Home-smoked salmon with foie gras and goat cheese by chef Cyrille Soenen: Daringly but successfully paired with Chateau Figeac
Food for me has never really just been about taste… my story with food is beyond simple eating but is a sensual and emotional encounter. Sometimes a dish is made better by good company, other times by good wine and on those rare occasions, something is just so amazing it transcends everything else and can hold its own. I have always been wary of claiming things to be the best, because taste is so subjective.
Case in point, this year was a very special one for me, half of it I was extremely pregnant and as a result was a rather picky eater for its entire duration. As hormones would have it, my preferences changed, my taste buds morphed and I would be extremely upset if I was disappointed by my food rendering me a rather unadventurous diner. The other half was characterized by a voracious appetite with rather extreme food restrictions brought about by nursing my baby. Thankfully, however, I was able to create a frozen stockpile of milk, earning me a little bit of freedom. Despite all of this it was a good food year with some amazing highlights both here and abroad. Here are my Ten Favorite Foodie Moments of 2014 in no particular order and here’s to your 2015 being filled with good food and even better company! Happy New Year!
1. Sushi Yoshitake, Tokyo — A small door that leads to a tiny nondescript room. Seven seats line a simple counter. The place is void of any décor but the lighting is perfect, a canvas for the artistry of chef Yoshitake. Awe-inspiringly fresh pieces of fish. A solemn quiet only broken by the sounds of a masterpiece being made. The distinct crunch as the knife slices through the perfectly seared crust of fresh bonito. The crackle of nori as it is wrapped around the rice. Everything is heavenly – from the snow crab with crab roe and yuzu gelée to the abalone liver sauce on rice to that obscenely plump and glistening uni, copious amounts of sake and the only thing better than the food was the company.
2. Luxe canapés for a preggy lady in Hong Kong — I was seven months pregnant and sent to cover the launch of the Louis Vuitton Icones collection as well as the L’Aventure pop-up store in Hong Kong. Talk about sticking out like a sore thumb. Being the only enormously pregnant lady in a room full of uber-stylish fashion and lifestyle journalists, I found myself being swarmed by waiters serving the most amazing little canapés. “Pan-seared scallop with truffle, madam?” Why not? “Foie gras?” If you insist. “Blinis with beluga caviar?”” Oh, yes, please! I’ll have one… oh, wait, make that two or three! I think the next cocktail party I go to with good hors d’oeuvres I’ll stuff a pillow under my dress!
3. Pulled Pork Sanger at Burnt Ends, Singapore — My husband and I had decided that Singapore was THE place to go on a “babymoon” with the sole intention of eating. I had heard so much about Burnt Ends and was deliriously frustrated at not being able to get a reservation. Very pregnant me had nightmares about not being able to eat there, being locked out the door. My level-headed husband said we should go anyways. As luck would have it, despite being almost closing time, they took us in. As I sank into the hipster vibe –bearded, tattooed chefs and good music — the mood was set for the most spectacular sandwich possible: the pulled pork Sanger. Just as chef Dave placed it in front of me, the first bluesy chords of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy” came on the stereo. Soft brioche bun, roasted jalapeño, smoothly spiced pulled pork, crisp cabbage slaw having a ball in my mouth to that honky-tonk music… “She’s my sweet little baby, and I’m her lover boy…” The sandwich was soooo good it had its own damn soundtrack.
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4. Hay Roasted Pigeon at Jaan, Swissotel, Singapore — Fine. He did make it to my list last year, too, but I must give credit where credit is due. Chef Julien Royer outdid himself when he personally welcomed me and my husband to dinner, giving us a special tasting menu of everything on the menu, culminating in the most beautifully rustic hay-roasted pigeon. There’s a certain respect to be had for a chef who, despite all his modernist technical and gastronomic skill can churn out a stunning roast fowl as the pièce de résistance. The chef brought it out personally, holding it like a precious jewel… crisp delicate skin, tender and succulent meat… simply spectacular.
5. Parenthood advice from Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian — I reach over and begin serving him and he quickly takes the cutlery from me, saying, “What are you doing? Allow me to serve you! It’s the men who must serve the ladies!” Lucky, lucky fangirl moment for me to have been sitting next to chef Geoffrey Zakarian at an intimate dinner in El Cirkulo welcoming him to town and celebrating chef J Gamboa’s birthday. Charming and intelligent, we spoke about food, business and, above all, parenthood. “You will see,” he said, “you will have a whole new world ahead of you, and what’s amazing is that you will gain a new set of friends as well… brought together by your children.”
6. The Magellan-inspired tasting menu at Vask by chef Chele Gonzalez — Chele is a dear friend of mine and I have seen his evolution from the very first time he came to the Philippines to the present. I have always been honest and frank with him, stating clearly when I liked or disliked certain things. It’s easy for a chef to be caught up in all kinds of things that hinder creative inspiration: business, technique, marketing, etc. This menu for me was an example of that ingenious sparkle. A way to come full circle, showcasing his modernist tendencies, respecting local produce, embracing his new home – the Philippines. My husband and I extremely enjoyed ourselves and I was definitely happy that suddenly the crisp Sauvignon Blanc went so well with everything after 36 weeks of tasting like metal… I should have known then that baby would come much sooner than later!
7. Jade Dragon’s Signature Fried Rice, Jade Dragon, City of Dreams, Macau — Seriously. It’s just fried rice. I know. But it really wasn’t just any fried rice. It didn’t matter that I had just finished an incredible tasting menu, I ate it all. And as I savored each mouthful, I could imagine it being cooked… Each fluffy grain dancing an elegant ballet twirling in the air with bits of Iberico ham, roast goose, juicy plump shrimp and fried conpoy… Then topped with a beautifully seared scallop. Perfection.
8. The Chateau Figeac dinner at Wine Story — The greatest tragedy of my entire life was turning down a Chateau Latour vertical tasting because my pregnant tastebuds made even the best vintages taste like vinegar. Thank you to my dear friend Romy Sia, who invited me postpartum to a stunning Chateau Figeac tasting with CEO Frederic Faye. There’s nothing better than drinking an excellent wine with someone who knows it best. I have always found this particular one to be extremely affable and well rounded, like an old friend you never tire of, and my sentiments were confirmed by Faye. “So fresh and full of fruit,” he says lovingly, talking about the 2005 vintage It’s so fresh and easy that when you open a bottle, you finish it… and then you can open another.” I’ll be glad to help you finish them off anytime! Special mention to chef Cyrille Soenen, who managed to make a very daring combination of smoked salmon, seared foie gras and goat cheese work with the Saint Emilion grand cru!
9. My mother-in-law’s foie gras — The truth is, I had stopped enjoying foie gras. After years of being served poorly kept, overly frozen, badly cooked foie gras — that for some reason in any fancy meal or tasting menu needs to show up somewhere, whether be it in the form of a mousse or fried — I was just over it. Over and done with the whole shebang. In fact, it came to the point when I would scrunch my nose at the stuff. And yet this Christmas, faced with a generous portion of homemade foie gras with figs, I was made to remember just how divine it can be. Velvety, unctuous, not a vein in sight, laced with cognac and a heady whiff of black truffle… A little bit of chewy, sweet figs again imbibed in that fragrant cognac… It was like rekindling an old flame… a past love.
10. Nice to “meat” you, Yoroniku, Tokyo — How can I ever eat any other kind of beef again? It’s almost impossible to beat this crazy menu. A 14-course yakiniku degustation, 14 servings of 14 different kinds of cuts, all from the same milk-fed, virgin baby calf. The owner is the chef and he is also your server and the one cooking on the hot grill in front of you. Stern and deliriously serious about what he does, he affectionately barks orders on how to eat each piece of meat. “This, squeeze lemon, two bites. This, no sauce, one bite. This, keep rolling in sauce, one to two bites.” The result was otherworldly, with textures I never would have thought to use when describing beef: Fluffy? Cloudlike? The meal ended with the very best sliver, flash-cooked in his special sukiyaki broth, served with an egg yolk and freshly shaved truffle. “This. Eat slow. Enjoy.”