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, December 22, 2014

Memories of my friend Dr Gan Chong Wan

The Pork Luck Club has lost one of our fellowship. Dr Gan Chong Wan was our very dear friend whose friendship and company we will miss tremendously.

I just want to share some of my memories of him to try and get some of this pain and sadness I am feeling out of my system. We all knew he was on borrowed time, but his death has hit me harder than I thought it would. Editing this is still choking me up.

He was a Leukemia survivor. Diagnosed twelve years ago, he beat the thing and had just recently celebrated ten years in remission. It resurfaced late August this year and he had undergone two sessions of chemotherapy. The results were promising. He and I shared Pol Roger Champagne and Oysters and Pork Belly at the Ribs on November 6th. Then he felt well enough to join us at the Ginza Sushimasa with Toru-san and PLC friends on November 15th. Seems that sometime soon after this he contracted some viral fever and was laid out for three days. He was getting back to normal and recovering, but on Friday November 28th I received a text from his sister saying he was in ICU at UH and that he was in very bad shape. It was thought he would not survive for long, but apparently he swore that he would. Seems UH were pumping him with stabiliser meds and sedatives for severe pain and seeking to stop the organs from dying. However, at 3am Sunday November 30th his family received a phone call from UH and they were with him when he passed at 6.30am. He was 62.

A wake was held at Gui Yuan Funeral Parlour in PJ on December 1st from 3pm and it had been decided that a Roast Pig would be served. Friends were also invited to bring food and wine and whiskey to celebrate Dr Gan's life. We arrived at 5.30pm and brought some white wine. Luckily it was screwtop as no one had a corkscrew - mine had been transferred out of its usual place in the backpack for some air travel reason. There was red wine and brandy, though few seemed in the mood to drink. I was. I cracked the white and got stuck in. We sat with friends David Law and Philip Chai (friends from his short time with Musical Theatre in the early 1980s) and Jimmy Tang and sister Yoong, friends since primary school days. We were all pretty desolate.

Mr Tan from Checkers Restaurant showed up with some croissants and prunes wrapped in bacon. Mr Tan is also is a cancer survivor and I know that Dr Gan helped him through some of his not so good times with the treatment. Gan's old schoolfriends were also in attendance. Many had also been friends since primary and secondary school days. The mood was somber but not too sad. His sisters were playing some of his favourite classical and opera tunes and showing a slideshow of photos from his life that his brother had quickly put together. That he could do this with only one hour sleep on a thirty hour trip from Wisconsin was little short of remarkable. 

At the Noble House in Jalan Delima, Kuala Lumpur
A golden flower shrine around a photo of Gan had been put together with fruit and candles and sweet cake offerings and placed before the coffin. The coffin was open and I felt I had to go see him one more time. I barely recognised him. His face was all puffy, apparently from the steroids he had been pumped with in the efforts to keep him alive. If I had my time again, I would prefer not to have seen him like that. But there you go. We take our friends in both good and bad shape and these become the totality of our experience with them. 

Old friends May Ph'ng and Siang came to pay respects. May shared that she had lit 64 candles to help speed Dr Gan's transmigration - in Buddhism, as I understand it, the spirit/soul/essence leaves the body and either goes onward toward enlightenment or returns to a newborn being to learn whatever was not learned in this present lifetime. And whether this newborn is a higher or lower lifeform depends on our karma and merit earned in this lifetime. We shared some Roast Pig and wine. 

The wine helped shift the low mood. Felt like I had been whacked by a big stick all day. Dr Gan's sisters shared stories of him and his life and friends. Seems he and present PM Najib were schoolmates and sat next to each other in the classroom. The story went that whenever Najib was naughty, Dr Gan always got the blame. They stayed in touch through the years and it seems Najib was a regular visitor to the Gan household when travel and work permitted. Seems also that PM Najib visited the Gui Yuan to pay his respects the following morning prior to the funeral, replete with outriders and bigass car. I saw them haring along the Federal Highway back to KL as I was on my way to the funeral.

Arriving, I parked in the same space as the night before. The mood was more subdued today. David, Jimmy and Yoong had come, and it was David who shared that Najib had come. Fellow PLC friend May Peng also came to pay respects. Everyone still felt shock that Dr Gan was no longer with us. The brother was bearing up well, the sisters not so.

At the IWFS KL Presidents' Dinner December 2013
Again, the funeral was not a grand affair. No chanting or ritual, unlike the ruckus that was going on at the funeral next door, Someone was playing big drums and something sounding like a World Cup vuvuzela horn and they were belting out "Roll Out The Barrel" and "She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain" military style as the deceased in the adjoining part of the compound was being taken for the last drive to the incinerator. Felt a bit bizarre but I'm sure it would have made the Doc smile. Didn't seem to make anyone else smile, though. It also drowned out the speech of Gan's brother thanking everyone for coming to pay their respects. We all made one last round of the coffin where our friend was laying. He looked less puffy today. That was when I noticed the shirt he was wearing - I have an exact same one hanging in the closet at home. He was open collar, no tie as is often imposed by the funeral directors. The sisters know their brother well - he hated restrictions of all kinds. Then the minions moved in, hammered the lid into place and made ready for the last ride.

As the flower shrine was being dismantled in preparation for moving the coffin to the car, I saw that everyone was turning to face away. Never seen this before, and found it a shade disconcerting - in the West, to show one's back at this juncture would be seen as a mark of disrespect... but then we are not in the West. Clearly there was some meaning in this that eluded me. Once the coffin was in the car and closed, everyone moved into place and we all followed the hearse around the compound as it made its way to the burner. The family placed their hands on the car and it slowly made one round of the complex. There was a slight delay as the forerunning deceased had the barrel rolled out one last time. But no one was in any mood to rush anything.

New Year's Eve Dec 2013 at Soleil
And again, as the coffin was taken from the hearse, everyone turned their backs to it! Someone later suggested that possibly this was to avert any bad luck that might arise as a result of seeing the last walk of a friend. Could be. The coffin was placed onto the burner rail, the cinder block door lifted, the rollers moved the coffin into place, the door lowered, and that was it. Goodbye Doc.

Sadder than sad. My good friend got took away and I will miss his laugh, his wit, his intelligent humour and his sardonic view of life and its madness and occasional seeming futility. Prior to his initial diagnosis, he had a tendency to rail against people's shortcomings. After successfully completing his treatment he saw more of the comedy in it all and chose to laugh at it more than anything. In this sense, I witnessed a life change in him and we enjoyed ten years of his company in this changed attitude of mind. 

There was Buddhism in him, for he would visit the temple on the auspicious days of the year. Though he was not a lover of ritual ceremony and pomp. For him, the simple joys of food on the street with a breeze heralding rain, or with his dogs out for a run would be enough to remind him that all was well in the universe. His breadth of knowledge on many things was staggering, especially for things Chinese. He loved his Chinese history and porcelain and he amassed an amazing collection which he would delight in taking out to handle - he always said that porcelain was a tactile medium rather than being merely visual. 

Chinese New Year 2014
He had a great passion for good food cooked well, and would always insist on ordering (and more often pre-ordering) the food for our get togethers. He introduced us to so many excellent eating places in the city and beyond. Dengkil Seafood, You Mi Chi, Lao Mah Zhi, and found one of our lost favourites the Hoi Kee. He would rail against the upmarket Chinese cuisine outlets like the Noble House chain, saying the over sweet sauces catered more to the gwailo market and rendered the food not as authentically Chinese as he would have demanded. But he would occasionally tolerate them and indulge us when the company and the wine were good. I have great memories of times with him at Sage, Cilantro, Soleil, the Overseas on Imbi, the Marco Polo on Raja Chulan, and Checkers in Damansara. These were among those to which we would return on many occasions. I also have great memories of him coming to gatherings at our home with friends and food and wine. He would cook, serve, eat, wash dishes, and then we would share our good whiskey, brandy and armagnac with him when everyone had gone home. We would go with him to concerts at the MPO, eating at Chinoz or Ben's and having Gin and Tonics in the intermission. He truly loved his music. He also loved good food, good wines and good company and he valued his friends hugely. That so many stayed with him through the years is testament to his character and how much we all treasured his friendship and company. 

He taught me that our time together is too short and precious to fritter. If you're going to have a time together, make sure it is a darn good one and spare no reasonable expense. Break out the good wine and food, always. And for him, we always would. 

His late mother and favourite pet dogs are in the grounds of the Gan home and we hear that the Doc will similarly be staying there. Someone asked what would happen if they ever sell the house, to which friend and wit David Law responded by saying that it would not be entirely "vacant possession".

One of the last things he said to me as we were leaving the Ribs from the Pol Roger dinner was "Dying is easy." I guess he had lived with his own mortality for a long time and had come to terms with it. And he was a doctor - he would know that not every life can get saved. Not to say that he was submitting to anything - he had absolute conviction that he would beat the thing again and he was very aggressive in his treatment regime. He wasn't supposed to die. We once joked about moving to Songkhla when we retired to open a bordello where we all would live and look out for each other. Maybe next time around. I hope there is one.

January 17th 2015 will mark the seventh day of the seventh week that he passed, which stands as the time when the soul will completely pass. Prayers will be said for him at 10am at the Buddhist temple on Jalan Gasing where a tablet to his memory is located. I would call on his friends to raise a glass and toast his memory and our time together. Let us each honour him as we know best and how he would want - in pork, wine and friendship. 

He would definitely not want us to be sad. Normally he would scold people for feeling sad, saying "life too short lorrr." He's right, as he always usually was. But then the dead don't have to live with death. For those who are still alive, it is a sad, sad time. I mourn the loss of my dear, dear friend. 

At the Soleil August 2014
And I hope he would spare me on this occasion. Not all sadness is a bad thing. It keeps us human. Like Dr Gan himself. There's a line from the second Star Trek movie where Captain Kirk is giving a eulogy for Spock who had been apparently killed by nuclear radiation. Kirk says of Spock "Of all the souls I have known, his was the most.... human." Of my friend, I would say the same. Goodbye Doc.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

IWFS Delhi Royale - Great ambience, food and wines!

November 20th 2014

Sheesh… just back from a belly buster in Taipei, straight into a back to back sake session at Ginza Sushimasa at Le Meridien and an IWFS dinner the following day. Everything comes at once sometimes. Writing this the day after, definitely got that tired, both ends burning kind of feel. Bit run down with all the partying. Need a break. Now writing six days later, feel much better. It is amazing what a couple of nights off the booze can do for you. Good sleep and total recharge of the mental and physical batteries. Yes.

This would be new IWFS Committee member Bachan's first organised function for the IWFS in KL so naturally we would support. It also helped that the wines looked very tasty and with the whole bunfight coming in at under RM200 it was an easy yes for us.  

Notwithstanding, an underwhelming turnout of 31 was slightly disappointing though in truth not unexpected. Members tend to shun both Chinese and Indian cuisine functions for pretty much the same reasons - they can prepare far tastier and more authentic food at home for a fifth of the price so why bother? 

Whilst I understand the argument and have some degree of sneaking support for it, I do feel that ultimately one should feel comfortable with sacrificing some element so as to benefit the whole. Company first, then other aspects will fall into line. Sometimes putting ones preferences above the company of friends is not entirely good form. Though if the entire bunfight feels overpriced, then drop it like a hot stone.

The Delhi Royale is located in a block of shophouses at the Tun Razak end of Jalan Yap Kwan Seng. For those who remember the old Eurodeli (the building is still there, it is now the Songket) it is the block that now hides it from the main road. The blurb on the Delhi Royale said that it is being operated by the same group that operates the the “Sip n Dine” in Chandigarh, Punjab. This group has a legacy of 25 years of operating North Indian Fine Dining restaurants. The Delhi Royale is set up along the same high standards by this group and it is one of the very few fine dining restaurants serving North Indian Cuisine in Kuala Lumpur.
Oi Camera Boy - Any fear of any wine coming to this table?
Headed by, er, Head Chef Mr Raj Gurun (extensive experience in Chandigarh, Delhi and Dubai for eight years) his team of chefs all hail from India and are experts in the various dishes that they cook. Seems most of the ingredients used in the preparation of the dishes are imported from India. This is particularly true of the spices used, whereby the chefs seek to ensure that the food tastes as authentic as it can.

The blurb also claimed the "service staff do perform to a very high standard." Well….   not initially on this night. I had to get some extra pours of fizz on at least two occasions whilst the staff were running around in the kitchen. Also snatched a beer for Big Tony. In fairness, this was the start of the evening and the staff were frantically obeying the order of the kitchen and getting the food out and served while it was hot. Aside from this initial blip, the rest of the evening in service terms was very good.

We parked around the back which was spacious, easy and wonderfully free. In total contrast to the night before when we had to pay RM35 to park at the Meridien. Horrendous parking charges. Our friend had to pay RM44 - we were horrified. Absolutely the last time I will go there, good restaurants or not. I do not see how any hotel is justified in charging such prices. Let them rot.

Large welcoming doors invite entry into a beige, black and brown high ceilinged space with not overcold airconditioning. More a modern Western feel than anything with some well placed art which nicely avoided the usual tacky Moghul style drapes and cushions one often finds in such establishments. Very relaxing and comfortable, and nicely swish and pleasant.

Paneer Papri
We got welcomed with the Queen Adelaide NV Sparkling Fizz. Bright and lemon gold, the slightly sweetish bubbles would prove the perfect foil for the spicy fire of the starter food. Lovely and light with excellent balance across the whole. Not too crisp, not too sweet, dancing across the top of the mouth and taming the fire of the food. A brilliant food friendly wine, and perfect with this spicy fare. 

The IWFS was also offering beer with the food since some members felt that only beer was a good match with Indian cuisine. Well, and maybe, and so the restaurant had sourced Kingfisher Beer to be made available to those who wanted it. In fairness, the restaurant had gone out of its way to source the beer, so kudos here. It was coming in large tall glasses which felt a bit too much especially after the excesses of the previous weekend and the present delicacy of the internals, so I snaffled a drop in a champagne flute to taste. Felt a bit thin after the fizz, though nutty enough to maintain interest. Though clearly was just not in the mood for beer on the night. No problem - the wines would prove well enough for the food.

The wonderful Mutton Gullafi
The two Canapes were very good and set the tone of the food being spicy without being too hot. The Mutton Gullafi starter was standout, well excellent with good spice and a brilliant match with the slightly sweetish Queen Adelaide bubbles. The Paneer Papri cheese had a crunchy nut coating which lent good texture to the somewhat firm cheesey interior, which got nicely set off with the yoghurt mint and chili sauce on the side. 
The 2012 Santa Rita Gran Hacienda Chardonnay came out and initally felt a bit thin. A second somewhat more chilled taste showed good balance, no oak with a good steel nose of banana and papaya. Mid weight, good around the mouth and a pleasantly long finish with cleansing grip. Very nice, very easy but with enough complexity and character to pique. Another very good food wine.

Yakina Shorba soup and Pappadums
The Starter Yakini Shorba soup came across like a thin Mulligatawny, a bit on the watery side with spice and mince (presumably) lamb which felt a bit undercooked and tartare though it lent a lovely texture to the broth. Tasty enough and a standout for some of our Indian members. 

"Oi, Camera boy. Where's the food?" "Take yer photo first then maybe...."
We had both plain and black pepper poppadom to pair, the latter of which supercharged the soup into a flaming burning blitzkrieg of tastebud ripping fire. The plain was fine. Perhaps plain Paratha might have been better to soak up the broth, but then we Brits would say that - must soak up everything. I broke up the poppadum into the soup as directed by my neighbour who seemed to know about these things. It softened up the crispy thing and took the heat out of the poppadum pepper.

At this point, the food service got a bit slow. It was the gap between first and second rounds of food and seemed to go on for a good while. didn't time it, but began feeling decidedly hungry after a while. Some speculated that Bachan had put the fear of the Governor into the heart of the manager who as a result wanted all the food to be perfect. And quite right too - the Governor can be withering when he needs to be. 
IWFS Winemaster and Committee member Prakash with IWFS member Andy Davison
It was ultimately worth the wait. The curries were magnificent - textured veggie sauces and spice without burning. The acompanying rice was also excellent - a kind of oaky biryani style of individual grains that tasted of wheat and tea. We got some veggie kind of thing of sweetcorn and peppers which had me diligently separating the pepper out from the other bits. We also got plain and garlic naan bread which was most welcome.

This was accompanied by the third wine, the 2011 Repolusk Roter Traminer, Obergalnz from Austria and which was oh so lovely. Soft layers, a medium light mouth with spritzy riesling apricot fruits, a zappy lovely ring going down the throat like bells in an Austriain village church. A true food wine for Indian cuisine, whose spice and fire let a pleasant perfumed mouth shine through. A lovely, lovely wine. 

Chicken Tikka Masala, Garlic Naan, Pudhina Paratha, Corn Salad and Aloo Gobi.
We also got some spinach. The combo of all this curry, naan, veg and wine was an amazing mix of tastes - spice, hot, carbo, spinach, yoghurt, sweetcorn - a melange of crunch and bite and liquid fire rolling around the mouth and melding into flame and fire on the tongue. Which the Roter squashed and doused so very, very nicely and sweetly, with sugar water and lychee Turkish Delight coming through.

There next came the Chicken Tikka Masala which was magnificent. Creamy texture on the sauce with a perfectly well cooked bite on the bird. Lovely spice - heat without burn. Someone said that this was not so much authentic North Indian as more North London, claiming the dish had its origins there. Well and maybe. Google Research seems to point to Glasgow as the place of origin in 2009, though I have memories of eating something wildly similar on the streets of Bangsar in the mid 1990s. Tonight's offering was wonderfully tasty. Worth a return for this. Perhaps the chef is a Scotsman?

The 2012 Porcupine Ridge Syrah came out to accompany. Initially a bit apprehensive to the idea of a fiery Shiraz with this kind of food, this wine was light and fruity and clearly an excellent food friendly wine. Balanced, an easy drinker but possessing some depth and layers. Not overly complex but enough to tease with chocolate, damson and dark plum notes.

Fresh Tiger Prawn, Garlic Naan and the brilliant Vegetable Briyani
The Prawn Curry was… not quite right somehow. The prawn felt a bit off - not entirely fresh and somewhat soft in the bite. The sauce also felt a bit iffy. In contrast, the Mutton curry was excellent - firm, full, spice taste. With the single grain rice with its excellent crunchy lightly firm bite, the combo was brilliant. 

Ghulab Jamun and Khulfi. Or maybe it's the other way round...
It had been decided to throw an extra red to the gathered and the lovely 2010 E Guigal Cotes du Rhone made its appearance. And diosapperance, they were a thirsty brood tonight. Good light fruit, strawberries and cherry. Medium texture, full and fresh in the mouth, firmish tannins. This one is a young  drinker and we certainly drunk it young tonight. The ice cream was tasty and reminiscent of the brilliant one we had at Extebarri in San Sebastian - a hit of smoke and tea about it to add a sly afternote to the meal. 

Bachan thanking everyone - members, staff, chefs
In all, a good evening. Food was charming and tasty in a charmingly relaxing atmosphere. Service was ultimately good, though the early absence of wine topups and the mid meal lull needed mentioning. As said, the wines were perfect - not too complex, yet with balance and grace across them all. Perfect foils to tame the fire of the food and with enough range of tastes and mouthfeels to enhance and illuminate. Would return for the food and ambience. The Delhi wines on show looked a shade ordinary, will have to find out what their corkage is. You may need to take Prakash and his wine selections!!

Delhi Royale
No. 33, Lots 2 & 3 (Ground Floor) , Wisma Longrich,
Jalan Yap Kwan Seng 50450, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Dine-in hours:
Lunch :- 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Dinner :- 6:00 p.m. to 12:00 p.m.

Aman Aggarwal ( Managing Director) : (+6) 012 - 458 1102 
Vivek Patel ( Banquets & Events Manager): (+6) 010 - 430 5797
Dev Kaphle ( Restaurant Manager): (+6) 011 - 2311 8445

Phone: (+6) 032 - 165 1555, Fax: (+6) 032 - 164 9555
Mobile: (+6) 012 - 458 1102

GPS Coordinates & Position: 3°09'48.0"N 101°42'53.9"E

Well, Bindi me...
Paneer Papri
Mutton Gullafi

Yakini Shorba soup
Pappadums – 2 types

Palak Paneer, 
Aloo Gobi, 
Makhni Dhall, Bhoondi Raita
Salad, Corn
Achar, Onions in Vinegar
Chicken Tikka Masala
Garlic Naan, Pudhina Paratha

Mutton Masala, 
Fresh Tiger Prawns in thick curry
Vegetable Briyani

Ghulab Jamun

NV Queen Adelaide
This sparkling has a delicate pale gold colour. On the nose it has a fresh, lifted bouquet with attractive fruit and subtle yeast character. Made from Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, it is full flavoured, yet soft, elegant and well balanced. It finishes dry with the traditional Brut sparkling style.

2012 Santa Rita Gran Hacienda Chardonnay
Made from grapes sourced a single vineyard in the village of Corgoloin. A 100% Chardonnay with stone fruit hints and green apple skins. The palate is refined with a spine of minerals overlaid by melon and fresh citrus fruits. There is refreshing acidity on the finish. (WYH)

2011 Repolusk Roter Traminer, Obergalnz
Roter Traminer, cousin to the Gewürztraminer is a rare red grape varietal in Austria accounting for only 2% of Austria's wine production. Weingut Repolusk is renowned for their award winning wines grown on the mountain terraces in Styria.
The wine evokes fine aromas of rose blooms with the floral notes of traminer fruit. The taste is reminiscent of spice with honey accents. It is elegant with a lingering finish. 
(Falstaff 92/100) .

2012 Porcupine Ridge Syrah
Grapes from a vineyard in Swartland were fermented with selected Rhone yeast strains and the wine was matured in French oak .
Rich and powerful dark fruit flavours with loads of pepper and violets. Well structured palate with smooth tannins and lingering mouth feel. Judicious use of oak adds to the profile without overpowering the fruit. Good density with a delicious aftertaste. 
(From Winemaker’s notes)

2010 E Guigal Cotes du Rhone
This cuvee is typically a blend of 50% Syrah and the rest Grenache and perhaps some Mourvedre. Guigal is known throughout the Rhone Valley for paying the highest price for generic Cotes du Rhone, and that in large part explains the quality of this wine year in and year out. It enjoys an extended upbringing in foudre and stainless steel tanks and is always a dense ruby/purple-colored wine with lots of blue and black fruits intermixed with notions of kirsch, licorice, lavender and spice. Supple and surprisingly intense, this delicious effort can age for 4-5 years. (Wine Advocate 89).


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Chateau Lagrange Wine Dinner at Lafite - good!

October 3rd 2014 - The Shangri-La Hotel F&B outlets have taken a lot of stick from me in the recent past due to the seeming sneakiness of staff not offering a tap water option to diners at functions at the various F&B outlets and then stiffing us with a bill for the bottled water they pour (see posts elsewhere in this blog). I just feel it is not becoming of an establishment of the standing and prestige of the Shang to not advise that water is chargeable at private functions. It should feel itself to be better than that and consequently above such an apparent policy. From fast talking "chinaman" style traders, maybe such an approach can be tolerated - but not from the Shang, please.  

All my previous ranting might seem to suggest that I don't like the Shang. Not true. I have many great memories of the place going back twenty five years. Perhaps my expectation has been raised by my long association with the place.  What's the saying: it's often hard to criticise a friend? Maybe. And the Shang has been a great friend over the years. So maybe it was about time to give the place another shot. And the deal being offered for a pairing of Lafite cuisine with four Chateau Lagrange vintages and a second growth starter wine by Vintry's Yin-How seemed like the perfect opportunity. Perhaps I could find something nice to say about it. Perhaps. Okay, I did. Find something nice to say. Here and there.

As ever, it started with an email from Yin-How inviting us to an evening of Bordeaux wines at the Lafite at a special discount for friends of the Vintry. A quick check with the Lenglui and we signed up. We are suckers for good Bordeaux and the chance to sample Lafite cuisine being paired with it could not be easily passed up. Outside of the water issues, we have had some very good wine dinners at Lafite - Chateau Beychevelle made the blog but there are a number of others we have attended there over the years. We were hopeful of being able to add another to the list of enjoyable and excellent wine dinners. 

Renowned and recognised many times over the years for its French style cuisine, Lafite remains one of KL's finest and premier establishments for a splurge style evening. It's still probably THE place to go to impress a client or a date, and THE place to celebrate landmarks and milestones; a place with style and class and the epitome of haute cuisine in the city. My first visits in the early days of my time in Kuala Lumpur are locked in my soul.

That being said, I have noticed a gradual…  slipping that seems to have started about the time when the place got renovated about ten years ago. Perhaps it has been the succession of chefs it has seen in that time, but for me I have been sensing an element of creeping complacency and arrogance - a kind of "We are Lafite, We are Shang" air of invincibility. Sort of like "we've been the standard for so long now, we have absolute Prestige as a result, we regularly win all the awards, we will always be the standard". Well… maybe. My MBA says this can be symptomatic of Groupthink at the top - senior management seeing what is wanted to be seen and possibly overlooking the realities on the ground. Could also be I'm seeing too much and being melodramatic, but for sure to be able to assume such an attitude you have to keep delivering in the face of some very good young bucks looking to shake up the old guard. And as noted elsewhere, my recent experiences have been memorable for the wrong reasons.  It used to be first choice for serious celebrations due to its prestige and its prospect of a total top tier dining experience. Not any more. Perhaps my familiarity over the years has bred a degree of contempt? Maybe. But the experience is certainly not the same. There was always a sense of occasion before, a sense of "once in a lifetime" - it is this that seems to have diminished. Don't quite feel the sense of occasion there as much, certainly not in comparison to the likes of Sage and Cilantro, and I don't know why or how it disappeared and that makes me sad. As said, the place has a piece of my soul, and it irks that I'm no longer able to access it when I return. There you go. Those to whom you give your soul will often find a way to break your heart.

We were a shade late thanks to a backlog of traffic on the Sultan Ismail road coming from Jalan Kuching. It looked clear on the Waze but as we got there it all suddenly locked up. We tried another way around an unyielding red traffic light which ended up a dumb move given that there was even more lock up on that side. Added another ten minutes to the trip. 

Parking in the Shang was relatively easy - not too many people here tonight - and we elevated ourselves to the Lafite entrance where we got ticked off the guest list. I noticed that The Governor was also sat at our table. Oh dear, going to get a rocket for being late….  Going inside, I spotted the Milawa owner having a glass with someone. So THAT'S who was organising this shindig. A brief hello, didn't see him again until the end of the night. Entering the main restaurant area showed its easy ambience and pockets of light on tables and soft tones of earthy reds and greens in the shades. Nicely relaxing. 

There were about fifty punters sat at the various tables in the restaurant. We said a couple of hello's on the way to our table, which probably irked the Governor who rightly takes a dim view of lateness or tardiness - though I couldn't see any food yet out on the tables so perhaps we could get away without getting verbally whacked. Everyone at our table was entirely kind and genteel and we got a warm welcome and sympathies for being stuck in the traffic. Relief! Everyone on our table turned out to be IWFS - Dr Jag, Suzuki, Chee Leong, and the Governer and our respective better halves. Presumably Yin-How had facilitated that. The Governor looked resplendent in his usual dark blazer and stripey shirt with gold tie and all on the table were sat in his usual "men at one end and ladies at the other" seating design, which I have yet to understand. It is certainly not Japanese, because if it was we would have done it in Tokyo. I did some research on Debrett's Guide to Etiquette for seating and there's nothing there on this style of seating requirement. It's only the Governor that seems to arrange the seating in this way. I must pigeonhole him sometime and enquire - it is quite intriguing. 

The staff came to enquire about water preferences and, true to form, the option of tap was not offered, though everyone on the table seemed to have a glass of it. Maybe they have been reading my scribbles. We requested warm, and got tap. Yah boo sucks to you. 

The first wine was already out and poured. The 2009 Les Fiefs we were drinking was the second wine of Lagrange. Good nose of berry fruit with brambles in the mouth. Good firm tannins and excellent balance across the fruit and alcohol. An eminently drinkable and food friendly wine, though perhaps lacking the full body of the senior siblings.

Tearing a piece of the brown bread to nibble with the wine, it felt a bit dusty for some reason, kind of like a dry soot feel on it. It all got soothed by some butter, but still an odd early sensation. Maybe too used to excellent bread being served elsewhere - the one here was a little bit not up to that mark.

First course came out pretty quickly after we had sat, suggesting they had all been waiting for us. Ooops. 

The salmon tartare was very tasty, a nice musky smoked feel on the fish, with good smoky salt spritzing the sides of the tongue. The Porcini Soup was equally well salted, with a good full earthy mushroom whack in the mouth mingling with a creamy broth. Very potent, this one. Lovely grip going down the throat. But it was the Roulade which stole the dish - it was excellent, the light biscuit marrying deliciously with the cheese and the soft salty beef into a delightful bite that zapped all the right places. Score one to the Shang for this.

Salmon Tartar and Fresh Frisée Salad Porcini Soup, Truffle Emulsion Air Dry Beef Roulade, Cream Cheese and Fresh Herbs
Don't seem to have a note on the match of this dish with the wine. Too busy enjoying the Roulade probably. The match must have been fine enough. Sometimes no notes is good notes. 

The 2005 came out ahead of the food. Nose was a bit tight at first, though it gave way to blackcurrant, bramble, some chocolate and a hint of mint. Powerful, long and elegant in the mouth, with dark chocolate to the fore. Surprisingly soft tannins made for a wonderfully silky smooth finish. Drinking very nicely, though perhaps a question mark over its longevity? I sometimes think that these wine dinners get organised partly as a good reason to clear the cellars to make way for new stock. Which probably suits most of us - we get to drink the good stuff based on the cellarmaster's view of whether it should stay on the racks or go to oblivion. Maybe we pay a premium for it, but so it goes. And if we brought the wine to the restaurant, we'd get whacked for corkage. And think of all the aircon expenses over the years to keep it all at decent temperature...

The Terrine came out with a wafer on the side, so that got first bite. It felt like sucking on flour, quite dry and flakey. Certainly did the terrine no favours, which proved way better with the table bread. The Terrine had good meat, salt and texture and, like the soup before it, gave a rich grip in the throat. Combining with the sweet crunch of the Lentil Coulis and the salty smooth Porcini chutney, they created an ensemble that covered all the bases in the mouth and left it very, very happy. All the elements helped even each other out in a kind of counterpoint sort of way without any one overpowering another. As said, I loaded some of some of the combo onto a chunk of bread with a dab of everything else and the result was perfect. Absolutely perfect. The carbo was the necessary piece de resistance that catalysed and brought the whole thing together for a lovely taste of quintessential France. Got taste, texture, foundation, bite and chew with a gunky swallow. Felt transported. Score another one to the Shang. Though a second taste of the wafer proved it to be indeed dry and dusty. Not sure who the baker here was, but it really got in the way of the Terrine.

Roasted Duck Liver Terrine, Puy Lentils Coulis, Porcini Chutney
The 2005 cleared the throat a fruity treat, with the food bringing out some alcohol fire to supplement the clean balance. A wine to sip and thoroughly enjoy with great food. Great Bordeaux is absolutely wonderful with the right food, and this was a well excellent pairing. The 2009 Les Fiefs that was still on the table fared equally well. In contrast to the finesse of the 2005, the 2009 is a rustic chugger, a lively and vibrant soul waiting to share its enthusiasm for living. With the Terrine, it gave a big whack of fruit in the cheeks, a full mouthful of big texture and mid weight tannins leading to a somewhat overfirm finish. Lovely jubbley (anyone remember Del boy in Only Fools and Horses?). Good as it was, the 2009 didn't feel quite at home with the fine food on show. It needed a good Cote de Boeuf to riff with, something like the half-cow we get at our favourite Paris Bistro Chez Paul. Now THAT would have rocked. 

The Monkfish came out as a generous portion though it felt a shade overcooked. The flesh was quite firm on the bite. Other friends on the table felt their fish was indeed overcooked. I didn't notice if any got left on plates to send a signal to the kitchen that this was so. On the night, it was not a worry for me since the firmness lent a good foundation to showcase the tasty layers being given off by the chestnut puree and wine sauce. Individually pleasant in their smooth kinds of way, the combo gave a good balance across the textures and a taste somewhat reminiscent of boiled sweets for some reason. My note says "wow" so I clearly enjoyed it. The addition of smoked salmon gave a slight textural dimension to the whole, but I didn't quite understand its addition to the dish. For sure its omission would have left the dish sufficiently balanced - as it was, its addition just seemed to raise a question as opposed to providing an answer. The textures ended up fighting with each other. Felt the whole needed something to bring it all together. Perhaps some fresh herb? Or maybe I should have tried the fish meats separately with the other bits on the plate. Or maybe it's just that Salmon doesn't like Monkfish. Some fish are like that. Same with some people, eh?

Roasted Monkfish with Smoked Salmon, Chestnut Puree and Red Wine Sauce
Pairing a Bordeaux with Fish was always going to be a problem. But this is the world of Wine Dinners and both wine maker and chef do what they can with what they have. As it was, the 2000 had been determined as the vintage of choice. One of the generally accepted better years for Bordeaux, it promised much. And totally delivered - beautiful rich ruby in the glass with a tight nose that gave off mint and eucalyptus on a swirl. The taste is magnificent - rich and opulent with full sparky fruit in lovely balance with tannins and alcohol. This is a cracking wine, with a leather bootsy feel in the mouth like an old man's Shiraz. Lot of power here - could keep this one in the mouth all night. Finish is equally full, though not so as to thud when it hits the basement. It's nice now, but it has a long long way to go before its peak; at least another five years and probably longer - the fruit and tannins can even out even more and produce a stunner of a wine. 

Drinking the other wines after the 2000 served only to highlight its power - the 2009 Les Fiefs became thin but easy whilst the 2005 showed sleek, easy, and classy elegance and did quite well with the Monkfish. Definitely more feminine in character, with grace and charm. The one the guys would take home to meet the mother. Take home the 2000 and she might get ravaged. Was certainly ravaging me. Chain me to the table.

Service was brisk, and plates got cleared smoothly and without fuss or chitchat. Nicely unobtrusive, except for the delivery of the food when a brief description of the dish got given. No such fanfare with the wine, save for an announcement of the vintage and a reasonable pour (though not according to the Geezer, who later opined that the servings were a bit lean - but then he always says that). 

Out came the 2010, on paper one of the vintages of the century. Initial impressions looked good - lovely ruby and garnet in the glass, full on the nose with herb notes and a hint of mint. Medium bodied, good fruit though a bit sharp on the finish. Not comparing favourably to the others at this point in the proceedings. Felt a bit bleeeagh and lacking some element of fire for a decent Bordeaux. Maybe some food would let it come out. 

Forgot to photo my beef, this was next door's, er, lamb?
It was being paired with the Wagyu Beef which came out to great fanfare and pleasingly hot. The Potato and Porcini Girolles proved excellent - bite, smoke, lightly salted and beautiful firm texture that gave a pleasant drying out sensation as they danced across the mouth (though not enough to parch). The Rossini sauce had a slightly sour vinegar note on the finish, though all went nicely with the wonderfully tender and lovingly seared beef. I had the middle of the cut which had good bite and char, though my note says it lacked a little….   beef. It was fine, fair, and an excellent cut of Wagyu; just seemed to find myself saying "where's the beef?" It was clearly there, just somehow…  not there as well. Odd. Perhaps it was too fine for me and my rustic leanings. Maybe in time. No one else was complaining. But no one else was enthusing either.

The 2010 indeed started showing out with the meat, letting an elegant, soft, fruity but firm wine to come through. The 2010 seems more of a steak wine compared to the 2000 which would stand up nicely to a hearty beef casserole. 

Naturally, I had to try the wonderful Girolles with some of the bread. It is a very British thing to slather a hunk of bread with anything on the plate. Some of us grew up on Chip Butties, or French Fries in a sandwich dripping with butter. Makes me salivate just thinking about them. On this occasion, the Girolle Buttie was… filling. But the starch and the carbo did no real favours for each other. Better to have left the Girolle to soak up the Rossini sauce. Or not, as the combo had the effect of clagging up the throat so bad that not even the grip of the 2000 could shift it. Sat there sipping the top end Bordeaux and hoping that it would dislodge the clag in the throat was a shade heartbreaking. Especially in the face of no more top ups coming out. Maybe the Geezer was right.

Strawberry Soup with Vanilla Olive Oil, Warm Raspberry Financier
Which became the perfect cue for the entry of the final 2009. Being paired with the dessert was clearly a non starter, but it did do sterling work in clearing the throat. Nearly removed the tonsils too and definitely grated a layer of enamel off the back of the teeth. This was one fierce brother of a wine. Huge fruit and tannin, though somehow a bit thin on the finish - the heft in the mouth did not seem matched with heft in the descent. Perhaps the throat scrape was getting in the way. Indeed, so this proved when the 2009 was drunk after dessert - there was a lot of grip on the finish. 

Dessert was very, very pleasant, a kind of cold strawberry soup with lots of sweet added. Not unlike a Lassi but with the freshest fruit you could imagine - brilliantly crisp and sweet and so, so fresh. The ensemble reminded of Opal Fruits we had as kids but in liquid form. Belter.

The Financier had a sponge, suet pudding feel, a bit like the Jam Roly Poly we would have for our school dinner dessert. Strange how some tastes come back to you at odd times...

Feeling very mellow, it was only at this point that we realised that no one had said anything about the wines. Seems that our guest of honour missed her flight from France, though whether she had been booked on Air France and they had cancelled due to the pilot's strike was not clarified. Rant alert - Air France had also cancelled mine and Lenglui's return flight to Paris but KLM stepped up to the plate brilliantly and sorted everything out by getting us on MAS planes there and back. And all through Facebook. High, high praise for KLM - definitely will fly with them when the occasion merits. 

The Governor getting his tie wiped. As one does...
Seems all the wines were in Magnum which I was told helps the wine keep longer and consequently taste better in the long term. Fair enough. Storage must be a pain, though. Can't fit them in a wine fridge. 

The Chateau Lagrange wines on the night
The Governor rising from his seat signaled the end of the night. We got told that some people had tackled the chef about the overcooked fish and felt a bit miffed that he did not own up to it. Talking to other people, they said their Monkfish was excellent. Such conflicting responses to the same dish usually point to issues in the timing and getting it out of the kitchen and on to the table. The choreography here can sometimes get a shade slow when guest numbers are high and courses are delicate and complex. It is often the price we pay for getting a good deal on the food and wine combo - kitchens cannot always cope with numbers and the Monkfish that some felt was overcooked would seem to suggest that the Lafite is no exception. As said, is a price we pay. 

So, yes, Lafite pretty much delivered for me on this occasion. Way, way better food than the disaster that was the APZ dinner in July 2013 in the Selangor Room. Thoroughly enjoyed the Amuse Bouche, the Terrine, the Girolles, and Dessert. My Monkfish was firm, but given the context of getting food out to fifty punters, acceptable (though on a normal night I might indeed have sent it back - as said, overloading the kitchen and staff is a price we pay to enjoy the wines) but Somehow I didn't quite get the Tenderloin or the Salmon. So it goes. The Chateau Lagrange wines were delightful, showcasing the differences in the vintages and with some stellar expressions on display. Thinking on this, some of the other 2010s I have sampled also haven't seemed to stand up to the apparent stellarness of the year. The Chateau Pontet-Canet and Chateau Fieuzal spring to mind. I do subscribe to the view that one should not normally drink Bordeaux for at least ten years. And there is clearly life in both the 2000 and 2005. But for the 2010 it seems to be a consistent feeling like there is not really enough of anything to warrant keeping it for the long term. We have some 2000 and 2005 Bordeaux in the wine fridge at home - on this evening's drinking, they still have a long way to go. But it doesn't look like many 2010s are going to be taking up residence there any time soon. Life can be full of such difficult decisions. I should be so lucky - Cheers!!

Chateau Lagrange Wine Dinner Menu
3 Amuse Bouche to start with:
Salmon Tartar and Fresh Frisée Salad Porcini Soup, Truffle Emulsion Air Dry Beef Roulade, Cream Cheese and Fresh Herbs 
Château les Fiefs de Lagrange 2009

Roasted Duck Liver Terrine, Puy Lentils Coulis, Porcini Chutney
La Terrine de Foie Gras Fumé, Coulis de Lentilles du Puy, Chutney de Cèpes 
Château Lagrange 2005

Roasted Monkfish with Smoked Salmon, Chestnut Puree and Red Wine Sauce
La Lotte Rotie Piqué de Saumon Fumé, Purée de Chataîgne et Sauce Vin Rouge 
Château Lagrange 2000

Wagyu Beef Tenderloin with Rossini Sauce, Potato and Porcini Truffle Fresh Girolles
Le Tournedos de Bœuf Sauce Vin Rouge, Truffe de Pomme de Terre et Cèpes, Girolles Fraîches 
Château Lagrange 2010

Strawberry Soup with Vanilla Olive Oil, Warm Raspberry Financier
La Soupe de Fraise à l’Huile d’Olive Vanillée, Financier Tiéde à la Framboise 
Château Lagrange 2009

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Tokaji Wine at Lai Po Heen - unbelievably good!!

Holdvölgy Wine Dinner at Lai Po Heen, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Kuala Lumpur September 19th 2014

Bit of an odd one this - got the email for the dinner from Dave at Artisan Cellars and had originally decided against, given the price and the preponderance of sweet wines on offer. Not the best thing for a mild diabetic to suck down, notwithstanding his occasional desperation to feed his hugely sweet tooth. They did look attractive though, with glowing reports of their being lodged in a number of Michelin Star cellars. We don't get much quality Hungarian wines in KL, so there was a slight tinge of regret as the email declining the invite got sent. Then a few days later I get a call from Dave urging me to come and saying that he could get a good deal as opposed to the original price the organisers were looking to levy. Seems he persuaded them that the price needed dropping, and could I raise anyone else to go. He also said that only some of the wines were sweet. Lenglui had already decided against due to a massage having been booked for that night, but said I should go. A definite sign from the Wine and Food Gods. From our usual wine chugger groups I could only raise the Kiwi. So it would transpire that twelve people gathered around the table in the private room of the Lai Po Heen restaurant to sample Chef Ricky Thein's best and some Hungarian wines from the Holdvölgy vineyards. We were also to be sommeliered to by Peter Teng, Head Sommelier at the hotel and past winner of Malaysia Sommelier and South-East Asia Sommelier of the Year contests in 2010. We would also be joined by Natalia Demko from Holdvölgy to help explain the wines and tell us about the vineyard.

Aszu grape before getting Nobly Rotten
My only memory of Hungarian wine was the Tiger Milk I would occasionally chug at parties in the early 1980s and some ropey red stuff we had during a three day visit to Budapest in 2006 with an occasional cheek burning Tokaji at the odd wine dinner here and there. There was also one occasion at the Lake Club when someone brought some in for a wine dinner and it turned out to be pretty grim drinking. Having said that, the Tokaji region has been producing wine under state regulation for over 250 years (predating Bordeaux) so there must be some good stuff in there somewhere. And indeed, the output from the Holdvölgy vineyard appears to be becoming the stuff of legend. Translating into "Valley of the Moon", Holdvölgy started life as a birthday gift from current owner Pascal Demko's mother to her husband. In this, Pascal was tasked by mother to go find vines to plant in this parcel of volcanic soil based land in the Mad basin in the district of Tokaji. This has now grown to 19 parcels on seven sites across 25 hectares, with the wines finding their way on to the lists of a growing number of Michelin Star restaurants. Holdvölgy produces a range of wines from grape varietals that have little meaning to most of us - Furmint, Aszu, Harslevelu, Zeta - and gives each wine an evocative name that, er, evokes some form of contemplation - Meditation, Expression, Intuition. Seems owner Pascal is very particular about the wines produced - story goes he held on for four vintages before releasing his wines. Grapes from the 19 parcels across the seven vineyard Crus are harvested by hand for separate vinification in small steel tanks. Fermentation and ageing of the dry wines is mainly in steel though with some used oak whilst the sweet wines get aged in a mix of French and Hungarian oak. Only wild yeasts are used. 

Aszu Grape with Noble Rot
As said, was not originally enamoured with the idea of sweet gluggy wines with Chinese style food, but what a belting night it turned out to be. Individually, both wines and food were magnificent, but when paired with some superb service and wine knowledge and a charming if slightly austere ambience it was stellar. Seriously one of the best wine and food matchings I have sat down to. 

It didn't start too well - I was eventually a bit late. I would have been way on time, but trying to get into the Mandarin Hotel car park proved a fools errand and needed to get given up as a bad job. It would have taken a clear twenty minutes to get to the gate and a further fifteen trying to find a space. Whilst sat there waiting, I remembered the last time I had tried to get into the Mandarin Car Park - got to the gate only to be told that the thing was full and I would have to go park in the KLCC and walk across. Given this I decided to cut loss and go straight to KLCC. This proved to end up being a tour around the Twin Tower to get into the car park entrance and another ten minutes trying to figure out how to get to the Parkson (which would be the best spot to get out from). Somehow the car park directions didn't seem to want to let me get there, and I had to double back a couple of times until I got a familiar landmark (Isetan!) and was then able figure it all out from there. Add to this the slowness of the lifts and I was a bit hot and bothered by the time I got to the restaurant. Had a similar recent experience with the Westin - little chap in the rain there with a Car Park Full sign and no indication where else could park. Madness when you can barely get into a hotel entrance these days. Is this a trend? Car Parks being unable to cope with the volume of cars when multiple functions are taking place? Think I might give up Hotel restaurants. 

Furmint Grape and Leaf
Enough. I got there before the food came out. The Kiwi had earlier texted me to say they were starting, and he was sat opposite with Roderick Wong, Founder of The Wine Academy and President of the Sommelier Association of Malaysia. Holdvölgy External Relations Rep Natalia Demko sat between Chad Merchant from The Expat and Bel from the MO.  Also there was old friend and colleague from HELP College Danny and wife and some new friends joining the party from Singapore. Dave from Artisan Cellars was resplendent in a funky shirt and jacket which kind of matched each other in a modish sort of way. As said the room felt a bit austere with its corporate gold and brown feel and high walls built to impress and intimidate. The lighting was a bit on the bright side, and not helped by the sparkling silver table cloth (presume the Moon?) and pristine white tableware. The people also seemed a bit stiff, perhaps intimidated by the austere walls and furniture. Or maybe a bit peeved because I was late. It all felt like it needed a bit of warming up. Which would happen. We are party people.

The "Meditation"
Sitting down and apologising for the madness parking, the nice man with the wine gave me a glass of Wine One, the "Meditation". Made from dry non-botrytised Furmint grapes, the notes said it was "Crisp and racy…with a very appealing corpulence. Fresh ripe flavours of apricot, citrus, mirabelle, and acacia and with an almond and rock salt complexity. Intense, incisive, a beautifully ripe and refreshingly mineral Furmint." I got a Gewurz kind of feel in the mouth, with a crabapple tang and tropical fruit a la chardonnay. Passion fruit, and citrus lemon which gave the wine its "racy". Nicely complex, though I missed the crisp somewhere. Perhaps I was just thirsty. It chugged very nicely. 

Holdvolgy's Natalia Demko
Holdvölgy's Natalia Demko gave a brief description of the winery and its wines and shared photos of the vineyard and grapes on an iPad. It all looked very pretty and the photos were well shot. Presume with the surname there is a family relation with owner Pascal, though no one seemed to find out for sure [Natalia is Pascal's sister - Ed]. Too busy looking at the grape shots. And drinking. Looked definitely worth a visit, though looking at the map it would be a real adventure. About 200 clicks north west of Budapest toward the border with Slovakia. Anyone speak Hungarian? Exactly...

The Chilled Crabmeat Rolls came out looking like tiny samosas in thin glasspaper pastry. Little bit bland in the mouth, a smear of mango on the plate gave a good and needful zap on the gunge-y mayonnaise crab texture which made things quite pleasant and let everything slip past the cheeks with ease. A good mouthful, with a good crunch foundation provided by some redcurrant and cucumber in the roll. Matching wise, the combo cut the citrus on the wine quite nicely which suppressed its raciness quite severely. This gave rise to a hit of spicy honey, and something that felt almost coconut. A fair and easy start to whet the palate. 

Chilled Crab Meat Rolls
Wine Two "Expression" came out ahead of the food. The Holdvolgy Facebook page has a note on the 2009 "Expression", holding it to be "complex in the nose, smoky-stony minerality, different spices, peach and citrus. Tense with beautiful acidity, proportional structure, very nice long finish. On the palate a lot of citrus, pear and spices. With full of fresh notes, still a young wine that has not yet reached its peak." Okay. I got a somewhat sour mouth and finish at first which gave way to honey, spice and almond down the glass. So it goes. 

The "Expression"
Some wines do have a great sense of the terroir about them, not only in a plot sense but often in a national sense. Spain and South Africa come to mind, each with that sense of baked red brick about them. I got similar with the "Expression" - there's a unique Balkan tang, a sharp rip of fiery fruit acid on the throat, almost industrial and evoking (?) impressions of proletarian Soviet domination some of us vaguely remember from occasional TV news coverage in the early Eighties. A fierce grip reminiscent of the bottles of Tiger Milk we would chug though in fairness this one was far bigger in both width and depth terms. Firm and full, with great fruit.  A memory comes to mind of Ma Slade, the mum of my old band mucker Martin in Barry keeping a bottle in the fridge and sharing a glass with me in the kitchen. Wow, wines of the 1980s - Tiger Milk, Blue Nun, Black Tower and other grim things. Bull's Blood was another. Wine to put hairs on the chest. I digress.

Double Boiled Chicken Soup
The Double Boiled Chicken Soup was very good, with the added Fish Maw lending a sense of the opulent and tasting extremely fine. The use of Mineral water to make the soup was a first for me and really softened the broth into a fine clean easy liquid. There was a great sense of finesse in the texture of this broth. The chicken helped tame its light spice whilst the fish maw and scallop were totally fresh in taste and texture. Certainly one of the better ones I have had. Not overdone with salt or MSG. Very very good. 

Wine-wise, the "Meditation" felt a better match than the "Expression". "Meditation" gave off manuka honey, with a rich toffee note coming through whilst "Expression" just got neutralised. Belter. 

I started sharing with my foodie neighbour what I did and he gave a delightful summation - the "endless exploration of wines and foods and their matches." Wow. When someone gets unexpectedly lyrical like that, tends to make you feel both linguistically inadequate yet wildly excited at the same time. Got me feeling like Don Quixote in the Man of La Mancha singing "The Impossible Dream" - This is my quest… to follow that star… the Wine Star. Well, I suppose someone has to...

The "Eloquence"
Wine Three was the "Eloquence". This is made from a varietal called Szamorodni, which the notes say is on the way to total dessert sweetness but which holds slightly back from being a firm belt of sugar. The notes say the grapes are semi botrytised which "give great complexity in to the wine without any loss of freshness, Spiced pear, nectarines and tangerine all flood the mouth…  a wonderfully precise, pure and graceful glass of Tokaji." 

Szamorodni Grape
Have to agree. "Eloquence" is aptly named, possessing a delightful texture - not quite full on dessert unctuous, yet with a great structure and mouth feel. Like sipping on a light Riesling dessert wine but with brilliant zinging acidity. Very, very nice. Could sip this one all night and over the weekend. Pour this one over ice cream and aiyo…..

The next dish was the Slow Cooked Two Headed Abalone. This was serious quality top end Chinese delicacy. We were advised that the two head compares to "doubling" which in the cultural context means big time premium. Kind of like "double happiness" we were having double abalone. At least I think that is what I heard. Online research seems to suggest that the heads relate to the weight of the abalone.  One Yahoo answer has it that the 'heads' are counted in 600g being equal to 1 kati. So a One Headed Abalone means there is only one abalone in a kati (or each one is 600g). A Two Headed means there are two abalone to one kati, which becomes 300g each. This would seem to suggest that the younger (and lighter) the abalone then the sweeter the meat, which seems to be borne out by some of the blogs. 

Slow Cooked Two Head Abalone in Golden Broth - wooooooooooo....
Usually I take such bluff and fluff with a pinch of euphemistic salt, but on this occasion it was well merited. The Abalone was the total business. Taste, texture, and a firm full bite and bounce in the flesh. Very lightly steamed and far from overseasoned. At Chinese style dinners when I get served the Abalone, I normally leave it in the centre Lazy Susan for others who more appreciative of this delicacy to enjoy. This time I was ready to steal any leftovers on the plates from neighbours. The Golden Broth in which the Abalone was being soaked was equally delightful - full taste without oil or salt. New friend Adrian asked for some steamed plain white rice to help soak up the broth which proved genius. The rice helped bring out a new dimension in the broth, a more satisfying belt on the palate and a needful thunk of carbo landing in the stomach. Wow wow wow wow wow. Score a big one to the chef for this one. Pairing it with some asparagus was clever, to give a stalky vegetal contrast to the clean bite on the Abalone. Totally Memorable. Cracker of a dish.

The "Eloquence" got its zingy acid cut savagely by the Double Head broth, but all this did was allow some rich honey and a massive toffee note to come through. Love this wine - great balance and structure, lot of complexity and it just gives and gives. The total business.

Guests and ambience
It was refreshing to see the staff being quite generous with the wine servings. Top-ups were swift and welcome. Sommelier Peter Teng showed why he is Champion with his explanations of the dishes and the wine matchings as they came to the table. For our fourth dish, I thought I heard him say that the Foie Gras we would be having was from China. He further advised that very good Foie Gras is available from China, and seemed to suggest that the quality of the Foie Gras was due to early European influence in China. Okay…   I know the French were in Indochina, and duck and goose are indeed favourite birds across the Chinese mainland. Google research shows that French manufacturers are producing it on the Chinese mainland to get around an import ban on FG in the face of rising mainland demand for it. Guess there is some spillover which is how it finds its way here. But people in China manufacturing Foie Gras on their own for consumption was a new one. Not much on the web on this either. Have to dig a bit deeper on this one. Perhaps I heard wrong.

Fragrant Fried Rice with Foie Gras
The idea of pairing Foie Gras with Chinese Fried Rice seemed a bit like eating Caviar with a bag of Fries (I call them Chips - chipped potatoes deep fried). But it kind of worked. On its own, the Fried Rice was clearly composed of premium ingredients in its preparation, though the resulting combo felt a shade snuzz - far from bad, but not brilliantly memorable. The rice was full of spice and savoury, and perhaps that was the issue for me - all spice and air and lacking a decent bit of substance. Whilst spice and savoury tend to nicely supercharge the taste of the wines with which they get paired, they can get in the way of the tasting. The tastebuds get a bit seared and numb and the whole exercise ends up redundant. I'm also guessing that the rice was fried in some light oil since there was very little taste in the rice grains. Far from the hearty and stick-in-the-craw servings you get at the Marco Polo or the Overseas. But then, we are at the Mandarin Oriental, so greater finesse is more expected and required. Can't expect Marco Polo soul food at upmarket Hotels. Fair enough.

The Foie Gras got kind of absorbed into the rice when put into the mouth. The starch seemed to suck the FG texture to weld both into a neat bite of rice that saltily skipped along the tongue and teeth and into the oblivion of the gullet with little in the way of fuss. Or real fanfare, actually. I think I missed it. I have eaten Foie Gras with Toasted Bread on the streets of Paris and this pairing was magnificent. But tonight at the Lai Po Heen, it all seemed about the texture. Which was delightful, don't get me wrong - just seemed to lack a bit of "thunk" in the mouth. Maybe one of those East vs West things - texture vs taste. Using rice as a carbo support may need a bit of time for me. Be interesting to find out if pairing Foie Gras with Fried Rice is standard restaurant practice in Hong Kong and Beijing.

The "Signature"
The Rice and FG was being paired with the "Signature". This was a blend of nobly rotted furmint, harslevelu and zeta grapes and is the wine that maker Pascal calls his Maserati - "modern, fast and edgy". He has not presented this wine for Tokaji classification, which requires certain compliance conditions to be met. Seems he enjoys the liberation this gives him and as a result he is able to fine tune the blend if felt necessary. The notes indicate "aromatics of marmalade honey. Rich and sweet on the palate balanced by the crisp acidity. Very refreshing, not cloying."

I found it delightfully smooth and far from sugary. Medium body, clean finish, rich in its coating of the mouth. Seems the Furmint grape has a naturally high acidity, so when it gets botrytised it manages to mitigate that cloying quality that plagues many dessert style offerings. It also means that it can both age and be drunk young. It was magnificent - felt like sucking on a bee hive without the sting. In matching terms, it was an amazing choice to pair with the Foie Gras. It blitzed the wine into a spicy textural zap on the mouth and cheeks and seemed to bring out a light fire (though in retrospect this could have been the chili in the scallop sauce). 

The remnants of Wine Three "Eloquence" also worked wonderfully, though in a somewhat lighter sense. The weight of the wine was less powerful and it was perhaps this quality that gave a greater sense of the complementary - staying out of the way of the sweeter elements of the food to create a softer balance.Like comparing a gentle kiss on the cheek to a full on lip-lock. Phoooooooo…. We were still getting top ups of the "Eloquence", though the "Signature" seemed to have disappeared. Someone must have really sucked on that bottle. Might have been me...

On the home stretch now, and getting a bit more lively around the table. Wine will do that. It truly is an amazing creation. When people are laughing with each other, how can they fight? Makes me think some parts of the world could well learn from this.

Dessert got served. On its own, it seemed to lack bite and body. Texturally, the Yam Cake came over as a cross between a mousse and a blancmange and consequently felt a bit thin and creamy light in body. Combined with the ice cream on some glutinous rice bits, it came off like cold milky goo with crispish nibs. But it grew on you. Its apparent bland and purple airiness became quite easing on the palate after the assault from the rice and foie gras. Again, an East vs West thing where a heavy dish is followed by a light one to allow the system to breathe. And it worked - the body was very happy to take a break and get some "air".

Sweetened Yam Cake and Purple Glutinous Rice
Dessert was being paired with the "Intuition", a Muscat that was a blend of both botrytised and non-botrytised grapes from a single vineyard. The notes talk about "ultra exotic ripe tropical fruits, honey and petroleum. Vivacious and lively in the mouth [with] honeyed botrytised fruits… beguiled by aromatic wood spice elements". We found it nicely firm (though not so much as a full on Tokaji) yet with enough heft to support the liquid milky texture of the dessert. A good floral nose and feel, with a spicy acidity that whipped the tonsil on the way past (is this what they call the mid palate?) and seemed to suck all the spit from the throat. Bit like having a rub down around the mouth with a paper towel. Real ripper. 

The "Intuition"
Given the context of light following heavy, the selection of the Muscat definitely worked - a more syrupy textured wine would have killed the delicacy of the Yam and ice cream. Excellent choice to pair these two. 

The nice man with the wine came around with remnants of the bottles and asked if we would like some more of any that was left. I picked Number Three. Then Number Two. He kindly obliged. Other friends picked their favourites. We sucked up the lot.  All the wines showed great finesse. Wine Two especially - the "Expression" still felt frisky in the glass at the end of the night though it had gotten a bit stinky. Wine One "Meditation" was still light and fragrant - airy, breathless, full of light and breeze. Wine Three "Eloquence" still had lovely texture, full and chewy despite its lower sugar levels. As said, Wine Four "Signature" had long disappeared and little more was forthcoming. The Kiwi suggested we should buy for the IWFS. Fully agree. 

With the wines still on the table, it was actually pleasant to get served a cup of tea at this juncture. The wines were all pretty unctuous in their bodies and hot tea became the perfect throat cleaner. The little chocolate petits fours were also quite delightful and made for a perfect end to a brilliant evening. 

Very little to fault here. Certainly felt like enough food had been served. No one seemed to feel the need for more and everyone was clearly replete and mellow at the end. 

Executive Chef Ricky Thein, Holdvolgy's Natalia Demko and Head Sommelier Peter Teng
The matches between food and wines were brilliantly thought through. Holdvölgy's Natalia felt that the pairing showcased more complexity in her wines, saying that "with this type of Chinese food I discovered other aspects of our wines. For example for Meditation walnut and hazelnut notes came up that I’ve never experienced before. This type of pairing just showed the perfect teamwork of Peter Teng, the Head Sommelier and Chef Ricky Thein."  Absolutely.

I think I'm slowly getting to grips with the concept of complexity, though it does occasionally seem that terms like finesse, complexity and other wine terms can mean different things to different people. My old Law Professor always demanded that one determine one's standpoint in all things - here goes. For me, if there's more to a wine than what is first tasted and which is brought out by good food, then the wine has complexity. It's kind of like that umami factor in food - there's also an umami factor in wine beyond the traditional balance across alcohol, acidity, tannin, alcohol and fruit. Add the layers of spice and texture that can impact and elevate this fermented grape juice to the sublime and we start to get a sense of why some of us shell out silly sums of money for a taste of it. Trying to describe such complexities feels a bit beyond me at times. And truth be told I can't really get that motivated to fully articulate those complexities - feeling a bit too old to try and learn the complete language of wine and would rather be drinking and commenting with the vocabulary to hand. Feels a bit more real for some reason. And I also think that getting too anal will turn people away. Tends to turn me off when I read other more oenological blogs. Keep it an easy light read - no point to get too scientific with what should be fun, eh? 

[sings as he exits] "This is my Quest…"  [fades out]

Lai Po Heen Executive Chef Ricky Thein
(pic courtesy of Chad Merchant)
Lai Po Heen Menu

Chili Crab Meat Rolls, Mango and Passion Fruit Mayonnaise
Tokaji Furmint "Meditation" Holdvology 2007

Double Boiled Chicken Soup - Natural Mineral Water with Fish Maw and Cordycep Bulb
Tokaji Harslevelu "Expression" Holdvology 2007

Slow Cooked Two Headed Abalone in Golden Broth
Tokaji Szamorodni "Eloquence" Holdvology 2007

Fragrant Black Sesame Fried Rice with Spicy Scallop Sauce, Foie Gras and Asparagus - Sprinkled with Fish Roe
Tokaji Selection "Signature" Holdvology 2007

Sweetened Yam Cake and Purple Glutinous Rice, Vanilla Ice Cream
Muscat "Intuition No 2" Holdvology 2008

Sweet Sensations with Coffee or Tea

Lai Po Heen
Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur
Tel +(603) 2380 8888

Lai Po Heen Sweet Sensations (pic courtesy of Chad Merchant)

Holdvölgy (Moon Valley) Wines Notes

Wine One
 Meditation Furmint 2007
A dry, non-botrytised Furmint from four single vineyard parcels, 80% fermented and aged in steel tanks, 20% in used oak barrels. Crisp and racy as you would expect from a Furmint with a very appealing corpulence. Fresh ripe flavours of apricot, citrus, mirabelle, and acacia and with an almond and rock salt complexity. Intense, incisive, a beautifully ripe and refreshingly mineral Furmint.

Wine Two
 Expression Harslevelu Becsek 2009
From the Holdvolgy single vineyard. Fermented using healthy non botrytised fruit in steel tanks with further ageing in tanks sur lie. Bright, floral and expressive notes of dried flower, chervil and honeycomb, the palate is bursting with similarly complex and intense flavours of stonefruit, butter, herb, hazelnut and almond, together with a racy lemon rind quality. A wine of great depth, character and exuberance.

Wine Three
 Eloquence Szamorodni Sweet 2007
A glorious sweetie from Holdvolgy that sits a step before full Aszu on the sweetness scale. The team harvest whole bunches which are then destemmed before being crushed These semi botrytised grapes give great complexity in to the wine without any loss of freshness, Spiced pear, nectarines and tangerine all flood the mouth. Harvested at 104g/l this is a wonderfully precise, pure and graceful glass of Tokaji.

Zeta Grape and Leaf
Wine Four - 2007 
 Signature Sweet Blend
Made from the furmint, harslevelu and zeta grapes. The grapes are late harvested and infected with the noble rot botrytis. The fungus penetrates the skin, increasing the sugar content and concentrating the flavours. Demko describes Signature as the "Maserati of wines" : it is modern, fast and edgy. This wine allows him the freedom to do what he wants, unconstrained by Tokaji regulations. For example, he may blend dry wines to increase the acidity of the wine. On the nose, aromatics of marmalade honey. Rich and sweet on the palate balanced by the crisp acidity. Very refreshing, the 125g/l of sugar is not cloying.

Wine Five 
 Intuition No 2 Muscat 2008
Muscat a Petits Grains, with a blend of botrytised and non botrytised bunches from the single vineyard of Nyulaszo. 99g/l residual sugar Only 1,200 500ml bottles produced. A unique nose that mixes ultra exotic ripe tropical fruits, honey and petroleum. Vivacious and lively in the mouth thanks to high acidity. Its honeyed botrytised fruits are beguiled by aromatic wood spice elements. Slightly lower in acidity that the Aszu but also less sweet overall in terms of residual sugar, Slithery and chewy in the mouth with lovely silkiness and lingering mango inner mouth perfume. 

Photos of grapes and logo from Holdvolgy Facebook page

Dave Chan at Artisan Cellars
+6012 7103278
email dave@artisan-cellars.com

More photos and perceptive reflections available at the excellent Doc Wine site. Check them out at