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.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Burgundy and The French Riviera (12 of 12) - Final Thoughts and Reflections

Burgundy and The French Riviera (12 of 12) - Final Thoughts and Reflections

In research for this blog post I found a cute take on Michelin Restaurants on a Youtube comment - everything on the bill, not much on the plate. Which is both not unfair and yet a bit unfair at the same time. I have had some stunning and memorable experiences at some Michelin starred restaurants. I have also had some disappointments where form has overshadowed substance. Which is probably as it should be. Some were brilliant, some not so. So it goes.

Looking back at all the Michelin Starred Restaurants visited both on this trip and the trip to Bordeaux and San Sebastian the previous April 2013, I find myself somewhat fazed and a bit meh with the Michelin concept. Most have been okay, with some dishes occasionally startling, though overall ultimately not quite satisfying. Seems the concept began to give travellers assurance that any listed venue had a standard of food which would not disappoint. In fairness, this remains true - the food at the Michelin restaurants did not disappoint in both preparation, service, presentation and taste. It is perhaps the price point that causes contention. Stars seem to allow the chef to raise the price margin by a premium he or she (mostly he) feels the market will bear. And given their general survival and ability to grow and thrive the market clearly remains happy to support. It is perhaps the "food as art" and the "juxtaposition of textures" and "deconstruction" sections that I don't seem to be able to totally connect with. There seems to be a sacrifice of quantity in the name of art or sensation, with a result that the idea that a restaurant should at root provide a satisfying meal seems to become secondary.  The experience of experiencing food out of its traditional context becomes the goal. Those that do BOTH are well at the top of my tree - Mugaritz I now understand, where the restaurant becomes both theatre and art and performance and school for the senses. Paul Bocuse and Robuchon fit here, with stunningly fresh ingredients impeccably prepared and presented in delightful ambient surroundings. Others seem to ride on a magnificent location and/or the retention of a starred chef - La Chevre D'Or and Mirazur fall here for me where the stunning locations can overshadow any memory of the food.  My standouts remain the steak in Extebarri, the fish in Paul Bocuse, the duck in La Route du Miam, and the chicken and steak in L'Hotel de Beaune. The steak and dinner at Chez Paul and the duck at Le Petit Sud Ouest are also places I hope to return to (and which I since have - Le Petit was excellent, Chez Paul not so). The lamb and potato at Robuchon was amazing, but having done it once then perhaps that is enough. Location wise, as said La Chevre D'Or and Mirazur were unbeatable, the others pleasant enough but not kicking the memory like these. Service wise, all were efficient and even, and none were below very good. Robuchon and Bocuse were standouts in service, but then this is part of the overall experience and one should possibly expect a somewhat higher standard at these establishments. The most memorable remains Marie helping us guzzle our wine at La Route du Miam and the ladies who lunched us at Chateau Palmer and Chateau Pichon Longueville on a previous trip to Bordeaux. 

But there always remains a context, and the one here is my present location on this path of seeking to understand both food and wine and their connections with each other and the world. I'm starting to get it, but I feel my default preferences probably play a greater role than I might be prepared to consciously give enough credence and weight to. Kind of like I aspire to be a gourmand but I retain the soul of a peasant. Looking at the writings, my preference is clearly meat - good, tasty, juicy meat with steak and pork and that Roast Duck and potatoes at La Route du Miam at the top. Next, I do enjoy the more delicate tastes and textures and taste contrasts of the higher end establishments that delight and titillate the tongue and belly. The palate is starting to understand and hopefully appreciate what the various chefs are seeking to do with their ingredients and preparation. The experiments of Mugaritz and the contrasts at Robuchon seared the memory here. The eyes have yet to get it - it still feels a bit poncey and ostentatious and whilst the way the food gets presented is delightfully creative and visually pleasing, the artistry of the presentation doesn't yet totally connect (though thinking back, Akelare in San Sebastian now makes a bit of sense). We pay the chef for his (and her) performance for us, much in the way we pay a singer. It's partly entertainment. I think my issue is the price expected for the performance, though strictly speaking the market determines what this will be - guess it's the Scotsman in me that doesn't really like to shell out so much for the show. But all things in their time. As said, there is always a context which changes as we grow in our palate and its demands for sophistication in tastes and textures. 

There's also a sense of focus on individual dishes and paired wines at the expense of the entire meal experience. How the tastes and textures follow each other and how they are placed in relation to each other tends to get taken for granted in Western cuisine and by me in both writing and eating. Start light, go heavy, finish sweet or cheesy and having appropriate wines at each juncture is pretty much a fixed norm of meal design. It's what we punters and our bellies expect because this is what our palates have been trained to expect. Not saying it's wrong, just that perhaps more attention needs to be paid to meal design than has been given it. Or maybe not. Matching wine is the kicker here. I've said elsewhere that Chinese style banquets alternate between light and heavy textures from dish to dish which gets washed down by tea. And that tea doesn't usually change, whereas in the West the wine is expected to. We have had great times with prosciutto wrapped around rock melon as canape appetizers. It's also a great match with good fizz.  Maybe try starting with fruits to settle the palate and have salads to follow soups to refresh the mouth might be useful experiments in meal design? Naaaaaaahhhh….

Ultimately, though, we mostly eat with our eyes, our nose, our mouth and tongue, and our belly and if we have no cutlery then we eat with our fingers. It was quite telling that when we got back to KL one of the first things we did was to get stuck into some Char Siew Rice which, after all the delicate tastes of the previous fortnight, was like a total homecoming in the belly. Absolute crackerjack with a glass of supermarket Australian chardonnay from the fridge. One of those where a satisfied "Harrrrrghhhhhhhhhh…" ends the meal. Much of the Michelin star food is exquisite, but Char Siew Rice feeds the soul.

Char Siew Rice from Jalan Sultan in KL - total soul food
Interestingly, the wine has become secondary in this Burgundy and South of France trip. Of the Bordeaux Tour in 2013, I retain memories of brilliant lunches and wines in Chateau Palmer, Chateau Pichon Longueville, and Chateau Troplong-Mondot, memories of our first night dinner at Le Cordeillan Bages, and the stellar wines of Chateau Pontet-Canet and many of the other vineyards in the tour. Of this French Riviera tour, much of the wine has gone by the way. It was nice and went well with the food, but there was nothing that really stood out. It was all very good Chablis or Burgundy or Riviera wine, and….   no more. No labels or Domaines made the memory. The one true exception was the champagne at the Hotel du Cap. Bottom end fizz, but given the glamour and history and the ghosts of all the movie stars for whom this place was their playground, it tasted like the drink of the Dauphins. Brilliant memories which I would not trade away. 

In closing, I have been quite astounded at how long this food and wine blog has survived. Coming up to nearly four years. It is something I clearly enjoy giving time to. The act of writing is both cathartic and stimulating and the challenge of seeking to describe restaurant experiences and sensations in words remains fun.

And while perhaps the eloquence lacks in contrast to the more established voices, the style is one that looks to contain and reflect the experience as it happens and as it gets felt. How long the blog is going to last has been troubling me of late. The wine and taste descriptions seem to be becoming a bit repetitive - same old descriptors, same old superlatives - and also running out of restaurants here in KL to write about. They have also become quite expensive thanks to rising food prices, lower economic power Ringgit and the introduction of GST. Notwithstanding exhortations not to raise prices, the establishments visited to date since GST introduction seem to have taken the opportunity to have done so. It has been a whack to the wallet on all occasions. We will go out less or be more selective of our eating destinations.

Further, part of the reason for writing this blog has been to independently reflect on the restaurant experience and share it as honestly and directly as my vocabulary allows with the world. I have opted not to invite partners to advertise. For me, my independence has to be beyond compromise - to let that go is better to pack the whole thing up. Once you get partners, there is an expectation of not being critical to varying degrees (usually complete elimination) for fear of deflecting business - the writing can become sugared and stylised and formula structured and lifeless. It can often become a sell job rather than an attempt at reasoned critique. Not my style. May not get as many readers, but that was never a motivator.

So there seems to be a squeeze on both sides which suggest less opportunities for writing. We shall see. 

My other, and perhaps real reason for writing all of this is as insurance should the Alzheimer creep up and steal the mind; the hope is that these scribblings will jog what little marbles remain and take me back to these places and times when I was a prince of the world and enjoyed some of the finest this life has to offer. With no guilt. Life is short and pleasures are fleeting and I thank every fate and fortune that I was able to visit these places and to be able to enjoy them with some amazing people and friends and with all my senses and faculties intact. Not the least of which was being mobile and having both the breath and the knees to be able to do it all. Reader, go do these things when you have the health to do so - creaky knees will catch up very soon and a holiday in pain ain't fun. You can always buy money but you can never buy your time or your youth or your good health. And as the recent passing of our Dr Gan forcibly reminded, we never know how much gas we have in the tank.

So while I do hope the blog is not coming to an end, I feel it may certainly slow down. There are other writing projects which will need increased focus - my music and movies and some libretto projects - and a foreseeable need to go back to some paid employment to secure a permit to stay here in Malaysia. My retirement is likely over, time to go back to work. So in case there are no more extensive writings, I'd just like to say thank you to everyone who has taken time to read my scribblings and I hope you have found them entertaining and informative. I must also acknowledge the Lenglui, my partner in so many musical and theatrical and gastronomic and oenophilic crimes and adventures - my joy, my light, my muse, my star, it could never be a tenth of so much fun without you to enjoy it all with. Long may they continue. As said, the blog has been a lot of fun and we'll see what the future holds - hopefully many more adventures in food and wine and theatre and music which I will be able to share. Cheers!!

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