Updated: 04 October 2006
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03 October 2006
Sheraton Towers Singapore

A tasting panel judge came by the table before the official announcement and declared, "It is a clean sweep. The Thais was simply too good." A couple of minutes later, I glanced at the backmost table of the Ballroom and noticed a familiar face. It was Sam Leong, Director of Kitchens of the Tung Lok Group, everything came together. The other two Chefs simply did not have the expertise and experience of the Tung Lok Group of chefs, who helm Club Chinois, Noble House, My Humble House and Jade, together with Paddy Fields Thai Restaurant. These restaurants have been honeing their skills at matching wine with their brand of modern Asian cuisine for quite a long time, mentored by Chinese-American maestro Susur Lee.

Menu Wines
The menu & wines
M. Thierry Fritsch with winning Chef
Table centrepiece of Asian herbs & spices
The Thai First Course
The Thai Main Course
The Thai Dessert Course


I was nearly unable to report on this 3rd Edition of the Culinary Challenge, since my invitation was somehow misplaced and the attendance book was full. However, due to a last-minute pullout, I was given a place at table. This is a Challenge I did not want to miss, since the matching of Asian Cuisine with wine is a special interest of mine. Afterall, I am Asian and enjoy all the varied cusines our part of the world offers. The challenge is always to find a wine to match with this explosion of multiple flavours in just one dish.

In this Challenge, the wines have been selected and the three Ethnic Chefs were to find the right dish to match them. This turns the roles around where usually, diners have to find the right wines to match the food that they intended to partake.

It is for that reason, too, why top-class restaurants are able to offer great food-wine experiences if you were to leave it to them to propose the wines to go with their dishes. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of such expertise in Singapore and the wines lose out. Most Asian restaurants serve up delicious and utterly captivating dishes but are totally ignorant about suggesting the best wine match. With the increasing demand to enjoy wine with all kinds of food, specially our own Asian food, ethnic restaurants should buck up and take a good look on this aspect of the business instead of lamenting on decreasing patronage.

I know of one Indian restaurant serving authentic regional cuisine, who intend to embark on this enlightened course of action. I am sure that by putting some effort into understanding wine, the ethnic Chefs will easily create wine-friendly dishes with the right mix of spices and flavours.

Now, back to the Challenge.

The wine to match for the First Course is the Trimbach F.E. Riesling cuvee Frederic Emile 2003. Here is a wine of delicate lime/lemon flavours, soft ripe acidity and immense freshness with a pleasantly long finish.

Chef Milind Sovani of The Song of India, served up a vegetarian starter of "Coup of 3 sprouts, Asparagus and Pinenuts in Holistic Mulethi Raisin Chutney". Now, rather green & herbal asparagus find little affinity with most wines except for New Zealand-styled Sauvignon Blanc. The Riesling, on the other hand, was delicate with a sense of floral sweetness simply flowed past the dish without a hint of acknowlegement. It was simply neutral, thank goodness! Now, had the asparagus been more pronounced .............

The Chinese offering by Chef Chung Yiu Ming of Li Bai was next. He was the 2005 Challenge winner. His starter was "Combination of Baked Fillet of Chicken with Goose Liver and Mushrooms served with Deep-Fried Crispy Potato stuffed with Crabmeat and Shrimp Paste". The Riesling completely disappeared into the chicken/goose liver combination with heavy mushroom sauce. Its soft acidity could not lift them. However, the saving grace was with the crabmeat & shrimp paste, which were classic combinations with Riesling. As with last year, Chef Chung was playing hit or miss, offering 2 contrasting items on each plate.

Chef Kampan Punprawat of Paddy Fields Thai Restaurant, on the other hand, focussed on only one item with accompanying sauce concentrated in a soft jelly. His "Saffron-Fried Prawns paired with Tom Yam Jello" burst with flavour of sweet prawns made the classic match with Riesling perfectly. This was supported by concentrated but only lightly herbal Tom Yam flavours that danced around the pair.

The main course wine selection was a difficult one to match but praised by Westerners as THE wine with spicy Asian dishes. The Maison Josmeyer Gewurtztraminer Cuvee Les Archenets 2000 overwhelmed with its explosive flavours of perfume, lychees and hints of sweet roses. On the palate, however, it was dry with a typically slightly bitterish finish.

The Indian offering was "Tandoori Guinea Fowl in Chilly Infused Grainy Mustard, Honey Makni Sauce served with Kashmiri Morel Risotto". I first tasted the preciously little Makni Sauce and it stood up to nicely with the flavourful Gewurtz. I was ready to favour this dish until I dug into the rather dry Guinea Fowl that should have been better marinated, perhaps, with the accompanying sauce. It simply fell flat against the aggressive onslaught of the Gewurtz perfume. The Indian-styled Risotto was wonderful on its own but did nothing special with the wine.

Li Bai offered rather expensive ingredients for the Main Course of "Braised whole Abalone in Superior Oyster Sauce served with Baked Stuffed Scallops with Minced Ham". This was an excellent dish anytime with the abalone done just right with a touch of oyster sauce. The delicate flavour of the scallops was not dominated by the minced ham. But therein lay the problem. Both ingredients were textural and delicate in flavour. The dominant flavour of the Gewurtztraminer simply overhelmed both. The wine and the dish were certainly enjoyable but are to be enjoyed separately.

Paddy Fields proffered the final Main Course. Generally, a poor placing after the diner is already fairly full after 3 appetisers and 2 main courses. Further, "Roast Rack of Lamb marinated with 10 Thai Spices and Herbs served with Pinenuts and Raisin Compote" was the most substantial of the Main Courses. I did not try to decipher the 10 herbs and spices that made up the marinade but the lamb was well-roasted with the pink in the middle, still fully soaking up with marinade with narry a hint of gameness. The slightly heavier flavours of the lamb and its sauce met the rosy lychees of the Gewurtztraminer and they danced a happy jig in my mouth. Certainly an unusual combination, as one table teasingly called for a Pichon Lalande (Red Bordeaux), but it worked. Red meat with red wines? Not necessarily!

With two in the bag, the dessert headed for a shoo-in. A sumptuous wine, Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Gris Cuvee Clarisse SGN 2000, is a wine only made in the best years. At about 150 grams per litre of residual sugar, this was an utterly sweet wine, heavy on the palate yet retaining excellent underlying acidity that cleansed the palate. Much heavier than a Sauternes but wonderful to drink on its own. Now, how do the desserts match up?

Chef Milind Sovani played with unusual flavours for his final course, "Saffron Kulfi, Dry Pommogranate and Purple Salt Sprinkle Cardamom Raw with Mango Panha". The Kulfi (Indian ice cream) was rich but not too sweet and excellent. The Purple Salt Sprinkle was salty & unusual. The Mango Panha was simple garnishing. Unfortunately, the rich Pinot Gris held its own and simply sashayed past the entire offering with narry a wave.

Chef Chung did the usual mixture of textures and flavours in his "Sesame Ball filled with Strawberry Sauce, Snowskin filled with Pumpkin Paste, Layer of Papaya and Huai-Shan Jelly". Strawberry is a red wine flavour versus the floral spiciness of the wine and any sweetness in the pumpkin was overwhelmed. The jelly appeared lacking in flavour.

Chef Kampan Punprawat delivered the final "coup de grace" in "Tender Young Coconut Roll with Coconut Ice-cream and Purple Rice on Pumpkin Puree garnished with Pistachio and Honey Vodka-infused Cherry". With already two incompatible suitors, the sumptuous Pinot Gris acquiesced to the delicate flavours of the young coconut flesh and ice-cream, ignoring the purple rice and pumpkin and pistachio bits and honey Vodka-infused Cherry. It was a delicate and formal dance with the Pinot Gris dominating and Coconut playing a supportive and non-aggressive role.

This put the end to the evening's affair. However, this time, the tally took longer than usual. Perhaps, trying to find comforting words to explain the sweeping results to the losing pair. But the results finally came at about 11:15pm with the Tung Lok table cheering their collaborative team effort with gusto.

I look forward to be hosted by the Tung Lok Group, next year.


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