A Whirlwind Work Trip: My First Michelin Star Experience

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We were very fortunate to be treated to a good dinner, my first Michelin star experience at the one-star Tano Passami L’Olio. The name literally meant “Tano, pass me the olive oil.” Chef Gaetano is very big on olive oils and treats it almost like wine in how he pairs each carefully, selecting carefully which oil he uses to finish each dish. We went for a tasting menu of sorts, starting with this amuse bouche.

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Unfortunately, it wasn’t a Wow! moment, more of a “hmm this is rather good.” It was interesting how the mousse was finished of with olive oil but I don’t remember a great deal more than that.

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The next dish was quite interesting – raw prawns Milanese-style marinated in citrus and anise, accompanied by pink grapefruit and cheese mousse and graced with caramelised peas. I wasn’t sure about the peas as they were semi-dry, with texture reminding me a bit of wasabi peas, just not as crunchy. I liked the fresh, fresh! prawns that were singing with the zing of the sea (go figure that out, I’m taking things up a notch – it’s a Michelin-starred place yo) and the grapefruit and cheese mousse was nice, though it tasted a bit like it was meant for baby food, but what lovely fine dining baby food it was!

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Now it was the next dish that really brought things up a notch. The caramelised quail eggs on tuna mousse was a revelation. The first one after going in the mouth went crackle! pop! and there were surprised looks all round the table. Then understanding dawned and we gleefully went with the second one. First, the sensation of caramel on the tongue, as it was an egg-shaped creme brulee with crackly crust all round. Just a little pressure with the teeth and tongue and the delicately cooked quail egg burst, coating the tongue with runny yolk. The tuna mousse made for a savoury counterpoint to it all. And the raw tuna in minted olive oil? Gilding the lily with its freshness.

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Our expectations went a little higher with the pasta course and we were not disappointed. We were presented with lemon risotto cooked in vegetable and milk and finished off with chocolate. I was a bit wary of this as I wasn’t sure how dessert-like a lemon and chocolate rice dish would taste. But no, this was deeply savoury, rich and wonderfully al dente. At the same time, the lemon flavour sang through and the bitterness of the chocolate balanced out the flavours. It was another eye-opener. Next time I’m in Milan, I’m coming back just for this dish.

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We were surprised by how full we were getting at this stage, we really hadn’t eaten a great deal, but it shows how satisfying the food was. We were very glad that the main course came in small portions. Small though the portion was, it was somehow the perfect portion. The roe dear saddle glazed with basil and wild berries and again finished off with chocolate was excellent. It was done very rare, the way I like it, yet wasn’t bloody (which the rest of my table seemed to like more). I think the meat must have been well hung because it was the tenderest deer I’ve had. Again, Chef Gaetano had a way with traditionally sweet foods, turning them into savoury wonders. The chocolate he personally grated over each portion at the table made all the difference again in balancing out the sweetness of the sauce and tempered the deep game flavour of the venison. Wonderful.

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What really won the rest of the table over (I was head over heels by then, no need for further wooing) was Chef Gaetano’s impeccable and very sensible wine pairings. He recommended two reds, only one of which I managed to get a photo of. This Humar Rogoves from the Friuli region was very reasonably priced at about €30 and was just right for the deer. In the words of the chef, it was a “sweety wine, very nice.” And indeed it was! Nicely balanced, sweet yet not overly so, it went better than expected with our deer in berry sauce.

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Then came the usual sorbet palate cleanser.

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And finally dessert. The almond cannoli filled with almond mousse, candy lemon, citrus cream and almond marmalade was lovely. The pastry was crisp and light as air and the mousse filling also light and sweetly lemony. It was a lovely contrast to the dark chocolate blob (I never found out what it really was), but the mousse and chocolate sauce was a deep, delicious contrast. It was a sly way of crowd pleasing, not particularly inventive but just the right to end a good dinner.

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Tano passami l’olio
via Villoresi, 16 ang. via Pastorelli, Milano, Italy
Tel: +39 02 8394139
Email: tano@tanopassamilolio.it

Private Affairs

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DC took me to Private Affairs one Friday night to cheer me up after a stressful week. We weren’t sure about whether this place would last as we were the only ones there that night. We opted for the Luscious Dinner 4-course set ($98++). DC had a duck carpaccio that he liked a lot but didn’t leave a lasting impression on me. My Alaskan king crab, though, was wonderful. It really was lusciously seafood-y and briny, and bursting with fresh juiciness. The avocado mousse and passionfruit cream had just the right level of richness to complement the crab and the squid ink tuile provided a nice bit of contrast with its delicate crispness.

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For mains, DC had the Maine lobster. When I tried it, I almost regretted ordering what I did because the lobster, like my crab appetiser, burst with fresh, well, lobster flavour. It wasn’t your typical vaguely rubbery tasteless boiled lobster. This one was expertly cooked in a buttery foam, making me want to devour it shell and all. In fact, I think DC gnawed as much of his lobster shell as he could!

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Remember I almost regretted my order? But I didn’t. My main course of Welsh lamb loin held its own. Again, it was expertly cooked so that the lamb loin was tender and flavourful. Accompanied with the soy bean mash and the rich, intense jus of lamb and olive, this was very very good. (Unfortunately it paled against another dish I’ll blog about next time, but that’s a story for another time.)

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Our third dish was a pre-dessert. DC had a yummy cheese platter and I had a sorbet. Both were competent though not particularly anything to rave about. Plus, the lighting in the restaurant is so dim that it was impossible to get good pictures anyway. Good thing we were the only diners that night so we took pictures with flash whenever the wait staff weren’t looking (!).

For the real dessert, DC had peach tofu with salted caramel and lemongrass ice cream. The purple thing is a lavender sheet, which I felt tasted a bit like one of those  portable soap sheets for washing your hands. I liked the tofu a lot. It was very tender and smooth, more like tau fa than actual tofu. It was a bit like eating peach-scented egg tofu that was sweet.

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I had the chocolate mousse with miso sponge. The miso sponge was a very inventive touch to an otherwise tired dessert. I’m so glad he didn’t go down the molten choc cake route. Here, the miso sponge was very tender and very savoury, making for a lovely contrast to the sweet chocolate mousse and the deep flavour of the dark chocolate chips. It’s a pity he put pop rocks in the dessert. The dark chocolate “sand” is a bit overused in molecular gastronomy and I really don’t like the popping on my tongue.

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That dinner was good enough to send us back to Private Affairs a few weekends later for a semi-buffet brunch celebration. It was good value for money at $68++ per person without alcohol. The food wasn’t quite as exquisite as the dinner we had, but it was still pretty darn good. The idea was that we ordered whatever we liked from the brunch menu, from typical breakfast staples like mini-muffins, yogurt, pancakes and eggs, to brunch staples like fresh oysters, to more exciting things like cured sardine, panfried scallops and coffee ribs with a twist. All these we could order as many servings as we liked. For the main course, each chose one. Everyone liked their own main courses and I naturally felt that mine of melt-in-the-mouth sous vide French chicken was especially nice. If you want a taster for Private Affairs, the brunch is the way to go.

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Unfortunately it was third time unlucky when DC and I returned to Private Affairs. We tried out their celebratory 8-course menu for October consisting of greatest hits in the chef’s repertoire. There was the familiar course of many dishes, with some good and many others falling flat. I was deeply disappointed by the lack of quality control and lack of service recovery for a restaurant that aspires to this calibre. First, even though I made an email booking just like the previous brunch (with acknowledgement from the PR manager), they lost our booking and took a while to get us a table. It didn’t help that, unlike our first experience, the restaurant was full as there was a big group taking up much of the restaurant with a separate special menu and a few other tables doing the a la carte option. The kitchen was obviously not ready for this onslaught and some dishes came out different from described in the menu. For instance, the raw Hokkaido scallop with lettuce gazpacho jelly came with  a pool of bright green liquid instead of jelly and there was no way of eating the dish properly as we weren’t provided with spoons. We just had to fish out the scallop from the watery liquid and the wait staff later whisked away the plates, only looking slightly puzzled when I pointed out that we had no spoons and weren’t able to enjoy the dish properly.

No less, two dishes stood out. The kurobuta pork cheek with blood orange jelly was very good. I’m not sure about the slightly odd gel-like texture of the accompanying avocado gnocchi but the pork cheek itself was done so that it was meltingly good. The slightly tart and sweet blood orange jelly really lifted the flavour very well.

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The second noteworthy dish was the apple cake dessert. Again, there were parts that I didn’t quite agree with, in this case the apple cinnamon spaghetti. DC liked it a lot and slurped up mine too, but I found it a bit too molecular gastronomy, and too reminiscent of past biology experiments dealing with calcium alginate gels. It was a cute idea nonetheless. What blew me away what the apple cake itself. It was essentially an apple-flavoured cross between mousse and semifreddo, with apple jelly in the middle. I loved how it was just on the verge of melting and how the clean green apple flavours shone through very well. The lemongrass ice cream was a lovely light yet creamy accompaniment to the cake. Thumbs up!

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It was the last part of the dinner that disappointed me. The PR manager came over to chat with us. No matter that she didn’t apologise for the mix-up in reservations. She asked how the food was and I responded that it was patchy. Taken by surprised, she asked why and was reluctant to probe much further after I asked how much she wanted to know, showing her the brief notes I took on my slip of printed menu. She did concede that the lettuce gazpacho was meant to be a jelly and not liquid, and then said that the chef designed the menu out of popular dishes. Telling us that other people liked the menu certainly does not make me like a less than ideal experience more.

In short, this restaurant has lots of potential as the chef is obviously very talented. His kitchen and staff do on occasion let him down. It took me a long while to decide to post about this place as I have very mixed feelings about it. If you take my experience as a gauge, you’d probably get a good experience two-thirds of the time. For me, unfortunately, I’m not going to come back for a little while.

Private Affairs
45 Joo Chiat Place
Tel: 6440 0601

 

July in Vietnam: The Infamous Cu Chi Tunnels AKA Where I Shot an AK-47

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A trip to Vietnam somehow didn’t quite seem complete without a look at some sights to do with the War. Much as I dislike seeing signs of war and suffering (a previous trip to Auschwitz had me depressed for days), I thought I’d educate myself by at least going to see the Cu Chi Tunnels. This was where the Viet Cong resistance dug out a complex series of narrow tunnels in which they hid during the day and from which they carried out guerrilla attacks on the Americans.

Unsurprisingly, it was in the middle of some nondescript secondary forest.

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Even more unsurprisingly, this forest housed some bad ass mosquitoes that attacked in no time, giving me huge bites even on my hand.

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We filed past the usual war relics like this abandoned tank that was later infested by tourists hanging off every inch of the bedraggled scrap, trying for a good angle for a photo.

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We then got to the tunnels proper, where our guide demonstrated how he managed to get down into entrance of this tiny tunnel.

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Slim as he was, he had to do some good wriggling before he managed to squirm free of the tunnel.

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And then it was our turn to go in. Here, the tunnels were already enlarged for tourists and I was a little spooked by the close darkness even in that short length.

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We were also shown some nasty booby traps where a false floor swung away to reveal wooden spikes. We were told that these spikes were often smeared with excrement, causing wounds to fester and the victim to eventually suffer a prolonged and painful death. It was a way of inflicting as much fear and dread as possible on the enemy.

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I was glad to finish up on the info gathering and whizzed quickly round the mock up of living conditions of the Viet Cong resistance. It was time for some experiential learning and I got that by shooting an AK-47. For about US$7, I bought myself five rounds. I held them gingerly, fearing that they would explode if I squeezed too hard.

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The nice man in combat fatigues showed me how to hold the gun and plopped the ear muffs on my head. (Don’t laugh, I know it’s all wrong.) And then I fired off the rounds one by one, not knowing whether they hit the target or not. The nice man just smiled and gave me the thumbs up sign when I asked how I did. He was obviously lying. At least he was nice enough not to hurt my pride.

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And of course he completed his nice man gig by helping me take some cool pictures of me holding a gun. Woohoo.

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Dark Double Chocolate Cookies

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Chocolate chip cookies are a perennial favourite and dark double chocolate cookies are even more well received. I make up a batch of these when I want to make the chocolate lovers in my life happy. Feel free to substitute whatever nuts you like, I happened to have pecans around. I can imagine it with dried fruit too, like orange peel.  Try to serve it fresh from the oven if you can. The chocolate oozes in a lovely way.

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Ingredients:
200g flour
120g cocoa powder
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp salt
250g butter
200g sugar
120g dark brown sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
300g dark chocolate, chopped
200g pecans, chopped

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 170ºC. Line two baking trays with baking paper and set aside.
  2. Sift together the flour, cocoa powder and bicarbonate of soda. Stir in the salt. Set aside.
  3. Cream the butter and sugars till fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla extract and beat again.
  4. Add the flour mixture and beat on low speed until just combined.
  5. Fold in chocolate and nuts.
  6. Drop teaspoonfuls of dough onto the baking tray, spacing about two inches apart. Try to make the dough balls as small as possible. I fit about20 onto each tray.
  7. Bake for about 7 minutes, taking care not to let the cookies burn. It’s a dark cookie as it is, so you have to watch carefully.
  8. Transfer to wire rack to cool and eat as soon as you can touch them without burning yourself. Otherwise, wait till cool and pack in airtight containers and give away.

Makes loads, at least 160 or so.

A Rather Impressive Roast Beef Lunch

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I had a joint of beef sitting in the freezer that was crying out to be turned into a lovely Sunday lunch. It’d been a long time since I’d last entertained, so I thought I’d make it slightly more elaborate than normal. I started off with bacon and watercress soup, then served the beef with mushrooms in red wine, roast pumpkin (DC’s helper made it so I don’t have the recipe), green salad and horseradish garlic cream sauce. To top it all off, I served a very successful tropical plate trifle. It was boozy, it had pineapple and passionfruit in it, it had cream, it was amazing.

So let’s start from the beginning. DC and I headed out to Choa Chu Kang the day before in search of fresh ingredients. Too bad about the poor selection at the farmer’s market, as we ended getting most of the stuff from Cold Storage at Jelita in the end. I made the soup, mushrooms and cake base the night before so that there wasn’t much work to do in the morning, just the beef and assembly work.

Here’s the beef just out of the oven, adorned by an afterthought of DC’s Irish breakfast sausages. (The sausages were from Cold Storage, we’re not yet so hardcore that we make our own sausages!)

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We reluctantly let it rest till our guests arrived and got on to reheating the soup and checking the flavourings of the sauces. Eeyore, Wei and WW arrived first and we got on with the soup. To our surprise, watercress and bacon soup went incredibly well with some homemade prawn-flavoured keropok lying around. We couldn’t help but mop up jade liquid with coral crisps, proclaiming all the way that there wouldn’t be space for the beef at the rate we were going through the bucket of keropok. By the time Shinta and KK arrived, the bucket had dwindled to half its original.

As KK and Shinta tucked into their soup, the rest of us went ahead with the main course. It was so good we almost didn’t leave enough for the latecomers. Luckily, those two eat fast and soon caught up with us as they bagged their share of the good stuff.

And then came dessert. Oh my was it good. There was the tang of lime and passionfruit, the fragrance of Silver Valley pineapple, soft voluptuous cream and a generous shot of booziness. No one uttered the customary complaint of how fattening dessert was. In fact, Eeyore protested when I suggested waiting a while to digest first before serving dessert.

A testimony to how good it was? There was hardly any talking at the table, only chomping and semi-civilised requests to pass dishes around, followed by satisfied grunts and sighs. We finished lunch in a record half hour, including a Bordeaux and a Spanish dessert wine to round it all off. Then we proceeded upstairs to fall asleep while Shinta and Eeyore battled it out on Wii Super Smash Bros.

Hungry yet? Now for the recipes.

Roast Beef

Ingredients:

1.5 kg joint of ribeye
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
olive oil
4 good quality sausages (optional)

Method:

  1. Slather the thawed beef generously with black pepper and leave to marinate overnight.
  2. Remove joint from fridge at least 2 hours before cooking. Preheat the oven to 210 ºC.
  3. Rub the outside generously with olive oil and salt, place in a foiled roasting tin. Surround with sausages.
  4. Roast for 30 minutes at 210 ºC then turn down to 160 ºC for another 30 minutes. Like this, you’ll get it medium. (See picture.)
  5. Remove from oven and allow joint to rest for at least 20 minutes before carving. Serve with the other yummy stuff.

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Mushrooms in Red Wine

Ingredients:

80 g butter
6 onions or shallots, sliced
2 punnets brown mushrooms, sliced
200 ml dry red wine

Method:

  1. Melt the butter and cook the onions gently till soft.
  2. Add the mushrooms and on slightly higher heat, cook till most of the butter is absorbed.
  3. Turn up the heat and pour in the red wine.
  4. Allow to bubble for about 10 minutes or till mushrooms are nicely tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Horseradish Garlic Cream Sauce

Ingredients:

2 heads of garlic
1 pot cream
1 tbsp horseradish powder

Method:

  1. Roast the garlic in a pre-heated oven at 120 ºC for an hour or till soft.
  2. Cut the base of the garlic head and squeeze out the pulp into a mortar and pestle. Mash till smooth.
  3. In a pot, combine the garlic and cream and warm gently. Do not let boil.
  4. Mix in the horseradish powder and season to taste.

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Tropical Plate Trifle

[syrup-soaked cake]

Bake the cake here using lime zest instead of tangerine. Use the juice from 5 limes and 100 g of icing sugar for the syrup. Add a touch more icing sugar if you like it less sour.

[cream]

Whip the i small tub whipping cream with 2 tbsp icing sugar and 50 ml dark rum till you get soft peaks. Chill in the fridge immediately.

[fruit topping]

Add 2 tbsp of dark brown sugar to 3 pulped passionfruit, stir and chill in the fridge. Chop Silver Valley pineapple into smaller chunks than the photo (I was too lazy to cut them smaller) and chill.

[assembly]

Arrange thick slices of the cake on a suitable plate, scatter with a couple tbsp of dark rum, then dollop the rum cream lavishly over. Pour over sugared passionfruit pulp then sprinkle with pineapple pieces. Serve to oohs and aahs.

All recipes serve 7, with leftovers.