Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Baa, baa, black sheep: French cuisine by an Indian chef?

with Prof. Horolographer, Prof. Massi, Dr. Mycroft and SJX

A fellow makan kaki - mien3 once told me that there was a little French place, tucked deep in Serangoon area, and helmed by an Indian chef...with mindblowingly good food. Coming from mien3, that was indeed a compliment.

I went with my friends to seek out the place. An email reservation was promptly and politely confirmed by chef Ratha himself. It was raining heavily that morning when we had made reservations to do luncheon there, and the entire (rather small) restaurant was completely deserted when I arrived. Throughout our meal, we were the only guests. The place was simply decorated, with a few "black sheep" photographs.

The menu was simple as well...three starters, plus a soup of the day (was Mushroom soup), three main courses, and two desserts. Ratha explained his fixed prix menu for déjeneur at S$25, and included any combination of two courses, but excluding the pan fried foie gras.

We had to have the foie gras, so amongst the 5 of us, we shared two portions.

The serving size of the duck foie gras was about the thickness of two slices Gardenia bread, and possibly about 3/4 the size of a slice was $22. It was cooked to perfection...just a bit medium-rare on the inside, and slightly charred and crisp on the outside. I remarked that I am quite amazed by quality control of duck livers used in foie gras these days. Almost all were good, only very few had veins, and in most in recent memory, the fat was distributed evenly, and the texture smooth and spotless. Contrast this with 10 years ago, when foie gras was more a novelty than a standard offering. In those bad old days, a good restaurant would serve something sublime, but if anyone dared to attempt a budget foie gras, it would mostly be difficult - veins, uneven fat distribution, lumps, et al.

The Black Sheep version was excellent. Horolographer thought it particularly suitable to his disposition, as did Mycroft. The foie gras accompanied by crisp toasts and a bed of greens, and the usual fig. The dish was enjoyed by all. I can imagine a dry champagne, perhaps Duetz might be a good accompaniment.

We also had the Ceasar's Salad.

The romaine lettuce used was reasonably fresh, and the dressing was freshly made. Some lightly stir fried garlic prawns and slices of hard boiled eggs were thrown in with bits of toasted bacon and crisp croutons into the salad, and provided a very nice taste contrast to the lettuce. The portion was sufficient, and the salad was tasty. .

We had 4 orders of the confit du canard.

I am a big fan of confit du canard, after one fateful dinner at Chez Dumonet-Josephine in Paris one evening years ago. This restaurant, famed for its confit and old world charm is a monument of the French bistro. Charming interior, excellent cooking. In Singapore, the standard is, um, lower, but I could always satisfy cravings for confit du canard at the now defunct Sebastian's at Hillcrest. Not quite as good as Chez Dumonet, but more accessable.

Confit refers to the French method of cooking where usually a whole leg of duck or goose is preserved, typically by slow cooking in its own rendered fat, cooled, and stored in jars together with the fat. The leg is removed for cooking to develop the wonderful crust, and the fat can be reused for more confit. This was the way meats were preserved before refrigeration. The typical recipe is simple enough, rub salt, garlic, and chefs would have you believe some secret herbs and spices, to the leg of duck, cook in a pot deep enough to contain the whole leg in its own rendered fat (actually fat from several ducks, often several liters are needed). Cooking can take as little as two hours or as long as 10. When done right, it is meltingly tender, fall of the bone meat, not too salty, and a deep, crisp wonderful crust encapsulating the leg.

Chef Ratha's version was reasonably close, but no cigars. My memory of Sabastien's confit was superior to Black Sheep's in terms of overall taste, especially in the all important crust and the restrained and near-subtle salt of the meat. Sabastien's had a hang-together quality...no one flavour overpowering the other.

Ratha's confit was tender, fall off the bone, but the meat was a tad salty. Horolographer thought it very salty, and the duck did not quite agree with his sensitive palate. The crust, though looked lovely, was also not as crispy as it should be. I suspect the provenance of the duck used is also different. Overall, not a bad effort, but not one to assume the crown for Singapore's best confit du canard, now left vacant with the demise of Sebastian's. Needless to say, I should restrain myself from comparing to Chez Dumonet's.

JX had the lamb shank in red wine reduction.

Red wine reduction is a typical French style of cooking where sometimes up to a whole bottle of red wine, often of good vintage and from a good house (cook with only what you would drink on the table), reduced so that most of the alcohol evaporates, and the wine is very concentrated. As I understand it, the wine actually reacts with the proteins in the meat, and acts as a tenderiser and flavour enhancer.

I didn't taste it, but it looked wonderful, and JX seemed happy with his choice.

A bottle of nice, full bodied red, like St. Emillion would have complemented both duck and lamb nicely, but this was a working day lunch, so we chose not to imbibe in any alcohol.

Then 4 of us went for the souffle. Horolographer decided to watch his diet, and received a scoop of ice cream.

It looked wonderful...the creme patissiere was excellent, overflowing the cup, and pushing itself up and out, creating the super light souffle. The baking caused a thin, slightly elastic, almost crisp crust to develop on the outside. The patissiere was Kalua flavoured, and was served with a scoop of dark chocholate ice cream with a few almond slices thrown on top. I found the pastry a bit too sweet, but it went well with the ice cream.

Total bill for 2 orders of foie gras, 4 Ceasar's salad, 4 confit du canard, 1 lamb shank, 4 Kalua souffle, 4 espressos and 1 cafe latte came up to $180.

The Black Sheep Cafe
35 Mayo Street
Singapore 208316
92721842 or 6292 5772
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