Eurobinge ’11: Paris & Copenhagen


This, along with many other posts, are dearly overdue. Since around October last year, my life has been a nonstop roller coaster ride of passport stamps, time zones and calories. Excuses aside, here's what I've been up to. In October I made a pilgrimage to Zhenjiang with my mother to trace half my roots in the pastoral countryside bordering the Jiangsu capital. I met family I never knew I had, tasted true farm to table cooking, the fruits of their labour.

Soon after I flew to Paris and was enchanted by the city's joie de vivre all over again, was tempted, very tempted to drop everything and enroll in the Ecole Ritz Escoffier.

The real excuse for the Eurotrip was a lunch date with fellow foodies at resto-mecca Noma in Copenhagen, where I discovered I dislike Scandinavian winters but very much like Nordic food- especially what they're serving at Herman.

I then stopped by Milan to visit my parents and we took a memorable drive to nearby Lake Como where spectacular sunsets mixed particularly well with glasses of chianti.

I spent some quality time with friends old and new back in homebase Toronto, rediscovering the city's ever-dynamic food scene. (Yours Truly, Keriwa Cafe, Grand Electric, County General, Barque, The Gabardine, Centro, Sotto Sotto, Enoteca Sociale- to name a few of the places where I ate)

Escaped for a week to Sin City, where I indulged in my love for Celine Dion, drank in the panorama of the Grand Canyon, and did a lot of drinking in general. One particular meal of note was at Sage in Aria.

Sprinkle a couple of quick stops in New York City for The Dutch and Roberta's in there and you have the makings of a delicious end to 2011.

In the new year, after emerging from a punishingly long flu, I promptly made my first visit to India where I rode a camel to the Taj Mahal, ate a bowl of black daal at Peshawri that changed my life, fell in love with Kerala's beaches, backwaters and plantations, and somehow avoided Delhi belly despite eating all and everything.

Whirlwind trips through Chengdu, Macau, Taipei and Phuket later, I am back in my 'cozy' apartment in Singapore along with some newfound fuzzy, green friends that have decided to inhabit my clothes and shoes in my absence. I finally met the wrath of Singapore's humidity.

While I've been getting my life back in order the last few weeks, some exciting things have been brewing. First an update on the Chengdu Street Snacks App - due to technical issues on Rama's side, the app is (obviously) late, but they promise it will be released April 6th (fingers x'd)

In a related realm, the BBC approached me a while ago about the possibility of being in a documentary they are filming on Sichuan food in the capital, and my hometown, Chengdu. It's a one hour feature in a four-part series on the regional foods of China. I'm there this weekend to take celebrity chefs Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang to a couple of Chengdu's longstanding fly restaurants and let the crew into my grandparents house to film some home-cooking action. Can't describe how blessed I feel for this opportunity. I'll be tweeting and instagramming (jingtheory) during the shoot so come along for the ride!

But I digress. This post was meant to be a recap of my eurobinge, so let's get back on track.

~ Paris ~

The journey started last August when a group of us landed a lunch reservation at Noma in November. From that lunch blossomed a string of other plans as I kept adding more stops to my itinerary. First up was Paris. It was my first time back in the city since I was a little girl, and I longed to see the city again through fresh eyes. My friends Adrien and Pablo graciously offered their flat in the 8th arrondissement and were the picture of hospitality.

I ate at Japanese chef-helmed French bistro Le Hide, much lauded Agape Substance, Alain Passard’s vegetable temple L’Arpege, atmospheric Moroccan grotto Le 404, lovely ‘bento parisien’ canteen Nanashi in the Marais, lively Sunday night Kosher feast at Vicky on rue Rennequin, and Inaki Aizpitarte’s hot table Le Chateaubriand. I sipped cafe at Les Deux Magots with daydreams of Jean Paul Sartre and Hemminway a la ‘Midnight in Paris’, tasted the nouveau beaujolais of the season with addictive blocks of comte on rue Montmartre, and indulged food fantasies in the labyrinthine La Grand epicerie, Fauchon, Hediard and chocolate wonderland Patrick Roger. At Jacques Genin I tasted the world’s best caramels, some of which I gave away as gifts, most of which I hogged for myself, especially the passionfruit flavour. I couldn’t resist the pretty tins of mixed tea at Mariage Freres and Kusmi, nor the intoxicating spices in Goumanyat or artisanal hand-pressed hazelnut oils by J. Leblanc et fils.

And then there was the shopping. I won’t try to describe the ecstasies of Frederic Malle and Celine. You wouldn’t understand.

*** L’Arpge ***

The most flawless meal in Paris by far was at L’Arpege. The dining room was formal but nontraditional, with curves and splashes of colour that lent an air of elegance and whimsy. I had the L’automne des Jardins lunch menu for 120 Euro (a steal, compared to the rest of the meals on this trip, most of which this one trumped). It was a seasonal menu, with highlights like Veloute automnal fumant – an earthy, smoky soup topped with ‘Creme Souffle’ of foamed Speck, a delightful Sushi printanier ail frais- sushi rice draped with a thin slice of red beetroot, with garlic oil and shredded horseradish, and a colourful plate of legumire des jardins “Arlequin” with a ‘cous cous’ crafted of finely diced vegetables and semolina draped in argan oil.

I’m not a big dessert fiend and it didn’t seem plausible that the meal could get any better, but it did. First the Carte de Fromage arrived with a selection of cheeses from Bernard Antony, these were aged soft goat cheeses and a golden Comte de Garde Exceptionnelle with a depth of flavour that made just fine slices on my plate leave a profound impression. Next, Passard’s famous millefeuille with flavour du jour- a light combo of pear and mint hiding between the exceptionally fine layers of pastry. Drizzled with caramel and a dust of powdered sugar, this came as close to heaven as I could imagine.

The icing on the cake was meeting the ever gracious Alain Passard at the end of the meal, a man with a humble nature that belies his fame. I simply cannot wait to return to L’Arpge.

The other restaurants, including Agape Substance and Chateaubriand, did not excite. There were moments of brilliance, but either the setting (3+ hours on fluorescent lit Agape’s backless stools) or execution (Chateaubriand canard three ways- breast, foie, heart were tough and ill-seasoned) were less than great. But once is never enough to judge a place, so I’d go back again at the earliest opportunity. That’s why I won’t write about them, nor go into much detail on my first visit to L’Arpge.

Photos of the Paris meals on Flickr here.

~ Copenhagen ~

A few days later I hopped on a plane and arrived in cold, damp Copenhagen the night before our Noma lunch, and joined HK blogger Janice (e_ting) and fellow foodies at Herman in the legendary Hotel Nimb. The dining room was classic and beautiful, with large bay windows that looked out on the magic of Tivoli gardens decked in Christmas lights.

Janice and I both ate at Herman, Noma, and Geist- the last one on separate nights, and had very different views of Herman and Geist. She prefaces her Herman review by saying that jetlag may have contributed to the lacklustre reception to this meal. I certainly do remember being the only fully-lucid person at the table, as all four others had just arrived from HK and parts of the US. Whatever accounts for our different opinions, the food at Herman still stands as the most refined and enjoyable to me out of these three- part of the pack of modern Danish cuisine emerging from the capital.

*** Herman ***

At Herman I felt a strong sense of Nordic identity and heritage. The menu had a distinct, unifying voice throughout its 15 courses, and ingredients were mostly local- save for an Irish oyster amuse and seared foie gras dish- and sometimes new to me in their forms and application. The bread and butter were outstanding. The Danish know how to bake. Our mini loaves struck the right balance of crusty yet moist, warm and chewy. With the whipped butter, it was perfection.

A dish of perfectly done Norwegian scallops came served on a ‘rockbed’ of chamomile flower buds with little mounds of lemon puree and a sprig of thyme. The dish evoked images of the sea, and our instruction to eat it with our hands was a nice play on foraging our own fresh catch.

Another dish that was a thrill for all the senses was the Bisque of Chamomile Flower. As you can tell I was quite taken by the use of chamomile, an ingredient I’ve not previously seen utilized to such creativity, or at all, in cooking. A hollowed-out bowl arrived emitting a cloud of liquid nitrogen smoke. This was no mere smoke and mirrors though, as a gentle but unmistakable scent of chamomile wafted out from underneath. A peek inside the cave revealed a bed of chamomile buds, arranged as if a fire pit, still hissing smoke. The bowl proper, which came dotted with mussels and ‘chamomile caviar’ was then topped up at the table with a chamomile bisque and finished with a few dots of mossy sorrel sauce, which complimented the brininess of the oyster and sweetness of chamomile. Again, I appreciated the theatrics of the dish- the smell of flowers that prepared me for what was to come, the sight of the dish getting ‘infused’ by a ‘chamomile-wood’ smoke from below, and its ‘transformation’ to follow. It wove an enchanting story.

Other interesting dishes included Pike Perch & Celeriac- perfectly cooked fish draped under a paper thin slice of celeriac, next to a pool of tangy terragon sauce, and a dish of frozen foie gras and local sweet cherry wine that was evocative of Dip n’ Dots, immensely enjoyable.

Photos of the Copenhagen meals on Flickr here.

*** Geist ***

Geist is one of the new breed of trendy, ‘new Nordic’ restaurants popping up all over the city. Opened in 2010, it is on the radar of any foodie worth her salt. Magazines and bloggers can’t get enough of it. So I went with high expectations on our last night in Copenhagen. The restaurant is nice, set in a historic building by the town square. The interior was extremely dark and packed to the brim with suits and Danish scenesters. The menu was structured as small plates meant for sharing, so we decided to order about six or so for the three of us. We would have ordered more, but the prices of these ‘tapas’ were a bit hair-raising.

The first thing that struck me was the small size of these plates. I mean, these were surely too small to serve at a restaurant, let alone at these prices. Avocado with lightly salted caviar (USD $30) came sliced so thinly on a plate that you could barely lift it from the plate, perhaps a quarter of an avocado and light sprinkling of pink caviar was used. Black lobster with mustard and pickled tomatoes (USD $36) was well done but offered half a claw’s worth of lobster meat. I’m more than willing to throw down my cash for quality but at some point sparsity becomes a quality issue.

Other dishes like wild duck with ginger, lime, soy and sesame left me confused as to what was ‘Nordic’ about it. Another example was the pressed foie gras of duck with sweet’n'sour cauliflower. And avocados.

The bill came to about 80 Euro per head, and I finished with a hot dog in the square outside.

There are no photos because of the poor lighting.

*** Noma ***

Due to the size of the Noma writeup- which I didn’t expect when I started, I’ve separated it into another post to follow.

*** Anderson Bakery Gourmet Hot Dog Stand ***

One little snack of note in Copenhagen is the gourmet hot dog stand in Anderson Bakery at the palatial Nimb hotel. Adrien and Pablo’s LV cityguide led us to this gem, where they serve organic pork sausages, artisanal and locally sourced, dressed in organic, housemade ketchup, remoulade and mustard, and served on buns from the bakery. The Grand Danois is rumoured to be the best hot dog in Scandinavia, and has a USD $9 price tag to prove it. It’s worth shelling over for guilt free indulgence in a very fine hot dog.

This first foray into Scandinavian food has me wanting more. Next time, I think I’ll go in summer.