Mission: To respond thoughtfully and responsibly to my experiences of drinking and dining at restaurants with regard to the quality, service, preparation, presentation and overall experience received thereat. The standpoint is one who respects the crafts of the chef and sommelier and who seeks to understand their choices in the kitchen and cellar and grow in knowledge. In this, I will seek to be fair, reasoned, direct and constructive and aim to keep my ego in check on our mutual journeys through the worlds of food and wine.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

IWFS Food Tasting Prime Restaurant Le Meridien 19th February 2013

Prime used to be THE restaurant of choice for a good steak. In the early days when it first opened, you'd get a good chunk of rib eye or sirloin that was cooked to juicy medium rare perfection, with little in the way of adornment save for some garlic mash and green spinach on the side. Paired with a bottle of 2000 Joseph Phelps Le Mistral from the wine list it was as close to steak heaven as you could get outside of New York or San Francisco. We would happily shell out on the Starwood Card just to get the 50% discount for two people to eat there. We'd often give the member vouchers to friends, such was the primacy of, er, Prime.

But then something happened. The meat got somehow thinner and less juicy, a bit more peppery and with jus appearing on or near the meat. The meat looked like it was getting whacked by a nine iron but was getting less tender as a result. So we stopped going with as much regularity as before. Prior to this, and outside of a visiting Michelin chef who commandeered the kitchen for a wonderful week, the last visit is a distant memory and not particularly memorable at that.

So the chance to get a first hand taste of the chef's best at an International Wine & Food Society food tasting for a prospective members function promised much. Billing itself as PRIME SIMPLY THE BEST, the menu looked most interesting and the wines chosen by the Doc looked a fair match. Further, given that one of the senior managers of the Hotel's holding group was joining the dinner, we figured the restaurant would pull out all stops to ensure a meal of memorable proportions. And it did, though it was  the actual proportions of the meal that were to prove memorable in their size and quantity, with much of the table struggling to finish the main courses. In fairness though, it was supposed to be a tasting and it was probably our bad for scoffing down all the courses with abandon rather than tasting for future recommendation. Okay….  but it still felt large. Naughty food taster - lesson learned? Probably not.

Deftly ignoring the shame of being the last to arrive (oops!) by about five minutes, we all allowed ourselves to be escorted to the private dining room set for the nine assembled. The table was long and the seats were huge, needing waiting staff of Conan the Barbarian proportions to push them under the table.

The fizz being served was a Cava, the Castillo Perelada Brut Reserve NV from the Catalonia region. A blend of Macabeo (40%), Xarel lo (30%)and Parellada (30%) and with 15 months in bottle it proved a crispily pleasant liquid entree to the evening. Not much on the nose, but good bubbles and crisp apples and pears on the palate and a firm, sleek finish. It needed to stay cold, though - when it warmed in the glass there seemed to be an unpleasant note of rancidness. In fairness, this quickly disappeared with a cold top up.

Executive Chef Antoine Rodriguez quickly appeared with the starters (designed to stimulate the appetite) and gave a brief introduction. There were six of them, and rather than stimulate they pretty much satisfied. Of the six, the Buratina cheese, Bresaola dry beef with fresh fig, and the Apple wood chips with cold smoked salmon trout and blinis with lemon and sour cream stood out.  The beef, cheese and fig combo was a delightful firm textured melange of sweetness, salt and smooth creamy goo that played sensual soft salty symphonies across the mouth. The salmon, apple and sour cream was a similar sensation though with slightly more sour on the tongue that undercut the immensely fresh salmon a treat. The blini lent a gentle carbo foundation for the mix. Both were stars, both were also great excuses to drink more Cava to cleanse the mouth.

The fresh oyster with vichyssoise gel and harenga pearls was fine, though the oyster felt a bit aged. The pearls added nice saltiness, whilst the gel had texture but seemed to have little to no taste. Naturally good with the fizz.

The two Ratte potato espuma both felt a bit on the stodgy side but went extremely well when spread on the bread as a Danish style open potato sandwich. The bread seemed to contain way more pepper than previously remembered. Pepper can burn the tastebuds and get in the way of tasting the wines, so maybe there's a need for more neutral bread to be available.  It was good to taste the difference between the trufle and ikura styles, with the ikura edging it for me due to the saltiness matching better with the Cava.

The Duck Liver Lollipop came on a bed of chocolate pops in which the lollipop needed to be dipped before consuming. Very, very interesting and playful. The combo of the smooth and creamy foie in the mouth and the popping of the chocolate pops was like having warm sweet fatty pate firecrackers firing into the cheeks. Brilliant concept with lots of cross textures and tastes which worked delightfully. Downside for me was that it left a coating of chocolate across the palate which proved difficult to dislodge. Too much more and the remainder of the food and wine would not be able to be appreciated. The Cava was not up to the task and copious amounts of sparkling water finally did the trick. A lovely starter, but not one for a wine group.

For some reason, the table had got eerily quiet. The staff had come around and distributed marking sheets for us to grade the dishes and the group seemed to take this seriously, sampling the food soberly with gravity and consideration. Perhaps it was the room - there was a somewhat austere quality about it. Whatever. Maybe everyone just needed more booze.

Next out was the "Prime Trilogie" of Grilled jumbo Sea Scallop, sticky oxtail and parmesan wafer; Alaskan Crab espresso; and Truffle ravioli with wild mushroom fricassee. This proved a table favourite and broke the silence. Served in an espresso cup the Alaskan crab was tremendous. Firm sweet meat in a creamy pureed broth peppered with paprika - a perfect blend of taste and texture and the food star of the night. The scallop was indeed a jumbo and had that firm crunch and bite of one that was absolutely fresh from the sea. Matching it with sticky oxtail gave it a sense of surf and turf, though on one level seemed to be pairing two similar protein textures. It did work, though the parmesan chip proved a bit too much salty seasoning for my taste and overpowered the scallop. The truffle ravioli was delightful - amazingly fresh ricotta cheese and a firm pasta covered in creamy wild mushroom sauce. Perfectly underseasoned and with hints of rustic Italian herb and truffle earthiness. Stellar.

For the wines, the crisply sweet and full fruit of the medium bodied Selbach Bernkastel Kurfutslay Riesling Kabinett 2010 would make a wonderful match with a more robust meat or seafood dish. Wonderfully balanced and crisply honeyed, with apricots and orange marmalade covering a sparkling acidity leading to a full syrup finish. It wasn't really a good match with the delicate flavours of the crab and scallop. The sweetness took over the palate and the food neutralised the acidity. The Donnafugata Polena 2011 from Sicily proved to be a charming find. On its own, it came across as a shade industrial, with hints of flint and steel and ironworks. With the food, it started to dazzle and charm and showed itself as a versatile and perfect partner for all of the dishes in the course. Soft fruits, clean nose and texture, crispish yet with low acidity and hints of spice and almond on the finish. Sicilian wines have tended to be somewhat artisan and workmanlike in their presentations. This one shows a welcome maturing in the vinification and winemaking process, with a growing finesse and refinement in the wine. Most pleasant indeed.

Chef was clearly on a roll and his Manilla clams chowder “macchiato”with toasted brioche and leek fondue continued this gastronomic streak with a delightful vengeance. It was creamy, smooth perfection - must have been what Coleridge's poor hero must have felt when he had drunk the milk of Paradise in his search for the lost Xanadu. Total immense pleasure, melting on the palate and disappearing like a creamy whisper to rest warmly in the belly pit. When paired with the light crusty Brioche it was stairway to gastronomic heaven, with the carbo and sweet tomato cutting through the cream. Perfecto. Contento.

Getting paired with the Luciano Sandrone Dolcetto d'Alba 2011 looked good on paper but didn't really come over as a great match on the night . A WS 91 and WA 89 and billed as an easy drinking food partner with plum and dark berries, good structure, minerality and firm ripe tannins, it seemed to be more of a fighting partner with the Chowder. Whilst it did drink nicely on its own, it battled against the Chowder's textured creaminess which all but killed off the fruit in the wine and made it taste alcoholic. Equally, the tannins felt like they needed some proteins and fat to cut through and let Dolcetto's silkiness shine. So it goes. The Sicilian also failed with the Chowder - it neutralised the wine completely. The Riesling fared slightly better due to its larger body and texture, but failed as a match because of its sweetness. Possibly a white burgundy might offer a more robust match for the Chowder.

The Chowder finished me off. I could happily have marched off into the sunset and slept the dreamless sleep of the satiated. But not to be. There were the Prime Place main courses to get through (get through…   sounds like a chore, doesn't it? Nice work if you can get it). There was a choice of either Roasted Filet of Cod and seared Maine lobster with Risotto Cake and Tomato Confit; or a combo of Braised Blackmore Wagyu Inter coastal (with Soft Mascarpone herbs polenta & Bearnaise beurre blanc) and Charcoal Grilled filet mignon Rossini with Wilted spinach and grilled green asparagus.

On the table, both felt a little on the cold side, though maybe this was because the conversation had heated up slightly so that the food was kept waiting on the table for us to finish our chatting.

The fillet mignon felt a little dried out on the tongue, though the meat had been seared perfectly. A lovely chunk of meat, firm in texture but somewhat lacking in fat and leaner than is personal preference. The cut did appear a shade thin compared to tenderloin tasted at other restaurants, so possibly the searing may have dried out what little juice was in the meat. It's probably more a matter of personal taste than anything - the character of the meat is lighter and more delicate and, for me, just missing a little fat.

In contrast, the Wagyu was immediately excellent. Wonderfully succulent and tender texture that was not to the point of waxy liquefying, as some Wagyu tends to be. The Jus was rich and smooth and not oversweet, with some herb undertones. One of the best.

There were two wines to try, both Bordeaux - the right bank Chateau Les Hauts Conseillante Lalande de Pomerol 2008 and the left bank Chateau Dufort Vivens 2000. A WS 88 pointer, the Pomerol presented nicely - light body but full mouth, lean yet firm structure, lovely nose and balance, and fair fruit with a lingering finish. The 2008 also stayed nicely in the glass till the end of the night and made for a pleasant quaffer to toast the road. It paired well with the lighter filet mignon which brought out pepper and powered up the fruit, but it was maybe a little overpowered by the Wagyu. An excellent find nonetheless.

The Dufort needed a lot of time in the glass for some bottle stink to evaporate and open up. Once done, it became clearly a wine of breeding and class. Powerful, structured, blackcurrant and full fruit, good tannins and excellent balance with that unmistakeable full mouth that says "je suis Bordeaux, dare you drink me?" We dared, and it was delightful, though there were still some odd notes on the nose and finish. The Dufort seemed to lack persistence in the glass, with some lingering faustiness toward the end. Maybe a decant would have improved it. It stood up to the Wagyu nicely, but it whacked the filet mignon into beefburger submission. Decanter reviews have the 2000 as having an "Elegant nose and superb colour, fine blackcurrant fruit and deep Cabernet richness… a combination of finesse, length and power on the palate, which remains typically Margaux." Well, and maybe. The Dufort should have been good - I'm not entirely sure it was. Didn't taste the Lobster, but it looked magnificent. Would like to have tried it with the Sicilian.

There was some Dolcetto left which had been spared the somewhat overenthusiastic removal of glasses by the staff. It fared somewhat better with the meats than it did with the Chowder.

The Chocolate experience dessert comprised three tastes - a Hot dark chocolate drink; Prime warm brownies and berries compote; and Espresso chocolate tart with whipping vanilla cream. All were wonderful in their own ways. The chocolate drink had mint and cocoa and was liquid velvet rich and endless on the tongue. The chocolate tart was full, rich and creamy whilst the brownies compote was pleasantly acidic against the rich and toasty brownie.

Someone wondered what wine might go with chocolate dessert, and the response referred to the recent posting on the IWFS blog which offered suggestions. One that found favour was Yamazaki whiskey, though a good Port was also thought to be possible. It's difficult to contradict the blog comment of APZ President Yvonne Wallis that the best partner to chocolate is a good coffee, and the excellent Illy espresso coffee provided at the Prime offered the ideal accompaniment. Well worth the sleepless night that always follows a late night espresso. The macaroons were also excellent. The fact that we did not steal the cookies as we normally do showed for sure it had been a memorable evening of excellent food, wine and company that should prove to be a great evening for a members function.

The service was generally excellent, though occasional over eagerness to clear the glasses without checking whether they were finished with was a shade irritating. It is good to have the glasses left on the table so as to be able to monitor the wine's progress through the evening. The aroma left in the glass after an hour can tell much about the wine that was in it. So I got a bit miffed when a glass with some white got cleared without my consent, and had to ask for it to be returned. Perhaps the assumption was that since the matching dish had finished then the matching wine could also be removed. Okay, but maybe better to get the staff to double check with the person whether a glass can be taken away.

Final note - I think there was a small charge for the water. Bearing in mind the ShangriLa experience, maybe check the costing with the hotel and clarify if can get FOC. Also, be prepared to get whacked with the car parking - restaurant gives you a ticket which gives two hours for RM8 but every hour thereafter is RM5. 

Overall, excellent food and service, excellent individual wines, some pairings better than others. The stars give my ratings (* is okay, ** is good, *** is very good,  **** is stellar)

Food choices would be
***Buratina cheese, Bresaola dry beef with fresh fig
**Apple wood chips with cold smoked salmon trout and blinis with lemon and sour cream.  
*Fresh oyster with vichyssoise gel and harenga pearls
*Ratte potato espuma with the ikura (to give a contrasting texture)

wine match - The **Cava was fine, though if any ***Vallaformosa left in IWFS cellar, that also would work

**Grilled jumbo Sea Scallop, sticky oxtail and parmesan wafer;
****Alaskan Crab espresso;
****Truffle ravioli with wild mushroom fricassee.

wine match - The ***Sicilian. The Riesling had too much crisp honey. Be a cracker for a dessert.

****Manilla clams chowder “macchiato”with toasted brioche and leek fondue

wine match - The **Dolcetto didn't work for me. Suggest a good white burgundy - can also flow through for the Lobster

***Braised Blackmore Wagyu Inter coastal (with Soft Mascarpone herbs polenta & Bearnaise beurre blanc)
Roasted Filet of Cod and seared Maine lobster with Risotto Cake and Tomato Confit

wine - Not convinced the **Pomerol or the **Dufort did a good enough job. Anything in the IWFS Cellar needs drinking?

***The chocolate experience is very good.

wine - if we have the dark chocolate drink, nothing will really match. Port an option, or a good brandy.

Less pepper in the bread
Ask before removing glasses
Will water be charged?
Maybe a sorbet after the Chowder?

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