at The Ritz Carlton
The Ritz Carlton is fast becoming the Mecca for international fine dining in Bangalore. Lead by its classically talented Executive Chef — Anupam Banerjee, the kitchen does pretty well all on its own — as I discovered to my (pleasant) surprise a few months ago. But where it has begun to distinguish itself from the crowd is in the vast pool of guest chefs that it has begun to call down from Ritz Carlton kitchens around the world.
So when I was invited to sample a meal conceived and pepared by visiting Chef Jordi Bernus, I thought it would be well worth foregoing a trip to Korea to make it. Jordi has a pedigree that includes a stint at the el Bulli Academy, where he worked directly with Ferran Adria on the el Bulli cookbook. Suffice to say that my expectations were high.
From the menu, it was clear that this was not going to be one of those degustation menus with a dozen courses on offer. The meal had a more traditional format with starters, entree, main course and dessert. But it was the pre-starter that I was really excited about.
They’d described it as Parmesan Popcorn. Having had the benefit of tasting a number of innovations on the theme (including, most recently, Chef Anupam’s own version of a salted caramel popcorn). I was expecting the concept of popcorn to be turned on its head with foam and gel and magic. What we were served, instead, was popcorn snuggled in a nest of parmesan. Which was, to be honest, slightly disappointing.
That said, the Montadio was delicious and the reverse spherication of olive was delicately flavoured with lime. These were the real stars of the course — each bursting with technique and flavours.
What followed is a spectacle that is fast becoming a tired standard at modern fine dining restaurants — the theatre of liquid nitrogen. A trio of chefs arrayed themselves in front of our table and proceeded to make an instant ice cream out of liquid parmesan. As always the process of flash freezing the anglaise amidst frenetic whisking under dense low-lying clouds of mist was dramatic and set off a stacatto burst of smartphone flashes.
The dish that found its way in front of me was pretty as a picture, the pure white ice cream visually contrasting sharply with the bright hues of the edible flowers, sundried tomatoes and pale green basil oil. At first bite the dish was a delightful surprise — largely because the last thing I was expecting was for an ice cream to be salty. But after a few mouthfuls the saltiness of the parmesan ice cream wore thin — particularly since it had been enhanced by the sourness of sun-dried tomatoes and only just balanced by the sweet crunch of candied pine nuts. It was a creative dish with flavours that should have gone well together but somehow fell short of perfection.
And with that we were finally ready for the real food. The first course we were presented with was a delicious mushroom foam into which had been dropped a slowly cooked egg.
The big flavour of the dish was the mushrooms — puréed and then whipped so that it was served on the plate as a light, airy brown foam. This was set off by the 64 degree egg nestling just under the surface of the porcini foam. The egg had reached that peculiar texture that this technique brings – still slightly runny but not so much that the yolk mixed with the foam. The cherry on the top (quite literally) was the salty hit of salmon roe.
I do so love a well made risotto. And because I always struggle while cooking it I have a special appreciation for chefs who manage to get it right.
The dish checked all the boxes. It was not so much a traditional Italian risotto as an Arros Caldos — a close relative from halfway across the globe – but what’s in a name. This was a delicious dish. The grains of rice were cooked almost all the way through till soft but slightly unyielding. The seafood broth had been reduced to the point where it felt as if the aromas of the seas had been concentrated into the soup.
And with that we were on to the main course. I’d heard from others on my table that the short ribs of beef had been sitting in the sous vide for an inordinately long period of time – 62 hours to cook anything sounds insane – so I was really keen to see out how it had turned out.
The presentation was delightful — Chef Jordi had clearly been paying attention during plating classes at the Academy. After 3 days in a water bath – the sinews, if there were any to start with, had long since melted away. The steak felt more like an agglomeration of strands, than a slab of meat, that gracefully collapsed at the slightest touch of the fork. It was a well cooked hunk of meat and even if it wasn’t as moist as I might have liked, it more than made up for it in flavour. It was set off your two different flavours – an airy foam of honey flavoured chicken stock and an absolutely mouth-watering Romesco sauce with flavours of carrot and walnuts.
The menu described the dessert in the greatest detail of all the dishes we were being served. Given the many nuances of flavour and technique that had gone into each of the previous courses, I was expecting a multi-layered suprise. As it happened the surprise was on me.
Far from presenting hidden layers, the dessert was almost exactly as it had been described — a banana cake served with lemon sorbet and apricot flavoured white chocolate ganache. The sorbet was lemony and the banana cake — well it was a banana cake and the entire dish was hardly the haute cuisine I’d expected to end the meal with given the histrionics of the courses that had preceded it.
Reading this story back it is possible that I am being a bit harsh on the chef. I feel obliged to state that none of the dishes were bad per se. However, the meal as a whole did fall short of my expectations. There was cleverness in the cooking, in the different elements on the plate and in their pairings — but some of the dishes just failed to come together.
Maybe it is because of the high expectations I carried into the meal. Or perhaps it is because chefs around the world today are cooking to such a high standard that anything less that outstanding just doesn’t cut it any more.