Monday, January 16, 2012

Contact details

Dear Sherina, how do we contact you? Your emails bounce, saying inbox full... Curtis Marsh

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

French Irony

One of the Best French meals I have had in years, and it was in Kuala Lumpur!

Driving back to Singapore from our Chinese New Year pilgrimage to Ipoh, we decided to stay overnight in Kuala Lumpur. Contrary to both locals and Singaporean’s who treat the motorways in Malaysia as a Nascar training ground, it is prudent to be wary of inane reckless drivers, taking one’s time and splitting up the trip. Incidentally, in the midst of a deluge of rain, we encountered an accident scene where no less than 18 cars were in nose to tail pileup!

We decided to stay outside of Kuala Lumpur to avoid the notoriously chaotic city traffic, opting for the Saujana Hotel close to the Subang airport. Whilst an old and tired hotel, it has a resort-like feel to it and perfectly adequate for such a purpose, particularly if you enjoy a game of golf. For a more pampered stay, the adjoining Saujana Club, both run by the GMH group, has been recently renovated and apparently ‘The’ place to stay in KL. Visit

The previous evening in Ipoh, my wife caught up with an old school friend, Eddie, over drinks at Indulgence, which is where we were staying (a separate article on this cutting-edge, if not enigmatic boutique hotel is pending). Eddie actually owns a restaurant and groovy bar in in KL called Frangipani, to which his chef partner, Chris Bauer, describes as modern French. Thus, it was decided we would have dinner there the following night.

Negotiating the traffic from our hotel was, as expected, a harrowing experience, augmented by rain and car accidents happening all round us moreover, negotiating the maize of one-way streets. Thanks to my brother-in-law in the navigator’s seat armed with my laptop and Google Maps, it was relatively painless, likewise parking as we were guided in by the restaurants valet on approach.

Greeted by the restaurant manager we were whisked inside from the rain through a modern foyer and stainless steel panelled walls to a contrasting and most impressive Moroccan style interior, bathed in creamy white with towering rectangular columns, dramatically enhanced by a black pool in the centre with overhead skylight. The space oozes an exotic Casablanca ambience; softly lighten with luxurious space between tables and romantic nooks overlooking the pool.

The staff where immediately attentive, moreover I was most impressed by the managers attention to our five year-old daughter, seeing to her needs first with an intelligent conversation on what she would like to eat. Looking through the menu, tea smoked salmon served with toasted bread was identified as the most appealing, to which he suggested putting the order in to the kitchen before taking ours and was subsequently arrived simultaneously with our pre-dinner drinks.

This might all seem superficial to those who do not have children, but it thoroughly impressed us and was strategic to the enjoyment of the evening. Furthermore, this flawless service continued all night, highly attentive yet not obtrusive and with genuine purpose. This impression of genuineness was substantiated by the intelligent interaction between staff and guests and whenever any staff member was out of their depth, they immediately sort assistance from the manager or kitchen. I have not encountered such excellent service in Asia in recent memory and the front-of-house experience on par with one and two star Michelin restaurants we recently experienced in Italy, with the caveat the best travelling accessory you can have in Italy is a bambino.

This sort of service is rarely achieved outside of owner-operated establishments and all credit to Eddie and Chris, although Eddie had that grimacing look of frustration when I brought up the subject of staff, and clearly he has his work cut out for him with the Malaysian mind-set.

Moving on to my personal priority in restaurants, the wine list here frankly has more depth than anything I have seen in Asia, period! No, it is not an encyclopaedia of trophy Bordeaux’s, although there is a certainly a broad representation of claret, astutely focused on St. Emilion and Pomerol. There is also a meticulous, concise range of new world wines, selected with savvy precision. All that said, the strength here is the comprehensive range of Rhone, Languedoc and Roussillon wines and clearly a personally driven selection - that is you can sense a propriety feel to it, if not obsession. Obviously pricing is an issue in country like Malaysia, inhibited by punitive taxes on alcohol however, the restaurant-level prices here are extraordinarily good value, not only by Kuala Lumpur standards, but very competitive with metropolis’s like Hong Kong, and they have no tax there, just extortionate margins!

In conversation with Eddie and Chris, it was revealed they bring in a lot of wines direct from France and travel the different regions annually looking for new discoveries, along with enlightenment and inspiration for produce and menus.
We chose a Domaine Vieille Julienne "Lieu-dit Clavin" 2007 Cotes du Rhone Blanc, highlighted on the wine list and also served by the glass: fragrant with white blossom and white peach, with hints of blanched almond and tarragon, it had a caressing oily-textural palate saturated in apricot and melon flavours yet, refreshingly savoury and nutty with vibrant lemony acidity. Clearly well-made clean, modern Rhone white and with little wood influence – actually a Chateauneuf du Pape producer of much repute - and would easily benefit from two or three years bottle age, but delightful now.

To follow we had a red from one of my all time favourite producers on the planet, Domaine Pierre Clavel La Copa Santa 2005, from the Coteaux du Languedoc – the hills that is and I can assure you, far-flung. It was such a surprise to see this on a wine list in Asia little lone Kuala Lumpur. It is brilliant wine to which I will post a full tasting note and article shortly; very good value at RM260 on their restaurant wine list.

By this stage you’re probably wondering if I am ever going to get around to the food! For the record, I divide up my analysis of fine dining restaurants in quarters; ambience/decor, service, wine list, and food, in no particular order of preference although clearly I have a wine bent. However, all facets are equally important to a complete dining experience at this level. In my opinion, too many reviewers place an inordinate emphasis on food alone. In a broader view, one has to put things in perspective relative to the establishment, or the occasion and circumstances; i.e. one doesn’t really place much emphasis on the decor when eating communally at your convivial local Thai, or if catching up with a group of friends, perhaps the wine list and bar is more important for compotation than the food.

For starters, the menu at Frangipani is unique with elaborate descriptions of every dish written by the chef, combining enticing explanations and philosophy behind the produce or influence from regions and travels, with a good deal of humour and personality behind each depiction. For example, Bauer’s description of his Herb poached ocean trout fillets, “DON’T immediately turn your attention away when you read the word “poached”. In this case, it does not spell “boring”! Our delicious ocean trout fillets have been lovingly marinated in herbs - gently rubbed with mother’s best olive oil and then wrapped air-tight before we poach them at 75°C. In this way, the taste stays in the fish, not in the water”.

As chef Bauer pointed out, his cuisine is modern French, to which I have interpreted from conversation with him he is deeply rooted in his native French cooking but takes a pragmatic view and contemporary approach to what he can source in Malaysia, considering it is a somewhat restricted marketplace. Alas, there is less Asian-produce influence in his food, although seafood from Japan is prominent, much of it is sourced from Australia, New Zealand and of course France.

The A la Carte menu is planned to entice several course dining, with an extensive range of first, second and third courses priced respectively at RM30, 45 and 60, with small additional charges for more extravagant produce. Serves are kept to a sensible size and an overall light touch to the cuisine with adherence to basic cooking techniques rather than elaborate garnishes or overcomplicated dishes. You can opt for a three-course (full-size portions) of your choice for RM120, add RM20 for dessert, obviously encouraging you to sample as much of the chef’s repertoire at a reduced price. There is also a tasting menu comprising seven smaller courses at RM$158, or $258 including a wine paired with each course, to my mind, extremely good value indeed.

Suffering from the obligation of overindulging at the Chinese New Year family feasts we were already resigned to a relatively light meal, all opting for smallish, delicate starters. Three plump fresh oysters from Kumamoto served with a vinaigrette of miso, white wine vinegar and olive set my brother-in-laws palate on the right track. Moreover, it was encouraging to see oysters from the northern hemisphere where it is winter and the oysters at their best, as opposed to a substandard experience we had recently where Australian oysters were proffered in complete ignorance of the seasons (more on this in an upcoming berating). My Pan roasted porcini powder dusted Hokkaido scallop was perfectly cooked; a large and fleshly specimen that was crunchy yet melted in the mouth and had that wonderful interplay of sweet scallop meat and sea saltiness. I could have easily had six of these washed down with our Rhone Blanc as a complete meal.

My wife had immediately zeroed-in on a classic bouillabaisse inspired dish, it being one of her favourites yet terribly difficult to find a chef who can make a decent one. We used to frequent a French Bistro in Melbourne called La Madrague where chef, Jacques Heraudeau, a humble veteran of the stove and staunch traditionalist, made an ambrosial bouillabaisse that required a large baguette to mop up every last drop in the bowl, paired with an aged Rhone white which has the richness and oily texture to compliment the flavours yet a nutty, sherry-like character that keeps the palate fresh. Thus, the Rhone Blanc we were on paired well and bouillabaisse was brilliant, an equal to chef Heraudeau’s (now retired) with all the hedonistic intensity of fish broth and crustacean reduction with a creamy texture yet light on the palate and perfectly cooked seafood morsels. Bravo!

The male contingent were not terribly adventurous with our main courses, as we were both in the mood for a good steak, myself opting for a grass-feed Angus Porterhouse and my brother-in-law a Wagu Rib-eye topped with pan-fried fois gras. I think I alluded to a light meal? Both steaks were perfectly cooked and hit the spot admirably. My wife chose Duck Confit, as simple as it looked in presentation, served with a potato puree, it was cooked to perfection. Duck Confit is one of those dishes or techniques that can go terribly wrong with the duck leg looking inviting with its golden brown skin and wickedly fatty flavours however often the actual meat is dried out and like chewing on balsawood. It is a dish that requires patience and a thorough understanding of traditional techniques, to which Chef Bauer indubitably demonstrates.

We decided to have a cheese platter to mop up the rest of our red wine, all of which were in excellent condition and ripeness, cheese being another peril of restaurants in Asia. We were equally impressed by the variety of the selection and quality of the cheeses, so much so another glass of red had to be ordered!

The consensus is we had a most enjoyable experience at Frangipani and whilst this is not an inexpensive restaurant, it certainly offers very good value for the overall package. The restaurant has been going for 7 years now, thus has a well-established following and proven track record. This is to date, our benchmark for fine dining in Kuala Lumpur and must-visit.
Verdict: Over-delivers

Whilst I had a quick tour of the upstairs bar, we did not have opportunity to road-test it fully but by all accounts, this is one of the hot-spots of Kualu Lumpur’s night scene where you will encounter the cool and beautiful people of KL. It is an enormous space with modern-chic décor and lots of different spaces and lounging areas, some more secluded for naughtiness. With a reputation for the best cocktails in town, resident celebrity bartenders or mixologists as they are now called, Ash & Amin, will concoct something lethal for you. There is a resident DJ, DJ Sito (Spanish) to who opens with “cool chill out vibes, which progresses to hip grinding funky, Latin house as the evening heats up”.

Eddie is candid about the bar, “It pays the rent, and it’s a lot of fun.” He goes on to say, “We have had people coming to the bar for years, like five years, and they don’t even know the restaurant downstairs exists!” So, if you are looking for the complete night out on the town, Frangipani has it all; you can start with drinks a 6pm in the bar, dinner from 7.30pm, head back to the bar to chill out after dinner or grove on till 1am. Brilliant!

The bar and restaurant is open Tuesday to Sunday, closed Monday’s. Tel: + 60 3 2144 3001,, 25 Changkat Bukit Bintang, 50200

The Wandering Palate, 25th February, 2009

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Making a Meal of the Miele Guide

Reese Deveaux is the Wandering Palates Hong Kong correspondent, this artcile first appearing in the Asia Sentinel

Asia's latest guide for foodies turns out to be less than reliable Reese Deveaux

The new Miele Guide, which bills itself as "Asia's first truly independent regional restaurant guide and also its most authoritative," delivered its first rankings of Asia's 20 best restaurants a few weeks ago and there in the middle, at 10th place, was Antonio's Fine Dining, tucked away near the rim of a dormant volcano in the ramshackle Philippines tourist mecca of Tagaytay.

Antonio's, according to the Miele Guide, which is sponsored by the German Miele kitchen people, ranks above L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Tokyo, which was awarded two stars in the Michelin Guide to Japan. It ranks above Caprice, the imposing French spinoff from the George V of Paris in the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong. It is voted better than eight other restaurants that have been awarded stars, bars, crossed forks and other accolades by a plethora of foodie guides. Nobu Hong Kong, the hugely innovative restaurant run by the empire of Japanese empresario Nobu Matsuhisa, languishes another six places down from Antonio's, in 16th place.

Asia Sentinel found the tortuous way to Tagaytay, some 60 kilometers south and 600 meters up in elevation from Manila on the lip of the Taal volcano, down a twisting one-way track to where Antonio Escalante, who has been in business for five years, runs his restaurant behind imposing gates and guards, to try to find out how Miele found what Michelin missed. At 140 seats, Antonio's is tucked into a riot of bougainvillea, flame trees, giant ferns, mango, guava and papaya trees and other overwhelming flora and fauna. Hung with giant Spanish chandeliers and with tables crested in white napery, it is largely open to the stunning forest that surrounds it. The surroundings are gorgeous and so is the decor.

At the outset, having eaten in many of the restaurants Miele cites among its top 10, not to mention many others bestarred by Michelin, we can say Antonio's Fine Dining is nowhere among the top 20 restaurants in Asia. Remember that Michelin awarded three stars to more restaurants in Tokyo than it did all of France. That doesn't make Antonio's a bad restaurant. It is streets ahead of anywhere else we have eaten in in the Philippines. The ambiance is brilliant. It is set far enough from any roads to keep noise to a minimum, other than the throbbing jungle just outside the open balconies.

But Miele does a disservice to both Antonio's and itself with its list of 20 top establishments. Meile's top restaurant, for instance, is Iggy's in Singapore, placed there supposedly by 75,000 diners across 16 countries in Asia. Third, after L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Hong Kong (two stars from Michelin) is Les Amis of Singapore. Fourth is Gunther's Singapore, two ranks ahead of Robuchon a Galera. Seventh is Garibaldi in Singapore. There seems to be no sign whatever of any of the restaurants across Asia that are part of the empire of Alain Ducasse, the world's most-bestarred chef by Michelin.

Are we starting to see a pattern here? We are heartened see Robuchon a Galera, the tiny Macau creation of master chef Joel Robuchon, named the chef of the 20th century by one guide, on the list. We rank it the top restaurant we have visited in Asia – not in sixth place behind three Singapore restaurants. It appears that nobody from Miele went to Pierre at the top of the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong, the creation of Pierre Gagnaire, the three-star Paris chef who is now ranked among the most brilliant and innovative in Paris today.

Perhaps a lot of those 75,000 diners who voted live in Singapore, a city which to our knowledge has not been included among the world's dining meccas, although we will allow that a open-air pasar malam, and Singapore throngs with them, is a wonderful dining experience. There are just three Chinese restaurants on Miele's list – Yung Kee at eighth, Fook Lam Moon, the goose restaurant in Hong Kong at 17th, and Hutong, the nouvelle Chinese in Hong Kong, leading to the inescapable conclusion that 1.3 billion people are either not discriminating in their gustatory habits, or that maybe nobody asked them. Nor are there any ethnic Thai restaurants on the list.

We spoke with Escalante, the personable 42-year-old Filipino who got his training at a hotel in Adelaide, and who has been slowly building an empire – now up to three restaurants – in the Philippines. And the fact that he is able to operate a fine-dining establishment in Tagaytay at all is a tribute to his tenacity and attention to quality.

But, he says, for instance, it takes him two months just to get cardamom seeds. He has to ship beef bones from Australia for his outstanding roasted bone marrow appetizer topped with parsley salad. It isn't just beef bones. It is virtually impossible to buy high-quality beef anywhere near Tagaytay. Nor is there mesclun or any of a wide variety of products that have to make their way from across the world, to a country where temperature and humidity control are problematic at best, to get onto Antonio's menu.

In Hong Kong, for instance, perhaps as much as 50,000 tonnes of food is flown in each year, kept in temperature-controlled conditions not only in the warehouses but in the airplanes that fly it in. And Tagaytay is a long trip from Manila if the traffic is bad, and if the refrigerated truck is unreliable.

Antonio maintains an admirable wine list including German Rieslings, French Burgundies and Italian grigios. Wine in the Philippines, as most of us can attest, is a chancy proposition.

The menu isn't complicated, nor does it need to be. It ranges from rib-eye steaks to grilled prawns and other standards although the crispy deboned lamb ribs with hoisin sauce are a mild essay at fusion.

Antonio is just a few kilometers from the reaches of the South China Sea and the seafood is fresh and tasty. The escargots, one assumes, did not crawl in fresh, but the oysters, mussels and so on are nice.

But take a memo, Antonio. Do not serve your tempura oysters or scallops with mango orange sauce with lumpfish caviar, or take the lumpfish caviar off the menu. That is not haute cuisine.
The prices are steep for the Philippines – lunch for two with wine was more than US$50 – but cheap for just about anywhere else, and positively a song for a top 20 restaurant – or even a top 300 one.

Antonio's Breakfast is popular enough to be worth the trip although it illustrates how far Tony Boy, as his customers call him, has to go. The waiter couldn't figure out that the eggs with corned beef, for instance, came with toast although the menu lists wheat toast. And to a request for eggs over easy, he delivered shirred eggs. Contrast that to, say, the power breakfast at l'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, for instance, where the petit dejeuner arrives with a croissant folded and buttered 27 times, accompanying one of the most visually striking plates we have ever seen in a breathtakingly stunning red-and-black restaurant.

But if you're in the Phlippines and feeling ambitious enough for the white-knuckle drive in Filipino traffic, Antonio's Fine Dining is a meritorious goal up the bone-rattling track from Manila to Tagaytay, although it would be wise to go for the weekend, leave in the middle of the night, and go back after midnight to escape the murderous travel.

But we strongly recommend that you throw away the Miele Guide and just go for the experience of a nice meal in a stunning setting.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Tongue Thai-ed

Somewhat paradoxically, ever since I left Australia for Asia eight years ago, I have been in search of, if not craving, the innovative contemporary Thai-influenced food of David Thompson (Darley Street Thai, Sailor Thai, Nahm) and his one of his star apprentices, Martin Boetz of Longrain. Despite Thompson being Boetz’s mentor, their interpretations of Thai cuisine are poles apart; Thompson the archaeologist of the countries cuisine, authoring the tomb “Thai Food” (published by Pavilion), surely the most comprehensive and authoritative cookbook on the subject ever written, yet Thompson pushes all boundaries in Thai cuisine in his idiosyncratic style although retaining a nucleus of tradition and the utmost respect for the core ingredients of Thailand. Boetz, on the other hand, uses the very best of Australian ingredients and meshes this with his embedded grasp of Thai cooking and unmitigated talent, with a spunky, nervy style of flavours and wholesomeness that is indelible on one’s palate.

Thompson is no longer involved in Sailors Thai, his long-time front-of-house partner Peter Bowyer at the helm, and Darley Street closed many years back, to which Thompson now divides his time between Nahm (located in the Halkin Hotel, London) and Thailand. I heard rumours he was starting something in Bangkok to which I am investigating.

Neither of them has gone for the cliché of Thai adornment or superficial impersonations of Thai culture, to the contrary both have adopted contemporary, edgy - if not cutting-edge - concepts of decor and ambience. Indeed, Darley Street Thai and Sailor Thai are perhaps the most copied avant-garde decors in the restaurant world. Longrain is equally trend-setting with its communal tables and no-booking policy, augmented by a wild bar serving seductive cocktails and keeping the hoards of dinners in a holding pattern that outperforms Sydney air traffic controllers.

In my five years living in Hong Kong there was nothing that came remotely near these touchstones and three years in Singapore has been even more unconvincing. For the most part Thai restaurants in Asia are pedestrian reproductions of the worst tourist traps in Thailand itself. If it’s not the kitsch decor that puts you off, it’s the predictable menu of Thai favourites and repetition of squid, prawns, chicken, beef or pork done in every colour of the curry spectrum and mindboggling variation of rice and noodle dishes that must keep the apprentice chefs enslaved if not bored out of their brain with the litany.

One can be forgiving of these habitual menus at your local, no frills Thai restaurant, particularly when it comes to the ambiguous takeaway, with the ‘something for everyone’ approach. But what is it with ‘traditional’ Thai restaurant menu’s having to list the entire repertoire of the countries cuisine, as if it’s some form of gastronomic prowess. Do they feel compelled to compete with the encyclopaedic and equally repetitious, if not bewildering Cantonese menus? You don’t see French Chef’s listing the entire Eschoffier on their menu? Likewise, most contemporary chefs who have a thread of Asia influence in their cooking are pragmatic in the number of dishes on the menu, both from a logistical perspective and the dinners appreciation.

I encountered another irritatingly long Thai menu at the recently opened Jim Thompson Thai restaurant in Singapore, although the aggravation begun before we even made it to the restaurant. Phoning the restaurant at 4.30pm on a Saturday afternoon to enquire on a table for 3 people at 6.30pm, to which we would be out by 7.30pm, the reply was completely vague necessitating a lengthy explanation that dining with my 5 year-old daughter would only require us taking up the table for an hour maximum. The reply from the person on the other end of the phone was completely unenthusiastic offering a remote possibility of an outside table however; they were going to be very busy with most of the bookings arriving at 7pm. Having been involved in the hospitality industry for decades I disputed this scenario and suggested that there would be ample opportunity for a table turn-over here with negligible interruption to existing reservations. The reply was, “Well, we will call you back in half an hour if we can fit you in”. By 5.45pm I had not heard back, so called again, only to encounter a different person and have to go through the entire process again as no one had a clue as to my prior conversation. Finally, there was agreement on the table being available, alas we headed there promptly.

As it turned out, we finished our meal and paid precisely at 7.30pm and were still the only table seated in the restaurant, save for a couple that had just arrived as the forward party for a large group and two tables of four outside. Clearly their reservation process and table allocation skills are a complete shambles and the mind boggles how a restaurant of this size and considerable investment will make it in this incredibly competitive environment and extremely challenging period ahead.

Initially I had approached our dinning at Jim Thompson’s with some enthusiasm as a friend of mine with a good grasp of restaurants had declared it the best Thai restaurant he had encountered in Singapore to date. Indeed, the building itself is most impressive, a superbly refurbished Colonial ‘Black & White” in the Dempsey Hill area with cathedral proportion ceilings, massive columns and a luxurious spaciousness, to which there will certainly be no complaints about the space between tables. No expense has been spared on the decor and fitting and as you would expect of this Thai silk and furniture design, home decor Concept Company, it is tastefully done and the ambience is spot on.

The menu has no less than 129 items covering starters, salads, soups, curries, noodles, rice, meat and poultry, seafood, whole fish, vegetables, dips, vegetarian and dessert, phew! On the positive side the starter sampler offerings is a very good idea for small tables to be able to share several dishes, as one would in the usual communal dinning sense of Thai etiquette. As we intended to only have a quick meal we opted for the salad sampler to which my wife declared the mango salad “very spicy!” which means extremely hot given her cast iron Ipoh tolerance of chilli Padi. It completely destroyed this delicate Ang Mo’s palate.

This was followed by red duck curry, our litmus test of Thai restaurants as my wife cooks a sublime and unparalleled version. Their version was an embarrassment, not only in the meagre portion but the duck component consisting of fatty pieces of skin with practically no meat whatsoever, moreover the curry had been over-cooked, the coconut curdled and spotty like custard that has separated from too much heat and lack of stirring. At S$20 for a serve this is a total rip-off, considering one could buy half a cooked lacquered duck from any stall here and make the curry yourself and have change left out of the twenty.

I shall not comment any further on the food as in fairness it requires another visit and necessitates a large group so we can do justice to the tediously extensive menu. However, the drinks and wine list deserves comment, in that it is appalling, yet another pathetic and extortionately-priced wine list that the non-confrontational Singapore dinner dismayingly accepts as ‘Standard Practice’. In Melbourne, Australia restaurants that over-charge for wines simply do not survive.

It perplexes me how restaurateurs in Singapore can justify mark ups of three and four times the purchase price of the wine when in most cases, wine expertise and service are completely non-existent. And they wonder why the tourists are not spending enough here! If you take for example the Mount Riley Sauvignon Blanc listed at Jim Thompson’s at $95 a bottle, a wine that is made in ocean-quantities and retails here for under $30. But more to the point it is a sub $15 retail wine in New Zealand and Australia, and it is nothing short of embarrassing to see it flogged at such an extortionate price.

The wine list at Jim Thompson’s is also the perfect example of there being absolutely no synergy whatsoever with pairing wines to the restaurants cuisine, and for those who are sceptical about wine pairing with Thai food, please follow this hyperlink...
When Thai meets wine................................ 8th July 2006Cold beer is always good but there are several more sophisticated ways to partner this most popular of Asian cuisines, writes Curtis Marsh.

Furthermore, the poor layout, misinformation and numerous, glaring spelling mistakes are compounded by the obscurity of most of the wines and in many instances no vintages and even total anonymity, e.g. Stellenbosch Shiraz $78, Signature Sauvignon Blanc $95 under South African whites, and like what Sauvignon Blanc from S.A. could possibly be worth $95! German Riesling Kabinet $98, yet no producer name and the only listing from Germany, yet arguably the best white variety and style to pair with Thai cuisine. Likewise, New Zealand Pinot Noir $92, notwithstanding I would like to know who the producer is for that sort of coin thanks; it is the only pinot noir on the entire list, outrageous! Actually, it was served by the glass, $14 mind and without finding out exactly what it was; the most dilute and uninspiring NZ pinot noir I have tried. My glass of Culemborg Chenin Blanc at $8 was equally boring with the personality of a cask wine.

I could go on however; I think you get my point, besides I have already slotted them for the “Worst Wine List of the Year” award in my upcoming 2008 Lunar Year review. That said, I would also point out even the beer selection here is totally pedestrian with only four commercial bottled offerings and two bilge-water brands on tap. I am scratching my head as to think of a better captive audience for speciality beers than a Thai restaurant, but clearly the restaurant management at Jim Thompson have no idea of consumerism or contribution margin.

On our visit the staff were friendly enough and were making an effort, our waiter attentive and acquainted with the menu well enough to deal with particular requests. That said after explaining that our daughter has a severe nut allergy and to exclude cashew nuts on the salad, everything came with peanuts anyway.

The actual service competence or degree of skill is another story and the all too familiar Singapore standards of using cheap imported labour were clearly evident. There was no cohesiveness between the staff with a least five different waiters milling around us with the hesitant demeanour and level of incompetence that makes you uncomfortable. There was no sign of anyone in charge, indeed a rudderless ship with no captain in sight. This completely impersonal and uncharismatic level of service in general is Singapore’s biggest downfall and few restaurateurs here have yet to grasp that service and interaction with the dinner is in some ways more important than the food itself.

Concept restaurants run by large groups are inevitably going to lack personality and largely be staffed by drones, although operators could observe the mantra at the Aqua Group in Hong Kong with maestro David Yeo importing some of best talent in the Australian hospitality industry for front of house.

This however does not solve the issues long term and if Singapore is aiming to build a sustainable fine dining industry it needs to start luring and training local talent, which begins with paying people reasonable wages.

No doubt Jim Thompson Thai will be a very busy place for a while, their brand recognition, the location and stunning building will see generate enough interest initially and I can envisage it being a magnate to those who want to take out visitors to Singapore purely on the basis of the building and ambience; it might just be one of those places where you ignore the adage, “You can’t eat the decor”.

Verdict: Under-delivers

I would welcome feedback and recommendation on the very best Thai restaurants, at all level and that’s anywhere in the world. My local here in Singapore is E-Sarn Thai, which is Northern Thai style and whilst fairly rudimentary, the food is honest and the service genuine-family-run friendly - 20 Sixth Avenue, Tel: 6462 5608.

In Australia, there are gems at the user-friendly level, in Melbourne Thalia Thai, 82 Lygon Street, also The Isthmus of Kras, Chef Beh Kim Un one of the quite achievers of the industry In Sydney Prasit’s, 413-415 Crown Street, Surry Hills, also there are many Chef’s in Australia that are influenced by Thai ingredients and technique although they also incorporate many other Asian and Mediterranean disciplines and fall in a category known as of Australia-freestyle. Chef’s like Teage Ezard of Ezards and Gingerboy in Melbourne, Geoff Lindsay at Pearl, Melbourne, Christine Manfield at Universal, Sydney and Peter Doyle at est. Sydney, whom I personally rate as the best Chef in Australia... to mention a few

It has been many years since I have been to Bangkok however one of my most memorable Thai meals was at Celadon restaurant at the Sukhothai Hotel,

The Datai resort on Langkawi Island remains my favourite traditional Thai Restaurant, in every aspect; the ambience, food, wine and service. and

The Wandering Palate

Monday, January 5, 2009

Singapore to Kuala Lumpur Cheap Fares a Farce

Having just been online to book fares from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, with the thought in the back of mind that flying between the two cities is now supposedly cheap; I am somewhat perplexed at the extortionate fares both Singapore Airlines and Silk Air are charging. Sure, its Chinese New Year that we are travelling and as predictable as it can get, airlines are looking to extort whatever they can out of a diminishing traveller when they have you over a barrel, so to speak. However, there are some distortions here that deserve mentioning.

Firstly, it is less expensive, well only by S$100 or so, to travel by Singapore Airlines flexi travel for 2 adults and one child at S$1214, with the emphasis this is flag carrier full-service airline, as compared with Silk Air, the low-cost carrier?, for the same criteria, costing S$1344. Putting this in to perspective, even the extremely efficient Silk Air flight attendants are struggling to get a chicken roll and a cup of tea in to you before the captains announcing the decent in to Kuala Lumpur. Somewhat confounded by the higher price of the Silk Air being more expensive than the mother ship, I decided to go for Singapore Airlines, although discovered that when I clicked on the schedules for Singapore Airlines there were optional flights “serviced by Silk Air” that when clicked brought the fare down to S$1077, though the flight times where the most ugliest inconvenient ones of course.

When you break down the fare, I certainly don’t mind paying S$150 airport tax for 3 persons, as I cannot think of a more efficient and pleasant experience as far as airports go than Changi. However, being slapped $246 airline fuel surcharge is a complete rort and I don’t care when the airline took out a hedge on their fuel, this sort of grab is way out of line and over the past-due date. In case you have not been reading any media, oil prices plummeted a little while ago. Then there is the S$48 airline insurance charge, which I have not looked in too but I am sure is standard airline extortion, another way of rorting passengers and lining the pockets of some badly-run insurance company. I would rather rely on my own private insurance thanks than get paid US$5000 for a lost limb. Actually, this reminds me of the macabre details printed on the reverse side of a China Airlines boarding pass that had all the gory and specific details of how much the airline insurance cover would pay out in the outcome of death, loss of legs, arms, eyesight, inability to walk, talk et all; installing a great deal of confidence pre-take-off!

Going back to the Singapore Airlines website, I clicked on the S$298 “two to go – super-saver fare’, curious on how this would crunch out. At S$887 for 2 adults and one child, and reading the fine print – that is don’t fly at any time that is within the normal hours of being vertically aligned and compos mentis or having any sensibility of travelling with a child. Do not accrue points. Pay severe penalties if you change the flight date-time or miss the flight, which is a given when you travel with children. And of course, I nicely timed little block-out of the fair between January 23rd and 25th so we pillage our Chinese New Year traveller, like really nice guys, yeah, really good Chinese New Year spirit. So, at nearly $300 per person Singapore to KL with conditions, does that really differ to the fully flexible fares of the past that were around $400.

Frankly, the whole things sucks and I refuse to fly this leg. Let’s face it, by the time you get to the airport, check-in two hours before, the flight time and then the chaos at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, I think we will drive thanks, which is around a 3 to 4 hour cruise. Actually, I forgot to tell you we are actually travelling on to Ipoh, another 2 hours plus drive. In the past, we used to fly using Air Asia out of Johor Bahru to Ipoh but some wise guy decided to upgrade all the planes to more efficient-economical Airbuses, without checking if they could land on Ipoh’s rather short runway! Really good planning, leaving out a city of 1 million or so people, a place where practically everyone you run in to comes from and there are no flights in to the joint!! I reckon if someone started up a Singapore – Ipoh direct low-cost flight, they would fill every crevice of the bulkhead several times a day, and that’s just with Singaporean’s looking for a decent (real) feed of Char Kway Teow.
By the way, if you have been thinking of satisfying all those Makan cravings and doing the rounds of the Ipoh food stalls, you must stay at Indulgence a crazy (good) boutique hotel that is an oasis of otherwise Alcatraz level accommodation in this somewhat dilapidated yet fascinating ghost town.
The Wandering Palate
And hey, visit the

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Wandering – Clairvoyant – Palate

This is one of the moments where the wandering palate puts modesty aside and has a bit of a bitchy “I told you so” session. Having received my December copy of the Wine Spectator emblazoned with the Top 100, and reading it in no less the one sitting in the ablution block, it reaffirms my decision to let my subscription lapse next year. Apart from being a publication largely at odds with my vinous ideologies, I do flick through the content and car ads, somewhat hypercritically eyeballing wine scores. However, I actually religiously read Matt Kramers column, whose commentary I enjoy greatly and to my mind one of America’s intrinsic and intuitive wine exponents, right up there with Kermit Lynch.

Suffering numbers fatigue as early as 10 out of the 100 my attention was grabbed by No 3 on the list, namely Quinta do Crasto Reserva 2005, a winery that I had spoken of some two years back in an article I wrote for the Hong Kong Standard, actually more on the polemic of wine scores and ratings, but also highlights the element of discovery or faith in one’s own palate beyond scores. Visit this hyperlink,

Sorry, wrong number... 14th October 2006, The wine rating system is flawed, suggests Curtis Marsh, because it doesn't take into account the human factor.

A more recent piece I wrote for Cuisine & Wine Asia, will be posted on the wandering palate website shortly, “Wine Ratings: Catering To The Herd Mentality, A Necessary Evil?”

As a teaser, the extract below from “Sorry, wrong number” is central to my rodomontade and the oracularity of my extraordinary foresight in recognising the quality and looming popularity of Portuguese reds. Yes, I can see the raised eyebrows and hear your groans of umbrage; acknowledging I am hardly the first person to identify the potential of wine beyond port in Portugal. In fact if you want to skip the theory and go straight to the tasting test, I suggest you contact Noel Young, of Noel Young wines in the UK, regardless of where you reside (he will get it to you!) as he has doggedly covered this territory and has a nose keener than a truffle dog in searching out the best quality and value in Portugal -

To find out more on Quinto do Crasto, visit
I have not tried their 2005 Reserva yet, which I am sure will have much of the complexity and profoundness of other vintages; indeed an extraordinary wine that has shades of sangiovese-Chianti Classico elements, the cigar box and tobacco leaf of Rioja, yet the plumpness and richness of Chateauneuf du Pape. As I understand it, this is a blend of no less than 30 different grape varieties to which I would be most interested to know more about (although would not suggest ceppage percentages on a back label!); I am sure some of them will have lineage to the beginning of viticulture, indeed one could use this as your Master of Wine thesis alone. Moreover, the un-irrigated vines average age is over 70 years-old, embedded in decomposed schist, yielding meagre quantities, all tossed in to a open lagares and foot trodden, just like they make Port. The wines are neither fined nor filtered; all sound like real wine to me. And if you think this outfit is Johnnie come lately made famous by Wine Spectator points, the property has been around since the late 17th Century and in the same families for the last 100 years.

Sorry, Wrong Number.... “The growing cast of wine consumers obsessed with scores - seemingly an inherent process for choosing super-premium wines these days - troubles me. It is not just the credulous trust in scores that is a concern, but the dependence of wine merchants and marketers on critics to sell wine through the blatant exploitation of ratings. I encountered a ratings-obsessed individual not long ago when emceeing an options tasting, the entertaining - albeit masochistic - sport of identifying masked wines guided by multi-choice questions.

There were muffled groans of embarrassment when one of the participants announced, in irritating manner, that she and her husband only drank wines rated 95 points and above.
Blind tastings are merciless to wine snobs and our self-proclaimed connoisseur humiliated herself with an unequivocal preference for a non-rated, humble Portuguese red over and above a celebrated 1998 Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz, rated 97 points by the esteemed American critic Robert Parker and valued at more than HK$3,000 per bottle.
On the positive side, she was both enlightened and made more confident of her own palate when the Portuguese red was announced the unanimous favorite of the evening. It was, incidentally, the 2000 Quinta do Crasto Reserva Vinho Tinto, selling for HK$240 per bottle...”
follow the hyperlink to read more