Sunday, 31 July 2016

Stepping Up to the Michelin Standard

Last month was a big month for Singapore on the F&B scene. I’m speaking of course about the launch of the Michelin guide here, the first time a Southeast Asian nation has been included in the guide. Twenty two restaurants bagged a one star rating, a further six received two stars and the coveted three star rating was bestowed upon Joël Robuchon at Resorts World Sentosa. It’s a testament to the cosmopolitan mix of eateries in Singapore, and will undoubtedly boost tourism and fan interest in the dining scene. Already some of the restaurants are reporting increased bookings, and the two hawker stalls that received a one star rating have seen snaking queues. Even restaurants that did not make it into the guide are benefitting from a halo effect, a welcome reversal from the first half of this year where business was rather slow.

I was at a tasting organised by the Sommelier Association of Singapore (SAS) held just after the results had been announced. Congratulations were heaped upon the sommeliers that were part of the newly-starred restaurant team. These are people who are at the top of their game, yet the Michelin Guide will set expectations as never before. As an industry veteran put it, “We now stand on the international stage for food and all eyes will be on us… in New York and Manhattan, the starred restaurants have top sommeliers and we need to be on pace with the development of the food scene, if not we will be left behind and hungrier neighbours will come and take our jobs.”

The criteria used by Michelin to determine whether a restaurant receives any stars do not cover service. They include quality of the products, mastery of flavour and cooking techniques, personality of the chef in his cuisine, value for money and consistency between visits. The comfort of a restaurant, as judged by its ambience, amicability and attentiveness of its service team, falls under a different rating category indicated by a fork and spoon symbol. As anyone who has ever dined out before knows though, service has a definite impact on the way food tastes. Watching Gordon Ramsay eviscerate a hapless server on television may be entertaining to watch but I doubt that a customer who experiences a snooty sommelier would gush about how delicious the wine turned out to be. Comparing my own dining experiences at The Kitchin in Edinburgh and Pétrus in London, the former is where I would choose to dine again, despite both having the same one-star rating from Michelin. Was it because of the friendliness and warmth on show at The Kitchin which made the flavours pop and linger in memory, versus the somewhat harried façade of the waiters at Pétrus?

The biweekly trade tastings organised by the SAS include an educational element, and in this respect goes beyond what even learned wine drinkers may know. For example, in the previous tasting focusing on grower champagnes, it was shared that besides Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, the varieties Pinot Blanc, Arbane, Pinot Gris and Petit Meslier are also allowed to make champagne. Stern notice was given that every sommelier should be able to recount the 17 grand crus of Champagne by heart, and a practical demonstration of how to open a bottle of champagne was given (more difficult than it sounds). The sommeliers in Singapore may be young, but they are certainly stepping up to the plate and proving the right to those Michelin stars.

My top three grower champagnes from the SAS tasting:

Champagne Nominé Renard Blanc de Blancs Brut – 100% Chardonnay from the crus of Villevenard, Etoges and Allemant. Very dry but with good fruit support, showing notes of nashi pear and honey and a long, evolving finish.

Champagne Chartogne-Taillet Sainte Anne Brut – Low dosage, between 4.5 and 7 grams of sugar per litre. Lean and incisive with an electrifying quality. Flavours of sherbert, lime and bitter lemon with a very long finish.

Champagne Emmanuel Brochet Le Mont Benoit Extra Brut – How refreshing to find so much information on the front label. Clearly shows that this wine is a blend of 40% Pinot Meunier, 40% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay, from the 2011 and 2012 vintages. Its dosage of 4 g/l gives it a lean, sleek body, exhibiting notes of green apply, pastry and chalk, with an exuberant mousse.

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