Saturday, 20 October 2007

The perfect asparagus

What would you do, Gentle Reader, when accosted with the most perfect piece of asparagus? Would you freeze, like me, not knowing whether to devour it with eyes or taste buds?

This was the dilemma I found myself in during a recent visit to Taipei. Dining with my Taiwanese colleague Nadia - no, not the gymnast - I had ordered Saltimbocca at the wonderful Toscana restaurant at the Sherwood Taipei hotel. The gnocchi patate beforehand had been a real treat, and the very pleasant Veneto white wine was warming up the taste buds perfectly. Be in no doubt - if you're in Taipei and not in the mood for taitsai, do yourself a favor and make a reservation at the Toscana Italian Restaurant. And do please stay at the Sherwood...

But back to the asparagus. I would never deceive you, Gentle Reader, but I was at a complete loss when faced with the vegetable of kings. To be completely honest, I initially thought that the 2 long, luscious lengths were those plastic or wax imitations. "How odd!", I mused, "that Chef feels he needs to decorate the plate like this."

So I asked Nadia whether the use of artificial vegetables was common in Taiwan. After a brief bout of apoplexy, she assured me that it was not and that the strong likelihood was that these particular pieces of asparagus art were real.

Now the pain was even worse. It would be silly to take them back to my room. Nadia would think I was a weirdo... And besides, the possibility of getting them past Japanese Customs was pretty low. Could I commit the travesty of actually eating these pieces of perfection? How low would I stoop?

You know me well enough to realize that I immediately fell about the asparagus with relish, gusto and absolute abandon. What a heavenly experience! Turned out to a tee, a light standing butter sauce, 100% absolutely right on the tooth...oh goodness, Heaven take me now!

I will never forget these two stems of asparagus. For me, a trencherman from way back, this was a defining moment. Toscana has absolutely ruined the notion of asparagus as part of a meal out forever. Good job, Toscana! Oh cruel and heartless Toscana! The pain and the misery of an asparagus-free existence is all that awaits your humble correspondent.

Needless to say, I have already made a reservation at Sherwood Taipei for the new year. But will I be able to summon the courage to order some asparagus ...?

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Downtown Delight

As a country boy at heart it is not often, Gentle Reader, that I venture into the bullishly bank-littered heart of Tokyo. The contingent liability and risk profile discussions don't bear thinking about, and traffic control seems to be in the hands of a manic depressive.

But hearing only good things about Salt, I took my life into my hands and headed there with El Presidente and The Expat to enjoy the company of bon vivant Richard Cohen of the ever-reliable Village Cellars. Good choice!

Salt has been established by some brave yet insightful investors, with Australian food icon Luke Mangan as both the inspiration and overseas partner. I was first introduced to Luke's Sydney restaurant Salt by his brother, and then was proud to have Luke at the Australian Embassy for a promotional event. Luke has gone on to even greater heights, and I'm looking forward to seeing where this journey ends.

The Child Bride was to descend on the hapless Salt staff in a few days with the Chicken & Chablis coterie, so I was doing my best to maintain a low profile. That option was ruined by the arrival of Roger Moore at another table, but he accepted the glass of sparkling mineral water I had sent to his table with an urbane smile and a pleasant degree of confusion.

Richard feigns to be on doctor's orders to reduce consumption (and to be fair he looks the better for it), so he went a la carte with the Mackeral followed by the Lamb. Undaunted, we Three Amigos waded bravely into a degustation menu - theirs with the Aussie wine tasting option, and me with an eye on Salt's excellent wine list. The tasting is a elegant touch, and serves to introduce the punters to a range of high quality Australian wines without overwhelming the wonderful food.

I chose a Reserve Riesling from the Watervale region - this is how Riesling should taste, delightfully free of the cloying sweetness of its European cousins and fresh to the point of perkiness. Richard followed with a Frankland Cabernet for the latter courses, and the '98 showed all of the best features of West Australian reds and none of the faults.

The food is carefully prepared to highlight the subtle flavors of excellent ingredients (note to self: get an invitation to go to Market with Chef Binnie!), and lavishly presented with a low key explanation of the dish that our friends at Global Dining could benefit from copying.

Salt is a stunning addition to the Tokyo dining scene, and the Australian accent of Head Chef Shannon Binnie immediately fills one with confidence that here is a destination that understands food and wine, and how both subtly combine to create a stunning table experience. The food is great to excellent, and the location has been used to considerable advantage so that a visit to Salt provides both Tokyo residents and visitors with the highlight of any week.

Visit Salt with colleagues and clients, or those pangs of the heart where a full airfare to Sydney seems a slight exaggeration. And visit the bar next door for pre- or post-prandials - at last an elegant and sophisticated location with the energy and verve of New York, Sydney, or London.

The English website seems to be in need of a careful eye to keep up to date with what's happening in the restaurant, and doesn't seem to have been updated for some time. For details of the degustation menus currently on offer, see my poor effort just below the rating line.

Salt Tokyo: Shin-Marunouchi Bldg. 6F 1-5-1 MarunouchiChiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-6506 Japan Tel. 03-5288-7828Fax. 03-5288-7836

Rating: Food: 8/10; Service: 7/10 ; Wine: 8/10; Ambiance: 8/10; Price: 7/10 ($$$$); Total 38/50 (4 Forks) Map

Degustations:

Terry: Mushroom Broth; sashimi of Lobster; Seared Sea Scallops; Roasted Guinea Fowl; Australian Spring Lamb Assiette; Hazelnut Parfait
Others: Shellfish Bisque with truffle; Seafood tasting; Pork Belly Confit; Roast Lobster; Australian Wagyu Beef, Chocolate Plate

Sunday, 14 October 2007

148 - Hero

A recent look at the blog, Gentle Reader, led one observer to comment that I seemed to be "stuck" in my ways. Same old restaurants, same old comments... Little did he know that I had already booked the Child Bride and I into Hiroo 148 for the Singapore night.

I have known Chef Marcus Yip for many years, and have followed his food adventures from Colors at Tsukiji to event catering to his current home in Hiroo. Marcus has followed an adventurous and flavor-filled road to success in Japan, and now with a second restaurant to open in Hokkaido seems busier than ever. Marcus comes from a "food" family with literally tons of experience and his ability to access people and ingredients seems to be a little unfair to other Australians trying to break into the outstanding Tokyo food scene (Marcus is promising new (old?) pleasures now that he has his hands on his great-grandmother's recipe book from Jogja days).

The Singapore event promised much, and as gluttons for Singaporean punishment (no, not the rattan!), we trekked off to 1-4-8 Hiroo. Marcus served us some chilli shrimp to start, followed by an Asiatic Salad. The shredded tortilla which "filled out" the salad was a detour, and this dish could have benefitted by a generous slash of chilli sauce.

Marcus needed to up the ante, and powered through with a Chinese Pork on Greens that seemed to vanish out of the "table" dish, unfortunately placed way too far away from me. I seemed to only get about a one-sixth portion, which seems dreadfully unfair given that there were 6 people at the table gathered from China, Japan, USA and Australia.

We had broken into a 2005 Bay of Fires Pinot Noir by now, sharing this good Tasmanian light red with our companions (competitors?) at the free-seating tables. The wine matched the food and the company perfectly, and nearly justifies the steep Y9,500 price.

The Hainan Chicken which followed was serviceable, although fairness dictates that I note that I was getting tired after a long day on the golf course with the Headhunter. I liked the Garlic Rice accompaniment, and the second Bay of Fires was working its evil magic on the multi-cultural table. All in all, Marcus had delivered a variety of well-prepared dishes in serious quantities with all of his customary cheer and bonhomie.

Try Hiroo 148 with friends and family, and ask Marcus about the "other" wines he has hidden all about the place. If you're a merchant-banker or from a cadet branch of a European royal family, ask about the great wine series he has put together which allow vertical comparison of some great Australian wines - and helps you get horizontal!

Rating: Food: 7/10; Service: 7/10 ; Wine: 7/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Price: 7/10; Total 35/50 (3 Forks)

Hiroo 148, Hiroo 1-4-8, tel: 03-3440-1482 Map

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

At last, some brilliance ...

Sometimes, Gentle Reader, I think it's unfair that I'm required to eat out in Tokyo. Every now and again I find a food-geek gem, a refuge from Denny's and Yoshinoya that keeps the smile on the face and the pressure on the waistline. Quelle domage! Ape Reine, my friends, is one of those places... without an English website, I'm afraid.

Ape Reine is found down a little laneway in Omote Sando, set back from the road and with a side entrance that can be difficult to find. Battle on, Gentle Reader, battle on to the door of this wonderful Schezuan-Fusion restaurant in the vain hope that our humble custom can keep Chef Saito serving his wonderful translation of what can be a difficult genre into fine dining.

I ventured here with the Designer, an English "friend" (hush, wash your rugby-loving mouth out!) who has been in Tokyo for many years living in the holo-deck that Aoyama represents. We both are huge fans of Asian food from the Chinese flavor-stream, and I confess to a little nervousness about introducing him to Ape Reine.

Such fears were brushed aside once we started on devouring the menu. Maitre d' Akira Sugata and the energetic staff soon had us on the exit side of some pre-dinner drinks, speaking knowledgably about the food and the wine, and inviting us in to a food journey to Schezuan that promised so very, very much. And, Gentle Reader, delivered on that promise.

I have to admit here that I neglected to notice what my companion ordered and enjoyed. There is a reason for that - I was way too involved in my side of the table, and it took some time before I remembered I was not alone. Let this post serve as my apology!

I started with a Snapper (真鯛) and Jelly Fish Carpaccio with a leaf salad. This was one of the day's special items, and it was a pleasant luxury that set me to thinking that this meal was going to be memorable! Light and delicious, there was a pleasant mix of textures and delicate flavors that made me reach deep into memory for a comparison.

My vegetable dish was a stir-fry of hakusai and dried shellfish. What struck me here was the delightful crispness of the vegetable in comparison to the mouth-melting shellfish. It's hard to keep delicate flavors alive in stir-fries, but Chef Saito was equal to the task. I'm not a huge fan of too much spice, but this was a lesson in balance and a deep understanding of how to enhance a dish rather than dominate it.

Oh dear! Maestro Saito - bring on the meat! And he did - a stir-fry of Sangenton Pork and Cabbage with Miso. Japan and China meet here in a unique dance of flavors, textures and fragrances that ensures I'll be getting back to Ape Reine very soon. Deep, deep flavors ... a dish that delights all five senses ... a touch of brilliance by a young chef who seems ready to make a big impact on Tokyo's food scene.

My Shrimp and Mozzerella Cheese Fried Rice was, similarly, outstanding. I think Gordon sustained not a few wounds as we battled for this simple luxury. Forgive me, Gentle Reader, for perhaps injuring such a lovely man as Gordon - but I've told you I'm not good at sharing. Take my advice and order two servings rather than risk bloodshed.

We enjoyed a Cote de Nuits Village Louis Latour (2003 I think) that served to set off this wonderful meal to a tee.

Get to this restaurant as soon as you can - it's a real treat and this chef has plenty to offer people from almost any background. Take a lover rather than a business acquaintance, for this place is far too good for working dinners. The cuisine demands and deserves attention, and I promise you won't be disappointed. And I avoided making any cheap puns about apes or monkeys ... sheesh! I can't resist ... I'm bananas about Ape Reine!

Rating: Food: 8/10; Service: 8/10 ; Wine: 7/10; Ambiance: 8/10; Price: 8/10; Total 39/50 (3 Forks)
Ape Reine Tokyo: Jingu Mae 5-16-13; tel: 03-5774-1521 (Closed Mondays); Map