Friday, May 04, 2012

Dining at one of San Pellegrino's 50 Best Restaurants in the World

There are good restaurants, and then there's the world's 50 best restaurants. Lucky me was able to try one on the list. Sydney’s famed Tetsuya, opened by Japanese chef Tetsuya Wakuda in 1989, has reaped countless accolades, so expectations were running quite high for his first project outside of Sydney, Waku Ghin at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. It’s a very spacious 8000 square feet temple of fresh ingredients, knowledgeable chefs and interactive dining experience. With only 25 seats available for dinner, this is a crowd and noise-averse diner’s dream.
Prior to the dinner proper drinks were served at a quiet lounge with comfortable chairs and magazines to read, for the early types or those disinclined to pre-dinner socializing. After walking through high ceilings and minimalist décor with touches of luxe here and there, we were ushered into one of several private enclosures with high seats facing a gleaming steel cooking countertop. A chef came in and introduced himself as well as the 10-course degustation of the day. Ingredients were presented to guests before cooking, accompanied by a brief explanation of where it was sourced and how it will be cooked.
To start with a small white cup on a saucer was placed before us. Tiny globules of bright orange Hokkaido salmon roe formed a glistening layer over a chilled flan. The roe was bursting with the freshness of the sea, while slightly salty it paired excellently with the bland and smooth flan.
The next dish was greeted with excitement. A lightly marinated Botan Ebi with Sea Urchin and Oscietre Caviar sat regally atop an uni shell on a bed of ice. Each mother-of-pearl spoonful was a revelation. The uni was perfect in itself, with no trace of fishiness; when swallowed with the pop-in-your-mouth caviar and crunchy-slippery Botan it danced in your taste buds. This was easily a favorite of the night.
At this point little details didn’t go unnoticed. On a wooden counter top behind the chefs sat a still life of glass bottles filled with oil, soy sauce, seasoning, water and a neatly folded white towel. These were the seasonings most often used throughout the meal, in restrained quantities so as not to overwhelm the palate. The water and towel, used to clean the steel cooking plate after each dish, were used so efficiently it seemed like nothing was cooked on the steel plate at all. Chefs chatter according to their guests’ response; ours was more reserved than the one serving those beside us. It was just slightly uncomfortable sharing a room with another trio; perhaps a divider would work, since the room could accommodate a party of six.
Still reeling from the beautifully presented caviar, we politely tried the small slice of grilled freshwater eel (Anago) that hid a sliver of decadent foie gras and zucchini. Served with a sweetish sauce, this was a simple way of starting off the round of cooked savory dishes. The serving size was small enough that we could enjoy the richness of the eel and foie without being too full to eat the remaining 7 courses. While delicious it paled in comparison to the sensation of the Botan-uni-caviar triumvirate.
Freshly-caught and delivered Tasmanian abalone took center stage next, each one expertly scored, grilled and cut into quarters and gently laid on a bed of micro arugula, stewed grape tomatoes and fregola (a type of pasta from Sardinia) frolicking in a flavorful broth and dotted with olive oil. The abalone, with its slightly charred edges, was like squid in texture, somewhat rubbery on the outside leading to a soft bite in the center. The broth tasted refreshing and summery, with a mild bitter kick from the arugula pairing wonderfully with the sweet and acidic tomatoes. While I praised the abalone I could see my companions were not as enamored, not because of the flavors but the texture.
A beautifully sliced piece of raw, quivering, orange-spotted lobster provided color contrast to the green leaf it was on. This treat was unexpected as it was not on the menu. Served with a creamy dip, it was again a symphony of simple, natural flavors and acted to cleanse the palate for the next dish, Braised Canadian lobster contentedly swimming in a heady licorice-scented tarragon sauce. The lobster flesh was moist and imbued with the liquor used in the sauce. After finishing off the meat there is the temptation to spoon the sauce, which resembled a dark tomato soup, and finish it to the last drop.
After several seafood courses the men were of course anticipating the meats, and they were not disappointed. On the menu both "Sumiyaki of Tasmanian Grass-Fed Beef Steak with Tasmanian Wasabi Mustard" and "Japanese Ohmi Wagyu Roll from Shiga Prefecture with Maitake, Wasabi and Citrus Soy" had two appealing words-- Beef and Wagyu. The first was five bite-sized cubes of steak grilled and brushed with barbeque sauce. The sauce was not too sweet and was more soy-based and when the fork tender beef was smeared with a bit of the light green tangy wasabi mustard it was an explosion of sweet, salty, spicy all at once, followed by the “hit” only wasabi can give. Wagyu beef speaks for itself, it’s the undisputed King of beef cuts, and to overcook or over sauce it does not do it justice. At Waku Ghin it was treated with utmost respect. A sprinkling of salt and pepper, a deft hand in cutting and rolling, a few second sear and it was done. Our plate was minimalist, with a small mound of fried garlic slivers on one side, a dab of fresh wasabi and some finely grated leeks on the other. Lightly grilled mushroom slices were the finishing touch. Purists would eat this as is, with a sliver of garlic for crunch and taste and a smoky, chewy mushroom accompanying the fat-marbled and extremely tasty beef slices, while others would dip a bit it in the citrus soy for a zesty flavor profile. Either way the Wagyu shines.
At this point in the meal we were starting to get full, so the last savory dish of a few spoonfuls of rice and a poached snapper immersed in consommé was very much welcome. It rounded off the dinner nicely, satisfying those looking for some carbohydrates while warming the insides with the mild-tasting broth and soft fish—similar in comfort to a chicken noodle soup but much more refined. Fragrant green tea was the appropriate finale before we were ushered into the main dining room to partake of dessert and the spectacular Singapore skyline offered by the floor-to-ceiling glass windows.
Three sweets were presented, a bittersweet granita of grapefruit with Chartreuse Jelly, a mousse-like Japanese style cheesecake and a tray of Petit Fours with macarons, mochi balls, meringue and cookies. Sweet-toothed ones would most likely protest at the lack of cloying sweetness, but Ghin is a restaurant of restrained pleasures. From the décor to the menu, everything was moderately seasoned, crafted with care, presented simply but beautifully, letting the freshness and provenance of each ingredient be the star of the show, rather than fanciful plating or exotic flavor combinations. In the end, we still could not get over the uni; we wanted more. And wanting more always translates to "we will be back". Small wonder Waku Ghin is consistently named one of the world's 50 best restaurants. I was bowled over. A year on and looking at the pictures, I still am.