I must admit I had misgivings about attending this dinner with Michel Sarran, chef and co-owner of the two-Michelin starred Restaurant Michel Sarran in Toulouse. Firstly, I tend to be wary of visiting chefs doing food festivals, on the basis that they end up cooking in unfamiliar kitchens with an unfamiliar kitchen team whose members are unfamiliar with the chef’s food. Secondly, he was being hosted in My Humble House, a Chinese restaurant. Thirdly, I found out that Sarran only arrived yesterday from France, meaning he was probably suffering a mean case of jetlag – hardly conducive to churning out precise, star-worthy French food.
Well, put all of those worries out of your mind, because Sarran is here for real and he means business.
A common complaint about the Michelin-starred chefs is that their cooking has no sense of place, that it is a globalised cuisine that you could find anywhere in the world. Sarran’s cooking is international in its influence but equally grounded in the ingredients and terroir of his native South-West France, rich yet light, and unapologetically packed with flavour.
With only a six-course menu being offered, food service starts pretty much immediately you sit down, and in the absence of an amuse bouche, it was semi-amusing to see people already on their dessert at 8 pm. They obviously came here for an early dinner, and weren’t expecting to see that a French chef had taken over the kitchen!
First Entrée: Warm soup of duck foie gras from South West of France, Belon oyster (No. 2)
Great start, but it struck us as being a little heavy. That said, you really can’t fault the execution, and the gentle warmth of the soup had set the oyster without cooking it through, allowing its creamy minerality to stand out from the rich foie gras.
Second Entrée: Roasted Norwegian scallops, riso pasta cooked like a risotto, old mimolette and Hokkaido sea urchin
Scallops were well-cooked and seared. The riso pasta was a highlight, bravely al dente and sitting on a gorgeous, creamy sauce based on vieux mimolette.
Fish Course: Roasted sole fillet with black sesame, yellow lemon butter cappelletti stuffed with “Pas de l’ Escalette” cheese.
Killer stuff. The “pas de l’Escalette”, a cow’s milk cheese from Larzac, was mixed with basil before being stuffed into the cappelletti pasta, giving the dish a very nice fraîcheur. Cleverly, Sarran appeared to be trying to mix in little quantities of cheese, a crucial ingredient in South Western French cooking), which as a major component may not be appreciated by the Asian palate, and certainly not in a Chinese restaurant! Strictly, the pasta was more of a cappello; given its size, it hardly qualified as a “little hat”! An arc of oyster and butter sauce added a smoky, caramelly meatiness to the fish.
Meat course: Pigeon from Mont Royal in two services - breast fried in kadaïf in ink sauce, stewed thigh with peas fondant and Spanish ham.
Mont Royal is an artisanal pigeon farm not far from Toulouse, and I was very glad that Sarran made it a point to import these headline ingredients from the same sources as he uses for his own restaurant. The lightly-gamy breast meat was still pink and tender, retaining its juices and iron-y deliciousness. The kadaïf pastry was crispy and only slightly oily. Swipe the threads of kadaïf into the ink sauce, and you get something which I could only describe as being like beehoon on steroids. Moist yet with a residual crunch, unctuous with the rich, salty flavour of the sauce and the gamy juices of the pigeon. The thigh is similarly impressive, although much gamier as you would expect. The peas are burstingly fresh and vibrant (check out that colour) and nubbins of “Spanish ham” added spicy complexity and a chewy texture. At various points while consuming this, I found myself craving a glass or two of rustic burgundy. Another triumph.
Pre-dessert: Apple foam with cinnamon ice-cream.
Oh my God. He did it. I don’t know how, but he did it (with apologies to Doc Brown). The liquid which was foamed up, must be one of the most intense, apple-y flavours I have ever tasted. It is the definition of apple, the very quintessence of that often pedestrian fruit. Ice cream was fine, and what I thought was a little craquante of fresh curd cheese added texture and interest, and a little light sourness to balance off against the sweet apple.
Dessert in two services: Tarbais beans in a foam of old rum and coconut milk; marrons glacés glacés.
Strangely, the first service was a bit of a trip down memory lane for me, putting me very much in the mind of a refined bubur cha cha. Coconut milk, which can often be creamy and heavy, is cleverly given a lighter application as a foam, and the sweet bean paste adds nice deep bass notes. The marrons glacés glacés (frozen candied chestnut) dessert is the only dish of the evening that I don’t quite get. It’s pleasant and all, but didn’t move me much beyond that.
You’ve had the good news, now I need to set out the downsides in case you think I’ve gone soft. The bread rolls were fluffy and inconsequential, clearly brought in from some feckless producer of industrial pap. There was also no butter or oil to go with the bread, which again begs the question: why is a French chef of any calibre being hosted at a Chinese restaurant when it lacks the basic accoutrements to complete a proper European dining experience? And the least you could do is offer tea or coffee to complete a $200 six-course tasting menu. Service, however, was excellent, and particular credit must go to our headwaiter Paul Lui for taking such great care of us.
Sarran came around later to say hi, and he was very pleasant and polite, although he was clearly struggling with lack of sleep. More than ever, I was filled with admiration at how he managed to produce food at this level on the first night. Now, I can’t discount that he was pulling out all stops for the F&B industry VIPs and personalities around us, which included Tung Lok boss Andrew Tijoe, celebrity chef Susur Lee of pony-tailed fame, at-Sunrice CEO Christophe Megel and the Big Kaese Himself, Peter Knipp. But as the kitchen team gets more used to the dishes, you should see standards at least maintained over the next few days, and that is more than enough reason to spend your hard-earned here. Sarran’s only around until 1 May, so make sure you get in before it’s too late.
Sarran is fond of saying that he is a “seller of pleasure”, and that he aims to stimulate emotion with his cooking. Tonight, happiness and ecstasy were the words in our heads. And with them, an invitation to guests to experience his true vision at his flagship in Toulouse.
(Being an unknown scribbler, I did what everyone else had to do and paid for this meal in full - more photos at: http://julianteoh.blogspot.com/2012/0...)