Jan 1, 2011

in which i grumble about gels

happy new year! on this first morning of 2011, a heavy rain falls. last night, everyone brought their wives and children to jc and maud's home, where eventually conversation turned to the cost of living in this tropical paradise. in the last two years, the price of real estate has gone through the roof. who is buying these million-dollar shoebox apartments and how is this sustainable in the long term? the combined brainpower at the overloaded table could provide no answer.

my grumbling is less about the rising price of real estate and more about the rising price of restaurants accompanied only by a precipitous decline in relative quality. not long ago, it was difficult to find a meal here that was so bad it wasn't worth the price, both at the upper and the lower ends of the spectrum: inexpensive food was largely competent and sometimes very good; expensive food was often excellent and only rarely mediocre. there was a small population of moderately expensive restaurants at which "ambience," slightly fancier furniture, long menu descriptions, and trendiness took the place of quality, but they were always easy to detect and avoid. calvin trillin, one of my all-time favourite authors, identified the phenomenon's american incarnation as the restaurants generically known as la maison de la casa house, continental cuisine. he expands considerably on this in "the traveling man's burden" (collected in the tummy trilogies, which i recommend without reservation): "Being in a traveling trade myself, I know the problem of asking someone in a strange city for the best restaurant in town and being led to some purple palace that serves 'Continental cuisine' and has as its chief creative employee a menu-writer rather than a chef."

on this visit, this last group of restaurants appears to have exploded in size, with the additional twist that some now up the ante and inflate the check with what can only be called innovative cuisine if the term is stretched to breaking point. an immersion circulator and a shelf full of hydrocolloids does not make you a master chef (more anon), nor an innovative one.

restaurants shouldn't be cheap, but they should always provide good value (see my list of nearly perfect meals). better something be simple, humble, and well-made than trumped up but mediocre. is this too much to ask? apparently it is. i will illustrate with a meal at pamplemousse, a "bistro+bar" located within the dempsey road encampment (a neighbourhood which has already matured into one of the epicenters of pricey, low-value dining).

pamplemousse offers a relatively inexpensive lunch (about S$40/US$30 for three courses). the first two courses were almost entirely unmemorable except for their depressing mediocrity. frisee salad with lardons was dressed with a magnificent vinaigrette, but the lardons were cold and inconsistently cut and rendered, and the frisee brown and wilted from age rather than the hot bacon fat from freshly fried lardons. the roulade of sous vide hay-smoked chicken was shot through with unrendered, barely warm chicken fat. slices of goose breast were cooked sous vide at too low a temperature so the meat was almost inedibly tough, and then seared so briefly that almost none of the subcutaneous fat rendered out. high point: pork cheeks perfectly gelatinous, with collagen fully hydrolyzed, but spoiled by the thick and pointless layer of crushed hazelnuts on top. i ate with a sense of growing gloom.

real despair set in at the end of lunch, when the desserts emerged and were presented with the flourish almost all poorly made things are introduced with: a panna cotta topped with a layer of gelled red bean paste, served with crumbled mooncake pastry and a scoop of pandan-flavoured ice cream, and an osmanthus flavoured creme brulee with a scoop of lychee sorbet. the panna cotta was as firm as a poorly made sweet potato pie filling. the layer of red bean gel up top was, however, even stiffer and more glutinous, so that it was impossible to use the fork provided to cut a piece of both red bean gel and panna cotta without causing the panna cotta underneath to splay out in all directions. mechanically, a perplexingly poorly conceived dessert. the creme brulee had no detectable aroma of osmanthus but anyway was overcooked: firm in the centre and weeping on the edges; there was not that faint warmth in the top layer from a recently applied torch or salamander to contrast with the chilled custard beneath. and the lychee sorbet was both inedibly sweet and unpleasantly icy at the same time. (sugar, which is hygroscopic, generally retards the formation of large ice crystals but not, apparently, in this case.)

gels, like egg custards and panna cottas, are almost irreducibly simple. all, therefore, is in the execution. they should only be put on menus if their execution can be reliably perfect. creme brulee and panna cotta especially should wiggle on the cusp between solid and liquid, each spoonful vanishing in the mouth as a rush of flavour. for creme brulees, the whole point of their existence is the contrast between an evanescent custard and the brittle layer of burnt sugar on top. panna cottas are barely set with gelatin; when correctly made with the absolute minimum amount of gelatin for the panna cotta to hold its shape, they go from being a soft, chilled solid to a sudden mouthfilling rush of gently cooked cream as the gel matrix collapses (gelatin melts at body temperature and its viscosity in liquid form is what produces the sensation of unctuousness). this all ran through my mind as i poked at the stiffish gels arrayed on the plate.

the icing on the cake (as it were) was the enormous double-height wall in the restaurant, on which was inscribed, in letters high as my head is tall, the names of ingredients favoured by the chef. there were three typos. we left, pausing only for a handwashing. the soap in the bathroom was, of course, grapefruit-scented.

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