has shown that it is capable of delivering superb food even after all these years.  While I am sure its management put on a brave face about "Michelin"'s omission, the fact remains that it will lose ground relative to its competitors who were so recognised, especially among tourists and the more fickle-minded in the local market.

And say, was that Marco Pierre White having dinner next to us?  Yes it was, and MPW was also spotted at Bar-Roque Grill earlier this week.  It looks like he is going for what's genuinely good and appreciated by the locals.  Must have a really sensible guide.

Carlton Hotel Singapore
76 Bras Basah Road
Singapore 189558
Tel: +65 6311 8188
BYO Policy: Corkage-free all week, but limited glassware available.  Please click here for a list of Singapore restaurants which allow BYO, and their corkage policies.
Reservations recommended