Every now and again, we have a culinary experience which makes you thank whatever gods may be that we are alive, and for the veritable angel tending the stoves for our personal pleasure. As I get older and my tastebuds gets more jaded, these epiphanies get rarer and rarer. I had one recently at Restaurant André.
Despite a resumé with more macarons than a Ladurée boutique (Chiang counts as mentors the Pourcel Brothers, Joël Robuchon, Pierre Gagnaire and Michel Troisgros), André Chiang arrived in Singapore in 2008 without too much fanfare, and his anonymity was initially shielded under the banner of Jaan restaurant, the fine dining room at the Swissôtel the Stamford. But cream rises, and as rave reviews piled up, his masters relented in re-naming the restaurant “Jaan par André”, an unprecedented move as the Jaan name was used at various of the Raffles Group’s hotel restaurants across the world.
I loved the food from the early Chiang period, amongst which I recall a divine foie gras jelly with black truffle coulis, a grilled maguro o-toro with charcoal powder, and of course, his “Snickers” dessert, which reinvented itself about as often as Madonna did, and with just about as much success. But at the same time, some of his food was a conundrum to me, including a preserved lemon in wrap which was meant to symbolise something that escapes me even today. But back then, he was already chafing, and I recall a post-meal conversation during which he mentioned that working in a chain hotel didn’t allow him the freedom that he craved.
So it was no surprise to me when Chiang left Jaan and opened Restaurant André in a heritage shophouse next door to the Majestic Hotel. Within six months of opening, the restaurant scraped in at No. 100 on the 2011/12 World’s Best 50 list, and clambered to No.61 a year later.
When you have too much to say, I find it helps to reduce the report to basics, so here we are:
Wine: The wine list is presented in a little bound tome, with the first 20-odd pages being devoted to the restaurant’s wine offering, composed entirely of organic and biodynamic wines. The prices are not cheap, with only two wines below $100 a bottle and three wines between $101 and $150.
Service: Service here is professional and knowledgeable, and given the complexity of the food, that is saying something. Maître d’ Stepan Marhoul, sommelier Ken Hasegawa and co-owner Pam, a.k.a. Mrs André, are running the floor tonight. There is not a trace of snootiness, instead I find a genuine warmth and eagerness to please. OK, there was one chap who was rather aloof and gave the impression that he would rather not be serving us that night, but I am not going to fault the evening’s service, which was otherwise superb, on one man’s failings.
Food: André’s cooking is an expression of his skills and his training. His much-vaunted Octaphilosophy is not so much a statement of intent as a statement of who he is as a person and a chef, and there rests the fine distinction between hubris and sincerity (I hurry to add that Chiang falls on the right side of that line). The eight spokes of Octaphilosophy each represent a savoury course, but with the addition of Japanese chef pâtissier Makito Hiratsuka, whose CV is almost as star-studded as his boss’ (El Bulli, El Celler de Can Roca, Paco Torreblanca), desserts are now given an avant-garde twist.
Please note some of these photos (the good ones) are courtesy of my friend and passionate amateur photographer Ian Lee. I will put up the photos from his staged shooting once I get a moment.
Snackings 1 – Porcini Mushroom Crackers, Fish & Chips, Patatas Bravas, Chocolate & Garlic Soil
The soil thing is really on the verge of being overdone, but instead of trying to be cute and doing the hackneyed faux-cute baby vegetable thing, André disguises a little fish in potato strands to resemble a turnip, infuses punchy spice into a patatas bravas, and works mushroomy earthiness into a mushroom-shaped cracker. Delightful.
Snackings 2 – Chicken Masala Skin, Caramelised Olives
The skin was delightfully thin and crisp, to the extent that you couldn’t really believe that you were eating chicken skin. It was quite indifferent flavour-wise, however. The olives were beautifully fruity and briny, with a sweet crunchy caramel crust you normally see on peanuts. Incidentally, the little olive sprig on the dish comes from the olive tree growing on the restaurant’s forecourt.
Snackings 3 – Hamachi Sashimi Wrapped in Crispy Bread, Vanilla Popcorn
Playful, fresh, tasty, with a nice crunch from the bread and the popcorn. The vanilla is subtle, as it should be at this very early stage of the meal. My only gripe is that “snacking”, that term popularised by those wonderfully wacky folk at El Bulli, is really a verb and not a noun, certainly not a plural noun. Yes, the grammar police is out in force today.
Pure – Seafood
The point of this course is to emphasise the purity of the seafood, without the use of any seasoning. Bouchot mussels, abalone, sweet prawn featured prominently. Excellent.
Homemade Whole Wheat Baguette is served with Echiré Butter. As my humourless friend tells me, Echiré is an A.O.C. butter, meaning, etc, etc. There is a way to share information without patronising your guests, and I don’t think our friend has quite mastered it yet.
Salt – Gillardeau Oyster Tartare, Apple Foam
The brief description above does no justice to the dish. The apple foam is a semi-solid disc sheltering the tartare, and is studded with Granny Smith apple matchsticks, olive oil spherifications and oscietra caviar. Surrounding the dish are seaweed and an emulsion of oyster juices. Despite its name, this dish again contains no seasoning, and it relies on the salty flavour of its components (caviar, seaweed, oysters) to create the sensation of salt.
Artisan – Grilled Taiwanese Baby Sweet Corn, Roasted Salsify, Crème Anglaise with Smoked Eggplant
Before the corn is served, Pam walks up to our table with two pieces of corn husk on a platter. Yes, husk. We nibble at it, and the sweetness is simply extraordinary. Apparently, Chiang gets some artisan corn farmers in Taiwan to harvest their crop slightly later so they develop more ripeness and sugar, much as you would for a sweet wine, and brings them into Singapore in his suitcase. The corn itself is gorgeous, with crunch and sweetness (reminiscent of a Buddha’s Fruit sweet soup with hints of tea and tannin) are wonderful, the grill adding notes of smoky complexity. You really don't need the black sesame salt on the side, such is the awesomeness (excuse the technical expression) of the corn.
South – Raw Fish, White Peach and Seaweed; Uni Risotto with Sea Bass and Tataki of Hamachi
This is Chiang’s personal tribute to the South of France, where his formative years were spent under the tutelage of Jacques and Laurent Pourcel. To Chiang, South represents freshness (especially of the seafood from the Mediterranean, lightness and acidity). These two dishes are all of that and more. On the left, tomato sorbet, raw fish, hijiki seaweed and salty coral. On the right, risotto is al dente and rich with the creaminess of uni, and the fish are fresh and perfectly cooked.
Texture – Lobster, Airy Potato Gnocchi, Oscietra Caviar, Scallop (I think) Emulsion
Feathery-light is an adjective often used to laud gnocchi, which in the wrong hands can be a stodgy, chewy pillows tasting of not much in particular. I use it here in an almost literal sense, petite nuggets which dissolve in your mouth with little coaxing, leaving but the memory of pure potato and truffle flavour. It goes without saying that the lobster is handled immaculately; based on this meal, Chiang has got to be the best seafood cook outside of any Japanese restaurant, and I reckon he would give quite a few senseis a genuine run for their money also.
Interestingly, Pam came over and asked us to guess what the emulsion was, as a little game during the meal. I asked what the prize was, and she said she would give me a smile and a round of applause. Over the truffle-y hints of the gnocchi, I’m guessing it was probably scallop, but she never came back to tell us what the answer was.
Unique – Seared Rolls of Baby Kisu Fish (Japanese whiting) stuffed with chopped kisu, Artichoke Barigoule
This is the one preparation that didn't send me over the moon . I cannot fault the quality or execution of this dish; the barigoule had a nice richness and acidity but didn’t really do much for the fish. The fish on the other hand, is an absolute stand-out, with brilliant flavour from the sear and the rare stuffing, basically a tartare, adding that very rare crunch you get from only the freshest fish.
Memory – Foie Gras Gelée, Black Truffle Coulis
Chiang invented this dish back in the 1990s with the Pourcels, and it has been on his menus ever since in some shape or form. I had it many times at Jaan and loved it always. The gelée seems warmer than from what I recall of the Jaan version, and the coulis seemed more runny and there’s more of it; presumably the old thicker version was meant to envelope the morels. This version is lighter and more pared back and, I think, works better as part of a multi-course tasting as a result. Truffles are from Perigord, Marhoul tells me, and is a very rare (perhaps the only?) exception to Chiang’s obsession with seasonality. As a signature dish, it needs to be on the menu all year, so during the off-season (like now), they are made from frozen specimens.
Terroir – Roasted Saddle and Loin of Wild Rabbit, Wild Asparagus, Wild Leek, Braised Mustard Seeds
A tribute to the French terroir. The greens are full of flavour and the rabbit is expertly handled. The table next door were served wild canard colvert, which I think I would have preferred, if only for variation as this menu did not make the final savoury progression to the stronger flavours of red meat (foie gras doesn’t count, of course).
Optional Cheese Course – Three Cheeses from Bernard Antony, et ses accompagnements
One cow, one sheep, one goat, no choice. Quality is good, as it always is from Bernard Antony, and they are presented at the correct temperature. It is not the brightest moment during the meal, though, and I suspect that Chiang, despite his obvious Francophilia, is not particularly enamoured of cheese and does not want it to play a major role in proceedings. Indeed, the portions of cheese served here are very modest, as is the scope of the offer, particularly when compared to restaurants of similar calibre. Cushions of puff pastry and buckwheat crackers stand proudly on a bed of crushed unsalted peanuts.
Pre-Dessert No. 1 – Nitro-Frozen Pineapple with Citrus
Served on an artificial hedge (at least I think it was artificial), this was a frozen slug of fruity acidity, presumably meant to re-orient your palate after all those savoury courses. Pleasant enough.
Pre-Dessert No. 2 – Brioche, Miso Ice Cream, Edamame, Toasted Wheat
According to Marhoul, Hiratsuka likes to build a “bridge” between the savoury and the sweet, and he does this with uniquely Japanese ingredients such as Miyagi-mi miso in the ice-cream, and edamame for a little bittersweetness. The brioche is an amazing conveyance system for the umami knockout punch that is the miso ice-cream, and the savour and sweetness unfurl for long moments on your palate, much like a fine wine. The dessert of the night.
Pre-Dessert No. 3 – Tonka Bean, Fennel something...
I didn’t quite get Hasegawa’s description of this dish. In that very Japanese mode, this was another preparation designed to refresh your eyes and your palate. Very mild and pleasant.
Pre-Dessert No. 4 – Nitro Frozen Shaved Berries, Berry Ice Cream
Not my favourite, I must admit. Nitro-freezing is one of the culinary techniques du jour, but I think it interferes with our perception of the fruit’s natural flavour, which it must at the ridiculously low temperature freeze that it induces, although a wince-inducing acidity is left intact! Colour and visual effect are striking, it must be said.
Dessert – Crystal Snickers 2012
This is clearly the work of a pastry master with some serious technique. The elements of the Snickers bar are all there, and the crystal has an intriguing saline hint. Full marks plus a bonus prize for presentation, but it didn’t have the wholesome, gutsy all-American flavours of the Snickers desserts that Chiang used to present.
Petits Fours – Pâtes de Fruits, Popcorn, Lemon Madeleine, Oreo Macarons, Strawberry and Vanilla Marshmallow,
Good finish. Coffee here is very good, served in a unique cone-shaped cup designed (although not made) by Chiang. The vessel’s handle is clearly pinched by hand to create its very bespoke design, but carrying it with the palms of your hand (unlike other ceramics, this material is insulated enough for you to do this) somehow reminds me of a late night bowl of hot chocolate, comforting and homely.
A very, very strong meal, in summary, undoubtedly one of (if not) the best I’ve had all year. That said, there is still room for improvement. I think dessert may need a slight adjustment; Hiratsuka appears to be enamoured of the avant-garde techniques espoused by his erstwhile employers at El Bulli and El Celler, but the way the dishes are currently served, I do not think that the flavours of the ingredients (however good they may inherently be) translate particularly well. There is also a little too much nitro-action going on for my liking, and the sweetness dial appears to have been turned down quite substantially. This last may well be deliberate, and while I’m not a sugar-hunter, I’m also not sure it is particularly apposite for a dessert that purports to be an elevated version of a Snickers bar. That said, Hiratsuka has a clear technical gift and I can’t wait to see what he achieves when he finds his own voice; certainly, the miso ice-cream was one of the best desserts I’ve had all year.
Compared to my meals at Jaan, I think André has reached a new level of confidence and expression. Dishes that seemed pretentious have now been ditched, and his Octaphilosophy allows him to focus on the things that he really does well. While some online opinions decry the Octaphilosophy as unnecessary fluff, what is clear is that Chiang has no inflated ego, no overestimate of his worth, except an earnest desire to share his experiences and his cooking with you. He has a true connection with what he is putting on the plate, yet (or perhaps as a result?) he is still the same humble, happy guy that I first met back in 2009.
I think he well and truly deserves to return to the Best 50 list proper; I have had far worse (but still excellent, mind you) meals at restaurants far higher-ranked than this. Of course, taste is subjective, but when you are cooking at Chiang’s level, sheer quality can, and often does, transcend personal taste.
More photos at http://julianteoh.blogspot.com/2012/1...
41 Bukit Pasoh Road
Singapore (near Outram Park MRT)
Tel: +65 6534 8880
Reservations required a month or two in advance. You might get lucky if there is a last minute cancellation but don’t count on it.