Saturday, June 18, 2011

Standing on the shoulders of a giant

Ever since my first visit to Cepage some three months ago, I had been looking forward to coming back. As Agent J is out of town on a secret mission involving deep-pan pizzas, Agent T and I decided to go for a long-awaited ladies' lunch. She was kind enough to treat me to lunch as a B-Day gift, and I cannot thank her enough for that :) This was the kind of meal where the food reduces the conversation level to grunts of happiness and where you want to run into the kitchen every 5 minutes to hug the Chef...

It turned out the Chef was out of town today but I had made this booking several weeks ago and he took extreme care to ensure we would be given a real taste of Cepage, and left instructions for the food that would be served, sparing us the impossible task of choosing between dozens of tantalizing dishes on the menu. This came as a surprise, as we had not let the restaurant know this was a special occasion, and we felt really spoilt that such great pains had been taken to make this lunch a memorable experience (we even thought at some point it was a case of mistaken identity...). I had been absolutely amazed the first time I ate here, today I was just blown away. The meal was absolutely perfect up to the tiniest details, from the service to the wonderful flavour pairings and utterly faultless execution of the dishes, to the amazing plating and the unbelievably knowledgeable dining room staff.
I rarely walk out of a restaurant in such a state of contented bliss, and I happily admit my fault-finding can sometimes be exhausting - I just could not find anything to latch on today. Agent T and I were positively impressed by how knowledgeable the dining room staff was - starred chefs sometimes get completely let down by their client-facing staff, but at Cepage it is obvious that the dining room staff have a passion for fine food and a keen interest in the details. This alone is rare enough to deserve praise.

Another point that deserves praise is the unbelievably arty plating of the dishes. The Chef favours white plates, on which ephemeral designs are hand-painted, and the balanced and minimalist visual composition of the dishes, with its emphasis on certain lines and forms, reminds me of ikebana. Discreet Oriental influences are also present in the flavour pairings, and underneath the personality of this incredibly talented Chef, which shines in every dish, one can feel the spirit of his mentor (and my hero...) is still a source of inspiration.

Starting off with a drop of bubbly - Egly Ouriet Brut Tradition Grand Cru

Surreal golden colour and crisp and floral on the palate. Excellent.

The bread basket is one of the best in town, on par levels with Caprice and L'Atelier

My pick for today: baguette, cheese bread and sourdough with raisins.

The incredibly fluffy baguette deserves a special mention. The cheese bread was as good as could be, with a sizeable glob of fragrant cheese but yet still light in texture (it reminded me of a similar one at Robuchon a Galera a while ago) and the sourdough was just delicious.

Amuse bouche - potato salad

I loved it that this amazingly elaborate AB, with its expensive ingredients, was introduced to us with such an understated name... The potatoes (from the US - the name escapes me but maybe fingerlings?) were slightly above room temperature and perfectly fondant with a nutty taste, and came with a light mayonnaise sauce topping, capers, chives, smoked salmon, pickled onion, caviar and shiso flowers. At the center of the dish was a generous lump of caviar topped with a deliciously fragrant mix of fresh herbs. The plating was impossibly pretty, and the balance of flavours and textures was incredible. What an amazing start to the meal...

Langoustine dim sum

Oh-my-gawd... where do I start?? Inside the relatively thin wrappers were succulent plump langoustines, cooked to perfection and garnished with a mix of fresh herbs (I detected chervil, dill, mint and flat parsley). Each dim sum was topped with a piece of the sweetest sea urchin and the plate was garnished with a creamy parmesan "foam" sauce which was admirably balanced so as to complement the other very delicate flavours on the plate. A few sprigs of chives completed the dish. Delicate and masterfully executed.

Scallops in seaweed butter

These giant scallops from Tasmania had nothing to envy to their Hokkaido cousins... The knowledgeable member of staff who introduced the dish informed us that these had been broiled under a salamander - where else have you heard dining room staff use this word !? The tender scallops were amazingly cooked, golden on the outside and still slightly translucent on the inside, and the seaweed butter sauce was generously sprinkled with crushed pink peppercorn and thinly chopped chives. I made a point of wiping every last drop of the warm buttery sauce with pieces of bread... and I probably licked my fingers in the process (before you ask, no, you can't take me anywhere lol).

Duck two ways

I never order foie gras in restaurants, because for some reason I never expect to be overly impressed by a comfort food, and when I have a rendez-vous with the Stars, I prefer to go for more adventurous dishes... but this might very well change after today. This had to be the best foie gras I had in a very long time. The pairing with the ultra-tender and slightly gamey sous-vide breast was a match made in heaven. The plate was garnished with a similar mixture of fresh herbs as on the AB and which turned out to work amazingly well with this dish too... The daikon/foie medaillons on the sides were an interesting (and daring) flavour combination. What a gorgeously decadent dish!

Serpolet (thyme) crème brûlée and honey-roasted Provence apricots

I had had my eye on this dessert ever since it was added on the menu a couple of weeks ago, and it was just as brilliant as I expected. An amazingly creamy brûlée, lightly caramelized, topped with sweet roasted apricots and enhanced by the invigorating herbal aroma of the thyme. The mini mille-feuilles garnish was deliciously flaky, creamy and buttery. The incredibly cute plating is a winner too :)

Wild strawberry tart in a cup

Strawberry coulis, vanilla custard, buttery biscuit crumbs, lime granité AND the star of the show... the French wild strawberry, finally in season! Fruity, fragrant and delicious. The lime granité was just tart and citrussy enough to highlight the sweetness and the deep aroma of the strawberries without overpowering it, before the mellow vanilla notes of the custard hit the palate. A seemingly simple flavour pairing, extremely well balanced and remarkably well executed.
Petits-fours - from front to back: mulled wine jellies, vanilla marshmallow, pistacchio and almond macarons, chocolate and raspberry shortbreads

I very distinctly remember being underwhelmed by the petits-fours on my first visit, but I am happy to report this was not the case today. These were on a completely different level. The mulled wine jellies were the only ones I recognised from my last meal here, and were still as good as I remembered. The other 3 were new to me. The marshmallows were packed with fragrant vanilla and had a light fluffy texture. The shortbreads were delicious, and the awesome chocolate cream that glued the raspberries on them deserves a special mention. The winner on this plate was the almond macaron - in these times on fancy-flavoured macarons, it is incredibly difficult to find a good, old-fashioned almond original, and this one was not only daringly classic, it was also absolutely perfect both in taste and texture; soft, sweet and roasted nutty flavours, and filled with an amazing almond buttercream. Wow.

More petits-fours: mini éclairs

I have to say I have a very classic taste when it comes to desserts, and these adorable éclairs were right up my alley. The vanilla cream filling was gorgeous, and the choux pastry was unnaturally light and soft. I wish these came in adult size :) 

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