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.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

IWFS Lafite - Cuisine Haut, Service Naut…

Lafite entrance
June 25th 2015 Kuala Lumpur

For the first event of the new IWFS Year, President David wanted to start with a grand bang and pick a venue that would set a tone of IWFS members enjoying eating and drinking well and being merry together. So it was that Lafite got selected to host the dinner. He had challenged Chef de Cuisine Jean-Philippe Guiard to prepare a menu with "memories of Escoffier" and had also asked Maitre D' and Sommelier Benjamin Pons to choose the wines from our IWFS Cellar to pair. Response to the members' notice was swift and enthusiastic, and following some discussion it was decided to increase numbers to absorb the waiting list of members keen to attend. In the end, 59 members confirmed.

Orchids are pretty...
I am always a bit antipathetic to the Shangri-La and its outlets. Elsewhere I have commented on what I have seen as a decline in the service it offers. At one time, Lafite service used to be World Class but not so over the last few years (though I recognise my understanding of service has increased in the past few years given some Michelin experiences - see other posts). A recent visit showed some promise in reviving the halcyon days of superior service and it was hoped that in this outing this renaissance would be seen to have continued. It has to be said that the Lafite oozes class - the ambience is swish corporate though romantic enough for proposals. Most would give their eye teeth to be privileged enough to have just one evening there - the fact that I have had many is not lost on me, though I do feel that one should receive fair value for the expenditure involved. It costs a lot and an assessment of whether the experience is worth it needs to be made. 

Barry Shaw and Edna Tan
Driving into town at 7pm proved quite seamless for a Puasa evening and we got into Lafite on the 7.30pm dot. There is a timeslot which, if you catch it right, you can ride a gap in the traffic right into town. Puasa means that the Muslim population are looking for somewhere to break the day's fast, and would all be in the hotels or at the stalls by 7pm and sat down ahead of the sunset ready to buka. So. Though finding a parking space took almost as long as the drive in - all floors were full as was the spillover into the neighbouring UBN Tower. We got lucky - someone seemed to be having trouble parking and while we waited for him to get it right he left. Zipped in before friend behind could zip in and steal it. I'm a great believer in that we should look for the best in people, but car parks always show our true nature, n'est-ce pas? 

Chris Chew and Sanjeev
Everyone was crowded into the small reception bar and quaffing the zippy Duval-Leroy Rose and making lots of noise. It was a bit cramped though no-one seemed to mind too much and were happy clinking glasses and enjoying the jostling. The downside was that refills from staff proved impossible since they could not get through the crowd. This is where rugby training comes in and one can bob and weave ones way through the scrum to the man with the bottle. The Rose felt a bit sharp and in need of a canape to soften its edge, but it soon got replaced with a Pol Roger which was belter - cold crisp bubbles popping in the mouth and with a delightful throat ripping, thirst slaking finish. Just the thing for a sore throat and a perfect way to break the thirst.

Li Dong and Pitt Lee
Everyone got the call to seat and moved into the dining room. The tables had been set Chinese style round rather than Western style long which made for a more visible seating arrangement. Though occasionally one is not really able to engage with friends across the other side of the table. So it goes. The restaurant had basically been given over to IWFS for the night which made for nice space between tables and ensuing sense of distance. The Lafite ambience is refined, with small halogen spots dimly lighting on main areas - these proved a bit warm when shining on the bejacketed men and those with ties must have been a bit heated. But a quick turn up of the aircon always can solve a temperature issue. 

Lafite Restaurant
Brief speech from President David before breaking the bread on the table and the Foie Gras was out. Bread was very good and necessary to soak up the bubbles and make way for the entree. The 2010 Rieussec was poured and I could hear the Kiwi somewhere screaming "infanticide" but it was the only Sauteurnes we had in the cellar so out it had to come on suggestion of Sommelier Ben. And quite right too - Sauteurnes and FG is the perfect pairing of crunchy sweet wine with mushy gunky throat coating Foie Gras. 

The Rieussec was full peach and apple syrup infused with enough alcohol to render the whole with a crispy drinkability on its own.  

The Foie Gras
The Foie Gras was lovely - that sweet intestinal smooth pate feel inside the cheeks with the red wine jelly giving a gelatin undercurrent. The Brioche was a bit on the fluffy side but firm enough to underpin the whole - I generally prefer my carbo a bit crisper. Balsamic reduction was two dots on the plate which was not really enough to do anything. The combo was nice enough, a sweet gooey chew all slippy and sloppy and coating the roof of the mouth and giving that oily pasted feel across the tongue and cheeks. The perfect foil for the cleansing quality of the darling Rieussec to come in and scrape everything clean and clear. Must be how the drains feel after a good swoosh with the Clorox and Dettol. 

Creamy Oyster and Haddock Soup
Decks got swiftly cleared and on came the white, a Sauvignon from old faithful Alois Lagerder. We've been quaffing wines from this winemaker across a good couple of years with the IWFS. They often surprise wonderfully on the upside and tonight they kept that record brilliantly intact. Initially a bit acidic on the throat, it showed its chops as a superb food wine when paired with the soup. Traditionally, no wine pairs well with soup, but the Lagerder did a sterling job, giving good fruit and dry stone minerality to counter the cream and puree. Clean and clear as a razor, it felt like drinking spring water from a flint stream - light, even texture and leaving a feeling of somehow being cleansed, as if the throat had just got baptised. Very good comments on the Sauvignon from the table and praised as a very good find, though it did need the food. 

The soup itself was a lovely creamy slurp leading to a textured creamy kiss on the inside of the cheeks. The little dab of pepper was a good suggestion and brought the cream to life. Vegetables not overcooked, lending a firm crunch to the cream. Supposedly a poached oyster somewhere in the mix, I don't remember swallowing one. I might omit the haddock next time, it gave a somewhat chewy feel to the soup. Or perhaps that was the oyster.

Rack of Veal
The rack of veal had come from the kitchen for a showing to the diners before being carted back for cutting. It came out soon after, though it would prove a good five minute wait for the fish to make the same journey to the table. We waited politely for four of these minutes and got instructed by the fish eaters to begin. The veal itself was pretty good - well cooked and good tender meat, not unlike the Charolais Beef we have eaten in Beaune but way more tender. And pretty tasteless, actually - not a lot of anything in the mouth from the meat. But then arguably that is the point - the meat is the tasteless texture around which all other tastes and flavours orbit to let them shine. And in this sense the veal was a success - the tastes were magnificent. The mashed potato was a bit reminiscent of Robuchon in Monte Carlo - creamy dreamy and luscious with the red wine gravy (claimed to be Morel sauce - whatever, it tasted like wine reduction). Very good rich French cuisine here. Though the asparagus was cooked to the point of limp. Which prompted some table comments about liking it firm and the associations this had with other things of length and degrees of firmness. I had no idea what they were talking about.

Veal with Asparagus
For whatever was the main of choice, both the Marsannay and Lynch Bages were poured so that each member got the paired wine and a glass of the other. Suggestion from Sommelier was to save some of either for the dessert. Hmmm. The Marsannay is an old friend from Pork Luck Club dinners with Dave Chan so we knew what to expect. Indeed, it was fine and frisky, though on this showing a bit fierce in the mouth - kind of like a black cherry with a curry puff bite on the cheek. Medium texture, lovely mouthfeel, good grippy finish. In contrast, the Lynch Bages was a bit disappointing - bit thin and light in the mouth, traditional Pauillac bramble and blackcurrrant terroir nose, nice tannins but a hint of tart on the finish. Not much fruit to make it really pleasant to drink nor I feel to sustain it through the years. Somewhat austere, though still approachable, but not an immediately friendly wine. Dare I say, perhaps a bit ordinary - neither lean, nor full, nor…   anything.  It was a good enough match with the food, though nothing to loudly shout about - the reduction tamed whatever tannin was there and made the wine slightly more drinkable. But slightly more ordinary at the same time. Not something I would pay a large sum to drink again. But then that's why we try them now, to see if there's anything worth raving about. Not today. Sorry. Didn't get this one at all. For the first time at an IWFS dinner I left wine in the glass. Couldn't drink it.

When the fish did finally make it to the tables, there was a silence as diners took in the visual display. The poor thing looked like it had been hacked with the cleaver and just plopped on the plate. It did not look classy. It was also apparently a bit cold.  I wonder whether the kitchen was under pressure to get the food out and perhaps the finesse got pushed to the margin as a result. 

The Turbot. Yes.
And there was a lot of noise at the fact that the Turbot had not been deboned - it was sat there, all bones visible, looking kind of like a rack of fish ribs. The fish was tasty after Lenglui asked for and got some salt and pepper. Chunky flakes which rolled off the bone and sweet chew and bite. Though the bones got to her and she could not continue with it. I finished it off and was indeed soon spitting out bones like I was at the Overseas with a Soon Hock Yee. It was hard, messy work to eat and I think this was what members were railing at. Some suggested it might have been better had the fish been filleted and simply seasoned with salt and seared. Well, and perhaps, but Chef had his reasons for this style and maybe should be judged on those rather than what a personal preference might indicate. I wonder if the real point is that bone spitting is acceptable at a Chinese restaurant but not so at the Lafite. Which seems a very fair point - we'll happily bone spit in many places; however one cannot be seen to be so doing at the Lafite, n'est-ce pas? But the fish I finished off was beautifully cooked. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Don't remember much about the side bits. 

Pairing with the Marsannay made sense, though the Turbot rocked with the remains of the white. The Marsannay got slightly flattened by the fish, though not so much that it died in the mouth. The dark cherry gave a cute pop to the fish which was firm enough to stand up to it. Fair match. Can't remember if I sipped the Lynch Bages with the Turbot. Probably. No notes. 

Dessert was a Praline, Chocolate and Cherry Revised Black Forest. With some lovely milky ice cream. Not entirely sure what the name of the dish meant. Someone suggested deconstructed Black Forest, though perhaps unconstructed might have closer. Chef had a range of makings on the plate leaving diners to dip in or mash the lot together and consume the resulting goo ensemble. It was nicely not sweet and the ice cream was lovely, but really needed some carbo - in this, there was a bit of some crepe pancake-like thing on the plate which had that rubber taste and texture of day old roti canai. All was needed was a crisp light wafer which would have brought it all together. Notwithstanding the suggestion to keep some of the red wine with the dessert, it didn't work for me - praline and chocolate killed it off. Perhaps he was referring to keeping the Sauteurnes, but even here it would have died - whiskey can pair with chocolate, and coffee would also have done the trick but rarely will a sticky sweet Dessert wine pair well with chocolate and ice cream. Incidentally, coffee was not included in the dinner, though on leaving I did see a couple of cups on tables - which left me to wonder who would be paying for them?

So….  overall I felt Chef did very well… except for the fish. Kitchen did quite well… except for the fish. There seemed to be a major delay with the fish coming out to the tables. Staff did pretty well with the food serving and clearing. The wine service felt pretty poor, both in amounts and attitudes. Someone commented that the wine pouring felt a bit thin - though I think the wine wasn't getting to the other tables and the waiters were getting waylaid by the sweet talking chuggers and getting refills. Indeed, one sweet talker on our table who was joking in Bahasa with the wine waiter got a major refill when his two glasses were still more than half full and the wine waiter walked away leaving other glasses on the table empty. Not good. In fact, quite bad and nowhere near the standard one would expect of a restaurant of Lafite standing. 

Bachan Singh, Brian, and Jag Singh
But this is the old problem - train them up and they leave for better pay elsewhere; don't train them and give your customers the raw end of the service stick. There is a clear need for some serious training or supervision to be given to the wine waiters here on getting wine out to the far tables and not just letting themselves get bullied by the sweet talking chuggers. Either that or closer supervision by IWFS WIne people, but then you can't enjoy the dinner. Not sure how to handle this one...

Jan and Barry Shaw
So…  my hoped-for renaissance in the service at the Lafite does not seem to have taken place. As said, the restaurant still exudes great ambience and class, though for me some of the Wine Waiting staff fell down a bit on the night. One or two felt - unrefined. And possibly over-friendly. And very young, all of them. Part of me suspects that the experienced staff had once again been seconded to the Ballroom where a major function was taking place. And thoughts flew back to June 2013 and a disastrous IWFS dinner in the Sarawak room for 80 members from across the globe with an Annual Dinner going on in the main ballroom. On the business level, this is great for the Shangri-La; on my level I always seem to end up feeling disappointed. 

Do I expect too much? I think that when paying RM350 for food I have a reasonable expectation of an evening of professional level service with food at the standard of a fine dining establishment. Service wise, I didn't feel I got it - again. I got better service at a Chinese shopping mall restaurant for one quarter of what was paid for the Shang (see the recent post on the Grand Imperial). I recognise that my service expecations have increased as a result of my exposure to some excellent service at restaurants around the world. But seriously, if Lafite is still claiming to be KL's best in service terms, it is way, way behind Sage and Cilantro and Soleil. Be interesting to see how they match up to regional neighbours in Hong Kong, Singapore and (from what I am hearing) Bangkok. Perhaps the simple truth is that they think they can handle numbers when in fact they can't. Would probably be a different experience for a quiet dinner with an unstressed kitchen. 

On this showing, I would prefer not go back though I expect I will have to at some future occasion. I'd rather save the money and spend it in Paris. Or Singapore. Or Hong Kong. Seems also the hotel is now completely pork free, even the Shang Palace. So it goes. At least the parking after 7pm now seems standard, though a RM12 whack still compares to RM3 in the Wisma Lim Foo Yong around the corner and up the road. Someone could probably could do a good valet park business at the Shang by driving and parking at the LFY. Wouldn't be surprised if someone already is…  Malaysia boleh!!

The Menu
Chef Jean-Philippe

Duval-Leroy Rose de Saignee Brut NV
Duck Liver Terrine and Red Wine Jelly, Warm Homemade Brioche and Balsamic Reduction 
La Terrine de Foie Gras et Gelée de Vin Rouge, Brioche Tiède et Réduction de Balsamique 
Château Rieussec, 2010, Sauternes, France 
Creamy Oyster and Haddock Soup, Poached Oyster and Spring Vegetables 
La Crème d’Huître et Haddock, Huître Pochée et Légumes Primeurs 
Domaine Alois Lageder Sauvignon 2011
Roasted Rack of Veal, White Asparagus, Light Potato Cream and Morel Sauce 
Le Carré de Veau Rôti, Asperges Blanches, Crème de Pomme de Terre et Sauce Morille 
Château Lynch-Bages, 2008, Pauillac, France 
Roasted Turbot, Braised Onion Puree, Onion Leaves, Porcini, Red Wine and Beef Jus, Poached White Asparagus 
Le Tronçon de Turbot Poêlé, Soubise d’Oignons Braisés, Feuilles d’Oignon, Cèpes, Asperge Blanche Pochée et Sauce Vin Rouge 
Domaine Charles Audoin Marsannay La Charme aux Pretres, 2011, Burgundy, France 
Praliné, Chocolate and Cherry Revised Black Forest 
La Forêt Noire au Praliné, Chocolat et Cerise

The wines

The Wines
Duval-Leroy Rose de Saignee Brut NV
Fruit driven crisp clean and refreshing, aromas of strawberry and cherry, concentrated and with seething and scintillating bubbles that lead to a racing finish.

Château Rieussec, 2010, Sauternes, France 
A classic combination, Foie Gras and Sweet wine, which has a good complimentarity. Still in its infancy, those who recall it from our President’s dinner will relish making its re-acquaintance with its natural food pairing.

Alois Lagerder, 2011, Sauvignon, France 
Four years in bottle should have nicely mellowed this Sauvignon from the Alto Adige region near the border with Italy. Should pair well with the complex combination of Oyster and Smoked Haddock and provide some mouth texture relief after the Sauteurnes.

Château Lynch-Bages, 2008, Pauillac, France 
As with the 2009, not an easy year for Bordeaux. Notwithstanding, this classic Bordeaux from the Pauillac region should be a very good combination with the delicate Veal and the Morel sauce. 

Domaine Charles Audoin Marsannay La Charme aux Pretres, 2011, Burgundy, France 
Ben suggests to slightly chill this “charming” Cote de Nuits Pinot Noir so as to bring a light freshness to this meaty fish. D’accord!!

Thanks to Jan Shaw for most of the photographs in this post.

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