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.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

"The Manga Degustation" Bistro A Table - cute and fun!

Course One with Manga Page 1
7th March 2016

Writing this eight days after the dinner, I have a fond fuzzy memory of the evening. It was fun, great wines from everyone, lots of stories and laughs and somehow managing to avoid getting roped in to a "retreat" at a Buddhist Forest Reserve in Bentong. Can't remember the food at the moment, though, other than the fact it was fresh and visually strong and French-ish. Just can't remember how it all tasted. The notes will reveal!

Food Bore alert - This is another long post, much of which sets the scene for the food. Skip to half way down if you prefer to avoid. Look for the big photos.

This one came about as a result of a conversation with BAT Maitre D' Carol after a dinner there last November with the Amante group (though why the Italian foodie group was doing French Bistro food I have yet to resolve - I think perhaps Chief Amante was in the mood for French and managed to strike a deal). Carol shared that Bistro A Table Degustations took place every first Monday of the month - a quick check of the assembled found that we would all be around in March so we promised to return to give it a try. 

I like degustations. It's the range of tastes they offer to showcase the kitchen's culinary and creative skills and leanings. Also, I do find with age that I prefer to taste rather than feast. Especially with a bottle of something nice to exceptional with some intellectually engaging company. Wonderful stuff.

Course Two with Manga Page 2
Established in 2011, the Bistro à Table website advises that BAT "has long been a forefront contender in Malaysia’s food scene, offering creative and daring dishes to its patrons" in what it calls “adaptive French” cuisine - adapting the best of Malaysia to the classical French staples and techniques. The multi award-winning establishment "strives to bring the world’s very best produce to its diners, from Japanese Kobe beef to New Zealand lamb, to French poulet de Bresse to goose foie gras, to local Malaysian tropical fruits."

Executive chef and owner/operator Isadora Chai seems to have become legend in a short time. Whenever her name comes up in conversation, everyone seems to have a personal story about her and it is usually a jaw dropper. I have never come across this about any other chef in my time in Malaysia. People will say, "oh yes, I know Chris and Eddie, their food is wonderful" or "Chef Marco is SUCH a nice man" but with Isadora it is more that she has somehow impacted their lives and they are so keen to share the tale. It begins, "You know, I went to Bistro and that Isadora…. " and gets followed by some fantastical tale designed to leave one incredulous at Chef's abilities and temperament. I had met her years ago at a wine dinner in Ribs and…  see what I mean? Everyone seems to have a story about Chef. She does have an aura about her, like Mourinho used to have at Chelsea. The Special One. I guess that makes her The Isadorable One? Whatever, Chef clearly has colour and passion and attitude. I liked her already.

Course Three with Manga Page 3
For some reason, I had been avoiding paying a visit to Bistro for years without really being sure why. There had never seemed to be an occasion to warrant going there, and the competition from other dinners seemed to continually get in the way. It also seemed a bit far to both get to and to drive home after (is located in Section 17, PJ), and reports of the food ranged from rave to rude. But mostly I think I let myself get put off by the one story continually offered by the Governor as to Chef's insistence that she could not comply with Mrs Governor's request for the steak to come well done. His position is that the customer is always right and has not been back since. And perhaps out of some subconscious submission to the Governor's occasionally intimidating "Brook no Contradiction" demeanour, a visit there had never happened. Any time the suggestion to dine at Bistro had arisen, this same story came out with his understated vehemence and continually became pretty much the last word on the matter. Which in retrospect is not fair and I should really grow a set when it comes to the Governor. 

Course Four with Manga Page 4
However, things started changing in the last couple of years or so. Occasional visits to Soleil (located at the opposite end of the shophouse block) kind of put the drive there and home argument to bed, coupled with recent suggestions by the Sweeper and the Sapper that Bistro really was well worth a visit. Also, a recent rainy dash on a September Friday evening for something to eat at the disappointing Verona brought next door neighbour Bistro right into the frame. And so it came to pass that I found myself eating there twice in the space of three weeks, once (as said) with the Amante in November and another with my Singapore foodie friend and blogger Julian in December (we did ask for Degustation day, but got advised of no degustation for December so we did a la carte for that one). 

I decided to hold off on writing about these visits, because the dishes at each felt a shade bipolar - some were stunning, others not so. My foodie friend Julian had a particularly underwhelming experience and has written of this elsewhere. A Degustation, though, should showcase what a Chef is capable of in artistic and technical senses and I feel is fair game for a report. So here we go. 

Course Five with Manga Page 5
We had been liaising with Carol as to numbers and corkage and got it down for a special two for one - worth it, given the quality of glassware and service I had experienced there on the previous visits. Carol is a veteran of the Malaysian Restaurant scene and an absolute asset and treasure, having cut her managerial teeth with the erstwhile Frangipani and honing her skills through a range of excellent though now sadly defunct establishments. Even tempered and soft spoken, Carol exudes this air of calm unflappability that would now considered massively old school yet is refreshingly welcome. It is well worth a visit to the Bistro just to get served by her. 

The evening had been billed as "The Manga Degustation" to debut Chef's own "dark and blasphemous Manga Comic strip", said the promotional email I had received. It promised "an amalgamation of Japanese and French flavours [where] the dishes served will be subliminally based on the chapters presented throughout the dinner." In this, diners would get a page of the story prior to each course and the dish that would come out would somehow encapsulate the drama on the page. Chef channeling her dishes from her Manga story. I think.

People had been invited to come dressed in Cosplay outfits to get into the mood of the dinner, which I understand to mean in the costumes of favourite Manga characters. And they did! Lots of day-glo coloured wigs and gaudy clashing mish-matches of fashions and colours that somehow work in this fantasy imagination context. No one seemed to be taking it all too seriously and were clearly enjoying both the company, the vibe and the food so what the heck? 

Course Six with Manga Page 6
I don't know too much about Manga. It is not an art form that quickly resonated. Things like Gigantor and Marine Boy were around when I was a kid, but I was always more of a Thunderbirds and Stingray fan. But I do know that Japanese Anime and Manga is huge. Models, comics, books and trading cards, the industry is massive. Fans seem to resonate with particular characters and presumably look to emulate them in costume and lifestyle. Escapist? Maybe, but I don't feel qualified to judge. Some people resonate with Star Wars or Star Trek, others with Gundam and the WWE. Whatever buzzes your bolts. I resonate with booze and food. And the WWE.

Spoiler alert - don't read the next paragraph if you plan to attend a future BAT Manga Degustation. 

The story seems to be about a stormy romance between a demonic angel-winged daughter of Lucifer named Raxicon and a somewhat raffish human "ethereal" son of God named Liam. Kind of Underworld versus Overworld with the Earth caught in between. Both being from different sides of the fence, their love is naturally forbidden. Naturally they fall in love, fight, break up, she brings catastrophe to the earth, and their love ends up symbolised as the Blood Moon and as a memory at the bottom of the sea.

Our party had all arrived pretty much at the same time and the place was about half full. Some had already started their dinners, others were waiting for the fizz to chill. Carol seemed a shade stressed as she juggled ordering staff to get ice and glasses whilst welcoming people to their seats. 

"Bleeding" Egg Mollet with Beetroot Foam and Lobster Aioli
We were told of what to expect for the evening and got presented with the first page of the story. The pages would prove to be laminated and black and white with the occasional art piece in colour and whilst I did try to read and get a sense of the story, others seemed content to just keep chatting and not get too involved. 

In this, the visual dizziness of the pages was a bit offputting. It looked (and indeed was) hard work to read the thing quickly. Lots of words and artwork. I couldn't entirely follow the story because it would have taken too long (which felt a bit rude in company), so I had to make do with a brief scan of the words and pictures. The first seemed to be about a fallen angel who wanted to be like everyone else and kept cutting off her wings only for them to grow back bigger. Lots of bloodsplash on the page. Which mirrored Course One's Bleeding Egg - lots of seeming bloodsplash on the white plate which was in fact beetroot juice. Visually very effective and arresting on the eye, though at the risk of seeming indelicate it did look a shade….   menstrual. Sorry, but it did. Yuck. Dear Lord that I am able to think these things…

I have no notes on the taste of the dish. Probably still stunned by the visceral image of seeing a period on a plate…   Oh good grief, let's get out of here…

We were supping a Pol Roger NV which was wonderful crisp bubbles and kind of chewy fruit. This is a full bodied fizz, lots of whack in the mouth and nose and brilliantly sleek on the downside. Got a bottle or two in the fridge at home from a wine dinner at the erstwhile Ribs - need to drag them out at some time.

Parsnip Puree with Black Truffle, Pumpkin and Red Wine Bread
The Course Two Parsnip Puree was wonderful, but then I am a total sucker for Parsnip. This one had been pureed and a slice of truffle thrown on top and was well excellent. There was also some slices of what tasted like bitter gourd and aubergine parked on top which gave a pleasant tang in the cheeks to electrify the wonderfully smooth gunk and sweetness of the parsnip. Not entirely sure about the red wine bread, but presumably the colour retained the idea of blood and death. The story had moved to a church and a blossoming romance between the fallen angel (actually a demon) and a raffish looking… unfallen angel. Parsnip and truffle as a symbol of love - okay. We sniffed the red wine bread and figured the wine therein was French, though the vintage was beyond us. 

We were on to a Cloudy Bay 2015 SB which was pleasant enough though lacking the zing of previous vintages. But then I remember drinking it at a wine dinner in Cilantro many moons ago when Kevin Judd would still have been in charge and before the days of conglomerate takeover. Still remember that one, total stunner, no idea what year it was. CB is sadly now not a patch on what it once was. And now under RM100 in the stores from RM170 in recent years. Presumably the market has caught up with the brand and it is now facing serious competition from the world. Good.

Scallop with Shaved Smoked Japanese Mahi Mahi Roe and Wakame
Course Three was the scallop whilst the story was…  I am not entirely sure. There was a tsunami and a battle so I guess this was the swoosh and tempest and the turmoil of discovery that deceit and deception indeed exists on heavenly levels. Never trust a raffish looking angel, eh? The dish itself was delightful. The scallop had been sliced incredibly thin and "ceviched" into a milky mush and came across like a kind of oyster / sea urchin puree that slipped along and evaporated with a strange brine like breeze through the mouth. The Wakame had (I guess) been freeze-crisped up into a crunchy Fatt Choy style to give a bitterish salt vegetal hit to the creamy scallop. Along with little sprigs of cilantro and basil (I think) the whole became a beautiful range of crunchy herbal tastes as counterpoint to the slimy-ish wonderful gunk of the scallop. This one rocked. Very good with the Cloudy Bay, whose lack of strong acidity actually did it a favour here and let some good steely minerality cleanse the palate. 

Octopus with Tahini Quinoa and Anago Jus
Course Four was the Octopus on a bed of quinoa with some radish slices, some bitterish rocket and a long squeeze of tahini with some salt for taste. The combo felt a bit….  odd in the mouth. Not bad odd, just… odd. There was the squish and rubber crunch of the octopus going up against the soft neutral gluten-free chew of the quinoa and undercut by the zappy radish and bitter green rocket. Lots of cross textures going on. It was probably me - octopus is not my everyday choice of mollusc at the hawker stall, and anytime the tastebuds and mouth get challenged by something a bit left field I kind of go default and neutral on the thing. Though I did feel that the whole was missing something to bring it all together. Perhaps a dab of balsamic to give a bit of acetic to the thing? (NB I have a friend who continually wordmangles/mangalizes Balsamic to Islamic Vinegar - I don't know how to explain the difference).

The Manga comic had a big Octopus bearing down on our heroes who had got locked into a serious undersea snogging session so I guess that was the connection. 

The Cloudy Bay was doing surprisingly sterling service to the food. Its apparent blandness gave way to some excellent fruit and lemon sweet mouthfeel when paired with the food. It is in very good balance. Perhaps I have been a bit harsh with it - will have to try another bottle in a different context. 

It was at this point that someone asked whether anyone was following the story. I said yes, but most said no which engendered some comments to the effect that it all somehow felt like bullshit and one didn't need the story to eat the food. Well, and yes, it was true one didn't need the story. But whether that made it bullshit I am not sure necessarily follows. The Philistines also thought that everything arty was bollocks, but have generally been judged by history not to have been the best judges of anything. Dopey idiots blowing up historical artefacts because they do not fit an "enlightened" understanding of God seem to be in the same frame. Surely better to keep an open mind lest it close you to new truth? There is no greater tyranny than that of the closed mind. Freedom is just a new thought away. Yes. 

The assembled group all know their good food, but perhaps felt a bit confused as to why have the Manga story and theme in the first place? What was the point, what was the rationale, how did it fit with the food? I think sometimes there isn't one, and maybe that was the situation tonight - it was what it was. Creatives often have a story they want to bring into the world just to have it be told and hopefully heard. Whilst most of the world probably won't listen, some will. It's the need to touch, the need to reach someone that drives us all. Same reason I do this blog and my songwriting and recording - it's a very human need to connect. Perhaps there is an ego tripping somewhere in all of this, but I'm just happy to throw my output out there. If it gets picked up and applauded, great. If not, so it goes. The result can certainly be judged, but unless there is an underlying agenda I'm not sure the motive needs to be. That can hurt.

We had opened the Burgundy I had brought and it was widely praised as a belter - classic Chambertin, bright, light cherries and cheery finish. Carol took a taste and approved - enjoyed the classic style. I initially thought it was one I had picked up from SW Wines but later found this was mistaken - it was in fact a 2009 Lucien Le Moine 1er Cru "Les Cazetiers" which came from Dave Chan during his Artisan Wines time. As memory now serves, he had brought this one to a wine dinner at the Marco Polo and we bought a few bottles. Drinking very nicely. Got a memory of paying under RM300 for it. Sometimes the wine gods smile. 

Saddle of NZ Lamb, Wild Rice and Kobe Tendon and Sweetbreads
Course Five was the Lamb and Kobe tendon on a bed of wild rice, with sweetbread which had been bedded on a smear of (what tasted like) green pea puree. Very French Bistro, very rich style and massive reduction to the consistency of goo on the meaty jus which got soaked up by the rice and made for good chewy slurping. The dish was excellent, though the pea puree gave a bit too much green sweet for the wine which was otherwise an immensely brilliant match with the meat. Texture wise I preferred the lamb, which had a bit more resistance to the chew than the tendon, but this is more a personal preference - both were cooked very nicely. 

Peach and Champagne Granita
We also poured the Bordeaux that the Rubber Baron had brought which was also classic and delightful - a 2000 Chateau Leoville-Las Cases Grand Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases. Full, meaty, potent and from a startlingly good vintage. It hit every button you can think of. One of those you sip and just go "ahhhhhhhh….." The Rubber Baron is hugely generous with his wines. Every one he brings to dinner is always a real treat of some kind. Also a natural pair with the lamb and beef. Perfect wine for the food. 

There seemed to be lots of death and destruction in the comic, though I was not sure why - I had pretty much lost the plot by this time.

Quite why the sorbet came after the Main was not clear, but it worked. Sucked out all the gunk of the wild rice gravy from the throat which had the added effect of giving the wine a cooled supercharge on the finish. Don't try these things, never know eh?

Dessert was the Blood Moon which was the final love symbol for the Manga story. Very pleasant combo of sour oranges and zippy Yuzu contrasting with the sticky sweet toffee cage surrounding the Blood Moon. Sugaringly refreshing. 

Blood Orange and Belgian White Chocolate Marquise and Yuzu Jelly
At the end of the dinner, Chef came out armed with printed copies of the entire Manga story to give to everyone. Seems the whole Manga Degustation Concept had been a three year project from inception to execution and she seemed well happy to have finally got it out of the system. Chef also came out armed with a great smile and a pen for autographs. And why not? A legion of fans were on hand to worship and adore their Isadorable One. Chef inspires a loyalty in her patrons who happily sustain BAT both through and beyond its flights of degustational fancy. Any love is good love and got to get it where and when you can. And the floor staff seemed quite happy as well. In the cut and thrust loyalty-at-a-price environment that is the KL Food Scene, have to respect that.

2009 Lucien Le Moine 1er Cru "Les Cazetiers"
Overall, it was a good and fun evening. The food pretty much rocked in visual and taste terms and our wines and service thereof was excellent. There was good consistency in quality and taste and there was good sense of movement and development through the menu. As far as the theme went, some people clearly had fun with the story whilst others didn't need it. I think perhaps it worked better where there were less people on a table. The twos and threes seemed to be having a good time of it all, so perhaps eight on a table needed a bit more managing as far as the story was concerned. Most of the time, when the pages got handed out they got parked under the plate just to get them out of the way. Seemed I was the only one trying to follow the story. As said it was not easy - it felt a bit long reading at the table and felt a bit rude when company was looking to engage.  Couple this with me making all my notes and taking photos of the food… I was more anti-social than normal and it all didn't quite work. A bit too much to read and look at to take in. I also couldn't quite get the connections between story and dish at the time of consumption. Perhaps BAT could consider a prologue with an Amuse Bouche?

2000 Chateau Leoville-Las Cases Grand Vin
de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases
As said, Bistro has good solid support from die hard supporters who apparently attend the monthly degustations with defiant regularity. They love her. And she loves them. A lot of mutual warmth and goodwill clearly evident. Chef does have this aura of seeming impervious invincibility about her which seems to inspire love and loathe in various degrees across the foodie universe. Chef also has charm and charisma, though she doesn't let the guard down easily. Paul Bocuse has a similar air - steel eyes with nuclear reactions lying just behind them. As a creative, I know a bit about setting up the inner defence shields. People tend to just react with a loud gut rather than respond from a position of considered knowledgeable reflection yet still declaim Delphic judgements (mea culpa). Which can lead to serious depression - been there, thank you, and I know I need to keep a lid on it. For me, recognising that people react rather than reflect lets me temper my own reactions. Couple this with an awareness that I might also not really know what I am talking about, then possibly we're on the road to wisdom. Kind of knowing what I don't know and recognising the fact. Well, I hope it's a step on the road. Otherwise, it's all nonsense, n'est-ce pas? It may all be nonsense anyway... anyone up for a re-reading of Albert Camus?

I'd go back to BAT with these people and these wines and the vibe on the place. And I would easily go back to BAT over Lafite notwithstanding previous mixed experiences with the BAT a la carte. And I am guessing that next time we will get into another of these "but is it FINE dining at Bistro a Table?" and the context will again come into play here. From a European perspective, no it is not Fine Dining because NOwhere in Malaysia is Fine Dining against that Euro standard. But just because it is not Fine does not mean it is implicitly bad. Everything is a matter of degree and how much we are prepared to pay for it, no? On this showing, I found BAT on this showing to be very good to fine enough dining, though perhaps maybe with a small "f" rather than a capital one. Price perhaps felt a bit stiff, but the countermanding of the generous corkage brought a better balance. 

The standards and service at places like BAT, DC, Soleil, Sage and Cilantro may be the "Finest" we are going to get simply because this is Malaysia. And in my 25 years here Malaysia continuously has shown itself as a place where relentless pursuit of sustained excellence is something to be hugely desired but which appears to consistently be in short supply in the national character. Something seems to just sap the staying power over the long term. It is just not that competitive when compared to some of the neighbours and we who choose to stay will have to chew on it. So it goes. There has been improvement in the upscale dining scene over the past ten or so years in terms of standards of food and service, but it must be hugely tough to keep it going. And trying to keep good staff who can job hop for an extra couple of hundred a month must be soul destroying. And for ANYone to attain Michelin levels, well…  Maybe it is time for a new standard. Lim Tayar, anyone?

Seems the Manga Degustation will be re-happening over the next couple of First Monday degustations at the BAT. Having done it, I don't feel the need to rush back and reprise the experience. It's a bit like seeing your favourite musical a second time - some of the magic disappears. But I would recommend it as both a food and a theatrical entertainment experience. It made for a fun memory. Though bringing our own booze was a large part of this for me. And maybe Carol needs a bit more help with overseeing the booze - she was well stressed on this evening. 

Of course I got Chef's autograph. I subscribe to the legend of The Isadorable One. Food is Theatre and Art and Entertainment (and business) and we are all luvvies giving each other meaning and validation in this same wonderful world. Because no one else will. N'est-ce pas? 

Bistro a Table
6 Jalan 17/54
46400 Petaling Jaya
Ph: +6 03 7931 2831
email: info@bistroatable.com

GPS Coordinates:
N 03˚ 7’33.3264”
E 101˚ 38’13.5420”

The Manga Degustation 
"Bleeding" Egg Mollet with Beetroot Foam and Lobster Aioli
Parsnip Puree with Black Truffle, Pumpkin and Red Wine Bread
Scallop with Shaved Smoked Japanese Mahi Mahi Roe and Wakame
Octopus with Tahini Quinoa and Anago Jus
Saddle of NZ Lamb, Wild Rice and Kobe Tendon and Sweetbreads
Peach and Champagne Granita
Blood Orange and Belgian White Chocolate Marquise and Yuzu Jelly

RM300 nett

The Wines
Champagne Pol Roger NV
2015 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc
2009 Lucien Le Moine 1er Cru "Les Cazetiers"
2000 Chateau Leoville-Las Cases Grand Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases

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